Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

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.