exploringkarate

I've been a keen karate student for 16 years, Shukokai and Shotokan, but there still seems to be no shortage of things to learn and explore. I'm hoping this blog will allow me to share my experiences and hear other martial artists thoughts.

November Question

I really want to use this blog as a way to communicate with fellow martial artists.

With this in mind I thought I’d try posting a question and hopefully you’ll be generous with you time and share your thoughts.

So to get the ball rolling…What do you enjoy about the particular martial art, or specific style, you practise?

What might not be for today may be for tomorrow

Or ‘The lessons that take longer to learn can be more worthwhile’

Autumn is here now and winter not far behind. I picked up an American collegiate style cardigan I have to put on and remembered how for a while it wasn’t really a piece of clothing I really favoured. Now it’s something I enjoy wearing which got me thinking about how things can change over time.

It got me thinking about how for quite some time the roundhouse kick, mawashi geri, was a kick that when it was announced in class as the next thing to practise I would groan inwardly. It felt uncomfortable to try and execute the kick as I lacked the lateral flexibility to execute it correctly and still achieve a reasonable height. I wanted to be able to kick at the same height as my fellow students so to do so I would cheat and manage something of a halfway house that I was content with because it at least allowed me to kick the pad with power.

Training at the Shotokan Club I attended for several years helped me with my technique as the Sensei there would not accept my halfway house. The quality of the technique was the more important aspect and was not to be sacrificed. Once the technique was correct at the maximum height possible then, and only then, should effort be directed to improving it’s height.

There is still a great deal of room for improvement with my mawashi geris but no longer do I groan inwardly when I have the opportunity to practise them. In fact when I train at home they are the kick I enjoy practising the most. Having worked hard to improve the technique it almost feels like a gift to myself when I have the chance to practise it.

I also thought about some of the strength exercises I now do. Now if I find an exercise that initially feels difficult to do I realise that is the very exercise I need to spend time working to improve as it indicates a weakness in a particular area. In the past I would perhaps simply have avoided doing that exercise again in favour of one I felt comfortable with.

And again it is a case of not having unrealistic expectations in terms of the number of repetitions or level of weight I expect to lift initially. It’s often about starting with something manageable but then working to make steady improvement.

So whether it is the fact that it can take a while for the penny to drop and understand how you need to approach a problem. Or simply that you have to take a greater number of smaller steps to get to the same end goal. I’d say it feels better to achieve something that demands a greater focus or commitment.

We all choose our own path but perhaps it’s good to come back home with what we’ve learnt

The choice of two of my fellow students to leave our club and continue their martial arts studies at a different club has had me thinking this week. It will be a shame not to see them training at our club any more. Our club has a nice friendly atmosphere and that feeling is generated to a large part by it’s students so to see students who have been a part of that for a number of years moving on is a little bit sad. But my reflection has been more about the decisions I’ve made in terms of my own karate studies.

When I came back to the club it felt good to be back. I guess each style and club has it’s individual mix of how they do things. Personally I’ve always enjoyed the use of impact pads and focus mitts as part of practising our strikes. At our club as part of our later gradings we’re asked to develop our own combinations and focus mitt routines. And I’ve enjoyed the opportunities this has brought to think about kata and their different applications and practise them in different ways.

I’m happy to take some ownership of my own martial arts learning, which I imagine is the same for many of us. In the main this has taken the form of picking up and reading different martial arts books. But in the last couple of years I’ve also attended a few seminars. I’ve really enjoyed the flexibility they offer to spend some time training with different instructors. I like that I can learn something new but then have the time and space to think about what I’ve learnt, explore it and figure out how it can blend in with everything else that I’ve learnt.

I like the fact that our club does give it’s senior students the chance to lead classes. If we’re all following our owns paths and learning different things then we also have the chance to bring back what we’ve learnt and share it with our fellow students.

For me it feels like being part of the club becomes more of a two way street. I’m certainly grateful for what it’s given me over a good number of years and it feels like I have an opportunity to put something back in.

Karate isn’t just for the Dojo No.2: the morning shave

I’m 6 foot 5 tall which has a lot of plus sides but occasionally some things aren’t quite set up to cater for the taller person. The mirror in our bathroom isn’t that big so when I’m having a shave I have to hunch down a bit to take a look and make sure I’ve done a thorough job. But again karate comes to the rescue with the shiko dachi stance. By dropping into shiko dachi I can lower myself down to just the right height to ensure I get a good view in the mirror without an uncomfortable hunch down.

So Karate isn’t just for the Dojo :-).

Karate isn’t just for the Dojo No.1: the i.play

Just a bit of fun this one :-). I’ve been enjoying a couple of weeks holiday during which we’ve had a few day trips out. Yesterday we went to one of my favourite places to visit, Grange Over Sands in Cumbria. It has a nice promenade (a paved place to walk down) which has various recreational areas alongside it. Towards the end there is a skatepark and next to it something I’d never seen before called an i.play. It felt like a cross between a Batak wall and a bopit toy, with six points you had to push, pull, turn, spin and stomp.

The stomp button, i.stomp, was a few inches off the floor and I found the best way for me to strike it was to make use of a fumikomi kick, and it was a nice feeling making that motion. A younger and more limber Karateka could probadly use other kicks to hit some of the higher buttons but limping down a promenade isn’t as much fun as strolling ;-).

So Karate isn’t just for the Dojo :-).

The way for all?

This post is rewriting itself as I go :-). It’s initial starting point was that it was nice to see a fellow Karateka who has returned to our club after some time away on Tuesday night. I was going to write that it says something about the value Karate can have to someone that they want to return and have that enjoyment of training back in their life. And I was thinking about all my fellow students, each of them very different from the next.

This was very visible on Tuesday in a way. Sensei David had the focus mitts out and, working with a partner, we were asked to put together our own routine but including some common techniques. Each pair then demonstrated and it was good to see the very different routines and see how they were executed differently also. Some students for example looking very graceful and poised, others struck with more vigour and power and it was also good to see some students including some grappling which made their routines feel a rougher round the edges.

And I was thinking about beginning as a student of the club back in 1997 and I’m not sure any other students from that time remain with the club, and admittedly I’ve had a break in training with the club also. So I was writing a post about how Shukokai means the way for all and how I think it’s one of the strengths of Karate that a club can be made up of men, women and children of all ages and physical capabilities all having a very positive experience.

But when I look at the evidence of the membership of our club over a 16 year period clearly a good number of people haven’t fell it was the way for them enough to maintain their training. I suppose I find myself feeling that I have no choice but to place a question mark about it being a way for all if it’s students would appear to lack longevity in their training. Or is that less about Karate and more about it’s students and the challenge of balancing life and that commitment to Karate?

Against that I weigh the evidence that I’ve seen a great many of people enjoy training and develop from being novices to very good Karateka so does it matter if that training is finite in it’s duration?

Any thoughts?

 

All the right moves (kind of) but not necessarily in the right order

There is a classic comedy sketch from the two great British comedians Morecambe and Wise. In front of the renowned conducter and composer, Andre Previn, Eric Morecambe astounds Previn by playing the wrong notes to a Grieg concerto. When challenged he responds that he’s playing the right notes just in the wrong order.

Hopefully the title of this post gives a hint to where I’m going with this. A challenge I’ve received from senseis on more than one occasion in my martial arts training is that I’m too tensed up when I’m getting ready to move, particularly if I’m punching. I’ve read a few different articles and listened to podcasts that mention power generation, Chris Denwood’s ‘Respecting the old, Creating the new’ featured some really good chapters and there is an excellent Iain Abernethy podcast about power generation.

So I started to think about trying to take that tension out and have a more relaxed, looser movement. From what I was reading and listening to a consistent message was it was important to have a good sequence of movement to have powerful strikes. Movement should start in the legs, be followed by the hips, through to the shoulders and then end with the strike being released.

Now at both clubs I’ve trained at, Shukokai and Shotokan, hip movement has been emphasised but in all honesty the sequencing of it wasn’t something I’d grasped. For me I think I had the hip and arm movement happening in parallel rather than in sequence.

When I started to work on my movement with my punch bag for some reason it didn’t feel like the sequence was coming together when I tried to start with the hip movement so I worked on it in reverse. So I worked to get the shoulder twist working first then once I was happy with that incorporated the hip twist as well. Rightly or wrongly I kept my hands loose but made sure I was striking with the knuckles. The looser movement felt really good and it still felt I was getting a good impact on the bag despite not feeling like I was mentally trying to whallop the bag if that makes sense.

Some time ago I found a video of Shigeru Kimura, in it you see him striking a pad and you can hear the power of the impact. There was something about his body movement as well that felt interesting but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I think part of it was the sound of the impact, it felt like it was really penetrating the pad. I have one of those squeezable stress balls, it’s about the size of a tennis ball, filled some kind of gel with quite a thick rubber skin, that when you squeeze it takes a second to return to it’s original shape. If I throw it from hand to hand it slaps into the catching hand with a very similar kind of sound, I think the key is the throwing motion, it’s nice and loose but happens in sequence a bit like a bowler in cricket or pitcher in baseball. Their movement releases the ball at tremendous speed and if it strikes the body can potentially break  bones or at the least a very painful impact. That feels like the difference in using this movement to throw a punch, or kick, when I get the shoulder movement following the hip movement it feels like the arm is thrown out of the body on the back of that movement.

I’ve been thinking about the sequence of movement for other techniques and how movements can increase the speed you can move the natural bodyweight and through it achieve that power of impact. Thinking about my mawashi geris, getting a sharper pivot off the supporting leg and into the hip then finishing with the flick of the foot out from the knee has felt like I’m achieving a similar looser but equally impacting movement.

It’s been something I’ve been working on for the past few months and so in a way this post has been some time in the writing. As always I’d be really interested to hear any thoughts.

PS This Chris Denwood video on Body Dynamics for Close Range Striking in Traditional Karate is well worth a look also.

The weekend starts here

I guess we all have times when we have a lot going on either with family at home, at work or school/college/uni. Now the main training session I attend with my club is on a Tuesday night. But a few weeks ago I had to work late most nights and so went to the Saturday morning session to make sure I got at least one training session in.

I had a really enjoyable session and afterwards I felt like I’d cleared away any remaining thoughts of work and was ready to enjoy my weekend. I’ve still been fairly busy since so I’ve kept going to the Saturday morning session and I find myself looking forward to getting up and getting ready to head to training.

I was thinking about what makes training on Saturday so enjoyable and one contributing factor I think is the venue. We train in a much more spacious hall with a high ceiling with the beamwork exposed and I think in some ways I enjoy the experience of training there more.

Anyway I’ll keep this post short as it’s Saturday AM and the clock is ticking. Whatever your plans are for the weekend I hope you have a great time.

Do you have a favourite venue to train in? And when’s you favourite training time?

 

Searching for Shukokai (2) – Mabuni and the best of two towns?

I was chatting to Sensei David and another Sensei, also called David (so no possibility for confusion there then :-)), after training last night and we touched on Shukokai’s relationship to the Shotokan style. Now I’m not entirely sure why but for some reason my early assumption was that Shotokan was a parent style to Shukokai.

In one of my early posts, Following the footsteps of masters, I mentioned the geneological tables in Robin L. Reilly’s ‘Complete Shotokan Karate’ that showed that Shukokai is more of a sibling to Shotokan. The founder of Shukokai Chojiro Tani was taught by Kenwa Mabuni and Miyagi Chojun. Miyagi Chojun was taught by Kanryo Higaonna (and he followed Higaonna’s path in spending some time studying fighting styles in China) and Kenwa Mabuni by Higaonna and Anko Itosu.

Certainly before I started to learn about the history of Karate I saw it more as a Japanese martial art. Learning more about Okinawa’s  geographical and historical relationships with Japan and China has given me a better understanding of Karate’s evolution and it’s influences.

When I read about the personal histories of Higaonna, Mabuni, Chojun and Tani I find it interesting to see how their studies exposed them to the different styles of Chinese and Okinawan martial arts. We’re told Higaonna was a master of the Naha-Te style of Karate and Itosu the Shuri-Te style. Reilly provides the following characteristics of the two styles.

Naha-te

  • combined Chinese hard and soft techniques
  • used rational, dynamic movements
  • emphasised breathing, flexibility and strength

Shuri-te

  • an exoteric system
  • emphasised speed
  • combined techniques with rational (practical) movements

In ‘The Essence of Karate’ Gichin Funakoshi writes about the styles using their later names Shorei-ryu (Naha-te) & Shorin-ryu (Shuri-te) and discusses what he sees as their strengths (which I’ve written about in ‘Funakoshi’s Essence of Karate No.2′). Which brings me in a round about kind of way to the title of this post (Naha-te and Shuri-te were named after the Okinawan towns from which they originated). That, in a very crude sense, Shukokai is actually more of a step sibling to Shotokan as it enjoys the influence of both the Naha-te style, through Mabuni’s and Miyagi’s studies with Higaonna, and Shuri-te, through Itosu’s teaching of Mabuni.

In my search for what the Shukokai style is all about it’s interesting to be learning more about key figures in it’s development. I know the history behind the martial arts we study, and the insights it can provide, is valued to differing degrees by it’s students and I’m not making any kind of judgement on whether one way or another is best. Personally I am interested to find out more about the masters who have shaped Karate and in particular the Shukokai style to get a deeper idea of what the style I study is all about.

Feeling is believing

Yesterday I travelled down to the dojo of the Midland Shotokan Karate Federation to attend a seminar with Iain Abernethy. The seminar looked at joint locks, counter locks and some flow drills (to help practise applying a lock on an opponent, your opponent escaping from that lock, applying a lock of their own which you then escaped and re-established a lock on them etc.).

Yesterday’s seminar, like Iain’s others I’ve attended, was packed full with combative principles and techniques delivered in a really engaging style. Iain brings an incredible depth of knowledge about Karate to his seminars in terms of the:-

  • history of Karate and it’s key players.
  • it’s practical applications and their value in self protection.
  • exploring different techniques from a martial arts perspective.

We have studied some joint locks at our club, but it is something we do quite infrequently so it was really good to have a good look at them during the four hours of the seminar.

When I was thinking about what to write in this post what I started thinking about was how I’d felt during the seminar.

Firstly on several occasions when I was practising the techniques that Iain had demonstrated I had a real feeling of it resonating with the movements from kata and combinations that I’ve practised many, many times over. For example we were practising using an arm bar elbow lock with a shift in stance and the use of the hikite (pulling hand) combined with the overall movement of the body felt like a really natural fit for a movement very similar to a reverse punch.

And I think it’s working at a closer distance that also feels good. It felt good to be close in with my training partner, working on controlling their arms, moving into locks and then using them to create the opening for a strike at their head or body.

One of the two katas I’m learning for when I grade to 1st Dan is Chinto and at the same time I’m looking back at the Pinan kata series and studying their practical applications. So it was good to look at how techniques that they feature like the lower and upper cross ‘blocks’ represent wrist locks.

Secondly, in a strange way, it also felt good to be on the receiving end of the locks and counter locks we were practising. Having really felt how applying the lock allowed my training partner to control my movement it gives me a real appreciation of the techniques. And with me having a few inches height wise and a few extra, post Christmas party (obviously :-)), pounds on my training partner it also showed how good technique can bring a more sizeable opponent down to size, or the matt depending on your preference!

Plus I think I fall into the group of martial artists that quite enjoys being thrown about a bit so I don’t mind playing the role of the attacker.

So overall it was a really enjoyable seminar. Plenty to take away and explore further as well as a reaffirmation of the maxim that the best way to learn and develop your understanding of karate is to get hands on and enjoy how karate feels.

Many thanks to Leigh Simms for being an excellent host, the fellow karateka I trained with for their patience when I was fumbling my way through some of the techniques and to Iain for sharing his knowledge in his unique affable style.