Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Imagine that...

Well, we've probably all heard the stories. It's part of legend. I heard it from my teacher, and I'm sure he heard it from his. Japanese samurai swords, katana, were "tested on the bodies of convicted criminals as part of the practice of tameshigiri, or test cutting. One Japanese sword made in 1662 is inscribed 'Two persons completely cut into two pieces (one stroke),' a scholarly article informs us, and reportedly blades bearing five-body ratings can be found in Japanese museums" (http://www.straightdope.com/).

After all, how would you know you had a good blade unless you actually tested it...unless you actually asked it to do what it was expected to do under the duress of battle, what it was made to do? Was it balanced? How did it feel to actually wield? Would it withstand a cut against muscle and bone and sinew without breaking or chipping? Disturbing to consider perhaps, but these are real questions.
Head twists in Seipai
are often too dangerous
to practice safely.

The same questions arise when we consider the unarmed martial arts, though I'm not remotely suggesting that karate-ka hang out at the local bar and wait for a fight to break out. Or go sauntering through notoriously rough parts of the city in the late-night hours in order to test their martial skills, though I have heard some people say they have done just that. But it's also no secret that there are a lot of idiots out there.

No, what I'm suggesting is that it is very difficult to analyze kata (bunkai) without imagining what is going on. This is the problem I have with the continuous bunkai of training subjects created by Toguchi sensei (Gekisai, Gekiha, and Kakuha) that one sees in Shorei-kan dojos. It's also the problem I have with the continuous sequences (is it bunkai?) of Taira Masaji sensei of Jundokan. In both cases, there is no opportunity to see what the reaction of the other person is. Every technique is blocked or parried or countered in such a way as to frustrate the application of the "finishing" techniques that are shown in the  classical katas. Consequently, one applying this sort of "analysis" to the kata cannot really see what are finishing techniques. And one can't separate entry (uke) techniques from controlling or finishing techniques. All of the techniques of kata, in this scenario, seem pretty much the same. It's fun to look at, and it may even be fun to train, but it doesn't seem to me to do a very good job of explaining kata and bunkai
This head twist from Seiunchin seems
safer to practice if it's done slowly.

So what's missing? As strange as it sounds, I would suggest that what's needed is an imagined reality. Perhaps that's what T. T. Liang had in mind when he titled his book on T'ai Chi Imagination Becomes Reality, though I think he was really talking more about chi and the mind. Nevertheless it's a wonderful phrase. I've encountered the same problem. Unless I can get my training partner to react to my technique, even though I can't actually hit him--that is, if you see the connection, I can't actually test the technique on "convicted criminals"--then I may miss how a particular technique in kata is meant to be applied. At the very least, I won't understand the speed or the rhythm of the kata techniques and how in application those may differ from how they are taught in kata where they need to be done slower, with more articulation or punctuation, in order to learn them. After all, we have to teach kata step-by-step, almost in slow motion, if you will. Bunkai should exactly follow kata, but the speed and the rhythm may differ greatly. You have to imagine the effect of the entry technique--not to mention the bridging or controlling techniques--on your opponent to understand the techniques that follow it. Where does the entry technique put the opponent? Has the opponent's position changed relative to the defender? For example, what effect does a shuto to the neck have on the opponent? What effect does a kick to the side of the opponent's knee have? If the knee kick is effective, how has it turned the opponent? How does this turn facilitate the next move of the bunkai? If we can't imagine these things, or if our training partner cannot react in a realistic manner, then we may have a hard time discovering bunkai and, in the long run, understanding kata. 

It's difficult to imagine a reaction without actually testing things out. And the problem with testing the reality of techniques should be obvious; some of the techniques are too lethal. How do you train a neck break? I wanted to see how a particular bunkai worked--how it actually felt and whether or not it seemed realistic--that is, whether it "worked," in layman's terms--and had Bill, my training partner, try it on me.
Shisochin kata
This was a head-twisting technique and throw from Shisochin kata. At first, Bill did it relatively slow and easy. But that didn't seem to me enough to give me a sense of how "real" the technique was or how effective it was. So I asked him to "take it easy" but go a little faster and with just a bit more forcefulness. My job as attacker was to see if I could frustrate the technique or make it any more difficult to apply. Needless to say, we discovered that the technique worked just fine...and I was in physical therapy for three months with a neck that I couldn't turn enough to even peripherally see behind me. The funny thing was that I didn't remember we had been training this rather lethal neck twist and throw for most of the three months I visited the physical therapist. Probably because she never asked! Still, lacking any "convicted convicts" I think using the imagination is probably a better way to go, especially when we're talking not about kicks and punches, but about attacking the head and neck--real Goju.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Training in the cold

We're in the midst of a nor'easter as I write this. The snow is still coming down hard. It started around 7:00am this morning and will continue, they say, until tomorrow morning. It's been a tough winter so far: Cold and snowy. I've been trying to train for a May marathon--looking forward to running with both my daughters this time--but the weather hasn't exactly been cooperating. It's hard running on snow-slick roads and unshoveled sidewalks. But if you're going to get the training in, you still go. A warm tech shirt, gloves, hat, wool socks, winter running pants. Someone once said there's no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong kind of clothes. Or, the weather's not bad, you just didn't dress for it! Heck, if the weather's going to keep you from running, I can't imagine what sort of self-defeating thoughts will be going through your head when you hit mile 15 or 20.
Barn training in the winter.

I think about this because I train in an unheated barn--essentially, we train outdoors year round. Last week and the week before the thermometer was at 18 degrees F. (-7 C.) inside the barn. And there have been a couple of 15 degree F. (-9 C.) days. Some people have suggested I put in a propane heater, but the barn is so open all of the heat would go straight up and out. But that's not the real reason I haven't considered it seriously all these years. The real reason is that there's something that just feels right to train in harmony with nature (though that may sound a bit "crunchier" than I mean it to). If it's cold out..well, that's what it feels like to train in the cold. If it's hot and humid...well, that's what it feels like to train when it's hot and humid.

I can't stand running indoors either. I tried a treadmill once and didn't like it one bit. In fact, I got so distracted by the stupid TV they had on that I shot right off the back end of it. I like to be outdoors when I run. I like to notice the clouds and pay attention to the bumps in the road or the roots on the trail. I like to listen to what's going on around me and smell things. To me, it's almost the same with the martial arts--that is, it's being attuned to what's going on around you.

Years ago, I used to visit a friend's class. He rented space a couple of times a week in a health club. The room was beautiful, but it was a glass-walled room with an air conditioner that couldn't be shut off. Everything felt odd, somehow off kilter. And the feeling you had doing kata was all off. On the other hand, after a half hour of basic exercises and Sanchin kata in the barn in the winter, 18 or 20 degrees F. doesn't feel all that cold. I can remember stopping for a quick water break and seeing steam rise from people's heads. Sometimes I think I actually prefer the winter; if your hands get cold in the winter you just have to do a little kote-kitai (arm pounding) or bunkai.

What is the ideal environment to exercise and train in? Is there such a thing? I think it's the strangest thing when I run by the local gym and look through the front windows to see people running on treadmills. And it doesn't matter whether it's the middle of winter or a nice spring afternoon or a glorious, breezy summer day. In fact, why should one's practice of martial arts be confined to this ideal dojo space, with it's pristine wooden floor and showers and changing rooms? Why should we only practice in a gi and bare feet? If we are practicing a martial art, a system of self defense, shouldn't it be as natural as possible? After all, if you ever have to use your martial arts training, it probably won't be some place under ideal conditions.Shouldn't it be a natural part of our lives--practiced in the space we live our lives, in the clothes we wear and the climate we live in? Everything else, it seems to me, is just dressing up the duck...but it's still a duck.