Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Chest punches in traditional martial arts?

We were sittin' around the campfire one night, after the horses had been fed and hobbled, and Pokey the cook had heated up some beans, when I turned to Clem and said, "It's awful quiet out there." Clem nodded his head sorta serious like and said, "Yeah, too quiet."
Attacking the head in
Saifa kata.

So I was reading posts on the Internet again.... I ask myself, why do I do that?? I'm reminded of something I once read. I think it was a criticism of the telegraph by Henry David Thoreau. My goodness, what a wonderful invention it must have seemed. It connected the whole country. People in Maine could suddenly talk to folks in Texas. The only problem, it seems, is that they had nothing to say. Radios, telephones, the Internet. I recently got a smart phone. Whenever I text someone I find that the phone is so smart that it knows what I want to say before I say it! It's truly amazing. Or maybe it's because we don't really have that much to say...or that much that needs saying.

So I was reading this blog post and it was discussing chest punches in the traditional martial arts. The suggestion was that traditional martial arts show so many chest punches--and when you look at the classical kata of Goju-ryu you will find only chest punches--because, and I'm paraphrasing here, it's safer and teaches one to train "at the correct range" (the poster suggested) and in so doing we are sort of forced into "making [our] training more realistic and practical" and thereby "doing it with reasonable safety from injury."

So let me get this straight. The original creators of kata put in only chest punches because they were safer, right? But if that's true, why didn't they make all of the other quite deadly techniques safer to
Attacking the head in
Seiunchin kata.
practice against an opponent? Actually, I'd rather turn that around a bit. Why preserve something in kata that's not the actual technique? Are the chest punches supposed to be "hidden" head punches--that is, you practice chest-level punches in kata but you're really supposed to raise them to head-level in reality, but that's too dangerous in the dojo so we practice chest-level??? And our dojo partners, what are they practicing? Are they practicing blocking a chest-level punch that in reality would be to head-level and so all of their practice of chest-level blocks is sort of pointless? Boy, this gets confusing. Does all of that make sense? Are you making something "more realistic" and "safer" at the same time? What about it is "realistic"? Is it that we allow ourselves to throw "realistic" punches with full power and speed at someone's chest but not at their face? But aren't we supposed to be practicing control in the dojo as well?

The same blog post prefaced this rather lengthy discussion with this: "I believe the answer is rather more simple.  It's all about training at the correct range...." Well, it is simple, but it's not about "correct range." My goodness, as we get more skilled, we should be able to punch to the face at close range and not paste each other!!!

If you want simple, consider that the closed-fist punches are all chest-level punches because they are to the head!!! It's just that the head has been brought down to that level. In Goju-ryu classical kata, we practice blocking/receiving techniques against the upper-level punches of an opponent. But receiving techniques (uke) are predominately circular, so this may be hard to see at times. And then each receiving technique is generally followed by a controlling or bridging technique. These
techniques generally go for the opponent's head or neck, and, sometimes alone or coupled with a kick, they are most often used to bring the opponent's head down. Once the head is brought down, this is where you will see the application of the straight, closed-fist punch. In order to really see any of this, you have to see that the Goju-ryu classical kata are composed of combinations of techniques--all of the combinations start with a "block" or receiving technique and end with a finishing technique. If you see a straight punch to the chest in kata--as you do at the end of Saifa kata, for instance--you should assume that it's a punch to the head and ask yourself how you got the head into that position. Then back up the sequence until you find the initial block or receiving technique. Simple, right? Well, yes, at least he was right about that.

And with that, I spread out my bedroll, said goodnight to Clem and Pokey the cook, and caught some shut eye, thinking maybe tomorrow we'd come across somethin' a wee bit more interestin'. 

Monday, September 01, 2014

The structure of kata

Upper-level palm strike
from Tensho kata
Here's a thought. Miyagi Chojun sensei begins training with Higaonna sensei sometime around the turn of the 20th century, more than a hundred years ago. After fourteen or fifteen years of training, he takes a trip to China with Gokenki. While they are there, he sees some hand movements that he finds interesting enough to incorporate into a rather simple training pattern--Tensho kata. Now one can imagine that fifteen years of training under Higaonna was probably sufficient to learn whatever system it was that Higaonna taught. One can also imagine that Miyagi sensei did a fair amount of talking and training with Gokenki, by some accounts an influential White Crane teacher. So all of this raises some questions for me. What was it about the techniques we find in Tensho that were so important to Miyagi sensei that he felt it necessary to include in his Goju-ryu curriculum? The assumption is, of course, that there is no need to make a new kata that merely duplicates things that can already be found within the system. So the question is, what did Miyagi sensei feel was missing? Why is there nothing borrowed from Gokenki in Miyagi's system of Goju? What is so unique about the movements of Tensho?
Rising block from
Tensho kata

I wrote about this question in an article for the sadly no longer publishing Journal of Asian Martial Arts (Politics and Karate: Historical Influences on the Practice of Goju-ryu, vol. 16, no. 3, 2007) in an attempt to, at the very least, instigate some discussion of form and structure, and the relationship between kata and bunkai. But there is so much that gets misconstrued. In fact, I was misquoted on a number of forums and criticized for trying to fit Tensho into the mold of a bunkai-based kata--like a square peg in a round hole--instead of seeing it as it was intended to be seen, as an internal training method. I'm not sure I understand how this person--who didn't train Goju and was only peripherally familiar with its katas--was sure what Miyagi sensei intended, or how he was so quick to assess what I knew or didn't know, never having met fact-to-face, but that's the nature of the Internet, I suppose. And while we're on the subject of stuff I don't really get, why limit one's internal training to one kata?  In fact, I'm not sure I really understand the distinction many people make between hard and soft after thirty years of training--they're inter-twined really. Wikipedia tells us that "Sanchin kata...is one of two core katas of this
Upper-level palm strike
that would follow the
rising block
style. The second kata is called Tensho...." I'm not sure I even understand why fundamental but elementary kata--meant to teach stance, breathing, posture and alignment--are called "core" kata. And how can a core kata of a system be one that was created after the fact? A core kata should teach more about the principles of movement and self-defense than either of these, shouldn't it?

Which brings me to my main point here: Why did Miyagi sensei put the techniques of Tensho kata together in the way he did? Supposing my initial analysis to be correct, the first technique of Tensho (excluding the three Sanchin-like punches in the Higa version of the kata) is a right open-hand jodan block followed by a right hand jodan shuto attack. The third technique is a jodan-level palm strike. This is followed by a gedan-level palm strike. The fifth and sixth techniques are a rising block followed by a downward block. The seventh technique is a mid-level outward block, and the eighth technique is a mid-level palm strike. The question is, why not keep all of the blocks and attacks together? That is, why not follow each block with the appropriate attack? Wouldn't this be the simplest and the clearest method of transmitting intent? I know there are any number of possible explanations. Perhaps it flows better this way, etc. But the funny thing is that this sort of "interrupted" structure is exactly what we see--and so seldom recognize--in the Goju classical subjects. We see the opening or receiving technique (uke) done on one side and then repeated on the other side, but the finishing technique only tacked onto the second repetition. This is what we see in the repetition of the double "elbow" techniques in Seiunchin kata, for example. We may even see the controlling or bridging technique without the receiving technique--again, a structure that repeats in a number of the classical kata--and the finishing technique tacked onto the second side or second repetition. This sort of structure is found over and over again in an analysis of Goju kata--it's one of the key principles to analyzing kata and discovering bunkai--but if you're not aware of it, it seems needlessly confusing. If you're not aware of it, it leads to the sort of piecemeal interpretation of kata and bunkai that seems so prevalent on the Internet.
One of four "elbow" techniques
from Seiunchin kata (or is it half
of two "elbow" techniques!?)

So what's with Tensho? This is by all accounts a kata that Miyagi sensei made. In other words, we can supposedly see intentional structure. The stepping pattern and stance work is obviously taken from Sanchin. But supposing I am correct about the applications of the hand techniques--and I'll be the first to acknowledge that I could be wrong--then why put it together in a way that seems at the very least ambiguous, if not intentionally confusing. Here's a thought, though: At least it's confusing in the same way all of the other kata are. What's that tell you?