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.

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