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.

Archive for Bunkai

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.

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Beginning bunkai

I speak only for myself when I say that trying something new normally feels a bit clunky and uncomfortable, and Karate is no different. As a white belt learning stances, blocks, strikes, kata etc. I felt very much like I was floundering about struggling to know what I should be doing with my limbs. Fast forward 15 years and starting to take a deeper look at the practical applications of karate left me scratching my head and feeling a very similar sense of being at the start of a learning process.

So after attending a third seminar looking at the practical applications of Karate kata it was good to have a greater feeling of competence in terms of understanding some of the key ideas and physically running through the drills. I thought it would be good to revisit my first steps in learning about Bunkai and how we can learn from kata.

I think returning to the Shukokai Karate club where I started learning Karate was one of the factors in creating a greater interest in what kata was all about. For gradings we’re asked to develop our own little routines of techniques to demonstrate. Rather than just combine a set of my favourite techniques I wanted there to be some kind of underlying idea to get the most out of the process.

At the same time I started to do more research about Karate in the internet and came across Iain Abernethy who has done a tremendous amount of work looking at the practical applications of kata. I think I watched a few of his videos on YouTube and then had the opportunity to attend one of his seminars. The seminar was really good but the transitions between the moves felt a little bit clumsy as, despite them being based on kata I’d run through hundreds of times, I was working with a live partner. Trying to take what I’d learnt and apply it to other kata also felt like a very daunting task.

I decided as Iain advises in one of his podcasts to go right back to basics and look at the first kata I learnt, Shiotsuki No.1, which is very similar to the Shotokan Kihon Kata. As it features the same set of techniques repeated it was an ideal place to start. I’d also received advise from another Karateka well versed in looking at practical applications, Rakesh Patel. Rakesh advised looking for similar actions in the kata and thinking about how they might share underlying ideas or principles.

In Shiotsuki No.1 we start with a look to the left and then step out on the right foot to then pivot on the left and execute a down block with the left arm. Having blocked an attack we then execute a stepping punch.

I looked at each of those actions to try and understand what the underlying combative principle could be:

  • I took the sideways look to be all about having an awareness of an attack being launched.
  • The step out showing the importance of taking an evasive movement but one which leaves you in range and well placed in relationship to your opponent to make a counterattack.
  • The downward block striking the opponent strongly with the hard striking surface of the bottom of the fist to not just deflect the attack but cause some pain.
  • And finally the counter attack made as effective as possible by bringing all of my bodyweight into the punch through it’s stepping motion.

In a very small way I felt I was making some progress in looking at the movement of a kata. Another piece of advice from Iain was that different sources would provide different little snippets of practical applications. Ashley Martin’s ‘The Shotokan Bible’ showed a different application which I explored and found very interesting as it made greater use of what are explained as preparatory moves.

In this application the preparatory hand was the one actually making the block and what is generally taught as the blocking motion was a strike. I explored the idea with different preparations and blocks in my grading routines. In part they felt effective but lacked the simplicity of the block and counter strike. Now I fully accept that part of that feeling of simplicity probadly stems from having spent years blocking and countering and less time closer in using both hands in this manner.

I’ve continued my learning by listening to Iain Abernethy’s excellent podcasts about all aspects of studying Bunkai and practical applications. I’ve attended more seminars and so got more hands on experience of the doing different drills. Because the focus is on learning how the techniques in kata are useful against attacks from non-martial artists they often look at dealing with an opponent within arms length which is the more likely range of the attack. This felt new to me because more conventional karate sparring occurs at a longer range. With your opponent closer the space is more cluttered so you have to start getting used to dealing with the opponents arms getting in the way, and learning to control them and move them out of the way.

I’ve picked up a couple of copies of Iain Abernethy’s DVDs about drills for the Pinan/Heian katas and so want to spend more time working through some of his drills on my own without a partner to become more accustomed to the movements to take control of the opponents limbs and also position myself away from their most likely attacks.

It definitely feels like another occasion when initially the problem as a single entity seems too much to tackle but break it down into smaller simpler parts and you start to make progress.

I’m sure we’ve all had problems that seemed initially beyond us but we’ve found expert input and learnt how to break them down, work through the problem slowly, refine technique and then develop our skills from there.

The fine, practical, points of storming fortresses

On Sunday I had a fantastic 4 hours taking part in a seminar about the practical applications that can be found in the Bassai Dai kata. The seminar was lead by Rakesh Patel, 5th Dan, a fellow Karateka who I’d met through Twitter.

I’m fairly new to the world of martial arts seminars. Previously I’ve attended two seminars lead by Iain Abernethy, who I’ve mentioned on a number of occasions already in this blog and I’m sure needs little introduction, which I’d really enjoyed. I found Rakesh’s seminar equally enjoyable and informative, and I recommend attending one of his seminars if you ever have the opportunity.

Like Ian, Rakesh has a friendly and easy going style but it was interesting to get a sense of how Rakesh’s take on looking at a kata and their applications differed somewhat. In Iain’s seminars it feels like Iain has used his extensive historical research into Karate and it’s masters alongside his combative knowledge to inform his views of what the practical applications of the kata are. Rakesh could perhaps be said to take a more contemporary approach, feeling , as he stated, that the depth of explanatory material into the original applications isn’t available. Rakesh has an approach which looks more at the themes that exist within a kata, in the case of Bassai Dai in this seminar he focused on the use of the pulling hand or Hikite.

The seminar explored how the pulling hand could be used to break an opponents grasp and also increase the effectiveness of striking techniques. Rakesh also stresses the importance of integrating the practical applications with your default attacking technique, the striking technique you feel most comfortable and confident with and so therefore are most likely to use in the scramble of defense against an aggressor.

The seminar group was a really friendly one and it was really good to get involved in working through the seminars various drills. The person playing the aggressor in the drill would respond in a very direct manner which felt like a very likely response so it very much felt that I was feeling the value of the kata techniques in responding to a realistic scenario.

Bassai Dai feels like it’s a kata I’ve spent quite a bit of time studying as in Shotokan it’s the kata you study at two levels of Brown belt and it was one of the katas I had to study for my most recent grading. So it was really good to have the luxury of looking at how it’s techniques can be used. The study of the bunkai of kata in much more depth is something I’ve only started to look at relatively recently in my karate studies but I’m certainly finding it has further energised my interest in both kata and in karate overall.

To have that connection from working through the seminars drills of how it feels to both execute Bassai Dai’s techniques on a training partner and receive them in return certainly gives me a greater appreciation of their value. To feel the discomfort of a knife hand block for example against my neck, and in this context delivered in a very controlled manner, gives me a much greater understanding of it’s value offensively as well as defensively. And this greater appreciation in turn gives me an even greater respect for the kata and a renewed commitment to executing it to the very best of my ability.

So I’m sure it’s evident I brought away a great deal from the seminar. So thanks again to Rakesh Patel for a really informative and enjoyable seminar, Andy Chapman for being a great host in West Hallam on a beautiful sunny day and all of my fellow martial artists who attended.

Have you been to any great seminars, who were they with and what did you enjoy?

Me, myself and I…and the rest of the club…Day 2

Having training on a Tuesday night helped me achieve today’s karate commitment. Some of my fellow students had been successful at Sunday’s grading so congratulations to each of them and every credit to those that didn’t take the night off and turned in for training.

Sensei David has a little game were we all close our eyes and then have to execute the stance he shouts out. Traditionally I’m pretty poor at this and am normally out of the game and seated by the second or third call but of late I seem to be doing better. Previously I wouldn’t have placed knowing the names of the various stances as any kind of priority but now if feels like it’s important to have a handle on all aspects of karate.

I think that’s because I see how it has value in a couple of ways. Firstly I see how knowing how the names translate can give clues to what the techniques are about. And secondly as you become more of a senior member of a club you find yourself coaching newer students and I think knowing the correct names and not going ‘um, you know that one with your right leg over here and the left….’ helps you teach in a credible way. If I look a bit unsure about the name why should anyone trust what I’m saying about anything else.

After running through some basics we spent some time on the kata for our next grading. It was great to have Sensei Colin take us through Bassai Dai and Niseishi. We touched on what a couple of the moves are all about and he showed us what was happening in that situation. Understanding what’s happening really helps to understand how those techniques need to be executed.

What seems clear to me is that I’ve done what probadly a great many karateka do. I placed more importance on being able to do the basics and to feel like I was doing well at the kumite. Subsequently I left my study of kata at understanding the flow of moves, being able to do those moves well and perhaps knowing a few bits of the bunkai.

Now it feels like I’m getting a greater sense on how all the elements fit together and by understanding the value of each you can progress you study in other areas. For example by looking and thinking about what a kata is about and what it’s trying to teach beyond just a set of moves it gets me thinking about how I can be more aware in situations, how I need to work on evasion through my footwork, how I need to look at fitting blocks, strikes and throws together that suit me to list just a few.

I suppose I could dwell on the negative and think ‘well why didn’t I understand that sooner’. But I want to see it as another lesson learnt, new awareness that I need to apply to karate and be able to step back or revisit training and say what else do I need to understand about that, what else is there here that I need to incorporate.

 

Growing your circle of knowledge

I came across this blog post by a Tai Chi teacher called Paul Miller. I really liked his realisation that his progress wasn’t measured by the number or speed in which he’d gained his black belts and that the most important thing is mastering himself.

I’ve been working on the combination of moves I’ll need to demonstrate at my next grading. I mentioned in previous posts that I’m excited that this gives me a chance to start to practise some of the practical karate concepts I’ve come across recently. I’ve chosen to use our first Shukokai kata Shiotsuki No.1 as the basis.

What strikes me is that in my martial arts studies I find myself circling round and returning to a place I’ve started from previously. But all the time my knowledge is growing,  I’m learning more and also opening up new challenges.

So when I first started studying Shukokai karate the first kata I learnt was Shiotsuki No.1. Years later when I chose to widen my knowledge of karate by studying the Shotokan style I started afresh as a white belt and learnt Kihon kata which is like Shiotsuki No.1’s slightly bigger brother. Years on again my Shukokai studies bring me back to look at Shiotsuki No.1 with somewhat wiser eyes, to explore it on my own and understand what I need to really learn from it as a Karateka.

It’s made me realise that studying Karate isn’t a linear journey. Also you can only learn what you’re ready to learn at that time and place. As a new student you learn what you think you need to learn and that might just be learning the pattern of moves, going fast at this point, slow at that point. Later you return back to what is presented as a simple kata and realise it holds more to understand that you thought at the time.

I’m really enjoying the chance to complete my latest circle, I hope I find myself back at this point again.

 

Practical Karate 101?

A few weeks ago I was feeling a little like I was awash with great information that was exciting because it opening up new opportunities to train but I felt I was struggling to make it all slot together. Lately it’s felt like some of those pieces are starting to fit together a little.

For my next grading I need to put together a combination and padwork routine. I’m seeing it as a great opportunity to practise some of the practical karate ideas I’ve been finding out about.

I really want to start to get my head around the thought processes of thinking about the information in the kata and exploring different possibilities and practical applications. I was planning to start with the kata of the Pinan/Heian series but looking through a book I saw an application for Kihon, or Taikyoku Shodan, kata and there didn’t seem a better place to start than the very first kata. The simplicity of the kata gives me a better opportunity to work through the process.

Last night I was listening to one of Iain Abernethy’s podcasts about how a kata records a complete system and he was talking about the idea of principles being the key thing to grasp rather than simply those techniques detailed in the kata.

The idea of underlying principles has been something new for me to consider and I think I’m just starting to understand. If I think about our first Shukokai kata, Shiotsuki No.1, which is like a shortened version of Kihon kata I think I can start to see what some of the underlying principles would be:-

  • Evasion – after looking to the left the next move is to step forward with the right leg and then turn into gedan barai to the left. This step forward shifts my body away from the line of attack.
  • Blocking as offense as well as defense – the down block is a strong block but with the hand striking like a tetsui uchi if targeted well it will have a real impact on the opponent.
  • Putting everything into the counterstrike – the kata could just use a reverse punch but by using a stepping strike the karateka adds their body weight to the counter.
  • Defensive mobility – there are two 180 degree turns to again block with a gedan barai. For me this seems to fit with Anko Itosu’s first precept ‘Karate is not merely practiced for your own benefit; it can be used to protect one’s family or master. It is not intended to be used against a single assailant but instead as a way of avoiding injury by using the hands and feet should one by any chance be confronted by a villain or ruffian.’ Having to respond quickly to an attack from the back seems like a real possibility so starting to understand how to shift my body makes sense.

All of that feels like it makes sense to me but I’d welcome any of your thoughts. Am I on the right track or do I need a few more pointers?

Up and running

It felt really good to get the first training session of 2012 under the karate belt. Nice to feel the first few chudan zukis zippin out though lateral hip flexibility felt a bit creaky!

I spent some time running through Bassai Dai with a fellow karateka and we had a bit of a chat about the application of some of the moves so hopped on the internet later to take a look at some bunkai videos. It’s great to be able to watch different bunkai videos and see different thoughts on potential applications, one set I’ve found and like looking at are by Didier Lupo, for example this one for Heian Shodan. Let me know if you’ve seen any other good bunkai videos.