Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

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"?

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