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 Iain Abernethy

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.

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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.

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?

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.

Karate keywords

I can’t resist picking up books. Generally of all shapes and sizes but with my interest in Karate and Martial Arts I’ve got more than a few about both. At the moment I’m working my way through Iain Abernethy’s Bunkai Jutsu. It’s got a good introductory chapter about the history of Karate and Kata which had some stuff that I hadn’t seen in other Karate books.

A couple of things really struck me.

Firstly the wide range of influences that have played a part in Karate’s development. From Japanese Samurai who came and settled in Okinawa to Chinese Martial Artists who visited the island each bringing and adding their martial arts skills to the melting pot.

Secondly a sense of innovation which has allowed Karate to grow from it’s roots on Okinawa and spread right the way across the globe.

It got me thinking about what words could be descriptive of Karate. One that came to mind was Pragmatic. From what I’ve read it feels like Karate has developed in response to circumstances that arose on the island. When the average Okinawan was barred from carrying weapons to protect themselves they developed the skills required to do so unarmed.

Evolutionary is another. One definition of the word really fits, Evolutionary ‘A gradual process in which something changes into a different and usually more complex or better form.’ Lots of past masters have taken what they’ve learnt and blended in their own learning.

Am I going anywhere with this? I think where I’m going is that Karate can mean different things to different people depending on how they intepret what it has to offer. I’ve chosen a couple of words but on a different day, thinking about different influences I could easily choose very different ones.

The name of this blog continues to really fit how I feel about my Karate studies at the moment. I’m really enjoying exploring different aspects, seeing how they feel and if they feel right working to incorporate them into my Karate training.

What words does Karate evoke in you?

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.