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 Kata

Learning to to see the whole picture

In Chris Denwood’s excellent book ‘Respecting the Old, Creating the New’ there is a Chapter called ‘Transitional Aspects of Kata‘. When I read it a couple of weeks ago late on a Friday night the mental fatigue from time spent on the day job drained away and the excitement of some fresh aspects of Karate to explore and understand further replaced it. What I took from the Chapter was the value in looking at everything held in the kata which includes the movements that connect the techniques.

Thinking about that idea in relation to the first Shukokai kata I learnt, Shiotsuki No.1, made me think about a video I’d seen of Keinosuke Enoeda demonstrating Kuzushi Waza. In Shiotsuki No.1 after a down block, gedan barai, you step forward with a punch to the body, chudan tsuki. I’d understood that the stepping movement brought the added shift of body weight to the punch but perhaps that doesn’t make full use of using the knee at the end of the step to strike the opponent and disrupt their balance.

It also got me thinking about about the crescent shaped path of the stepping foot we use in Karate. This was emphasised in my Shotokan training as being important in preventing unnecessary rising of the body when stepping. And I love the feeling of that strong forward motion. But maybe that motion also allows the foot to manoeuvre round lower leg of your opponent to  place you leg behind theirs to have the option of a throw like Byobudaoshi (to topple a folding screen) or Kubiwa (to encircle the neck).

I’ve deliberately used ‘perhaps’and ‘maybe’ above as I could be on totally the wrong track but they were thoughts that struck me and I’ve enjoyed taking a bit of time to see how they feel when I try them out in a bit of solo practise. Even on a frosty December night it was good to spend a bit of time seeing how different combinations from the variations of Shiotsuki seemed to work with a free standing bag as the focus.

So I find myself very thankful to Chris for sharing his thoughts and suggesting a different way to look at kata and find new applications to practise.

Has anything given you a fresh perspective on Karate recently?

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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?

Learning in the land of the red dragon

As much as I enjoy martial arts training I don’t think it does any harm to give my body a little break when summer holiday time comes around. The last couple of years a place called Tenby in Wales has been our destination for a great British beach holiday.

Tenby has got a fabulous set of beaches and despite being on holiday I enjoy going for a morning run down to the end of the south beach and back. At the end of the beach it starts to give way to the land as it slopes down from the coastal high ground. It’s here I take a few minutes to enjoy the view and have a bit of a stretch before setting off back down the beach.

On the second morning when I was stood on the higher ground after running the 1st length of the beach I started thinking about Chinto the shipwrecked Chinese martial artist and the kata said to be named after him. It’s a kata I’ve been looking forward to studying after reading about the story of him being challenged by the Okinawan martial arts master Matsumura.

The kata features some interesting techniques and standing there I thought about the moves and techniques and what some of their practical combative applications might be. I wouldn’t say I came to any concrete conclusions but looking at the beach I started thinking about the impact of the terrain on the ability of a martial artist to execute different techniques and also how that terrain could offer opportunities to disadvantage their opponent.

I’d also taken along a book on Phoenix Eye Fist Kung Fu I’ve had for a while but hadn’t had a chance to take a really good look at. Phoenix Eye Fist Kung Fu or Chuka Shaolin originated in South China. Okinawa’s position relative to China means that it had connections through trade etc. with China. When I’ve read about Okinawan martial artists who played a part in Karate’s evolution many had received instruction in Chinese fighting arts or had even travelled to China and studied there.

It was interesting to take a look at Chuka Shaolin and see similarities between some of it’s techniques and those of Karate. For example the book, The Secrets of Phoenix Eye Kung Fu by Cheong Cheng Leong and Mark V. Wiley, concentrated on the techniques contained in a two person fighting form. In terms of stances it showed the Horse Riding Stance and Hanging-horse stance. The Horse Riding Stance was just like Karate’s Shiko dach, known as horse stance, while the Hanging-horse stance matched Nekoashi dach, known as cat stance.

The similarity would certainly seem to support the transfer of fighting skills from China across the water to Okinawa and from there into Karate. I think it’s interesting that as a new student of Karate in your ignorance you believe it to be an art wholely originating in Japan. Then you learn about the nature of Japan’s relationship with Okinawa and then the influence of the fighting arts from other regions.

So taking a holiday from the Dojo hasn’t meant a break from my martial arts learning.

Have you learnt anything interesting about martial arts this summer?

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?

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.

Me, Myself and I…Day 5

I grabbed a quick half an hour to practise a few things on the bag.

Continuing the theme of awareness that has come into focus this week I started off by ‘seeing’ an attack from first the front, moving and blocking and then hitting the bag with a counter strike and then repeating for the right hand side, left hand side and rear. I was imagining the strikes were normal attacks you would imagine a non-martial artist might throw so a face punch, swinging hook like punch etc.

It was interesting to start to get a bit of a feel how I preferred different responses to attacks from different directions particularly from the right and left hand sides. I then worked on taking my response beyond just a single counter for frontal attacks. My bag is mounted on a sprung base which means I can grab hold of it and pull it down onto knee strikes and practise trying to get a bit of a grip for some throws like Kubiwa (to encircle the neck).

It did bring to back to my mind an exercise we used to do at my old Shotokan club. We’d open up one of the fixed kumite routines to give us the choice of any counter as long as it would be effective in hurting the assailant. It taught you that the simple straightforward techniques would be quick and effective assuming they were well targetted at the assailants vulnerable areas.

Then I worked on my Shiotsuki inspired combination a bit more. The Shiotsuki series is the same simple kata but just using a different block so down block for No.1, inside block for No.2 etc. I was thinking about simplifying my combination to focus just on expanding the applications from the down block and stepping punch but it didn’t seem to work very well. Again it was good to have a bit of time to try out a different approach to see if it worked.

I’m certainly enjoying using these little practise sessions to try out different ideas at my own pace. Iain Abernethy uses the example of an acorn containing everything needed to ultimately become a tree with it’s many branches to try and describe how a kata can represent a whole system of combat. It feels like a similar idea can represent the wealth of information I receive through my club training that then needs to be unpacked further, examined and practised.