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 Shiotsuki No.1

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.

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?

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.

Me, myself and I…Day 3

I was a bit slower off the mark on Day 3. My intention had been to be up with the larks and run through some kata and combinations downstairs. But I took the easy option and had a few more minutes snug under the duvet.

That reduced the time I had a little but I still managed to run through Tekki Shodan a few times.  I really like it as a kata to run through first thing in the morning. It’s a nice compact kata which helps when you’re pretty tall and haven’t not got a dojo sized space to hand. But it’s not just about convenience, it’s a kata I really enjoy doing so it worls well to help shake off the cobwebs in the morning.

Then I took sometime to explore Shiotsuki No.1. I’ve mentioned previously that I’ve thought about what I think are the combative principles within even this straightforward kata. And after working on Bassai Dai and Niseishi at training the night before I wanted to revisit my thinking a little.

The first movement, as is so often the case, is to look in the direction of the threat. To me this is about making sure you’re aware of what’s happening around you to give you a chance of seeing a threat which may lead to an attack. So I wanted to think about that thought over the course of the day.

The study of self defence seems to be evolving out of martial arts and bringing together different aspects with a focus on the practicalities of self defence/self protection. Today’s thinking has left me with a new addition on my To-Do List to see what people in thes areas have to say about developing good awareness.

Now what are the chances of me perfecting my spirit tomorrow to not hit that snooze button!

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?