Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Well, that's about the size of it.

"Well, that's about the size of it," he said. I realized I hadn't been paying attention. I knew he was summing something up, but I didn't remember what he had been talking about. I was thinking about the conservation area where we found ourselves. I had stopped on the trail to watch a pileated woodpecker and he had been coming up from the other direction when he paused to see what had caught my attention.

The conservation area isn't very big--about 625 acres with over a hundred different bird species and five miles of trails--but it's enough to get away from the sounds of traffic and the general insanity of the world for an hour or two. But as we separated, I found myself thinking about the size of things. After all, the Fitzgerald Lake area is only a fraction of the size of the new Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument that President Obama designated last year, all 87,500 acres, and that's supposedly only 1% of Maine's woodlands. I can't really even picture things that size. All you can say is, it's H-U-G-E.

But that got me to thinking about martial arts stuff and different systems of self defense. I once knew a guy who said he had studied Kempo (that's the only designation he gave it) for five years or so, and in that time he had learned 300,000 forms. Now, I'm thinking, there's no way in hell this is true, so I asked him to elaborate. His first "form" consisted of a head block and punch. His second "form" consisted of a chest block and punch. And so on and so on. Still, 300,000?!

One of the finishing techniques of
Shisochin kata.
I visited a Shito Ryu dojo once where they told me that their curriculum included over 50 kata. The funny thing was that when one of the black belts was asked to demonstrate a particular kata (Seipai), he demurred, saying he hadn't practiced it for quite a while and worried that he couldn't remember it.

And on the other end of the spectrum, we have Uechi with its three classical kata--Sanchin, Sanseiru, and Seisan.

So how big is Goju Ryu? There are eight classical kata--kata of ancient origin that show bunkai and embody the principles of the system--and, of course, Sanchin and Tensho (and a number of other modern training kata developed by various teachers in the 20th century). Each of the classical "bunkai" kata, for lack of a better term, explores a theme or themes of self defense and illustrates
Double-arm receiving technique
of Sanseiru kata.
them with anywhere from three to five scenarios, each sequence beginning with an uke or receiving technique and progressing to a finishing technique. Some of the themes are more obvious than others--like the double-arm receiving technique of Sanseiru paired with a couple of different controlling or bridging techniques and two or three different finishing techniques. Or the five techniques against cross-hand grabs and pushes we see in Seiunchin, though one might also look at the downward forearm strike as one of the themes of the kata since it is used in a number of the sequences.

So how big is Goju Ryu? It's hard to say. Seipai is fairly straightforward with five bunkai sequences, while Saifa has four, though one of the four is a close variation. Kururunfa also has four sequences. And Suparinpei, though it shows three complete bunkai sequences, is largely made up of the repetition of fundamental techniques, various entry and controlling techniques. How do you count fundamental or basic techniques?
One of the grab release techniques
of Seiunchin kata.

And then there's the question of structure. The sort of fragmented (or complex?) structure of some kata, like Shisochin or Sanseiru, makes them difficult to size up. Shisochin seems to show  four release techniques against a clinch or two-handed grab, with one bridging technique and two different finishes, one short and one significantly longer. But each of these sequences can be taken apart and put together in various ways. The structure itself seems to suggest variations. And really it's all about variations. Seisan kata has only three bunkai sequences but each is a variation of the same fundamental techniques--the same entry, bridging, and finishing techniques.

The really interesting aspect of this idea of themes and variations, however, is that once you see them you can not only change from one sequence to another within a given kata but also from one technique to another between different kata, moving from a receiving technique in one kata to a completely different controlling or finishing technique from another kata. So in that sense, Goju Ryu is fairly small, composed of only eight bunkai kata with a combined total of around 30 or so bunkai sequences, but almost infinitely large if you consider how the different sequences can be broken down and recombined, dependent on the dynamics of a changing situation and the exigencies of a given self defense scenario.

Too big? The fact that it is all based on themes and variations--as opposed to its being an encyclopedic collection of individual techniques--makes it manageable. Provided, that is, you can see the forest for the trees.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Where have you been, my blue-eyed son...

There's crap along the trail. Someone left a half-eaten sandwich--still in its sandwich baggie which I'm sure will frustrate the squirrels--tucked in behind a log. It was a beautiful warm weekend so I suppose it's to be expected, but I still don't understand it. Why dump garbage in a place that's so beautiful? What happened to those old admonitions: Cart it in, carry it out. Or, leave no trace. I suppose it could have just fallen out of someone's backpack. Or some ten-year-old didn't like it and tried to hide the evidence. There was an empty soda can a little further up the trail, along with a couple of cigarette butts and a gum wrapper. Highly suspicious and much less likely to suggest an innocent explanation.

Of course, some would say, it's not nearly as bad as walking around the city. Add to the litter, everything from buildings to bridges to mail boxes and trucks get tagged with cryptic symbols in spray paint, as ubiquitous as a dog marking its territory. But it sort of pisses me off more in the woods. And for some reason, it made me think of something Matayoshi sensei commented on one day in the dojo after I had done a kata. I had stepped back to execute a block, but I was trying to be particularly forceful and demonstrate strong technique--I was young--so I stomped the floor loudly. And I did it again on the other side of the kata, so there could be no mistaking my intention, though in retrospect I'm not at all sure what my intention was. After I finished, Matayoshi sensei told me that one should never be "loud" when executing a block. He said being loud was okay for an attack, but not for a block or when you were retreating. Your opponent would know where you were, he said. Hum...

Returning to the double-arm kamae
after the "punch" in Seisan kata.
I suppose when you think about it, it certainly has wider implications in the martial arts. The more force I put into my receiving technique or "block," the more my opponent can read my intentions. Better to be light. Better that my opponent can't tell where I am or how much force I'm using or what my next move is going to be...until I attack. To me this is one of the ways we can understand " Go and Ju," hard and soft. The receiving techniques (the "blocks" for lack of a better term) are generally soft and relaxed, generally accompanied by off-line or angular movement that doesn't, after all, necessitate a lot of strength. Of course, the attacks are relaxed as well, if you understand the whole idea of using your koshi. But immediately after the attack, again the idea is to disappear, to relax in order to be able to move in response to whatever the opponent does next, sort of like the fast "punches" at the beginning of Seisan kata--they immediately return to a relaxed, double-arm Sanchin posture.
Beginning of the fourth sequence in
Seipai kata.

Or like the beginning of the fourth sequence in Seipai kata, where you are advancing to the southeast corner of the kata with a left block and a right open-hand attack in renoji dachi. The circular forearm block (executed in a clockwise direction) intercepts the attacker's right punch (or grab) and merely moves around it until it ends in a down position. That's why so many see it as a block of a kick, because it ends in the down position. I recently came across a video of a teacher I have the utmost respect for demonstrating this technique against a front kick--blocking and hooking the kick and then grabbing the opponent, sweeping his supporting leg, and dropping him on the ground.

It's funny that most schools see this technique as the block and grab of an opponent's kick. The
Receiving the opponent's attack
 in the fourth sequence of Seipai.
kick would have to be at least at the level of the waist. There's an old saying in Okinawan karate that we never kick above the waist. In fact, the knees are a much better target and are harder to defend. Then there's the principle--seemingly borne out in kata--that we don't kick without having three feet on the ground--one of ours and two of the opponent's, meaning we are holding onto the opponent rather than initiating with a kick. And yet the interpretation of this technique as a block and hooking grab of a kick would seem to require the opponent to initiate an attack with a fairly high kick. Doesn't make a whole lot of sense, not to mention that it's really hard to grab someone's kick in a realistic situation.

But if you're intercepting the opponent's punch on the outside and moving to the inside with the circular motion of the "blocking" arm, it's sort of effortless. Then, without pausing, you step in with the right foot along the outside of the opponent's right leg (in the first of these Seipai techniques), carrying the head with the right hand, and do a sort of judo-like hip throw. And, done this way, it all requires very little physical strength, very little for your opponent to "read." So many of the receiving techniques of Goju-ryu are like this; they don't leave a trace for the opponent to sense where you've been or where you might be going...unlike some of the trails through the woods these days.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

A block is not always a block...

I was sitting on a rock in the woods the other day, taking a few minutes to lament the relentless march of time and the inescapable encroachment of modern life--they're putting up a couple of million-dollar homes not a stone's throw from the entrance trail and I'm feeling like the proverbial curmudgeon complaining about it--thinking what a nice seat I had found there, positioned as it was under the trees. I could replace the old Adirondack chairs with a few of these, I thought. They'd certainly last longer and weather the New England winters a bit better. I was reminded of a boulder on the way to Lake Oscawana with a naturally worn out indentation in it that my mother always wanted to take home and use as a bird bath. It was about five feet high and must have weighed quite a few tons!

The final position of what is sometimes
referred to as the right ridge hand
from the end of Saifa kata.
Of course, that boulder is probably still sitting by the side of the road, where it was dropped some time during the last ice age. And the rock I was sitting on would never really replace a good Adirondack chair. There were no benches in this part of the woods as there was no scenic place to sit and bathe in the natural beauties of the world, someone determined, but it would serve in a pinch. However, it was still a rock, and only relatively comfortable given that there wasn't any alternative. It was still a rock.

And for some reason, thinking about that rock made me think about the old dojo admonition: "A block is not always a block, and a punch is not always a punch." Or, as it is sometimes understood: "A punch is a block and a block is a punch." And I thought, which is it? The two are vastly different if you think about it.
Some have referred to this as a
kamae posture in Seiunchin
and Seipai katas since it is
executed stepping back.

I tried to think of an appropriate analogy. Analogies always help me to understand things a little bit better. For instance, a pie plate could be used as a frisbee. I think they started out that way actually.But a pie plate isn't a very good frisbee, and a frisbee is certainly not a pie plate. I can't imagine any respectable chef serving up an apple pie in a frisbee.

I think it's the same in karate. Take what I like to refer to as the dreaded ridge-hand strike (haito uchi), done with the opposite side of the hand as the shuto attack, with the point of contact on the side of the index finger knuckle of the hand when the hand is brought across, palm down. Some people find this strike beginning the last mawashi technique of Saifa kata. But it's a lousy way to attack anything. Could it be used as a strike, this technique that begins the mawashi/tora guchi at the end of Saifa? Certainly it could, but was that its original intention, given that it's not a very effective strike and probably more likely to injure the person using it than the person it is used on?
The double "punch" from
 Sanseiru and Suparinpei.

I think what they really mean when they say that "a block is not always a block" is that things aren't always what they seem. Take the down block (gedan barai), for example. It just looks like a down block, but in the classical subjects of Goju-ryu it isn't used as a block at all. You could call it a block.You could even use it as a block in some yakusoku kumite drill. But if we base our interpretation of the technique on how it is used in the sequences of the classical Goju-ryu kata, then it isn't a block. And to compound the difficulty--and I would certainly agree that a punch is not always a punch--but then sometimes it's not a block either. Look at the double punch that we find in Sanseiru and Suparinpei. From its position in the sequences of both kata, it would seem to be neither a punch nor a block.

We tend to love cryptic sayings; they seem to hint at unplumbed depths of hidden meaning. I can just hear old Master Po whispering softly into Kwai Chang Caine's ear: "A block is not always a block, Grasshopper." And all he meant to suggest is that it may look like a block in kata, but appearances can be deceiving.

But to say that a punch is a block and a block is a punch...well, it would be sort of like calling that rock there a tree. It's clearly not.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

"Don't hit anyone..."

Sometimes I head off into the woods just to escape. Even here, a little more than a mile from downtown, I can get far enough up the trails that I can't hear the highway. Once and awhile an airplane will fly overhead, but even then, after my initial irritation has passed, I can imagine some sort of primitive connection to the aboriginal people in that old movie, "The Gods Must Be Crazy." Above the canopy of trees, it's hard to see the airplane. Perhaps it's just the flatulence of the gods.

The trees, of course, are peaceful beings. If you walk in the woods often enough, especially in the spring, you can see them come alive again after a long winter. There aren't too many examples of living things that simply exist in harmony with their environment, living peacefully. Trees seem to. Oh, I know trees aren't sentient beings. Of course not. Certainly there's a lot we don't know about our world--it would be arrogant to
Miyagi Chojun sensei.
think otherwise--but I'm pretty sure trees aren't conscious or self-aware, though I'll keep an open mind on the subject. But at least in some imaginative or metaphorical way they present us with a wonderful example of peaceful co-existence, like that tree in the Shel Silverstein book.

I was thinking about all of this because we seem to be living in strange times...though that's only a euphemism for all the anger and nastiness and distrust and aggressively antagonistic posturing. I'm reminded of the words of Miyagi Chojun sensei that often accompany a frequently reproduced portrait of him: "Do not strike others; do not be struck by others." Wonderful sentiment. I think the trees would approve. But this from a Goju master? Is there something just a bit ironic in this statement? What was he thinking?

Receiving technique from Sanseiru.
I wonder sometimes if he was at all bothered by the violent nature of the martial arts and particularly
some of the violent head-twisting techniques found in the classical kata of Goju-ryu. I wonder myself sometimes if there is any way to minimize the violence inherent in the kata. There have been times when I have explained the bunkai of a kata to people and they will say, "We can't do that. I can't break someone's neck if I get into a fight." But it may say more about how we look to interact with other people, I think. We live in an angry age, where everyone seems ready to pick a fight. Is it at all ironic that if we lived in a kinder and gentler age, our self-defense would only be used in life-threatening situations? Or in ancient times when a confrontation really was life-threatening?
Controlling technique from Sanseiru.

But I still think if we adhere to Miyagi sensei's advice, then what we should spend the most time studying and training in the classical subjects are the receiving techniques and the controlling or bridging techniques. If we can really learn the receiving techniques shown in the kata--how to avoid and "block" the incoming attack--and bridge the distance to control the attacker, then we won't get hit and we won't necessarily need to hit anyone. After all, the finishes are easy; the hard part is how to receive (uke) the attack safely and control the situation so that it doesn't go any further. Whether I use a head-twisting technique to break someone's neck or merely throw someone to the ground is really a matter of how much force or intention is put into the technique.

Of course, in this day and age, it's very unlikely that I would be faced with any situation where I would have to make that choice. Well...unless someone were to jump out from behind that big old hemlock tree and threaten me.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

It's the clothes, you know.

Practicing Sanseiru.
We actually had snow a week or so ago, five or six inches. That's more snow than we had all last winter. I couldn't resist heading out into the woods for a walk just to see what it would all look like, frozen and cold. But in my rush to get in a bit of a hike before the sun set and the coyotes and goblins came out, I forgot to change out of my old Chippewa boots. They were all oiled up, so I wasn't worried about getting my feet wet, but the soles are pretty smooth and I was a little worried about how slippery the hill trails might be. Generally I subscribe to the notion that there's no such thing as bad weather, there's just the wrong clothes for the occasion. And these were really the wrong boots for walking on slippery winter trails.

It really made me think about clothes and some of the rituals we engage in when we practice martial arts. And it seems to me that all of these rituals--the clothes we wear, the language and terms we use, the ceremonies and titles--tend to invest martial arts practice with mystery and a sort of quasi-religious feeling. I wonder whether the Okinawans themselves view the practice of martial arts the same way that Westerners do? I mean, when we count to ten or use various terms to describe techniques, we learn these words almost as if it is a rite of initiation--we become members of a select group. The same is true of the karate gi. Certainly one could say that these pajama-like clothes are comfortable and loose and durable, but seriously couldn't one also train in sweatpants? The interesting thing about the karate gi, at least the top, is that it seems to be constructed very much like the kimono. So again, I wonder how Okinawans felt putting on a gi to practice karate some 75 or 100 years ago? I don't think it would have felt "special" in quite the same way as it does to a Westerner.

Practicing Sanseiru.
I've trained in Okinawan dojos alongside Okinawans, but I wondered sometimes whether the experience was the same for me and the other Americans as it was for my Okinawan friends. We don't usually wear
geta or zori, so going barefoot inside isn't quite as natural for us. Is practicing karate in bare feet then another sort of ritualized behavior? After all, most of us in North America are not practicing in a tropical climate. 

There is a strong argument, of course, that we pay homage to Okinawa and the source of our karate by adopting the clothing, the language, and the rituals. I think there's certainly something to be said for honoring our forebears or preserving the traditions and acknowledging our roots, but how does it affect what we do? Do the clothes make the man, as they say, or do the clothes make a person's experience something other than it is? Would we be practicing the same martial art if we were wearing shoes and sweatpants, counting and giving commands in our native language, and, heavens, at all cost avoiding bowing to the shrine? Would it change anything if the commands were, "Ready? Form 13. Begin."? Or form 18 or 36 or 108?

I guess my question is, how does the adoption of all these essentially Japanese things affect the way we view our martial arts? Don't get me wrong, I loved learning all the esoterica--from how to fold a gi properly to all the correct terms for things as simple as standing with the feet shoulders' width apart to the etiquette of titles and bowing. But how does all of this--fairly familiar routines for an Okinawan--affect someone who's not from Japan or Okinawa? It seems to me that some of this at least has nothing whatsoever to do with learning a martial art, and in fact may get in the way of the
strictly martial aspect of the art.

In some ways, it strikes me that this is a by-product of our modern culture. We dress in certain ways in order to identify with an activity. And it's almost as if we do this to broadcast this identity to everyone else. If we bike, we find ways to spend a fortune on biking clothes, as if we are convinced that we need to dress and look the part in order to engage in the activity. And the same is true of almost any athletic activity you care to name. There are special sneakers or shoes for each activity--whether it's running or weight lifting or soccer or cross-training or T'ai Chi or even just plain walking. Gone are the days of a good pair of canvas Keds or Converse All-Stars for all occasions. And we have special clothing to go along with the shoes. And of course there is a special language to learn as well. All sort of weird when you think about it. 

Saturday, March 25, 2017

That's what we call y'ur basic basics

First day of Spring.
I was out snowshoeing the other day. The snow wasn't particularly deep--I think there was six or eight inches on the wooded trails--but the snowshoes made it much less of a slog. Part way up the trail I ran into an old New Englander walking his two dogs, and since the dogs were running free and charging down the trail at me, I stopped to say hello to both the dogs and their owner. And, as often happens it seems when you stop to talk off in the woods, one thing led to another and before you know it I'm getting an introduction to the trees of New England.

"That there is your basic hemlock," he said, pointing ahead to a large tree by the side of the trail. "And that over there is your basic black birch. And most of those down across there are your basic quakin' aspens." By this time, though, the dogs were off down the trail and he decided to head off after them, and I set off in the opposite direction.

I walked the first two mile loop and then, feeling energetic, I set off to run the second loop. But what I found myself thinking about was your "basic" tree. Now I know his use of the word "basic" was just a manner of speaking, but it got me to thinking about a video I had seen a few days before. The video lasted about ten minutes. There were four old men (I feel as though I can say that being one of that older group myself) in gi's and black belts doing basics. They did 20 counts each of sweeping kicks, front kicks, short punches, single forearm blocks, double forearm blocks, and chest punches, over a hundred of those, and then more double punches. The video was labeled "Basic training." And that's what got me to wondering. Why is this basic training?

Your basic block and attack from
Seipai kata.
Now admittedly, this was Shorin-ryu training, which I know next to nothing about, but it wasn't so very far from what we would see in any other dojo training any other style of karate. And maybe that's the problem: Shouldn't the training of basics train one for what is fundamental to the art or the system or the style? That is, if the essence of a martial system like Goju-ryu is contained within the classical kata--fairly obvious, I think, since Miyagi Chojun sensei seemed to suggest that the classical kata were the only things sacrosanct in the system (witness his statements at the 1936 meeting of karate masters sponsored by the Ryukyu Shinpo newspapers)--shouldn't the "basics" reflect the tenor of the classical kata? Why not take basics straight from the classical subjects and practice those instead of these generic basics we so often see at the start of any karate class? For each class one could select a different technique, one from each of the classical kata, for instance, and repeat it 10 or 20 times, with the added benefit that students would be practicing the technique on both sides. When we generally move to that part of class focused on classical kata, we do each one once or twice. That means some techniques, since there are many single techniques in the classical subjects, may be practiced once or twice in class. Multiply that times the number of times a student trains the kata and see how long it takes to get to 10,000, that magic number of mastery in any physical activity according to the journalist Malcolm Gladwell.

The longer I live, the more language seems to befuddle me. I'm not at all sure I know what basics or kihon waza are. The head block ("jodan uke") we see practiced so diligently doesn't occur in the classical kata of Goju-ryu. Of course, we see it in the Gekisai kata, but those are certainly more generic karate kata, "school-boy kata" as they are sometimes called, so how is that fundamental or basic to the practice of Goju-ryu? And when you really begin to look at the classical subjects, there aren't that many straight punches either, certainly not the preponderance of straight punches that their seemingly endless practice in basics would warrant. And why that particular chest block? And the down block? Does it change how we practice basics if we find that the down block is always used as an attack in the classical subjects of Goju-ryu? And there are probably more knee kicks in the classical kata than kicks with the foot.

Your basic block and attack from
Seisan kata.
So why does this sort of basic training still persist? When I first started training, we would practice these basic punches and blocks hundreds of times each class--we often counted around the dojo for each basic, sixty students counting to ten for each blocking or punching or kicking technique. We got very good at basic blocks, punches, and kicks. And there is certainly something to be said for developing a good stance and foundation or good body mechanics. But why the emphasis on those particular techniques, techniques that one finds in Gekisai Dai Ichi, even if one has been training for five, ten, or twenty years? Is that the essence of Goju-ryu? Are there fundamental lessons to be learned here, even though the techniques themselves have very little to do with the classical subjects? If these basic blocks and punches constitute so much of one's training, won't that affect how one sees kata and bunkai? Won't a student's interpretation of kata (bunkai) simply be a reflection of one's training? That is, if it's all block, punch, kick, that may be all one sees in kata. Is there such a thing as a basic karate kata (and here I'm asking about only the classical subjects)? What would it even mean if someone sitting at a traditional embukai were to lean over towards his neighbor and say, "That there is y'ur basic karate kata"?

Saturday, March 04, 2017

The landscape is a-changin'

A week ago I was out snow shoeing through the woods on trails covered with 18 inches of snow and today the trails are almost bare. Small piles of snow seem to hide in the shadows or lie in under fallen tree on the north side of the hill. The leaves alongside the trail are wet and you can almost smell an early spring. In a few weeks, the landscape will be totally altered once again. The trees will leaf out and the weeds will cover the rocks in the marshy places. Everything will turn green and it will be hard to see off into the woods from the side of the trail. Phoebes and chickadees and wood thrushes will replace the crunching sound of feet plodding through the snow on the trails.

It's not as if the landscape doesn't constantly change--after all it's New England and these are seasonal changes that happen every year--but they seem more noticeable in anticipation, when they're just about to change, or, on the other end of it, in hind sight.

I was thinking about this the other day, as I walked along the trail, leaving the last remnants of packed-down ice in the middle of the trail to walk along the edge of the forest, kicking up the leaves that had been hidden under the snow since last fall. The landscape of the martial arts has also changed quite a bit from its beginnings hundreds of years ago, I imagine. Most people are involved in "sport" karate nowadays, it would seem. But even those who practice more traditional karate--or what they imagine to be more traditional--are probably not practicing kata and bunkai the way that it was originally intended. We live in a different world. The landscape has changed.

Tradition suggests that
this technique from
Sanseiru is used to
block and grab a kick,
but it makes much
more sense  as
an arm bar.
Can we say we are practicing traditional karate if we are not practicing the same way that earlier karate (or "te") was practiced? Is our approach "traditional" if much of what we're training is based on Gekisai kata or other training subjects instead of the core classical kata? I'm not sure I even know what the term "traditional" even refers to anymore, since it seems to be applied in so many different ways.

I'm a pretty strong advocate for the notion that there is one originally intended way to interpret kata and that the original bunkai is discoverable through the application of certain martial principles--that is, the techniques of kata are not open to multiple interpretations, however creative they may be. It can't mean anything and everything. Now I know this is controversial (though why that should be controversial is beyond me)--and I've certainly been through these arguments enough--but I found it rather curious when an editor of martial arts books asked me how I imagined the art (karate) was going to "progress" given my position. That is, he asked, how was Goju-ryu going to grow and change if there was only one way to understand the classical kata? In other words, how was the tradition going to change--and here one should understand that "change" was being used as a synonym for "improve."

Am I missing something? I thought that the very notion of tradition implied that we were attempting to preserve it or, for me, to discover what it was originally, before the landscape changed and the traditions were altered. I was once accused of being an "iconoclast" because of the position I was taking--that is, challenging what passed as tradition simply because the teacher said it or the teacher
Tradition suggests
that this technique
from Seipai is used
as an arm bar, but
it works  much more
sense around
 the neck.
taught this or that application. But regardless, why should a tradition "grow" or "improve"? I think the idea of passing on a tradition like karate (Goju-ryu, in my case) is for the individual to grow within that tradition, to learn and understand the principles upon which it is based and get better at them. The individual practitioner may change, perhaps even become a better person through training, but not the art.

Whenever I get into discussions of this sort, I'm reminded of a Tae Kwon Do teacher (he did Shotokan kata) I once encountered. He had changed the back stance (kokutsu dachi) to horse stance (kiba dachi) in all of his kata because he didn't see the point of the back stance. Horse stance, he said, seemed like a more stable stance. Now, of course, the back stance in Shotokan had itself been changed from a cat stance in Shorin-ryu, I think, but change is not always for the better and certainly change based on a limited understanding (this was a young teacher) is a bit suspect. When you have altered the kata so dramatically, have you retained the same principles? Do you have the same bunkai? Can you create a new tradition?

When I'm explaining an application for some technique in kata, I often find myself showing the "traditional" (conventional may be a better term here) bunkai for a technique, and then explaining why I don't find it to be a particularly good interpretation. Perhaps it doesn't really follow kata movement or it's not realistic for any number of reasons or it requires the attacker to simply stand there with his arm out while the defender applies his technique, all the while ignoring the attacker's other hand. Should we still call this traditional karate?

Perhaps the landscape of the martial arts changed when it moved into the dojo, when teachers started to popularize a deadly martial tradition and average people started stepping onto the tatami mats. And then we put on karate uniforms or judo gi's to formalize the distinction between when we are practicing a martial art and when we are simply living our lives. We incorporate rituals and special language, all of it becoming part of training in a "traditional" dojo.

But I suspect the landscape of the martial arts has changed a good deal over time, just as the seasons alter the landscape of the forests. And as it changes, I find myself still turning to look back down the trail to see if I can see where it all began.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

A book in the making...

I'm looking for martial artists who might be willing to write blurbs, review, endorse, or promote a book I've just finished, tentatively titled The Kata and Bunkai of Goju-Ryu Karate: the essence of the Heishu and Kaishu kata. This is a step-by-step analysis of the classical kata of Goju-ryu. It is supposed to be out by the spring of 2018 (hopefully), published by North Atlantic Books.

If you read my blog and might be interested, I'd appreciate hearing from you. You can contact me here or through my email address.

Sincerely yours,
Giles Hopkins

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Picture this...

Fitzgerald Lake
I was off crunching through the ice and snow the other day. The trees were sleeping, I think, waiting out the winter. The lake was frozen. A mist drifted over the surface. The cat tails, thick along the bank, were waiting for the wind to come and catch the seeds up and drop them some place further down the shore. I took a picture of it because it was so atmospheric, so filled with a sense of expectation. Or was it mystery? Sometimes pictures seem to be less a record of fact, recording an objective reality, and more like an invitation for speculation and interpretation.

I was thinking about that--recollection in tranquility, as  Wordsworth says, over lunch a little later in the day--when I came across an Internet post on Kururunfa. The writer was adamant--I'm sure as convinced of his own rectitude as I must seem to
The "hands up" posture
from Kururunfa kata.
some people--about his interpretation of what he called the "hands up" move in Kururunfa. It's the technique that after the position that always reminds me of da Vinci's Vitruvian Man--feet out, legs straight, arms held out to the side at shoulder's height. It doesn't really matter what his bunkai or interpretation was (I'm not a fan of the traditional view that it's an escape from a full nelson, which is all he was suggesting), what I find interesting is how he arrived at it.

He based his interpretation on three points, and I'm quoting:

1. "Obviously the technique begins with the hands up movement."

2. "Obviously the opponent is in front of us...we do not volunteer to be kicked in the [groin]."

3. "The hand movement is symmetrical...which means...the opponent is not coming from one side [and] the attack is two handed, symmetrical as well."

The more likely
beginning of the sequence.
The problem, of course, is that if the first point is not correct--"obviously" or not, it's an assumption--then none of the other points really matter. And, of course, I would adamantly argue that the first point is not correct. I would argue that the technique begins somewhat earlier, after the last finish technique, and the finishing technique of the previous sequence is the mawashi in cat stance or neko ashi dachi. Why? The short answer is because the mawashi in cat stance is always a finishing neck break in the lower classical subjects.

The real problem is how we so often approach the interpretation of kata movement; that is, as if it's a still photograph in some instructional manual, as if the movements are disconnected, having nothing to do with what comes
before or after any particular move, as if it's frozen in time, like a lake in winter, conjuring up all sorts of fantastic ideas. Karate is a movement art; it's dynamic. The classical kata of Goju-ryu (Saifa, Seiunchin, Shisochin, Seipai, Sanseiru, Seisan, and Kururunfa) are all composed of bunkai sequences. The sequences may be interrupted, depending on the structure of an individual kata, but they are all composed of initial entry techniques (uke), bridging or controlling techniques, and finishing techniques that generally end the confrontation either with a lethal attack to the head or neck of the opponent or put them on the ground.

The end of the sequence.
The first step should always be to identify the entry and finishing techniques. The next step is to make sure it is realistic and that ultimately the techniques would end the confrontation. And lastly, any interpretation (bunkai) should be faithful to and preserve the movements of the kata. In this "hands up" technique from Kururunfa then, with all of that in mind, it shouldn't be too difficult to come up with a bunkai that replicates the movements of kata, keeps it realistic (that is, doesn't allow the attacker a second attack), and puts the attacker on the ground.

After all, still pictures don't tell the whole story.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Trails and Suparinpei

I was out in the woods the other day, off the northern end of Fitzgerald Lake, and took a wrong turn. I was looking down, careful not to step on any rocks hidden under the blanket of oak leaves, and I missed the hill trail. I don't usually come in from the northern end, so, lost in thought, I missed the turn off and just kept on up the lower trail that goes around the edge of the lake. It's still a nice trail, but it's not as isolated, and for some reason I don't find it quite as beautiful. But heading into winter changes things; there's less vegetation. Some days the trees look as if they're suspended on strings from low hanging clouds. Stripped of their leaves, they could be members of some army standing guard along the trail dressed in their grey fatigues. Where the forest is thickest, the trunks are fairly straight with few branches to break the uniformity of this vertical maze that recedes into the distance.

I'm always tempted to head up along a ridge and bushwhack through the bare undergrowth this time of year, but there's something I really like about trails. I don't know whether it's the perception that they go somewhere, that they impose a sort of order on the otherwise chaotic wooded world, or whether it's a natural human desire for perspective, something the early Renaissance painters realized might satisfy some vague human longing. Who knows? I suspect that trails remind us of that temporal aspect to life--we begin in one place, look as far down the road as we can, and then walk towards that end. In other words, some sort of order. One thing follows another as predictably as our feet follow the trail, and everything is just as it should be, just as if we were sitting in a concert hall waiting for that final chord to resolve predictably on the tonic or Shakespeare to dish out everyone's just desserts in the final scene. We are afforded a spectator's view of the wild and untamed as we brush by the tangles of bushes and errant limbs along the trail.
This double "punch"
occurs in both Sanseiru
and Suparinpei kata.

In the same way, we have imposed a sort of order on the classical canon of Goju-ryu. And yet, for the most part, it's completely arbitrary. About the only thing that we can say, because there is some variation between various schools, is that Sanchin is first, always followed by Saifa kata, and Suparinpei is last. But why? There are things here it feels like we will never know. Just as the relationship between Suparinpei and Sanchin and Seisan and Sanseiru--these four. They all begin from a double-arm closed-fist kamae in basic stance. They all begin with "blocks" and "punches." Many of the techniques in Suparinpei can be found in some form in these three other kata. There are the double "punches" of Suparinpei and Sanseiru. There is the ending "crane's beak" technique in shiko dachi (Sanseiru and Suparinpei), not to mention the techniques just before the ending of Suparinpei that look like Seisan. Then there are the opening mawashi techniques in basic stance that only occur in Sanchin and Suparinpei (in basic stance). And there are certainly others. There are, of course, techniques in Suparinpei that remind one of Seiunchin, and Shisochin also begins with a double-arm kamae and three "punches," but the similarities between Sanchin, Sanseiru, Seisan, and Suparinpei are all too obvious.

The "crane's beak" from
Sanseiru and Suparinpei.
And yet I have no idea what it implies other than some sort of historical connection. Were these four kata the original or somehow older kata of an Okinawan-based system? I think Mario McKenna implied something like that in an old post on his website when he suggested that these were the original kata taught by Higashionna sensei. But what I'm curious about is whether or not there is proof, anything more than just a feeling that there's a connection. Do they all begin from a double-arm kamae because there was some sort of link to the old indigenous form of Okinawan sumo? And if that's the case, does it affect how we should be looking at the bunkai for each of these kata? If the other subjects were not part of this original syllabus, why were they incorporated into the system? Is the connection thematic (the tendency to twist the head is certainly common to all of them) or completely arbitrary? If the "other" kata--Saifa, Seiunchin, Shisochin, and Kururunfa (I am omitting Tensho for obvious reasons)--are really from another source, is that why they are, with the exception of Kururunfa, stuck together at the beginning of the curriculum in many schools or is that also coincidental? For that matter, why do Uechi and Goju both share Sanchin, Sanseiru, and Seisan, and not the other kata?
This open-hand block and
attack occurs in both
Seisan and Suparinpei. 

And why is the structure of Suparinpei so different from the other three kata? Seisan and Sanseiru are bunkai kata; that is, they are composed of three bunkai sequences shown in their entirety, with basic techniques tacked onto the beginning of each kata--the slow "punches" in the case of Sanseiru and the three sets of three basic techniques in Seisan. Sanchin, on the other hand, is an almost laboriously repetitive kata with its slow punches returning to the double-arm kamae posture, though here also there are coincidentally three techniques: the slow punches and blocks, the grab and pull-in coupled with the open-hand pushing out and down technique (also found in Seisan), and the end mawashi technique. Suparinpei, on the other hand, is composed largely of individual techniques which are not shown as part of a bunkai sequence, some of which are entry techniques and some controlling techniques. There are three bunkai sequences here also, but two of them are very similar and the third (the sequence that ends the kata) borrows techniques from Seisan and Sanseiru. And Suparinpei is the only kata besides Sanchin where you will find the mawashi uke in basic stance or sanchin dachi--that is, the only place it is really used as an "uke" or receiving technique. Comparatively speaking, it seems like a bit of an odd duck, structurally at least.

This may all be much ado about nothing, as Shakespeare might have observed, but it's curious when each of the classical subjects seems to present unique self-defense scenarios, subtle variations of theme but no redundancy of movement...except Suparinpei. Even if we were to only consider these seemingly-related kata, there are apparently three somewhat unique kata and then Suparinpei, which seems to have borrowed from each. What's with that? Am I looking for things to fit together too neatly when they most likely came from disparate sources, developing over time? After all, the trails through the woods veer off in all sorts of different directions. Who's to say what's a wrong trail anyway? But then again, it's food for thought.

Sunday, January 01, 2017

Rooting in Sanchin

We used to head up to the White Mountains every Columbus Day. We'd start out early in the morning and, after a three or four hour drive, try to hit the mountain by ten in the morning. One of our favorites was the Franconia Notch trail that runs north along a knife-edge ridge that connects Mount Liberty, Little Haystack, Mount Lincoln, and Mount Lafayette. Most of the hikes in the White Mountains, at least if you're going up to the summit, are all-day affairs, but Franconia was especially nice to take the kids up when they were little, though we often had to tell long, drawn-out stories to get them all the way up. It might be Macbeth one year or Lonesome Dove the next. The rule was that every time we stopped to rest, the story stopped too. But when you get to the top, the trail along the ridge can be spectacular on a clear day; you can see down both sides and there's nothing to block the view.

One year, it was fairly warm at the bottom where we parked the car--warm for the end of October anyway--but by the time we got to the summit, there was two or three feet of snow, and it was quite a bit colder. We passed another family with a teenage daughter on the narrow path that led along the ridge. The daughter, dressed in fashionable sweatpants and a pair of pink sneakers, was sitting on a rock by the side of the trail. She was crying and sniffling and refusing to go on. She looked miserable. Her father was trying to reason with her. "You can't just stay here," he argued. But she wouldn't move. When her father suggested they turn around and go back down, she said, "No, I'm not going." When her father suggested that they continue in the direction they were going, she wailed, "No, I'm not going." Her father was clearly getting frustrated with the situation, and the girl, blaming her father for her own misery and the perceived ills of the natural world, decided she would make everyone around her as miserable as she was. She wanted another choice--one that didn't entail walking anywhere in the cold for the next few hours. The funny part--if there was anything funny about being on the top of a snow-covered mountain in the late afternoon with the only option being a four-hour hike in either direction with someone clearly not dressed for it--was how simple the situation appeared from the outside. They couldn't stay there for long, so the only choice--and they were both really the same--was which way to go down. Whether they went forward or back, it was about the same distance. It wasn't really a Hobson's Choice, but it seemed almost as simple.

We left them there, so I don't know what eventually happened to them. We continued on, but it wasn't quite the hike we had planned. The wind picked up and it started to snow. The rocky path along the ridge got more and more treacherous. However, we knew the trail, having hiked it many times before, and we knew that it would be a lot easier once we made it down to the tree line, and chances were there wouldn't be any snow down there. But up on the top, the path could be slippery, and it was no place to fall and get seriously hurt. Of course, we always tell our kids not to fall or "Be careful; don't slip," as if you had any say in the matter.

Sanchin kata
But of course, you do have some say in the matter. All you have to do is keep your feet under you. Is that a little too obvious? I would always say this half jokingly to my kids when we went hiking. That's all there is to it really, though it may be considerably harder to do than it might seem. After all, that's really, I have come to believe, a good deal of what Sanchin is about, isn't it? Balance. Rooting. Sinking. Down power. Lowering your center. How difficult should it be to just stand in sanchin dachi with your hips tucked under slightly and your center of gravity between your feet--from front to back and from side to side--and keep it there as you move and execute fairly simple techniques? Of course, your knees also have to be over your feet and slightly bent and your spine needs to be straight. It's the same thing that T'ai Chi practitioners are trying to work out when they engage in "pushing hands," I imagine. It's often said that Kanryo Higashionna was able to stand in Sanchin posture while four people pushed and pulled him from different directions. But in a piece written by Genkai Nakaima, Memories of My Sensei, Miyagi Chojun sensei tells the young student that he himself might have "performed Sanchin well only once out of 30 times" he practiced it!

Without a strong root, the tree falls.
How difficult is it? It's incredibly difficult. I think most of us tend to fall forward even when we walk, or we slump and sag and weave wherever we go. Or we work on balance and down power when we do Sanchin and that's it--that is, if we even realize we should be working on balance and rooting and down power and putting our center or mind in the tanden (dan t'ien). I think most people's Sanchin is too hard and the focus is on being hard. The martial arts is all about balance, and balance extends outward into all aspects of life. You just have to keep your feet under you. Simple really.