Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

It's not what you thnik

I was reading To Kill a Mockingbird today with my students and we got up to the trial of Tom Robinson. There's this big outburst from the incredibly bigoted Bob Ewell. (I wonder whether Harper Lee used that name because so much of prejudice is based in the irrational and sheep-like following of others--hence the "ewe" part of the name--or whether she was thinking that, at least when she was writing, "y'all," meaning "you all," are prejudiced just like this guy.) Anyway, after the outburst, the judge raps his gavel and says, " People generally see what they look for and hear what they listen for..." And I thought, ain't that the truth?!

Pulling the attacker down onto
the front knee in Saifa kata.
People have all sorts of expectations when it comes to karate, and when those expectations are not met, or something comes along to challenge those expectations, they quickly drop into a defense mode--it's fight or flight. We cover our eyes and pretend it doesn't exist. We deny it. We dismiss it. Or we attack it.

But sometimes, it's just not what you think. Goju-ryu is a system of 10 "classical" kata--and I am using the term classical loosely enough to include Sanchin and Tensho. So if this is the case, I would suggest, it's not what people often think or at least not the way you often see it practiced.
Attacking to the back of the
opponent's neck in Seiunchin.

For example: There is no upper target punch in Goju-ryu. And even though you can walk into almost any dojo in the world and find students practicing a jodan tsuki, you won't find it in the classical katas. We don't punch up to the head--we bring the head down to punch it. All you have to do is look at the classical subjects and this disconnect is apparent. In most dojos, we practice "basics" that include an upper target punch. Why not practice "basics" that are actually taken from the classical subjects, not some generic techniques that only conform to someone's expectations of karate? Why not practice techniques that actually prepare students for the movements in the classical subjects?

Blocking and kicking in
Kururunfa kata.
If this sounds as though I'm nitpicking, consider that neither is there a down block (gedan uke), at least not the way you'll find it practiced in most dojos. It's a strike--a body-dropping forearm strike to the back of the neck in most of the classical katas. Who would bother going into shiko-dachi to block a kick like that anyway? Let's be logical.

In fact, the forearm is probably used to strike more often than the standard punch or the back fist. And yet in most Goju-ryu dojos you can find people spending hour after hour punching the makiwara, until their knuckles are hard and calloused. Perhaps we should appropriate the "wooden man" from the Chinese martial arts and start pounding it with our forearms.

And while we're on the subject of confounding expectations...There are probably more knee kicks (hiza-geri) used in the bunkai of Goju-ryu kata than actual kicks with the foot. And the kicks with the foot are more targeted to the opponent's knees than higher--higher targets are easier to block--though when you watch students practice the front kick in most Goju-ryu dojos you will see front kicks waist high...and few knee kicks.

How about that ubiquitous technique: the mawashi-uke? The mawashi-uke seems to me--though this may seem blasphemous--deceptively not so much a "receiving" technique (though we refer to it as an "uke") as it is a finishing technique. In the classical katas, it occurs most often at the end of combinations, and it's usually used to twist the head--i.e. break the neck.

There's no half-fist strike or clam shell fist in Saifa, even though you will find it described that way in any number of books on Goju-ryu. (See Morio Higaonna's Traditional Karate-Do: Okinawa Goju Ryu, Vol. 1: The Fundamental Techniques.) And you will see it used to attack the throat or the opponent's ribs. But it's a grab. It's a half-fist to simulate the look of the hand as it grabs the opponent's collar bone or trapezius
Painting by Magritte

And there's no cat stance (neko ashi dachi). That is, it doesn't seem to be used for anything; it merely signifies where you kick, whether with a knee kick or a front kick. If you think that statement is "out in left field," just try kicking every time you stand in cat stance in the classical katas. See what it opens up for you with bunkai.

And there's no spear hand or nukite strike in Shisochin...or elbow attacks for that matter.

Something to think about when you don't get bogged down with too many expectations.


  1. perhaps off topic but...
    Have you noticed the similarities between Goju and Muay Thai clinch? apart from the punching and kicking, it seems that the goal in Muay Thai like in Goju is to take the side control the opponents head and then thrash with knees and elbows... just a thought.

  2. Hi Cris,
    No, I hadn't noticed, though I'm not surprised. I tend to think that all authentic martial arts conform to the same basic principles. You have any good Muay Thai videos to recommend?

  3. i havent found any good videos. my observation comes from a friend who teaches and who i trade info with...

    Another observation... in Shisojin Kata the sequence after the turn to the back of the Kata seems to look alot like a Standing Guillotine. in the Kata, the hands dont stay together like in a guillotine but then again in the kata there isnt a human throat in the way. everything else is very much like the modern technique. i think we explored this a bit last spring... only difference is that we where grabbing both sides of the mandible instead of putting both hands on the chin or forearm across the neck like its done these days.

  4. Hi Cris,

    Not sure I know what you mean by Standing Guillotine technique. But I've thought about this since and I'm under the impression that the kick alone may bring the head down sufficiently to take the head, chin with one hand and back of the head with the other, on the way down. Then the thrust up with both hands would be enough to crank the neck

  5. This Video is a little overkill for our purpose but its a pretty good example i think.
    I think your right about the controlling hand on the back of the neck. ive learned a few different controls in exploring this scenraio... ill make tape this week and send up what ive found.

    Merry Christmas Sensei! All the Best To You and Yours.


  6. I agree with your article but I would have to say that striking high and from all sorts of angles makes you a more rounded fighter! Low blocks have lots of applications from basic as wrist releases to as advance as gun retention! Nice article by the way!!