Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Technique in kata and bunkai

"First one specializes in technique till he comes to the end of technique and bases everything on the heart itself--this is the best way of practice." (p. 175)

"When he has completed the training and has accumulated a great fund of practice experience, he moves hands and feet and body without the mind being involved; this is leaving the training methods without going against them, and now there is freedom in using any technique (waza) at all." (p. 161)

I love these quotes--and a whole host of others from this little book--taken from Zen and the Ways by Trevor Leggett. The book is an old paperback from the Charles E. Tuttle Company out of Rutland, Vermont. It's a kind of compilation on zen and different martial arts. It's one of my favorite books on martial arts, though I suppose some might find it a bit cryptic or esoteric.

But I was thinking of this the other day when practicing kata and bunkai with a few other students. I was thinking: we were all doing the same kata, but we didn't look the same. Now when I was younger, I trained in a variety of different schools--Tae Kwon Do, Shotokan, Yang T'ai Chi, etc. And whether it was the fact that I was a beginner or a particular predilection of the teachers, they would all go around, during kata practice, making minute adjustments to students' arms and legs. You might do a technique, and the teacher would come around and move your arm a fraction of an inch, as if you almost had it right but you were off by the smallest amount. As if that would make all the difference in doing bunkai! (Heavy amount of skepticism here.)

Of course, in most of these schools we never did bunkai. Kata was merely an exercise. You practiced stuff I suppose--though it was never explained in so many words--but I'm guessing that aside from the unspoken tradition that one must practice esoteric solo routines when doing Asia martial arts, I suspect that they would tell us we were also practicing the individual techniques that we would employ in the next phase of class--namely, sparring. In fact, in one school I was even told that kata had nothing to do with sparring, and you shouldn't confuse the two!

This is all to say--and this is why I mention these two quotes--that there has always seemed to me to be an acceptable window (for lack of a better word) of difference in how one performs kata techniques. I'm not suggesting that one should change kata. Far from it. But as long as one knows the bunkai, and it is apparent that the way the technique is performed would accomplish the bunkai, then I see no problem with some of the little differences that I see on occasion. Others might say that these differences are changes to the way the kata is supposed to be done. But I don't believe kata was ever meant to be an exercise in aesthetics. Kata is not done for kata's sake. Kata, for me, is not an end in itself.

For example: If someone's rear leg is bent instead of being locked out in zenkutsu dachi, I don't have the slightest problem with it. If someone's front heel is down in cat stance--as long as the weight is on the rear leg--I don't have a problem with it. If someone's arm is straighter or not so straight as someone else's arm in the hammer fist technique of Saifa kata, I don't have a problem with it. All of these "kata problems" usually get cleared up when one explains bunkai. And as long as one's bunkai is performed the same as the kata, what's the problem?! Now there's a potential conundrum.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

You call that a cat stance?!

I've got two cats. One of them is a frisky orange cat that looks as though she has a bit of Maine coon cat in her. She's a pretty good mouser and she's always curious and getting into things. Sometimes this gets her into quite a bit of trouble. The other is an old tiger cat. He used to jump up on my shoulder if I happened to walk by and was in reach. Now I think he'd just prefer to sleep all day.  And the funny thing is that I've never seen either one of them assume a "cat stance."

Now I know that these are just figurative descriptions, but when I come across people getting downright poetic about describing techniques I wonder whether this tendency to describe movements and techniques confuses more than it elucidates. I came across one guy on the Internet saying that just "as the name suggest [sic], the animal form is the cat and the practitioner should keep in mind the nature of the cat when using this stance." What is the "nature of the cat"?

Another person on the Internet says that the cat stance is "designed for pivoting, night walking, returning to the rear, blocking and weapons fighting." Why would you assume a cat stance before pivoting? Just pivot. Try walking at night or in the dark and see if you use a cat stance. Certainly when you are stepping back you shift the weight, but is it a cat stance? And a stance for blocking? Or weapons fighting?

Cat stance at end of Seiunchin.

I think there are two things going on here. In one sense, when you give a name to techniques--the more picturesque the better--the techniques are easier to remember, but it also provides a short cut for training; that is, you can just refer to the name of the technique you want people to practice. It's a lot easier to say, "Go practice 'single whip'," than it is to tell someone to practice the ninth technique in the form.  But does calling a technique "embrace tiger and return to the mountain" really shed light on the technique? Do you really "repulse a monkey" that way? And what would it mean to tell someone to keep in mind the nature of the mountain? Needlessly cryptic, it seems to me, and no more useful than telling someone they should keep in mind the nature of the cat.

The temptation to translate cryptic or figurative language literally is understandable. We are looking for meaning where meaning is not clear. And so when we see pivoting from a cat stance in Seipai kata, we say cat stance is "designed for pivoting." When we see a step back into cat stance in Seiunchin kata, for example, we say that the cat stance is for "returning to the rear." When we see a cat stance accompanied by a block in Kururunfa kata, we say that the cat stance is "designed for...blocking."

Cat stance in Kururunfa kata.
But what's missing is a more complete understanding of kata and bunkai (the analysis of kata). As someone perhaps with a little more experience or understanding on the Internet wrote: "...stances are actually more about shifting position and body weight. In other words they are not static positions that we assume...." When we name and codify techniques--and this is certainly true of stances as well--we make it easier to teach but we may also be leaving things open to all manner of misinterpretations. Stepping back into "cat stance" at the end of Seiunchin is not so much an assuming of a particular stance as it is shifting the weight onto the rear leg and off of the front leg in order to attack the head (which the defender--using yama uke or mountain block--has in both hands) by raising the knee sharply into the opponent's face. Blocking in cat stance at the beginning of Kururunfa kata is not so much an assuming of a particular stance as it is stepping off line and shifting the weight in order to kick. We block the opponent's punch and kick to the opponent's knee. The diagonal sequences near the beginning of Kururunfa show good examples of high-low attacks. And we don't assume the cat stance and then kick--this is too slow. As soon as we can shift the weight, we kick. The whole point of shifting the weight is to kick--whether with the knee or the foot--not to assume a cat stance.

I can remember hearing criticism about different schools. People would say, "Oh, their cat stances are too low." Or, "Their cat stances are too high." Or, "In that style they turn their knees in a little in cat stance in order to protect the groin." But all of this makes sense only if you sit in the cat stance as if it were a kamae posture waiting for an attack. But it's not. Most stances in Goju-ryu are transitional and used in attacking the opponent in various ways. Of course, if you want to merely assume a stance there's always basic stance.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

How do you train bunkai?

This raises a lot of questions for me. It almost seems as though the more appropriate question would be...How do you train kata? If the classical katas of Goju-ryu contain the essence or techniques of the system as well as the martial principles, then we use bunkai to study kata. Kata is the study of form--we practice to get the movements right and to understand the principles embedded in the kata--and bunkai is the study of how to use those movements. (When you think about it, what else is there?)

Goju attack to the head
from Saifa kata.

But if bunkai is the analysis of kata--which seems pretty straightforward--then what is henka bunkai or oyo bunkai or even different levels of bunkai??? I read these terms on the Internet all the time and wonder where they came from. There is only one kata movement, so why isn't there just one bunkai for that movement? We don't usually say a white belt should do the kata this way and a green belt should do it some other way and a black belt should do it a completely different way. So why should the bunkai be different? If you are trying to teach someone self-defense, why would you reserve some methods of self-defense for someone who has trained five years and some other techniques for someone who has trained ten years. I've even read authors who say the kata is like an onion, that the kata has different layers of bunkai. But katas are not like onions; ogres are like onions! This does not mean you are teaching a beginner Kururunfa, but the bunkai for Saifa is the same, it seems to me, for a white belt as it is for a black belt. Certainly we hope the black belt is able to execute the techniques better, but they are the same techniques.

Goju attack to the head
from Seipai kata.
Of course, the big question is finding the bunkai, but leaving that aside for the time being....

The next question is how to train bunkai. The problem for me is that so many karate schools base their training on, for lack of a better term, generic karate. The focus of much of the training time is spent on basics and training subjects. By basics, I mean the head punch, chest punch, down punch, the overhead block, the chest block, the down block and a few kicks. Everybody lines up--beginners to senior students--and they do high repetitions of these techniques. Then they practice training kata. In Shorin, this would be the Pinan kata, and in Goju, the Gekisai kata. It seems to me that the emphasis is all wrong here, and yet this is what you see in most schools. The problem is that the emphasis here is put on many techniques that don't really characterize the style, or techniques that don't actually occur that often in the classical kata, at least in Goju. In Goju, we don't see a jodan tsuki or upper-level punch in the classical kata. Rather, the idea is to bring the head down and then punch with a chudan tsuki or middle-level punch. Similarly, there is no jodan uke or rising block in the classical Goju katas, at least not the way that it is practiced in the basic drills of most karate schools. And what we actually find in the classical kata of Goju-ryu is not a gedan uke or down block but a down attack. So if you practice these generic karate techniques in this way, you really are confusing the issue, clouding one's understanding of certain martial principles found in the classical subjects.

Goju attack to the head
from Seiunchin kata.
So one way we should be practicing bunkai is to substitute the techniques of classical kata for the generic basics we seem to be spending an inordinate amount of time on. And we should be practicing them with high repetitions and on both the right side and the left side. Simply doing kata alone does not give us sufficient practice of these techniques, and some techniques are often only done on one side in kata.

The next thing we should be practicing is doing each of the moves against an opponent. The opening move of Saifa kata, for instance, is a response to a same-side wrist grab (or the opponent's left hand grabs the defender's right wrist). We should practice stepping forward along the northeast angle and dropping the right forearm and elbow over the opponent's arm to bring them down. This movement--when done correctly--brings the opponent's head down. The left hand is then brought over to grab the opponent's head, dropping and pulling back into horse stance, and the right forearm is brought down on the back of the opponent's neck. This should, of course, be practiced this way, just as it is done in solo kata.

But there are also some principles that should be trained here as well. It may be less likely that someone initiates an attack by grabbing your wrist, but they may grab your wrist at some point in an encounter. So this technique--in fact any wrist grab response from any of the other katas--can be trained this way: Train the same response with the defender punching and the attacker blocking and then grabbing the wrist. Additionally, the first movement in Saifa is showing you how one might deal with the opponent covering your arm on the same side--that is, your right arm or hand is under his left. Using the ideas or principles shown in this first move of Saifa, one should train turning the body--this is the equivalent of stepping forward along an angle--and coming over the opponent's arm with your elbow and forearm. In this case, we are training parts of the original bunkai but not the whole sequence. In the same way we might repetitively train moving to the northeast or northwest corner--to the outside--of an opponent's attack--that is, just training the stepping shown in the kata. There is nothing pedagogically surprising here; you just break the technique down into smaller and smaller parts until you "get it."

Another way of training bunkai is to train variations (see article "Kata and Bunkai: a study in theme and variations" in Journal of Asian Martial Arts, Vol. 18, no. 4) but that's perhaps a subject for another day.