Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Movement and meaning

I saw a newspaper notice the other day about a class in Authentic Movement. Initially, of course, my natural skepticism crept in, wondering what the heck "authentic" movement was and whether or not some movement was not authentic. So I looked it up.  Practitioners, or enthusiasts, suggest that "movement becomes 'authentic' when the individual is able to allow their intuitive impulses to freely express themselves without intellectual directive" (Wikipedia). I think the last time I really saw something like this was at a rock festival in the 60s. There were groups of people that appeared to have taken something and seemed to move without conscious thought up front by the side of the stage. It looked to me at the time as though it was some sort of physical equivalent of speaking in tongues at a large, outdoor Pentecostal gathering. Now I'm not judging either the Authentic Movement folks or the Pentecostals, but it did get me thinking about people's attraction to movement without meaning.

The last move in Sanseiru always
seems to mystify, but only because
it's so often disconnected from
what precedes it. 
I've seen many karate schools, kung fu schools, and even T'ai Chi classes that practice katas or forms without spending any time trying to figure out how to apply these movements or even questioning whether there were any applications for the movements they spent so much time on. One famous Tae Kwon Do teacher I remember once reprimanded a senior student for trying to use a technique from one of the forms in a pre-arranged sparring drill. He was told that forms were for working on balance, speed, power, and coordination--they were not for fighting. I've seen the same things in kung fu and karate schools. And in most T'ai Chi classes I've seen, the students are quite content to do some warm up exercises (maybe some esoteric looking Chi Gung) and spend the rest of the time going slowly through the solo form. (As a side note: I find it immensely entertaining when a teacher makes very slight, even apparently minuscule, adjustments to a student's kata or form when they don't study or apply the techniques, when they don't do bunkai. Are the "corrections" merely aesthetic?)

For some people, the similarity of
this posture to statues of Shakyamuni
showing the vitarka mudra with one
hand and the varada mudra with
the other hand is meaning enough.

Perhaps we need to move as human beings, as living creatures. God knows, a lot of people are fairly sedentary. Perhaps we need to move in such a way that we can imagine our movements have meaning, an authenticity that we can only imagine. Who knows, there might be something to this "authentic movement" movement. When we don't know what the movement means--trusting only in our imaginations--it somehow imparts a higher meaning to our movements, perhaps even to our lives. If we gave it meaning, if we somehow explained what the movements were used for, we would somehow be trivializing the experience, making it banal and pedestrian. If we don't explain it, we retain the more mystical, the more spiritual experience. The
movement takes on a sensual or inner quality instead of an intellectual one. Maybe it's something like the whirling dervishes in Sufism, only we might be dancing for Guan Yu, the martial diety of ancient China.

Of course, I'm just guessing, but perhaps that's why there are not only so many martial arts schools that only practice forms and kata as movement without meaning, but also maybe why there is such disagreement within styles about the interpretation and analysis of the katas themselves; that is, if we say that kata can be interpreted and applied any way one desires, that there is an intentional ambiguity in kata movement, it's almost the same as saying it has no inherent meaning. And that's pretty much the same as "authentic movement"--movement that allows "intuitive impulses to freely express themselves without intellectual directive." Though I'm not sure how much more mindless movement we need in the world today. Seems to me there's probably way too much of that going on as it is.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Bunkai...Oyo...Henka...or what?

If bunkai is the analysis of kata, what the heck is oyo? Someone I read said it was going beyond the basic interpretation of the moves in kata. How can you go beyond them? Someone else suggested that oyo was more interpretive, open to more imaginative analysis. That means making it up, doesn't it? Another person I was reading--someone who I believe would certainly buy into all these different terms--proffered the notion that bunkai itself has different levels, a beginner's level, an intermediate level, and an advanced level, and that oyo and henka were somewhere beyond these "basic" levels. I suppose henka is somewhere in the stratosphere.
Seisan kata:
If this is a "punch"
with the shoulder instead
of a fist punch, does that
make it bunkai or oyo?

The problem for me...well, there are a number of problems here. First: The people who use these terms define bunkai as the interpretation of a kata move the way it has always been interpreted or applied--that is, how your teacher and your teacher's teacher taught the application. But here's the question: What if they were wrong? Or more pointedly, what if they were never taught a bunkai for a particular technique? What if they had to figure it out for themselves? I had a friend in Okinawa--a third dan who had been training for 15 years--who had never been taught or ever studied bunkai for the classical katas. Then again, if you find an application for a move that exactly follows the kata move is it still bunkai if you find it? Most of the "bunkai" I see on the Internet doesn't apply the technique exactly the way it is seen in kata. Does that make it all oyo and none of it bunkai? When Morio Higaonna sensei steps back when he demonstrates the "bunkai" to the first technique in Seiunchin instead of stepping forward along an angle the way the kata shows, is that bunkai or oyo? And what about when he throws a front kick in? 

Secondly: At least some of the people I've read who use these terms define oyo as the practical application of a kata technique. What the heck does that mean? The implication is that they do the technique sorta the way it's done in kata, but if they need to take an extra step or anything to "make it work," then that's oyo and not bunkai. This strikes me as ridiculous. The kata shows you exactly how to apply the technique, steps and all. If the application requires you to do anything else in "practical application" then you haven't got your interpretation of the technique right in the first place. To suggest that kata preserves a technique but only shows it in a way that would be impractical in real situations is totally illogical. To persist in your interpretation that requires you to do something extra, but justify it by calling it oyo, is the height of arrogance. 

Seiunchin kata;
Is this a down block or a
down strike with the forearm?
Which is bunkai and which
is oyo? 
Thirdly: The people who use these terms define henka as a variation of bunkai, so I suppose it's a variation of oyo too. Does that mean it's a variation of a variation? Now I'm really confused. By variation, I think, they mean that you can get as far from kata technique as you want in applying your henka waza. This is where it gets wonderfully creative and, I must say, wildly entertaining. I recently saw a short "One Minute Bunkai" by some folks where the elbow technique became a block and fist punch to the opponent's elbow/arm. To be fair, this was called bunkai, not henka, because, I suppose, one of the guiding principles of this ryu is "attacking the 'branches' before attacking 'the trunk,'" as it says on one of their web sites. Hmmmm?! I go back to my original question: What if the bunkai that you've been taught is wrong? 

I think we should get rid of all these terms. I'm not sure whether any of them are historically accurate anyway. In Okinawa, whenever we asked the teacher how a technique was applied or what it was for, we just asked, "Sensei, imi-wa?" And I don't think it was just our rudimentary Japanese--my teacher still uses the term (imi-wa). I'm not against the creative interpretation of movement, but let's not call it Goju. The essence of Goju-ryu is contained in the eight classical katas (plus Sanchin and Tensho, I suppose), and if you diverge from the movement of kata or its intent, is it still Goju or is it something else of your own design?

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Why train martial arts?

Celebrating the New Year with
Matayoshi sensei and family.
I often find myself wondering why people train the martial arts, and the New Year is a good time, I suppose, to reflect on why we all train. We don't live in a particularly threatening environment, at least most of us. At least it's not like feudal times anyway. And most of the people I know who train karate aren't the type who go around looking for a fight. Most don't even frequent places where fights break out. So why train something that, by all appearances, seems so anachronistic?

I thought about this recently because I came across a discussion of the place of Gekisai kata in one's training (or Fukyu kata or the Pinan kata for that matter). The primary aim of these training subjects, as the evidence suggests, was to popularize karate and provide a healthy program of study for school-age children. While some of the techniques in these training subjects can be found in the classical katas of Goju-ryu--the double punch can be found both in Sanseiru and Suparinpei and the mawashi occurs repeatedly in Goju kata--techniques such as the jodan uke and the oi-tsuki or punch off the forward foot (with the possible exception of Sanchin) don't occur in the classical Goju katas. And in any case, even the front kick-elbow-punch sequence is not practiced quite the same in terms of bunkai as what occurs in Sanseiru. And yet, many dojos spend an inordinate amount of time training these subjects, even among senior students. And if not the training subjects themselves, then basics derived from these subjects. Throw in the two-person continuous bunkai for Gekisai Ichi, Gekisai Ni, Gekiha, and Kakuha developed by Toguchi sensei and most of your training time can be taken up with subjects that bear little resemblance either to the structure or the principles of the classical katas of Goju-ryu.

Matayoshi sensei at my dojo.
Which takes me back to my original question: Why do people train the martial arts? Is it for exercise or is it merely that they like the social aspect, working and moving together? Perhaps it's the spiritual nature of martial arts that comes with anything foreign or things Eastern. Perhaps for some it's the attraction of the strange rituals, the clothes, the language. Or perhaps it's just a form of exercise, though personally I think I'd rather go for a run around the block or a bike ride or buy a single scull and crew up and down the river.

Some, I'm sure, see martial arts training as a way to develop self confidence and even self defense. They may even believe that they have attained, along with a black belt, some level of menacing lethality or ability to defend themselves. They may even imagine a certain degree of invincibility, if not in terms of self defense, since most of us are less and less likely to face actual physical encounters outside the dojo, perhaps in terms of being able to face all of the difficulties that life throws at us. The problem is that those who spend so much time training Fukyu or Gekisai katas, and their attendant basic techniques, are not practicing a very lethal system of self defense. School-boy kata and bunkai were never meant to be lethal. And yet this is what most schools, at least the ones I have seen, tend to put their emphasis and time on. It's ironic that the more time you spend on martial arts, the less lethal you become as a martial artist--at least if what you're training is the Gekisai/Pinan kind of karate. Perhaps that's overstating the case...but I don't think so.

Yet the other side of the coin is just as curious. Why do we spend years practicing traditional/classical kata and bunkai--how to break someone's neck--in an age where this sort of confrontation, for most of us, is less and less likely? I'm reminded of a caption under a picture of Miyagi Chojun sensei that a friend of mine translated for me in Okinawa. It said something to the effect of "don't hit anyone, and don't get hit." Perhaps that should be the focus of our martial training. But why we train something that by all appearances seems so out-of-date is still a mystery to me...we just do it, I guess.