Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Saturday, November 23, 2013

A Mawashi-uke to you too!

Starting position of
mawashi technique
at the end of Seipai.
I’ve read a lot of discussion on the Internet recently about mawashi-uke and neko-ashi dachi. Some of this has been couched in questions about the possible origins of Goju kata—a subject that opens up endless bandying about of theory based on little more than observation, interpretation, or personal bias. Some of this, of course, is prompted by individuals promoting their own lineage or traditions, but there’s little actual evidence to go on other than the perceived similarity of appearances.
And this is what has always interested me in discussions of this sort—they are all based on appearances, and appearances, as we all know, can be deceiving. For example: Some would suggest that Saifa kata and Seisan kata must have similar origins because they both end in neko-ashi (cat stance) with a kind of mawashi-uke. Others, however, would suggest that Saifa was a kata that came not from Higashionna sensei but from Miyagi sensei, because Kyoda sensei didn’t teach Saifa. Some suggest that the Okinawan katas came originally from China because we can find similar postures—cat stance with what looks like the ending hand positions of mawashi-uke--in various Chinese systems, or vice-versa. What really needs to be compared, however, are the applications—the bunkai, if you will—of the various postures.
Final mawashi position
at the end of Saifa.
Starting position of
mawashi technique
at the end of Saifa.
The mawashi-uke is actually not as ubiquitous as it would seem, outside Goju-ryu training kata, like Geki-sai dai ichi, Geki-sai dai ni, Gekiha, or some of the other training subjects practiced in various Goju-ryu schools. A kind of mawashi-uke occurs at the end of Saifa, but it’s not the same as the one we find at the end of Seisan kata. There is no mawashi-uke in Seiunchin or Shisochin or Sanseiru, though there are open hand techniques and we see circular movements. Is the mawashi-uke in the middle of Kururunfa the same as the end technique of Saifa or is it more like the end technique of Seipai?
My point is that it’s difficult, if not misleading, to only compare appearances, when any perceived similarity in appearance is clearly secondary to how a technique is meant to be applied. (This, of course, raises a whole other question--that is, the question of how a technique is meant to be applied, based on its occurrence within the structure and sequence of a particular kata, and how it could be applied, based on one's own creative imaginings.) It’s a martial art, after all, not a dance performance. A number of years ago, there was an article published—and it received widespread notice and still does to this day—that attempted to classify the Goju-ryu classical kata according to their appearances. Did they end in cat stance or horse stance? Were they symmetrical or asymmetrical? But if we are going to study the relationships between the different kata of Goju-ryu, we should be studying the bunkai of the techniques in kata, not their outward appearances. The mawashi at the end of Saifa is meant to capture and twist the head of the opponent—to break the neck (colloquially) or traumatize the spinal cord, if you will. The ending mawashi-like technique of Seipai is intended to do the same thing. So is the mawashi in the middle of Kururunfa.  And the one at the end of Seisan. They are all used for the same purpose, but they are situation specific, so they look a little different. My suggestion: Put kata in its place. It’s a useful method to remember the form of technique and perhaps to study the thematic nature of certain movements or techniques. But put the emphasis back on bunkai, on the study of application. Comparing techniques based solely on appearance is a bit problematic to say the least.
Although this position in Seiunchin
kata and the position above from
Saifa kata may look similar, the
bunkai is very different.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Kata without bunkai is like...I don't know what

People often hold this first position
in Saifa for much longer than they
would if they were applying it.
When I watch kata performed on YouTube, I wonder why there isn't more reality to it. In other words, why isn't kata performed with the same timing, the same force, the same rhythm as bunkai? I see so many kata performed with stilted, punctuated technique. Kicks are performed with little balance or speed. Oh sure, the kick is fast and powerful (sometimes anyway) after it is thrust out from its cocked or chambered position, but a kick has to be fast from a standing position--that is, before the opponent knows you're going to kick. And punches are held in place with little thought to how impractical it would be to leave one's outstretched arm out, inviting the opponent to break it.

Most people hold or chamber their
kicks when they perform Saifa kata--
something that would be too slow
in reality.
Sometimes even the bunkai demonstrations that accompany these performances of kata are just as ridiculously unreal, just as oblivious of the reality that they are ignoring. Grabs and arm-bars are employed against the arms of opponents that obligingly hold them in an outstretched position long enough for the one demonstrating bunkai to step in and execute the technique--what my teacher used to call a "dream technique."

I am not advocating that kata be done at a hyper-accelerated speed. (I'm not sure why Hokama sensei does super fast kata. I'm sure he has a reason.) There are techniques in kata that don't need to be fast. There are grappling techniques and techniques that manipulate and move the opponent's body that would necessarily require less speed. But one doesn't stand poised on one leg before the execution of a kick. And if a grab follows a block, then it must be done quickly or realistically the opponent would withdraw his arm.
The opening move in Seipai
is often done in an overly
dramatic fashion.

I think the same sort of unreality often comes into play with people who profess to attack vital targets with a single knuckle punch or finger strike. A confrontation is fast, dynamic, and constantly changing. To imagine that you're going to be able to hit a small pressure point on an aggressive and moving target may be a bit unrealistic. I always liked Sifu Liu's response to a student who asked about pressure points. Liu Sifu (of Feeding Crane) said he just hits the area with the whole hand, and that ought to cover it.

If kata is meant to preserve technique and allow the practitioner to practice technique when he or she is alone--when there isn't a partner to train with--as a method to perfect technique that we will eventually learn to apply against an opponent, then why don't we practice it the way it is meant to be applied? Why not practice kata with the same speed and sense of reality that we would use in doing bunkai? Instead, we seem to do kata as if it were some separate dance performance. Watch the overly stylized and dramatic performances of kata at tournaments. Even credible and supposedly knowledgeable practitioners of Okinawan karate succumb to the histrionics of this performance paradigm. Where did it begin? Why has it continued? It seems to me that it's one more shroud pulled over the eyes of the unwary--one more thing that makes bunkai so difficult to "see" within kata. Change the rhythm and the speed of techniques and who knows what you may come up with...or not.