Sunday, December 11, 2011

The death of karate? Who cares?

I was introduced to the following article on a couple of internet fora, where people were getting up in arms about the author's contention that karate is weak and watered down: UFC 140: karate is overrated.

The author's contention is that because of McDojos, teaching children and antiquated techniques, karate is weak and past its use-by date.  It is deliberately a polemical piece, but one that reflects an attitude that is common and sustained amongst some areas of the martial arts community.

My response?  Yep, cool.  

That's it.  In the author's experience, he may even be correct.  But whether he is or not, doesn't matter.

His opinion (and the opinion of pretty much everyone else on this planet) are not only not important, they are made nonsensical by the wide, wide diaspora that is karate.  I can pretty much guarantee that the karate I do is a different beast from the karate done down the road, in the next suburb, or in the next state or country.  Hell, I'm pretty sure the karate I'm doing is different from some of the people I train with in the dojo.

That's not to say that because I think it is good, that it is.  Relativism goes only so far when it is married to physical reality.   The karate I do is done within a specific context, certain conceptual bounds and for personal goals.  Commentary on karate is only relevant for me when it is pertinent to one of those three areas.  So, mostly I look for comment and feedback from my sensei (surprise, surprise), peers, or from people whose experience comes from those three areas.  The rest, I don't worry about.

There is another reason I don't mind people talking about the death of karate.  It means that people are more likely to judge and underestimate me because of what I do.  I'm not in to my training for the good opinions of others, or to gain social kudos, so the standing of my martial art in the eyes of sections of the public is not important.

What is important is that in my eyes, and in the eyes of those whose opinions I trust, I am improving, or at the very least sustaining my development in my art.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Sorry for the silence

Recently, I have found that I am becoming less active in putting material on this blog, and wish to apologise to my few readers about this.  The two reasons for not putting content on have been the busyness of work and the birth of my third daughter, which has been hectic to say the least.

Conversely, the birth of my daughter is also the impetus for me to begin posting again.  In order to help with her and her two siblings, I have given up going to formal training for the remainder of the year, and have mostly stopped regular self-training as with an average of 4 hours total sleep a  night I am struggling to find
  1. the energy and
  2. the time in the day, as the only hours I get to myself are after 8pm and before 10pm, and this time is needed to cook and eat dinner and try and maintain a relationship with my wife.

This raises the question of how I can still be involved in progressing in my martial learning if I cannot actually train.  My solution is meta-training; that is the act of thinking about martial arts and exploring the possibilities and principles as an intellectual pursuit.  And this blog can let me do this.

So stay tuned, as I intend to become more regular and prolific, and occasionally turn out something that might even be vaguely worth reading.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Jigsaw Learning

Or, why it's not a bad thing if you don't get it right all at once.

Two years ago, I learned my first bo kata, shuji-no-kon.  I learned it in a weekend and took notes and videos and have practised it regularly ever since.  These last couple of weeks, we have revisited this kata and in just two run-throughs with my sensei, I picked up two major, fundamental flaws in how I was moving and half a dozen smaller things to work on as well. 

My initial thoughts were along the lines of - "I wish I had known/realised this ages ago", but my second (and subsequent) thoughts were - "I probably wouldn't have understood beforehand anyway".

I'm seeing this in my empty-hand work too.  Improvement seems to happen piecemeal or in sudden jumps, when something that I have seen many times before just suddenly stands up, slaps me on the face and shouts "THIS is how you should be doing it!"  And the reason why, I think, is that the brain and body can only focus on so much at once.

When starting to learn something, it is only basic shape (as can be best understood given prior experience and context) that can be taken in.  Doing a kata, for instance, the gross movements are what are learned first - usually wrongly or poorly.  But I contend it is almost impossible to learn them properly with no prior exposure to them or to the movements or principles they contain. We have to do them poorly to begin with.

Then, when we have become more comfortable or familiar with it, we suddenly can see places where improvement can take place, because we now have a context in which to learn.  Actually, more often than not we don't see the places for improvement, but we are now in a receptive head-space to understand and appreciate what is being pointed out to us.  It was like that with the bo kata for me.  My sensei picked out two things I was doing wrong, and when he pointed them out to me, they resonated with me and made such good sense in the context of what I was trying to do that I couldn't believe I hadn't picked up on them before.  In fact, I could see in my minds' eye the video footage I had from my initial exposure to the kata and the very points he was raising were shown there.  It was just that until now, I wasn't familiar enough with the context of the kata or general bo-principles to be able to see or appreciate them.

I assume that once I have bedded down these improvements, something else will jump out as a result.  I have been having that happen recently in increasing my emphasis on sanchin practise, where all of a sudden pieces of sanseru and seienchin are coming to life because of things I have been improving in sanchin.

So, I guess the moral of the story is, don't expect to learn everything at once, learning never stops, and without stuffing up, you can't get better.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Seienchin Part 4

This is now a multi-part series.  You can find
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

The final movement in each shikodachi step is a two-handed, open-handed soto uke followed by a slow retraction with the lead hand to the hip that is paired with a palm-up nukite to the front (not across the body as is done in a number of other schools). I have been shown two basic interpretations for the technique.  The first is an interception-catch-armbar of an incoming attack or grab attempt and is to the outside of the opponent and the second is similar in that it clears a grabbing arm/attack (to the outside as well) and then strikes into the exposed ribcage.

The armbar technique is essentially a chin-na technique that extends and locks out the elbow, with the rear hand intercepting the attack, the lead hand coming through to clear and extend the arm, and the rear hand then applying outwards and upwards pressure (the "nukite") to the triceps tendon and providing a fulcrum for the lead hand to work against.  It is very similar to the reverse-punch application in saifa, and similar chin-na style applications appear all through the various kata.

The technique can also be used against a same-side lapel grab to wrap the arm and take the attacker down forwards - the angled shift rotates the attacker away a bit from me, and puts a bend in their arm, allowing the lead hand to wrap under and around their arm, putting it into an arm lock, and bending them forward.  The rear hand then represents a strike to their exposed ribcage or head.

Part of my thinking on this movement is to do with how it transitions into the next movement - and there are two.  The first subsequent movement (if that makes sense) is to step across at 45 degrees on the opposite angle and repeat the whole sequence again. With the trapping movements, that works very well as a way of throwing the attacker to the ground by trapping the legs and shifting bodyweight through their angle of weakness.

The other transition is into the terminal part of Section A - from shikodachi into zenkutsudachi, with the right fist nestled in the left hand. Generally, touching one part of the body with the open hand can be thought of as indicating that the body part is being grasped by an opponent (and indeed, my understanding of the terminal section of Part A is predicated on just this supposition).  I am struggling to see how the two trapping techniques can transition easily to this position as anything worth grabbing is in the wrong position as a result of the previous technique. 

It is entirely possible that there is no transitional technique between the end of the shikodachi step to the terminal part and it should stand on its own.  Without someone to practise on, that is my (temporary) conclusion on how to treat it.  I should say (I don't think I have before) that of the techniques I am putting forward I have learned/been taught about 1/3 of them.  The remainder I have either seen or learned as techniques in isolation and have reverse-applied them to seienchin, or have worked out (made up !?!) from first principles.  I have, however, tried all of them out before writing them down, and they work sufficiently well for me to commit them to paper (or its digital equivalent).  However, your mileage may vary considerably.

So, the terminal section of seienchin is from zenkutsu-dachi, with the hands bowed horizontally in front of the body, right fist in left hand.  Then, the body and front foot withdraw, the hands rotate to the vertical, and then as the body pushes forward again, punch (left hand stays covering right wrist).  The front leg steps back, weight goes on to it as the right hand retracts and left extends, open, outwards.  Then, weight shifts forward and vertical right elbow (with kiai).

At a superficial level, this segment begins with a wrist grab which is covered/pinned by the left hand.  Before they can punch, they are quickly pulled off-balance (the little backwards flick of the right leg as it moves back can be interpreted as an implied low-kick to help with the off-balancing), then the grip is broken by the rotating fist which then finishes by hitting them in the solar-plexus.  By itself, the step-back-elbow section is an alternate way to deal with the wrist grab by shifting more backwards to pull them forward, clearing the grip with the left hand and hikite of the right.  As they stumble forward, the elbow smashes them in the face, left hand coming behind their head to control it.  These two moves can be easily strung together in a single flow as well.

By itself, the first part of this segment is directly translatable to a nikajo wristlock, where the open hand is pinning the opponent's grip.

On a tangent, I find it interesting that when parts of a kata that deal with grabs are asymmetrical, they are pretty much only on the right hand side (as is the case here).  Apart from the general right-handedness of the majority of the population, is this because most people would hold a weapon in their right hand, and hence have it grabbed to control it?  I have no idea, but it's an interesting thought as to how techniques would work if they were being used to free a weapon-wielding hand.  I have had nikajo and shihonage taught to me in aikido from the point of view of having a weapon hand immobilised, but to this day I do not know if that was to highlight certain mechanics of the technique or to show a possible point of origin for the technique.  I wonder how this part of seinchin would work if I had a knife in my hand? (possibly not too well; the rotation of the right hand in relation to the left seems to close to vital nerves and arteries for my liking).  Still, it's fun to think about occasionally, even if it's mostly likely not the intent of the kata.

Part  5 will be looking at Section B.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

How good am I?

When I started karate I thought after orange belt that I knew a bit and was pretty good.

Then, a couple of years later I got my brown belt and knew everything my school taught.  And I thought I knew a lot and was pretty good - especially compared to the me of a few years ago.

Then, I also did some other martial arts and after a while in those I felt like I knew a bit more and was pretty good - much better than a brown belt who only did karate; what had I been thinking? After doing these other martial arts some more I felt that even though I knew more, I actually knew less than before.

Then, after a break I came back to karate; a different school, a different style, a different teacher.  And I felt that I knew a bit and would be pretty good.  And I was - for an orange belt.

After a while, I got my black belt and I felt that I knew a little bit, but didn't feel that I was pretty good. Now, almost a year and a half since then, I feel like I know a bit more, and that one day in the future I might be pretty good.  For now, "adequate most of the time" seems to better describe me.

When I started, the feeling of achievement and improving skill was what drove me on.  Now, it is the hunger for what I can now see is still out there, in the vast karate universe (and that's just within my home style).  The process of learning is now the motivating factor rather than attainment or achievement.  It is the 'known unknowns' and the unknown unknowns' that drive me to train, to think about and to remain in love with karate.

So now I think that I know a little bit, and will probably be pretty good - just give me another decade or two.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Silat Suffian seminar - notes and random musings

I had a silat suffian seminar yesterday with Guru Maul Mornie and was once again deeply impressed by his skill, the depth of thought and care put into the seminar's content and by his art.

What follows are some of my impressions, observations and thoughts on the seminar.  I was only able to attend Saturday's class, which was primarily concerned with basic drills that were to form the foundation for a lot of Sunday's content.  While I would have loved to have gone to both days, I was really happy to have attended just the Saturday session.  If truth be told, I tend to get more out of days where I can focus on the fundamentals, as too many techniques in one sitting can make my poor head spin!

As usual, what follows is my interpretation/impression only and is subject to my general lack of memory, filters and incomprehensibility.

  • correct distancing is vital.  Too far away, the attacker can reset, too close, the attacker can overpower the technique.  For practice, it is vital as the correct energy/feeling cannot be there if the attack is too far away.
  • body positioning always takes into account what the other limb/s of the attacker are doing, or are capable of doing.
  • each movement of the body sets up next movement, and places me in a better position than previous movement
  • any time the hand passes through, it attacks or can attack
  • don't focus on the knife.  Attempting to stop the knife is too difficult, it moves faster than the eye.  Focus on and stop the shoulder (and humerus?) to control the knife.
  • respect the knife.  Don't fear it, as fear will cause freezing/hesitation
  • each shift/step can knee or kick
  • look for the in-betweens and half-beats
  • the bad guy is not always the one with the knife
  • If you can find the in-betweens, you can take the initiative.  If you find the half-beats you can stop your opponent finding the in-between
  • body structure is so important
  • in icepick grip, knife is with edge down (towards wrist).  This way it becomes a hooking knife, and when hooked, a slicing knife
  • knives are bloody dangerous
  • a technique can be done in different ways, provided the principles are adhered to
One thing that got me thinking about karate was the emphasis on the drills as learning tools, not as direct representations of reality.  The majority of the day was either spent in, or based on, a flowing, reciprocal two-person drill with cuts from 12, 3 and 9 o'clock.  The drill was to train the receiver in recognising intent and direction in the attacker and to provide a platform from which to train specific principles and techniques.  This got me thinking about what we have in karate that fulfills the same function.  Is it kata?  If it is, it is a very, very rare karate instructor that spells this out (and it was explicitly spelled out for us in the seminar by Maul, with ample examples of how they would translate to reality given to us) or is able to show/explain how the kata, in any particular place trains a certain response or principle and how it translates to reality.

I do not consider myself a student of Maul's and do not consider myself a practitioner of Silat Suffian Bela Diri.  But it is something that has become a regular and increasingly important aspect of my personal martial training, and a rich tradition that I hope to at least get a semi-competent grasp of.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Seienchin Part 3

This is now a multi-part series.  You can find
Part 1
Part 2
Part 4 here

Continuing on from Seienchin Part 2, where I had only made it part-way through the first three arm movements in the first step of the kata.

I originally learned as an application for this second movement of Section A, to deflect, grab and throw an incoming kick.  It is a good technique, but to my mind is definitely a more "henka" interpretation.  I must admit, I struggle to see this sweep down then up as a stand-alone technique divorced from the movements before and after it.  While it is done with both hands, it is a very similar feel to one of the basic wrist-escapes I learned years ago in aikiki aikido where the wrist is turned over and out, at the same time as the body turns and moves 180deg.  This is the same feeling that completing an elbow-press or elbow-wrap gives, and for me, this is currently the primary application I ascribe to that movement.

Having said that, as seen in Taira sensei's flowdrill for the kata, and similar to a drill we do attached to sepai, it functions in isolation as an escape and reversal of a wrist grab, where the hands escape, then grab underneath the attacker's forarms, leading into the next technique, where they are pulled down into a knee or a headbutt.  But again, the feeling in the body is the same as the elbow-press/wrap feel, and fits with my understanding of this section of the kata as being one of taking the initiative through disrupting balance.

The wedge-wrap around combination of the first and second movements can also be used to gain control of the head, subsequent to jamming/breaking the incoming attack.  A similar notion can be seen in sanseru in the section immediately after the four elbow-punches.

The terminus of the second movement is with both hands in front of the body in a "plate-carrying" position, palms up in front of and out from the face. This quickly leads into the third technique where both arms simultaneously perform a gedan barai "as though breaking a string", as my sensei says.  The traditional technique I was taught for this was against a strangle, grabbing the wrists and pulling the grip away (combined with shifting).  As was pointed out to me, this is essentially a strength-against-strength technique and should more properly be preceded by a softening-up or weakening of the opponent.  Funnily enough, the first technique, with minimal modifications can be used to wedge between the strangling arms and attack to the suprasternal notch (in other words, quite similar to the very end of the kata), before wrapping around and proceding in a similar manner to Taira sensei's flowdrill.

The plate-carry hand movement feels and fits in with an under-grip on limbs interpretation.  There is no pressing down/controlling feeling as with similar movements in tensho and seisan, and within the contexts of the prior and following movements it does not make sense that the back of the hands are pushing down at this particular point.  Where on the attacker's limbs they grab depends, I guess, on the preceding motion.  I do not see this terminal point as a stand-alone attack (although I am always willing to be convinced otherwise).  The double gedan barai in this context is then pulling the opponent offbalance into a knee, headbutt or shoulder, or throwing them to the ground.  In other words, not a gedan barai at all!

In isolation, this third movement could also effectively be used in taking the initiative to grab someone by the lapels or shoulders push-pulling them at an angle back off-balance, then stepping one leg behind them, take them down to the ground.  Similarly the first movement can be used in a pre-emptive fashion, rather than waiting on someone to attack.  Iain Abernethy mentioned the over-emphasis on reaction in a recent podcast and how many karateka don't train in a proactive or pre-emptive fashion.  I tend to agree with him, and look to how what I do can be adapted for use as an initiating move, rather than a reactive move.

Interestingly enough, all of the applications I have detailed in these posts on seienchin have so far been to the inside of an attack, rather than to the outside.  I guess that is because, from the angle of shifting and the direction of the gaze, applications feel more natural that way.  It is also because, as I mentioned in my first post on seienchin, the kata is primarily concerned with disrupting and offbalancing - going to the inside is an effective and immediate way of achieving this in Section A.

However, there is a variant way that the first three movements (wedge-scoop-gedan barais) can be used effectively to the outside without compromising the integrity of the movements or contradicting what I have identified as my primary focus of this section.  Against an attack (from the right hand side of the opponent, and preferably a grab for the wrist/body/throat), the 45 degree shift needs to have the lead leg go to the outside and behind the opponent's right leg (applying pressure to their knee joint on the way through) and the wedging action acts on the outside of their arm.  The sweep around of the arm entangles and bends their arm behind their body (the other arm can take their head/neck) and the gedan barais signify dumping them on the ground.  Additional shifting and spiralling needs to added to make this effective, but given that I consider that the angled shikodachi can be symbolic of angled movement to offbalance an opponent, rather than a 100% written in stone direction on footwork, that's not a problem.

In my next thrilling (!?!) installment, I will finish looking at Section A and start thinking my way through Section B.  As always, these musings are a way for me to explore how and why kata work they way they do and are not an exhaustive or authoritative word on the subject.