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 Shotokan

What might not be for today may be for tomorrow

Or ‘The lessons that take longer to learn can be more worthwhile’

Autumn is here now and winter not far behind. I picked up an American collegiate style cardigan I have to put on and remembered how for a while it wasn’t really a piece of clothing I really favoured. Now it’s something I enjoy wearing which got me thinking about how things can change over time.

It got me thinking about how for quite some time the roundhouse kick, mawashi geri, was a kick that when it was announced in class as the next thing to practise I would groan inwardly. It felt uncomfortable to try and execute the kick as I lacked the lateral flexibility to execute it correctly and still achieve a reasonable height. I wanted to be able to kick at the same height as my fellow students so to do so I would cheat and manage something of a halfway house that I was content with because it at least allowed me to kick the pad with power.

Training at the Shotokan Club I attended for several years helped me with my technique as the Sensei there would not accept my halfway house. The quality of the technique was the more important aspect and was not to be sacrificed. Once the technique was correct at the maximum height possible then, and only then, should effort be directed to improving it’s height.

There is still a great deal of room for improvement with my mawashi geris but no longer do I groan inwardly when I have the opportunity to practise them. In fact when I train at home they are the kick I enjoy practising the most. Having worked hard to improve the technique it almost feels like a gift to myself when I have the chance to practise it.

I also thought about some of the strength exercises I now do. Now if I find an exercise that initially feels difficult to do I realise that is the very exercise I need to spend time working to improve as it indicates a weakness in a particular area. In the past I would perhaps simply have avoided doing that exercise again in favour of one I felt comfortable with.

And again it is a case of not having unrealistic expectations in terms of the number of repetitions or level of weight I expect to lift initially. It’s often about starting with something manageable but then working to make steady improvement.

So whether it is the fact that it can take a while for the penny to drop and understand how you need to approach a problem. Or simply that you have to take a greater number of smaller steps to get to the same end goal. I’d say it feels better to achieve something that demands a greater focus or commitment.

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.

Lyoto Machida’s Karate Style

I’ve watched a couple of Lyoto Machida‘s UFC bouts because I was interested to see how he fought given his karate background. He certainly seemed to have a distinctive style. I didn’t see his last bout against Ryan Bader but I came across this really interesting Bleacher Report breakdown of his karate style. It resonated on a number of points perhaps unsurprisingly given Machida’s father is a Shotokan Karate Master.

The first aspect of his style they look at is Machida’s stance and how it makes it more difficult for his opponents to strike him as it keeps his head further back and his torso turned more side on so that it represents a narrower target area. I can almost hear both my Shukokai and Shotokan senseis telling me to twist my hips more when in front stance for just that reason.

Next up they look at his evasive footwork. They describe how when an opponent launches an attack he simply pivots to the side on his lead foot to move off the line of attack. We practised a lot of this type of movement in our Shotokan fixed kumite (sparring), mainly in response to front and side kicks. In one quick move it took you out of danger of the strike while still leaving you in perfect range to launch a counter strike.

The breakdown looks at his ability to place all his weight into a counter strike by using the classic stepping punch. Launching strongly off his back leg, stepping through and letting all that momentum and power flow through into his punch. When we’re practising reverse punches, gyaku zukis, on the pad we strike it from a stationary stance. You really see the difference in the power of the impact when you swtich to stepping punch, oi zukis, and the extra momentum and shift in bodyweight is added.

They actually then move on to look at Machida’s reverse punch. The twist of the hip is an important aspect in giving the reverse punch it’s power. The other thing the writer mentions is that the punches’ starting point low down by the hip makes it difficult for the opponent to spot which isn’t something I’d really thought about before but it seems like a reasonable idea, especially if you occupy the attention with the leading hand.

Lyoto Machida’s kicks then come into focus, particularly how he will start to throw a front kick and then shift it into a roundhouse. It’s a technique both my Shukokai and Shotokan senseis can perform far more smoothly than I. I find it easier to fully perform the front kick, drop the leg back and then perform a full roundhouse. But again it’s a technique I recognise easily from the dojo.

Finally the report references the spirit of the more traditional martial arts and how if you choose it can stay with you throughout your life. After being a student of Karate for over 15 years I certainly recognise that longevity. In some ways I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of what I can learn.

It was great to see the article report on how techniques I recognise from the Karate I’ve been taught are being used to great effect by Lyoto Machida in the UFC Octagon. To me it reaffirms that when done well Karate has some extremely effective techniques.

 

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?

James Bond’s Systema

I recently finished reading the new James Bond novel ‘Carte Blanche’ by Jeffrey Deaver, which is well worth a read. In it Bond gets involved in a few hand to hand scrapes and it’s mentioned that Bond has learnt Systema. In the book it’s described as a combat system originating with the Russian Cossacks and then refined by the Russians.

In this post I don’t want to get bogged down in the details of Systema what provoked a bit of thought that the book describes it’s purpose as being to evade and block the opponent’s strikes with the aim of tiring them out and then to take control when they have exhausted themselves.

Now I accept what I’ve read is fiction when the author can enjoy creating something for entertainment safe in the knowledge that the hero is in actual danger, but still I found the approach interesting.

I don’t position myself as having any great knowledge about self-defence but what I’ve read from those far more educated than myself is that such encounters are frenetic, messy affairs and far removed from the more controlled to and fro of sparring in the dojo. I can’t imagine that it would be a good idea to prolong such an encounter by aiming to tire an attacker by seeking to successfully block each of their strikes. The odds of doing so against a determined attacker probably don’t stack up well.

So perhaps it’s an approach worth trying out in sparring. I know when I trained in Shotokan Karate there was a strong focus in sparring of not being wasteful, not throwing technique after technique that wasn’t troubling the opponent. Sparring bouts were much more cagey affairs and almost felt as exhausting mentally as physically because you were guarding against an attack that when it came would be serious in it’s intent.

Recently in my current club we’ve had a few sessions which have included sparring and as a more senior student we pair with the juniors and work with them to improve their confidence and techniques. Generally I would allow them to attempt to strike me more and so would spend more time blocking than striking. As a result after a couple of minutes I would have I’ve exerted myself less than them through this more defensive approach. So the Systema approach mentioned in the book seemed to ring true as a fighting strategy.

I have the benefit of being fairly tall so in sparring if I can keep my opponents at a safe distance they really have to work hard to land a telling strike. Perhaps as a result I think I do tend to have a more defensive style of fighting. But it still feels that I’m controlling the flow of the sparring by enticing them to commit to attacks.

I’m interested to try this approach more next time we have some sparring in training. Sometimes there can be a tendency to fall into a very polite you attack then I’ll attack kind of rhythm. Against opponents who do have a tendency to try and execute quite a few techniques it could be useful to let them tire themselves.

The quest for infinite precision

I read ‘The Pyjama Game: A Journey into Judo’ by Mark Law a few months ago. I’m always interested in reading about other martial arts and Mark did a really great job of combining the history, the important figures and his own study together to make an interesting read.

Early on he was talking about the zen-ish concern with detail and style. He talks about how the sensei’s unrelenting demands for infinite precision challenge the student by making everything as difficult as possible. This process crushes the student’s pride and ego, allowing the subconscious to take over and absorb the learning.

The focus on trying to get everything absolutely spot on has certainly felt challenging at points throughout my study of Karate, both Shukokai and Shotokan. I don’t know if that is because sometimes my tall and somewhat inflexible frame doesn’t necessarily lend itself to low deep stances. Or perhaps it is because having never studied any other physical activity to such depth I was unused to the idea of developing my body control to such an extent.

As a higher grade who sometimes assists with teaching students I’ve seen the challenge from the other side. Trying to instruct fellow students to move their feet into the right positions, execute a block in the right way etc. can feel hard work at times. I understand what Mark Law means when he talks about the student’s pride and ego and how it can be a blocker to the student having an open mind to the instruction they are being given.

I can remember those moments when I was filled with anger at my sensei for being worked through set after set of basics because I wasn’t executing one aspect or another as it should. And yes, my sense of ego was tamed and you learn to respect and take on board the instruction and advice being given. The ability to listen to advice and refine your techniques accordingly in a calm and respectful manner is an incredibly valuable one, and one which can be taken away from the dojo and make you a better person in the wider world.

But sometimes it isn’t a skill that comes quickly or easily and often comes through what feels like a very uncomfortably experience. Some nights when I attended Shotokan training  I would be glancing at the clock on the wall willing the minutes to pass more quickly because it was tough, energy sapping work. But the feeling of achievement when you’d stayed the course for another session was a fantastic one.

As a senior grade Karateka taking on more tuition of students I find myself understanding the challenge and the dilemma of teaching fellow students. Having learnt through lesson after lesson of hard work you understand how it feels for the student when the training is tough. But when you know the value of the prize on offer that can be gained through perseverance and dedication I think the responsibility lies equally with student and teacher to work in partnership to help each other.

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.