Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

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.

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