Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The Principle of Keeping the Elbows Down

Native American Trail Marker tree.
It was wet in the woods the other day. The rocks were slick on the trails and there were puddles here and there where the rain collected in small depressions lined with leaves. It began to rain again just as I started up the trail. Everything was uniformly grey and misty, making the trees stand out like etched outlines on paper. Most of the trees seem young along here, stretching up like telephone poles, with few if any branches at this level, but here and there you can still see an old gnarled pine or maybe a red maple with its limbs all twisted as if its fending off beasts or would-be loggers. I'm on the lookout for these old codgers. I'm hoping to find one of those old twisted Native American Trail Marker trees, the kind that looks sort of like someone's arm held up and bent at the elbow. Some say that they don't exist in New England--the tree itself has to be 200 or 300 years old--but others have already identified a few.

It's a curious thought. The process, they say, may take years. You find a likely sapling and then bend it over with a cord or rope, pointing in the direction of a water source or a natural stream crossing. Then, years later, after the tree has grown to accommodate this bent nature, you come back and release it from its shackles and allow it to straighten up. Only it doesn't straighten completely; it leaves a crook like an elbow in its trunk.

The arms in Sanchin posture.
Of course, that's the connection: the elbow. There's a passage in the Chinese classics that runs, "All the joints of the arms should be completely relaxed, with the shoulders sunk and elbows folded down" (Yang Ch'eng-fu, quoted in T'ai-Chi Touchstones, compiled and translated by D. Wile). We practice this in Goju-ryu, of course, with the arms held in Sanchin posture, but it's such an important concept in the martial arts that it should not just be looked at as a position one takes up in the execution of a particular kata; rather, it's a principle that one needs to absorb. Perhaps we should tie the limbs down to train this posture, to grow into it, as the Native Americans tied down the trunks of young saplings to create their trail markers. There are some who have creatively thought of hanging weights from the elbows while the student is doing Sanchin kata.

The other question for me, however, is whether we can fully appreciate these principles without understanding the bunkai--that is, you can do it in order to assume the correct appearance and form in kata, but can you really "grow into" this technique, can you really absorb the principle, if you don't see the necessity of moving this way by having to use it against another person, in other words, by doing the bunkai? Which means the bunkai you have "discovered" has to necessitate the use of this principle.

First movement in Seiunchin kata.
For example: Take the first movement in Seiunchin kata--stepping out on a northeast angle into a right-foot-forward horse stance (shiko dachi) with both hands brought up back to back and with the elbows down. If this technique is executed against a two-handed choke hold or lapel grab, as many interpret it, you won't see the necessity of keeping the elbows down. (I won't even bring up the question of why you would step forward against either one of these attacks!) But if you try this against a cross-hand grab--the attacker grabbing your left wrist with his left hand--then the necessity of keeping the elbow down should become apparent and the principle will be thereby reinforced.

First movement of second sequence
in Seiunchin kata.
Another example: Take the first movement of the second sequence in Seiunchin kata, the "assisted block." In this move, the defender is doing what looks like a closed-fist middle-level block with the right arm and the left hand is assisting by pushing on the side of the right wrist or fist. If this is really being used as an assisting block against a strong opponent, then there seems to be little reason to keep the right elbow down. However, if once again the attacker is using a cross-hand grab--the opponent grabbing your right wrist with his right hand--then the necessity of keeping the elbow down is apparent. You drop the elbow and rotate the hand and bring the left hand in to trap the opponent's fingers so that he can't let go. Then you push out towards his center. All of this works against his wrist, and if you understand the principle of keeping the elbow down, then you're not trying to out-muscle the opponent.

The turn-around technique
from Seisan kata.
But some might argue that these are select cases or that I'm trying to find techniques that fit my hypothesis. Then why not another "principle"? In the same Douglas Wile collection, this time from the Yang Family Manuscripts Collected by Li Ying-ang, we are told to "avoid the frontal and advance from the side, seizing changing conditions." If we don't understand the structure of kata, we may miss this one. If we assume that the turns and stepping in kata have no meaning--or no more meaning than that people training indoors ran out of room--then we won't think of using this principle when we analyze kata. If we imagine that the first turn around technique in Seisan kata is meant to be applied against an attack from the rear or that we simply turn to face the on-coming attack, then we will not learn this principle. However, if we imagine that the attacker is stepping in from the west with a left punch, then the bunkai would have us step off-line to intercept the attack at a 90-degree angle, the right arm blocking and the left open hand attacking. And if we practice this enough, we may even begin to learn the principle, to incorporate the idea into all of our movements, so that when we face an attacker (in ippon kumite practice, for instance) we will naturally step to the side into a 90-degree relationship to the incoming attack.

That's the Ri of Shu-Ha-Ri, or, in a metaphorical sense, that's the part about "growing into" the technique, in the same way that a Native American Trail Marker tree had to grow into these fantastic shapes, marking the paths and pointing in the right direction. I suppose they could have just put up signs, but it wouldn't have been quite the same, I think.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Shu Ha Ri: the stages of training

On a cold Sunday afternoon last week, I found myself in the woods, my scarf tight around my neck and a wool hat pulled down over my ears, listening to Michael Wojtech talk about tree bark—me and 29 or 30 other people crazy enough to stand around in the woods as if we too were weathering this first blast of winter like the trees. Mr. Wojtech, pointing out a white birch just off the trail, explained how trees breathe through their lenticels (how I understood it) or more properly how those dark, horizontal striations on the surface allow for the exchange of gases between the inside of the tree and the outside air (though I would never describe my own respiration that way). He pointed out shagbark hickories and red maples and hemlocks and quaking aspens, and explained how the trees grew and how the bark functioned. It was really quite an interesting talk, despite the cold. It gave me a much better appreciation of trees but also a sort of fascination with their “aliveness."

I don’t know why this reminded me of the martial concepts of Shu, Ha, and Ri. Perhaps because I had been rereading a marvelous little book that morning, a collection of old essays by Kensho Furuya titled “Kodo: Ancient Ways: Lessons in the Spiritual Life of the Warrior/Martial Artist.”  Furuya sensei talks of these stages in one’s training using the image of an egg. In the first stage, the student “develops in the shell…learning the form and technique.” The teacher does his or her best to pass on the techniques of the style and the student in turn does his or her best to preserve and protect what is being passed on.

In the second stage, the student “breaks out of his shell,” mastering the techniques. In this stage, the student preserves the technique but also adapts the technique to fit his or her own movement and idiosyncrasies. The kata and execution of the techniques are the same but there are also differences. The minute corrections a teacher might make in the first phase of a student’s training don’t matter as much because the student now understands the technique. The student now knows what the techniques are for, how to use them, but in order to make them work, there may be subtle differences from how the teacher executes the same techniques. This does not mean that there may not be a need to correct techniques here and there—there is always the danger that in adapting one’s technique to one’s own movement, the fundamental principles may be inadvertently ignored or subverted in one way or another. For example, as students get stronger or faster, they may find themselves unconsciously relying on strength or speed instead of technique. In some ways, I suppose, the analogy of the egg and the baby chick breaks down here—there may be a need at times to revisit that earlier stage of learning to “check” one’s technique. Perhaps there is, in fact, a constant reminder to “check” one’s technique in the same way that Kosho Uchiyama Roshi reminds us to “Sit silently for ten years, then for ten more years and then for another ten years.”

And yet there is another stage—Ri. In this stage, the student has “left the nest.” The student has transcended the technique—that is, they are not consciously thinking about the form of the technique or applying the techniques; instead, they are relying on an intuitive understanding of the principles to guide their techniques. The principles have been learned and absorbed through ruthless practice of the techniques. This understanding of the principles behind the formal movements is what guides this last stage of formal training. There are no shortcuts. But there are dangers here. You can’t just arrive at this stage because you want to, not without long hours of practice. And yet, as Dogen says of an understanding of Zen, you can’t get there unless there is a desire. 

The other danger for me comes with how we understand the principles of kata. We may know the form of the techniques, but our understanding of the bunkai—how we are meant to apply the techniques—may be, at the very least, lacking or altogether wrong. How can we understand the principles of a martial system—and the principles are, of course, preserved in the kata—if we are simply guessing about the applications of the techniques? If we don’t understand the principles, there is no “Ri.” If we don’t practice the techniques with the right frame of mind, we won’t discover how the techniques are meant to be applied. And if we don’t discover the original bunkai, we won’t find the principles. And once again, no principles, no “Ri.” 

I don't think this really had anything to do with seeing a small bird’s nest on a branch up in a nearby oak tree. What I was really thinking about on that cold walk through the woods was how we can learn to understand the principles that seem to connect things—how trees, in all of their variety, live and breathe and work at survival; how they take in water and fight off insects; how they grow and adapt to different environments. It was all based on an understanding of the principles involved. The more trees you study, I imagine, the more you see these principles manifested. And really, it all seemed so human. 

Of course, I could be wrong about all of this. After all, I'm no authority on trees either--I just enjoy them. Perhaps there is no difference whether one is working with the "original intent" of kata and bunkai or practicing block-punch-kick bunkai derived from a less traditional approach to karate; with the right frame of mind, one might still work through the stages of Shu, Ha, Ri, I suppose. When all is said and done, there may be no real difference between the formal Japanese tea ceremony—Chado or the “Way of tea,” for example—and serving up a burger and fries at McDonald’s. Or is there?

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The Homogenization of Technique

I was thinking about this the other day...our tendency to homogenize things that are similar, how over time we smooth out the edges and look for commonalities until we've erased the differences altogether. That may be overstating the case, but it got me to thinking.

I was out for a walk in the woods, engaging in a bit of "woods bathing," one of my favorite activities, when I found myself thinking about the time my father "borrowed" my rock collection. I think I must have been seven or eight years old. My father was helping out the Boy Scouts with their Klondike Derby. My older brother was in the scout troop--he would go on to become an eagle scout and I would become a scout dropout, never really comfortable with dressing up as a para-military youth gang, though the questionable leadership of our assistant scout master was probably more to blame, either that or the '60s. Anyway, the Klondike Derby was a sort of winter carnival with the scouts dragging sleds through the snow, completing tasks, and accumulating "gold nuggets." Of course, someone needed to supply the "gold nuggets," and that was the job my father took on. He "borrowed" the big Lincoln Log barrel I had filled up with my special rock collection, spread them all out on his work bench, and spray painted them all gold. When I found out, I was distraught. My father didn't understand at the time. He offered to get me more rocks, but this was a collection of "special" rocks that I had been collecting for quite some time. They were just rocks I had found on the road or in the woods, but they were all special to a little kid. And they were all different...at least until they all got a thick coat of gold paint.

I wasn't consciously thinking about childhood events or kicking up "special" stones hidden under the fall leaves. I was just sort of wondering about that unique quality that all things have, especially things that seem similar. You really notice it in the fall, when the trails are covered with leaves. Late in the season, when all the leaves have turned brown, they all seem to be the same unless you look closely. Then, you can't find any two that are really exactly the same. The trails up around Fitzgerald Lake are mostly covered with oak leaves, but still they're all different.

Beginning movement of
the mawashi uke.
I suppose as humans we have this natural tendency to generalize. We need to generalize in order to identify things, even to recognize people from one day to the next. But really what all of this brought to mind--as any good walk in the woods will certainly do--is whether we do this with technique in kata, techniques that may look similar, at least to some extent, but are really different. I think this can be especially true if we rely on appearances rather than how something may function. And it can be subtle, creeping in over time, slowly erasing the differences in techniques until all we see is a redundancy, a repetition of familiar basics.

I'm not at all sure how insidious or widespread this tendency to homogenize may be or how it may have affected kata over the years or generations. Certainly when we name techniques in kata, there is the danger that we may be homogenizing movements that are actually quite different, especially if the names we give the movements are meant solely to describe the look of the movement rather than how it is used.

Beginning movement of
the other one.
Take the mawashi techniques that occur in the classical kata, for example. I believe there are two kinds of mawashi techniques, but I don't think it really helps much to distinguish between them by calling one a mawashi uke and the other tora guchi, as some have done. I will simply describe how they are used. The first of these--one that can legitimately be described as a mawashi uke because it is used as a receiving technique--occurs first at the end of Sanchin kata and then again at the beginning of Suparinpei and again at the end of Tensho. But these three kata, I would argue, are the only time this mawashi uke occurs in the classical subjects. It is distinguishable because it is done in basic stance or sanchin dachi.

The second mawashi-like technique occurs at the end of Saifa, at the end of Seipai, at the end of Seisan, in the middle of Kururunfa and again at the end, and it is shown three times in Suparinpei (interestingly both kinds occur in Suparinpei). Each of these mawashi-like techniques is done in cat stance or neko ashi dachi. The difference is in how they function. This second mawashi-like technique is a finishing technique, meant to twist the head or break the neck of the opponent. These techniques are tacked onto the end of longer bunkai sequences in the classical kata. They function differently from the other mawashi and consequently should be done differently in kata. More specifically, when the mawashi is associated with the cat stance (which itself implies a knee kick), the left hand does not pass under the right elbow or forearm, or, on the other side, the right hand does not pass under the left elbow or forearm. When the mawashi is associated with basic stance or sanchin dachi, the right hand does pass under the left elbow or forearm, or, on the other side, the left hand passes under the right elbow or forearm. What gets confusing, I suppose, is that the end position--both palms facing forward with one hand pointing up and the other pointing down--looks the same, except for the stance.

These are the two kinds of mawashi techniques we see in the classical kata of Goju-ryu, and, on second thought, they probably have nothing to do with rocks and trees and walking in the woods. But when the paths diverge, I can't help thinking of that line from Robert Frost. How does it go?

Thursday, September 29, 2016

But is it art? Problems with kata analysis cont'd.

"Well that's a pretty bland title," he said.
The only really neutral
position and the beginning
posture of ippon kumite.

"But this is sort of a continuation, trying to figure out why there are so many problems in finding the bunkai or applications of kata," I said in defense.

"What problems? People are coming up with new and improved bunkai every day. Bunkai is the soup de jour, if you will," he said, dismissing the subject altogether.

Yes, that's part of the problem. Everyone seems to accept the notion that kata is a playground of infinite creative possibilities, a blank canvas where you can draw whatever comes to mind and everyone else will be constrained by the conventions of art or politeness and refrain from criticism.

There are all sorts of problems that tend to influence how we interpret kata--our expectations are only part of the problem. Out of frustration there are many who have given up entirely on the interpretation of kata and scoff at this "trend," as they see it, of trying to find meaning in the kata that they nevertheless dutifully perform day in and day out to the metronomic and almost soporific cadence of the teacher 's count.

Since they themselves were never told what kata movements were for, they reason there is no meaning behind these apparently baffling movements. This rather defensive posture, however, seems to me not only unimaginative but also arrogant and egotistical.

The argument is based on the supposition that there is no way to tell exactly what the original creators of kata intended. But why not? Isn’t this the same cynicism that decries every new scientific hypothesis? How do we verify scientific discovery? To bring logic into the argument at all, of course, may be a bit pointless since a majority of Americans don't accept Darwinian evolution, with all the proof in the world, and, at the same time, believe in ghosts and crop circles with no proof whatsoever. There was a study not too long ago, in fact, suggesting that “we only trust experts if they agree with us” (Nicholson, C. Sept. 18, 2010. Scientific American).

Some have suggested that kata practice has no relationship to practical fighting; it’s merely used to develop speed, power, balance, and control—notwithstanding the rather obvious point that each of these things can better be developed with other exercises and, in fact, are even in traditional martial arts circles.

Admittedly, any analysis of kata that purports to be anything more than a possible interpretation--that is, anyone who suggests that there is, in fact, an original meaning to find--will leave the door open to scathing reviews by a host of self-proclaimed "experts." Kata is, after all, a solo exercise that is meant to mime the movements of paired fighting in the fashion of a boxer shadow boxing. Who's to say definitively what it means? At the very least, however, we should be able to agree that it's not just about blocking and punching. Rather what we see in kata is the receiving and parrying combined with seizing or grappling or tying up techniques, followed by attacks with the open hands, the forearms, the elbows, the knees, and, in many cases, taking or throwing the opponent to the ground. Certainly this might seem as strange as seeing Marcel Marceau performing in street clothes on a busy city street. What is he doing, we might ask? Of course, if it’s “art,” some folks reason, we can interpret it any way we want. That's what art is, isn't it? Why should a martial art be any different? As Marshall McLuhan said, "Art is anything you can get away with."
Okay, but is it art?

Perhaps kata is merely some form of esoteric or yogic movement, never meant to show practical self-defense applications. I've heard teachers say as much. Who knows, perhaps teachers are the problem?!?

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Seeing what we expect to see

I am sometimes chided for the bunkai I "find" in kata, as if kata is a piece of clay and I'm molding something out of this amorphous lump of mud. It reminds me of the old Zen parable about a very knowledgeable teacher who one day comes to visit a Zen master. Ostensibly, he comes for instruction, but right away the Zen master can see that the teacher has come to show off his own knowledge or to test the master or some such nonsense. Whatever the case, the master immediately realizes that the teacher has come with a closed mind—that is, he has come with his own set of fully-formed expectations. Nevertheless, the master invites him in for tea. After they are seated, the master begins to pour his guest some tea, but he doesn’t stop when the cup is filled, and the cup overflows, startling the teacher.

Of course at this point everyone—even those who may never have heard the story—can tell that the master will cleverly inform the guest that metaphorically he is like the teacup; he has come already full. And in the mythic world of enigmatic Zen masters, everyone will realize the truth at that moment and experience instant enlightenment…or else the disgruntled teacher will stalk angrily away in search of someone who knows what he knows and is willing to acknowledge him for it. Cynical but perhaps more realistic.

Now I know very few Zen masters, of course, but this same scenario, though slightly varied, happens with experienced martial artists too. Their expectations, however, produce a kind of tunnel vision so that they see only what they have been conditioned to see. Like the old adage about the carpenter who sees the solution to every problem in terms of a hammer and a nail, the karate practitioner who has spent endless hours pounding a punching post (makiwara) tends to interpret all kata in terms of punching, blocking, and kicking. How do we bring an open mind, a beginner’s mind, to the analysis of kata (bunkai)? How do we make sure that we are not bringing a cup that is already full to the table? 

The story is appropriate, as every martial arts teacher is certainly familiar with students who begin with their cups already full. Once and awhile they arrive at the dojo to “test” the teacher, but more often they come in sincerely, even with humility, yet with expectations. Their expectations are filled with preconceptions about karate or just martial arts in general. Sometimes they are able to revise their expectations, but more often than not they just quit and move on, looking somewhere else for something to match their expectations. 

Exercises with the Kongoken.
After all, in Goju at least, there is more hitting with the forearm than with the fist, more kicking with the knee than with the foot, and we generally "receive" the attack rather than block it. Sowhat's with all of the block, punch,  and kick bunkai? When Miyagi sensei saw wrestlers training with the kongoken (large metal oval) on a trip to Hawaii in the 1930s, and then, being impressed with the possibilities and usefulness in hojo undo exercises for Goju-ryu, brought it back with him to Okinawa upon his return, he probably wasn't thinking in terms of blocking, punching, and kicking techniques. But think of grappling and head twisting and it's another story!

Wednesday, May 25, 2016


More typical fighting
posture readiness.
   The thought occurred to me the other day--I suppose I've been wrestling with this a long time--but I found myself thinking about training in the old days, when I used to wear a gi and everything was rather formal. We'd line up according to seniority and then kneel and sit in seiza. "Mokuso!" Of course, it was all very precise, sort of like the Japanese tea ceremony without the tea cups.
   "Mokuso yamae!"
   "Sensei ni, rei!" the senior student would bark out. And, after all the formal bows, the teacher would take over.
   "Kiyotsuke. Rei. Yoi," the teacher would say, pausing between commands as the students responded. And then...
   Then we began practicing kata. But here's where it gets interesting.
   "Kata Saifa. Yoi. Hajime (begin)." Next was Seiunchin. "Yoi. Hajime." And then Shisochin. "Yoi. Kamae. Hajime." You see, there's that extra word--kamae. We used kamae not in the general sense of "posture" or even as a command--"kamae-te"--but in the connotative sense of "ready to fight." We generally understood it as a ready position, but no one every asked why the other kata (Saifa, Seiunchin, Seipai, and Kururunfa) didn't begin with a kamae or ready position. Why don't they?
Kamae posture found
in a number of kata.
   In Goju-ryu, putting aside Sanchin and Tensho for obvious reasons, there are four kata that begin with this double-arm kamae posture and four kata that don't. Each of these four double-arm kamae postures begins with three basic techniques that are repeated. Each of the other four kata begins immediately with a bunkai sequence (sometimes in threes and sometimes not). Why the difference? If all of the kata are part of the same system (supposing for the moment that they are from the same system), wouldn't we expect that they would conform to the same structure or pattern? Well...unless there is a message in the pattern or structure.
   Saifa begins with a  self-defense scenario (bunkai) against a same-side wrist grab (opponent's left to defender's right). Seiunchin begins with a self-defense scenario (bunkai) against a cross-hand wrist grab (opponent's right to defender's left). Seipai begins with the opponent grabbing one's shoulder or lapel. Each of these kata shows defensive scenarios (bunkai sequences) against grabs or pushes, while Kururunfa, it seems to me, shows responses to an opponent's punch. The other four kata, however, show defenses and responses to an altogether different situation--one that begins from a wrestling clinch or, if you will, the posture one sees at the beginning of a Judo match. Just compare the postures.
One of Judo's beginning
   It's almost as if there is a flag or label tacked onto the beginning of the kata, stating "the techniques of this kata begin from a grappling position," and we are meant to apply the entry techniques at least with this in mind.
   So, does this change the way one sees the bunkai of these kata? Does it open up new possibilities? Do we need to re-think the opening "punches" (if that's even what they are!?) in Seisan and Sanseiru or question the "nukite" or "shotei-tsuki" techniques at the beginning of Shisochin? At the very least, we should question why so much of the bunkai people find in the Goju-ryu classical kata looks the same--most of it beginning with two people squared off, facing each other, until the attacker lunges in with a punch--when clearly, just from the way they begin, there is an implied difference.
   It also makes me wonder about the three kata--sometimes said to be older or perhaps more related to each other (Sanseiru, Seisan, and Suparinpei)--having the same beginning "kamae" posture, as if they were based on a more grappling-oriented martial art, something like Okinawan sumo, for instance, though that's just a wild conjecture.
   So anyway, before you start shouting, "No, Goju is about blocking and punching and kicking...after all, it's karate, not judo"....just wrestle with the idea for a bit. I think this is where it starts to get interesting.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Hey, Buddy, can you spare some change?

Between a rock and
a hard place...
“Nothing endures but change.” 


I was thinking about this the other day, walking in the woods, looking at the changes of a late Spring--well, that and the techniques of kata and bunkai of course, as I usually do. It's been cloudy and windy and rainy for the past week. I think it was warmer in January or February than this past couple of weeks. I think I had been out on the scooter more in the winter than the last month and a half. But after all the rain, the forest is finally leafing out, and things are changing once again. Though, of course things are always changing, really.

And I realized, tramping through the few leftover muddy pools on the trails after the recent rains, that Goju-ryu itself is all about change. I wonder that the same thought may have occurred to Miyagi Chojun sensei, walking about the countryside or along the shore near Naha. When I look at the Goju-ryu Happo, it seems to me to be all about change: Mi wa toki ni shitagai hen ni ozu. (Act in accordance with time and change.) Even when it talks about the breath, it's really about change: Ho wa goju wo tondo su. (The way of breathing is hard and soft.) Or when it makes these wonderfully inclusive analogies between each person and the universe: Ketsumyaku wa nichigetsu ni nitari. (The blood and veins are like the sun and the moon.) Jin shin wa ten chi ni onaji. (Hearts and minds are like the universe....and the universe is constantly changing.)

First of four open-hand
techniques from
Goju-ryu, after all, is the "hard/soft" style. It's soft when it yields, and it yields when the opponent is attacking. When my opponent moves in, I move back or to the side. Or, as the Happo says, Shin tai wa hakarite riho su. (The feet advance and retreat, separate and meet.) Look at the "blocks" or receiving techniques (uke) and you will see that they are generally circular, allowing the defender to redirect the attacker's force or energy rather than to meet it head on. You see this in all of the Goju blocking techniques. I always liked the way my teacher would explain the fourth law--Mi wa toki ni shitagai hen ni ozu. "Meet any situation without difficulty," he would say--a good thing to remember whether you're practicing bunkai or merely practicing life. It's all about change.

One of the basic techniques of Shisochin is a good example of this. In this technique--the open hand technique that occurs four times in Shisochin and, according to Hokama sensei, the technique from which the kata name is derived--yields by stepping to the side, instead of meeting the attacker head on or, if you are looking simply at the pattern, instead of turning around to face the attacker. (This is the rule that I have often tried to mention: The stepping pattern of a kata shows how to step off the line of attack.) The kata shows this yielding because the stepping pattern shows a 180 degree turn, from the original north to the south. This is the first of these four techniques.

...even a stone yields.
The attacker is coming in from the west with a left punch. The defender (kata side) steps to the side (the turn-around) and at the same time "blocks" the punch with his right arm, carrying it in a circle across and down. This also has the effect, for the defender, of blocking on the outside gate and moving to the inside gate. At the same time, the left arm is brought up in an arc to attack and catch the attacker under the chin or alongside the neck. Then pivoting again, the attacker's head is brought down. And it's all sort of effortless...because of yielding and sticking and following the attack. I mean when you face someone in Goju, it shouldn't look like two bulls facing off in a field, snorting and pawing the ground, or like two trains headed down the same track from opposite directions. And yet that's often what we see in a lot of bunkai or two-person sets when one person attempts to over-power another person with brute force rather than technique based on correct principles. We should really try to change all that.

“Everything changes, nothing remains without change.” — Buddha

Friday, April 22, 2016

Please, sir, can I have some more?

First move of Seiunchin kata,
breaking the attacker's grab.
The master was a fat, healthy man; but he turned very pale. He gazed in stupefied astonishment on the small rebel for some seconds, and then clung for support to the copper. The assistants were paralysed with wonder; the boys with fear. "What!" said the master at length, in a faint voice. "Please, sir," replied Oliver, "I want some more." (from Dickens' Oliver Twist)

And with that, the boy raised his bowl, palm up with his arm bent at the elbow. And the master shrugged with that universal gesture of ignorance, shoulders lifting, with both arms brought up and out, away from the body, palms turned up to heaven, as if to say, "What the dickens! I have no idea."
Initiating an arm-bar to bring
the opponent down.

No, there was no bowl, there was no master, and of course there was no little orphaned boy named Oliver. But I did find myself thinking about this gesture the other day while doing Seiunchin kata. I thought, "Why bring the hand up in this curious gesture, as if you're raising your bowl for the cook to fill?" I can see what's going on here: the grab release, the control of the arm, the attack to the head. But if you're just grabbing the head from the down position, why bring the hand up this way? And even less satisfying is the way some schools interpret this as an inside block of a second attack.

I don't know about you, but I find that explanation about as satisfying as a bowl of watery gruel with a stale bread crust. So, let me describe what's happening so that we're all on the same page, so to speak. In the opening move of the kata, you step forward on an angle into shiko dachi, bringing the arms up with the hands out, palms up, more or less back to back out in front. Then the hands close and are brought down and out to the sides. Then the left hand is brought up to the ribs and the right hand comes up into this curious palm-up position at shoulder level. Then the right hand turns over, pulling in as the left open hand pushes out.
Rolling on the opponent's arm to
control the elbow.

Now I realize that in many traditional circles this first move is used to grab the wrists of an attacker who's got both his hands around your throat and is trying to choke the breath out of you. But if that's the case, there's no reason to step into the attack or forward as the kata does. (Some teachers maintain that even though the kata shows forward movement, it's really meant to be applied stepping back--as if we're supposed to do the opposite of what a kata shows--an example of the kind of logic we often find when it comes to martial arts applications!) So if we could, for the moment, imagine that an attacker has grabbed one's left wrist or arm with his left hand. Both arms are brought up to break the grab. The defender moves to the outside. In bringing the arms down and out, as in the second movement, the defender's left hand reverses the grip of the attacker and grabs the attacker's wrist with the right forearm being brought down on the elbow. Then, maintaining one's left-hand grip on the opponent's wrist as it is brought up to "chamber," the right arm is rolled in this "Oliver Twist" palm-up position, maintaining contact and control of the opponent's arm. With the opponent brought forward and down, the right hand then turns over and grabs the opponent's head, while the left spear-hand attacks the neck. This "rolling" quality of the arm-bar technique is found repeatedly in Goju-ryu kata.
Grabbing the head and attacking
the neck.

I'm not sure that's a very adequate description of this "rolling" technique or coiling, as they might call it in the classical Chinese arts. Perhaps it would be better to call it a "twisting" motion, since both arms are really used to execute it. Or we could call it the old Oliver Twist, 'cause it looks sort of like you're raising an empty bowl.

Saturday, April 09, 2016

See a man about a horse?

Well, if you'll excuse me, I've got to see a man about a horse.... Ok, I'm back. What does that even mean? No, I know what it means, but where did it come from? A euphemistic way of saying one needs to hit the loo, the john, the can.... Reminds me of a student--he was from another style but was interested in studying kata that actually had bunkai--who trained with me for a short time. He came to class one evening and told me he had to leave early to make it to his black belt class at another dojo. Oh, wait, that's not a euphemism. It is messed up though.

The first move in Saifa kata.
What I was really thinking about--not horses--was how people go off and study other things all the time. I understand the concept of cross-training and all, but what good does it do to study another karate style? I mean, if I'm going to seminars on Shorin-ryu or Uechi-ryu, how does it help my Goju-ryu? Hopefully, the martial principles are going to be the same, and if that's the case, then all I'm left with is a collection of other kata or techniques or bunkai taken from those "other" kata. And Shotokan, removed as it is from Shorin-ryu? Wouldn't I be better served putting in the same time training my own system?

Of course, but what I really find amusing is packing off to a seminar given by a big-name instructor who comes and teaches bunkai/applications to a kata that's not part of his own system--any kata really and sometimes with the instructor's request that some senior student from the hosting dojo should demonstrate the kata because the guest instructor doesn't know it!!! If he doesn't know the kata or the style, how could he know the bunkai or applications? Because he has a great imagination...and an awful lot of chutzpah. Ok, so this is a rant. Sorry about that, but this sort of thing, bolstered by exposure and hype on the Internet, seems to be burgeoning lately.

Dropping into horse stance and
attacking with a forearm to the neck.
So lest I get caught up in the maelstrom of flying debris, I'll try to get back to kata and bunkai. How about the first move in Saifa? Here's a question that came up the other day: Everyone steps forward with the right foot, feet coming together, with the left open hand around the right fist. But then it starts to differ. Some schools pull the hand away, thinking that the aggressor has seized the defender's right hand. Some schools bring the right forearm up across the attacker's left elbow, executing an arm bar. So what's right? (Some people avoid this question altogether. They voice the wonderfully liberal underpinning of relativism--there's no right or wrong, just different. But don't we correct students when they punch or kick or block incorrectly?) So, why is it wrong (and by that I mean the bunkai is wrong, or not good, if you will) to simply pull the hand away? Because it doesn't really put a stop to the aggression. The confrontation merely starts over again, with a slightly more aware attacker. Holding on to the attacker and executing an arm bar is a bit more effective. However, an arm bar executed across the attacker's elbow, horizontally, pushes the attacker away. The better alternative is for the defender to bring the right arm up, over, and down on the attacker's left arm, while the defender's left hand has hold of the attacker's left hand. This technique has the effect of forcing the attacker's head down and keeping him close. The next moves in the sequence have the defender grabbing the attacker's head, because it is now in range, and bringing the right forearm down on the back of the attacker's neck.

You see, some of this is thematic, and you'd never know it if you didn't actually train Goju, like if it wasn't really your own style, you know, like, and you didn't actually train it every day like. But whatever.