Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Idle ramblings and word associations

Practicing Gwa in
Matayoshi's dojo.
It's easy to teach kata, I suppose, and you can pick up lots of bunkai fairly easily off YouTube. Of course, it doesn't mean the bunkai is any good or that the kata is done correctly. So how do you know what you're getting?

Matayoshi sensei was very proud that the tradition of kobudo in his family went back generations. He showed me a family tree once, tracing his family back four hundred years. I'm not sure they all practiced kobudo, but the martial tradition in his family did go quite far back in time. And the point was, as he said, that once upon a time there were many many different martial traditions, but over time they got pared down. The bad ones died off, because in the old days you had to use your martial arts to survive. If
you didn't survive the battle or the confrontation, neither did your martial art. Those who survived passed their systems on to others. The problem is that that same natural weeding out of what's good and what's bad doesn't really exist today; we don't generally use our martial arts in battles or confrontations of the sort that might have been more commonplace in ancient times. Nowadays anybody can put a shingle out and teach martial arts without having to put it to the test, without having anyone question the techniques.

How one steps and turns
is very important in
executing this bunkai
 from Shisochin correctly.
I once learned a bo kata from a friend who trained in a traditional Uechi dojo. As a rule, they didn't do very much kobudo--after all, kobudo is really a separate tradition--but their teacher had taught them this one bo kata. I spent about 30 minutes following my friend through the moves of the kata before I realized that it was Sakugawa-no-kon, a kata I already knew. What confused me was the fact that they had been taught the mirror-image of the kata; everything was backwards. Not that there's anything wrong with doing a kata backwards, but I suspect that the teacher had taught himself from watching a video.

You can certainly learn a lot from videos. We live in a very technological age. I've often heard people say that you can find anything on the Internet. And many people are quite adept at navigating through all of that information. The problem is that some things can't be taught through videos. There are some things I have trouble teaching students in the dojo. You have to see it and realize what you're seeing in order to practice it. You can teach the moves, but not the movement. I'm reminded of some of the principles talked about in the Chinese classics and that can be found in Douglas Wile's T'ai-chi Touchstones: Yang Family Secret Transmissions. Here are a few:

"All the joints of the body should be connected without permitting the slightest break." "Power issues from the back." "At all times bear in mind and consciously remember that as soon as one part of the body moves the whole body moves." "Do not allow gaps." 

This movement from Saifa is really
the start of the third sequence, but
it occurs in-between the techniques
that we usually recognize. We don't
turn and face the opponent to then
execute the hand techniques. The
turns in kata show how to step
off the line of attack.
It's all so poetic and cryptic because it's difficult to teach...and just as difficult to talk about. It's almost as if the phrases are only reminders, only useful if you already understand what they mean.
And the really interesting thing is that the katas--and more importantly the bunkai of the various kata--reinforce this kind of movement. In fact, to do the bunkai to the Goju-ryu classical subjects, you have to move this way. In a way, a correct analysis of the kata (bunkai) demands that you understand the lessons contained within the movements of the kata.The most obvious movements are how you get from one technique to the next technique. But the turns and changes of direction are also important in most cases. As someone once pointed out, an awful lot occurs between the movements of kata. So often I see bunkai that ignores the stepping that occurs in the execution of the same technique in kata, as if the body and the hands are disconnected from the feet. It seems to me that people often content themselves with practicing the hand techniques of karate only. If they use the feet, it's only to kick. The stepping and turning in karate, however, are integral to a proper understanding of bunkai, as well as a lesson in how to move. Without a proper understanding of movement, kara-te really is just "empty hands."

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