Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Monday, October 13, 2014

Barry White? What's that got to do with the martial arts?

I was listening to some Al Green songs the other night. Smooth stuff. You sit down with a glass of wine and put your feet up. You know, some Lou Rawls, a little Marvin Gaye, maybe some Bill Withers mixed in, and I was trying to think, I'm missing somebody. Who's that guy with the incredibly smooth, deep voice? Oh yeah, Barry White. You know you can find that guy on Google if you type in "deep smooth sexy male singer motown?" The problem is that so much of it is dated. It's all this incredibly over-orchestrated 70s stuff. You can really appreciate the voice, but forty years later the songs don't travel that well. It's sort of like that movie I got once--The Sword and the Dragon, a Russian-made film from the 1950s that I watched over and over again as a kid. They used to show it late at night, and I would always stay up to watch it. Then I asked for a VHS copy of it one Christmas 'cause I couldn't think of anything else that I needed. Of course, I didn't need that either, which I soon found out. When I got it, I couldn't believe how lame it was. I mean, it was cute and all, but all of the cool special effects I remember as a child--the wind monster and the three-headed dragon--were about as convincing as the original King Kong or Godzilla movies. Things get dated. Nothing exists in a vacuum. Everything is influenced by the time.

Most people do these techniques
from Seipai as an arm-bar instead
 of  an attack to the head or neck.

In the martial arts, of course, this notion that one is practicing an anachronistic art may come up every time one picks up a "rokkushaku bo" or "tonfa." But we also find techniques in kata that suggest one is grabbing hair or a top-knot, and using it to pull the head down, a technique that one might not be able to use all that effectively nowadays. And why practice barefoot, especially in New England? It might have made sense in Okinawa where you could quickly slip off your geta or zori, but how is it realistic in today's world? There's a lot of stuff that's "time sensitive," not just the junk mail they send out with the words "Open Immediately" stamped on it.

Most people use this technique at the
end of Seipai to grab a kick or to grab
the oppoent's wrists instead of
his head.
Just as interesting to me, however, is what effect our world view may have on practicing an art that is so clearly from a different time and place, really a different world. And what occurred to me is this: Perhaps our more modern world view, superimposed over an ancient martial art, has colored the way we view and practice martial arts today. We are looking through a twenty-first century lens at a system of self-defense created for a far different time and place. Is it possible that a martial art that was once developed to protect one in life-threatening confrontations has unconsciously, and perhaps necessarily, adapted and changed to fit into a less violent time, an art that is practiced in gymnasiums and community centers by men, women, and children? Now, I'm not talking here about the development of Gekisai kata and other training subjects during the early years of the 20th century in order to bring karate into the Okinawan school system. I'm talking about traditional or classical kata and how most people practice it--that is, Saifa, Seiunchin, Shisochin, Seipai, Sanseiru, Seisan, Kururunfa, and Suparinpei.

You can find some very prominent
teachers on the Internet who will
show this technique from Seiunchin
as a nukite or shuto attack to
the opponent's ribs.
And the funny thing is you don't have to consciously do much of anything. All that needs to happen is to interpret or analyze kata (bunkai) in a less violent manner. You look for interpretations that match the situation and conditions of your training. In this case, you make all of your bunkai, blocks and punches. It's easy, and much less dangerous, to block the arms of your attacker/partner and punch, generally to the chest, maintaining a safe distance while you're at it. You don't have to "see" the combinations that contain grabs and throws and neck breaks. In fact, all of that stuff is difficult to train with a partner anyway, especially in a commercial dojo, one with potential liability. People don't want to get hurt nowadays. We have other priorities, like making it home for dinner, and getting up to go to school or work the next day. So we preserve the kata and call it traditional or authentic karate. But kata is a series of codified movements meant to preserve the principles of the art and its applications (the bunkai), and if you don't interpret it correctly, what are you left with?

I'm not really sure, but I'll tell you one thing: If you just want to forget about the whole thing and continue to throw some punches and do some chest blocks and throw in an arm-bar here and there and call it traditional Okinawan Goju-ryu, kick back for a bit, put your feet up, and listen to some Barry White...that is, without the 40-piece orchestra, 'cause it's a bit dated. Better yet, try some Al Green or Lou Rawls. That'll take your mind off it.

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