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.

Archive for July, 2012

1st Kyu, another step on the ladder

Yesterday I successfully graded to 1st Kyu. This means I’m the highest rank of Brown belt and my next grading will be to become 1st Dan, a black belt.

The 1st Kyu grading has been my focus since the end of last year. It’s has felt really good to have a definite goal to aim for and for it to be a part of my training in lot’s of different areas:

  • For the grading I had to put together both a combination of moves to demonstrate and a focus mitt routine. It was a great opportunity to try and apply some of the practical karate ideas I’ve come across in the last 12 months or so. I went right back to the first Karate kata I was taught, Shiotsuki No.1 and explored what it was all about and how the basic moves could be used in different situations and  added to.
  • I’ve really worked hard on my lateral hip flexibility. Most Monday night’s I try and have a really good stretching session and I’ve incorporated more flexibility work with my hips and I’ve really felt the difference. By no means have I attained a Jean Claude Van Damme level of flexibility but it’s improved all the same.
  • I’ve worked on my impact work, particularly my Mawashi Geris (roundhouse kicks). I’m sure I’ve mentioned before that for many years it was a kick that felt like a real bane but now it’s a kick I really enjoy practising on my bag.
  • I started to use visualisation techniques to ‘train’ without having to work my body. I definitely need to refine how I apply this technique but it was certainly useful and highlighted parts of kata or combinations where I wasn’t totally sure of the sequence of moves and so flagged up areas were I needed to spend more time.

In the run up to the grading I felt pretty confident as I knew I’d put the hours of training in and worked on all the right areas. However on the morning of the grading the butterflies were there in my stomach.

But it really felt that all the preparation and training paid off. There were still areas that on the day I didn’t quite execute as well as I would have liked but overall it was a good solid performance.

It’s a really great euphoric feeling after a grading. You’ve made a real commitment towards a goal that you can be working to for the best part of a year sometimes. To reach that goal obviously feels good. But I think what I’ve really learnt this time is that working towards that goal provides great opportunities to work on different areas and learn great techniques to improve your knowledge and ability.

I guess it feels like as well as enjoying reaching your destination it’s important to really savour all those smaller challenges you’ve worked through along the way and ensure you learn as much as you possibly can.

What have working towards your goals taught you?


Smiles better

The Shukokai club I train at has a really great family atmosphere. We have a good number of mums and dads that train alongside their sons and daughters. We also have lots of juniors who train with the club right into their teens and beyond. A good few posts ago I wrote about our Sensei David and how I think he does a great job leading our club.

In all fairness he’s not alone. He’s ably assisted by Sensei Karen, with whom he forms a great partnership, and the other senseis.

The prompt for this post is my bringing home yesterday of the trophy that is awarded each week to the student who has worked hardest. It’s predominantly awarded to junior students but every once in a while a senior gets a look in. The awarding of the trophy is a really nice moment at the end of the training session. The senseis will put their heads together and decide on the student they think has had a really good session. The student goes up to the front of the class, applauded by their fellow student, collects the trophy and raises it up to the cheers of the class.

I think finding ways to incorporate nice moments like this into a club give it a much more inclusive friendly feel. The student, young or a little bit older :-), getting the trophy enjoys receiving recognition for their efforts. And the other students, who in a larger class might not have the chance to see all the other students training, get a sense of which of their fellow students has trained particularly well.

A longer standing little tradition is the club’s celebration of a students birthday. At the end of the class the student or students enjoying birthdays join the line-up of senseis and then does press-ups while the club ‘sings’ Happy Birthday to them. It might seem small potatoes but again after a hard session’s training it puts a smile on everyone’s face and makes sure no-one is a stranger within the club.

The learning of Karate always needs to be the focus of the club and there are certainly times when it’s appropriate that students are challenged. Learning to perform beyond our perceived limits for eaxmple is I think a really important students of Karate learn. But I don’t think it harms that learning, and perhaps aids it, to have a friendly fun spirit within a club.

I truly enjoy being part of a club that stretches me as a Karateka, gives me the space to explore new things and gives me a chance to share my learning with others by nature of it’s friendly spirit. Nor does it surprise me that the club seems to be in fine health as a result.


James Bond’s Systema

I recently finished reading the new James Bond novel ‘Carte Blanche’ by Jeffrey Deaver, which is well worth a read. In it Bond gets involved in a few hand to hand scrapes and it’s mentioned that Bond has learnt Systema. In the book it’s described as a combat system originating with the Russian Cossacks and then refined by the Russians.

In this post I don’t want to get bogged down in the details of Systema what provoked a bit of thought that the book describes it’s purpose as being to evade and block the opponent’s strikes with the aim of tiring them out and then to take control when they have exhausted themselves.

Now I accept what I’ve read is fiction when the author can enjoy creating something for entertainment safe in the knowledge that the hero is in actual danger, but still I found the approach interesting.

I don’t position myself as having any great knowledge about self-defence but what I’ve read from those far more educated than myself is that such encounters are frenetic, messy affairs and far removed from the more controlled to and fro of sparring in the dojo. I can’t imagine that it would be a good idea to prolong such an encounter by aiming to tire an attacker by seeking to successfully block each of their strikes. The odds of doing so against a determined attacker probably don’t stack up well.

So perhaps it’s an approach worth trying out in sparring. I know when I trained in Shotokan Karate there was a strong focus in sparring of not being wasteful, not throwing technique after technique that wasn’t troubling the opponent. Sparring bouts were much more cagey affairs and almost felt as exhausting mentally as physically because you were guarding against an attack that when it came would be serious in it’s intent.

Recently in my current club we’ve had a few sessions which have included sparring and as a more senior student we pair with the juniors and work with them to improve their confidence and techniques. Generally I would allow them to attempt to strike me more and so would spend more time blocking than striking. As a result after a couple of minutes I would have I’ve exerted myself less than them through this more defensive approach. So the Systema approach mentioned in the book seemed to ring true as a fighting strategy.

I have the benefit of being fairly tall so in sparring if I can keep my opponents at a safe distance they really have to work hard to land a telling strike. Perhaps as a result I think I do tend to have a more defensive style of fighting. But it still feels that I’m controlling the flow of the sparring by enticing them to commit to attacks.

I’m interested to try this approach more next time we have some sparring in training. Sometimes there can be a tendency to fall into a very polite you attack then I’ll attack kind of rhythm. Against opponents who do have a tendency to try and execute quite a few techniques it could be useful to let them tire themselves.

Brutal beauty

Last month I wrote about ‘The quest for infinite precision’ which was inspired by something I’d read in ‘The Pyjama Game’ by Mark Law. I really enjoyed Mark’s book and there were a number of things which I found either inspiring or thought provoking which I plan to use as the basis for blog posts.

There is a chapter about the ‘The Incredible Dr Kano’, which seems a very apt title, all about Jigoro Kano the founder of Judo. Amongst other things the chapter looks at Kano’s love of the aesthetic, the beauty, that combative movements had. While Kano wanted Judo to be effective he wanted people to enjoy the beauty of the movement.

As a student of Karate I recognise and enjoy the combination of beautiful movements that have a brutal purpose. At our club we have a set of 20 combinations of moves we practise. Combination 18, we spent more time putting it together than naming it clearly :-), is the creation of one of our Senseis who studied Shotokan Karate before joining the club. It has a great combination of slow and fast movements and I really feel that controlled lethality when I’m running through it. At one point is has the textbook Shotokan back stance and sweeping Shuto Uke that just brings a feeling of completeness when I execute it and I can understand what Kano was thinking when he wanted people to rejoice in the movement.

That enjoyment of movement is an important part of Karate for me but the richness of Karate is that it has that aesthetic aspect alongside self-defence and sporting qualities. I recognise and agree with leading exponents of practical martial arts when they stress the need to understand the differing objectives of these qualities and not confuse them.

It’s that richness which makes training feel like opening a bit of a surprise package. You never know which of those qualities you’ll have enjoyed by the time you leave the dojo tired but exhilarated.

What moves make you feel the beauty of martial arts?

Still keen as mustard

I’ve been studying Karate solidly for the last fifteen years and in the last couple of weeks I’ve felt as energised and excited in it’s learning as I ever have.

I think coming back to the club were I really started learning about Karate in ’97 has played a real part in that resurgence of energy. Prior to coming back I’d been part of a club that was on the decline with only a handful of members continuing to train and that probadly didn’t make for the most positive of environments despite everyone trying to do their best.

The ol’ club is in good health with lots of people really embracing Karate and exploring what it’s all about. It always had a really friendly family atmosphere and it’s good to be back in the midst of it.

I’ve always enjoyed reading books and magazines about martial arts to learn more but in the last couple of years I’ve really embraced Social Media and through it I’ve met new people who have opened my eyes to new ideas to explore about Karate.

I love the influence Karate has had and continues to have on my life.

  • It’s made me work hard to improve my flexibility and my strength to enable me to be as good as I can be.
  • It’s taught me a lot about learning techniques and working to refine and improve them.
  • I’ve learnt that being challenged but sticking with it can really help you become more resilient.
  • Ultimately it’s taught me that whatever I might think my limitations might be I can always move beyond them in some way.

I’ve taken a more circuitous path in my study of Karate than most students. Some students advance through to black belt level in 4 to 5 years of study. I’m currently working towards achieving the last rank of brown belt our club has and after that I really want to keep the momentum going and get straight into working towards the black belt grading. In our club working towards the black belt involves planning and teaching a couple of lessons and that’s just one of the new challenges I find really exciting.

In Karate we learn Kata, combinations of different techniques designed by the past masters to teach students the different combative principles. One of the new katas I’ll be learning is called Chinto which was put together to teach the combative methods a master called Matsumura learnt from a shipwrecked Chinese martial artist he encountered of the same name. Having learnt about the history of that particular kata I’m so excited about getting the chance to study it, it feels like I’ll almost be able to stand on the beach where the two fought, to feel a connection to the masters I’ve read about.

Looking around just a handful of blogs shows me that I’m not alone in having a passion that invigorates me. It makes me feel pretty lucky to have found something that really excites me and feels like a real complement to the rest of my life.

Long may it continue.

Sometimes it’s just good to move

As I’m keen to grade at the end of July most of my training at the moment is geared around the grading. Whether it’s working on practising combinations and kata, having sessions to work on my fitness or just having a good old stretch to keep as flexible as possible it’s all focused on the grading in some way.

Over the weekend I had a bit of spare time so I got into my training space I have set up in the garage. After warming up with a session on my Schwinn exercise bike, I had a stretch and then just enjoyed having a session on my punch and kickbag doing different strikes and kicks and combinations of the two.

It felt really good just to throw some front punches to head height (jodan zuki), then some roundhouse kicks (mawashi geri), then try a combination a bit like sanbon tsuki, then some crescent kicks (mikazuki geri). Just moving from technique to technique and just enjoying the feeling of the movement.

When I was a beginner mawashi geris always felt like a difficult technique to do. I always used to have a groan when it was time to practise them. Now it’s a technique I really enjoy doing against the bag when I have some time in the garage. I don’t know if I enjoy it because it hasn’t been an easy technique to learn how to do or simply because there’s just something in executing the movement that feels enjoyable.

It just felt good to spend some time doing the movements I’ve been learning for all this years. Nothing complicated just me, a surface to strike and the chance to do some different techniques without an agenda.