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 Research

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?

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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.

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.

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.

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?

Searching for Shukokai (1)

I’m a bit of a bookworm and whenever I pop into a book shop I’ll always have a browse in the Sports section to see if there are any martial arts books I haven’t managed to get my paws on yet.

I think this thirst for martial arts knowledge moved up a gear about the same time I decided to widen my Karate training by going along to a Shotokan club to see how that style differed from the Shukokai style I’d being studying. The Shotokan style seems to be pretty well represented in terms of book publication and I’ve picked up a few in recent years. Perhaps it helps when the founder of the style, Gichin Funakoshi, was a prolific writer, and every credit to him for sharing his knowledge so that it is still available all these years later.

Having returned back to my Shukokai roots I really want to learn more about the history of the style, the people involved in shaping it’s development and it’s particular traits.

My initial research didn’t produce quite as much information as I would have hoped. That old favourite Wikipedia did give me a quite a good start and amongst other things gave me Chojiro Tani’s name as the founder of Shukokai, his teachers Miyagi Chojun and Kenwa Mabuni and Shigeru Kimura as one of his pupils. I looked into Kimura a little and found a few YouTube films I enjoy watching. But there didn’t seem to be quite as much depth of information available that I’d found with Shotokan.

I was catching up with one or two of Iain Abernethy’s great podcasts while enjoying the views on the way to Sheffield on the train and he mentioned an interview he’d done with Haruyoshi Yamada. It’s a great interview and provides some really good insights into both Shukokai and it’s founder Tani.

Every time I read it I find something new to think about. Some of the things I really like are:

  • the mention that Shukokai is a dynamic style. Sometimes you can get a bit wrapped up in the more aesthetic side and lose a bit of that dynamism.
  • the fact that Yamada was drawn by word of mouth to see what Tani was about, it just seems timely when a previous post of mine was thinking about the importance of giving a good service which leads to your students being evangelical about what they’re being taught.
  • the mention of Tani’s logical analysis of Karate and his teaching of the applications of Karate.
  • the focus on how the techniques felt to the individual.
  • and the emphasis on going forwards and not letting the opponent dominate you.

And those are just a handful of the things I really enjoyed. It really feels like this article is a good place to restart my research of what Shukokai is all about so expect future posts about my search for Shukokai.

If you’ve taken a look at the article I’d really like to hear what are the stand out points for you? Or if you’re a Shukokai Karateka and have some nuggets of knowledge to share I’d love to hear all about them.

The school of hard knocks vs

I’m always coming across new martial arts websites full of great articles. This week’s discovery is ’24 Fighting Chickens’. It’s full of thought provoking articles and is certainly worth taking a look at.

The section of articles that really grabbed my attention was the ‘Instructor Training’ area.

Our senseis like to give senior students the chance to teach fellow students. I guess it allows for a better teacher to student ratio. Perhaps more importantly the student teachers, for want of a better name, have more recent experience of learning the same techniques, katas and applications that their fellow students are studying and can offer valuable insights.

‘The Service-Oriented Instructor’ got me thinking quite a bit. Perhaps because I recognised elements of the performance oriented & customer service oriented clubs. The Shotokan club I was a member of for a good few years felt like it had a strong performance focus. That’s not to say that the Shukokai club I started at and have returned to doesn’t care about the quality of the karate. But I do feel it has a good feel for creating a friendly, family atmosphere that provides a positive learning environment for it’s students.

The idea of thinking about offering a good customer service or the ‘experience’ encountered by the students does feel like a more commercial activity. But for any club, not just Karate or martial arts, to remain strong and vibrant it needs a healthy membership.

While word of mouth recommendation from it’s current members is an important way to bring in potential new students the majority of clubs use marketing in some form or other to create interest and attract potential new members to try out an introductory lesson.

Once through the door a club with a sensei/s that is aware of the members needs and provides an environment that meets them has a fighting chance of having more new members stay around for the medium to longterm.

I struggle with the author’s view that an instructor cannot be both performance and service oriented. Perhaps I misunderstand what he’s saying but I think it’s the student’s engagement with Karate and a desire to further their study that maintains that longer term interest.

What do you think? Is providing a good service important for a Martial Arts club?