Monday, June 7, 2010

DIY Training Equipment #3 - Makiwara

I have made a makeshift makiwara, loosely based on designs garnered from the internet, but also from Mike Clarke's book "Hojo Undo".  Compared to some of the makiwara out there, it's quite springy, and compared to others, it's a bit woosy.  I like to think of it as "my-first-makiwara", and the intention is, once I've broken myself in to using it, I'll replace it with a stronger one.

It is made from a spare mountain ash plank I had lying around.  I sawed it into two lengths, one shorter than the other, and dug a hole to put it in.  At the base of the hole, I put a large rock just in front of the planks and as I filled it in, I placed another rock about 2/3 of the way up behind the planks.  I packed all the dirt down, angling the board a little forward of vertical (about 10 degrees).

The idea behind the two planks was to give me a poor-man's way of angling the wood.  In a traditional makiwara, it is made of a single piece of tapered wood - about 4 inches at the ground, to 1/2 an inch at the striking surface.  I don't have the tools to do the taper, so I doubled up the thickness of the wood in the hole, and 1/3 up the post.  Then, I tied the two together with a couple of cable ties.  I thought of using screws, but figured that if they were rigidly joined together it would be more likely to snap than give with a solid blow.

The pad is a thin neoprene stubby holder with the bottom removed, and wrapped with an old coloured gi belt.  When I'm not using it, I cover the pad with an upside-down empty paint tin. 

I started lightly with it early this year, with only about 20-a-side reverse punches, as that was all my knuckles could take.  I'm still not doing much more than 40-a-side, about 3 times a week, but I'm hitting it full-strength each time, with little negative after-effects.  Pain-wise, once I developed a better hitting technique and body alignment and allowed my knuckles to heal in mid-February, I have almost no pain from hitting it at all.  Visually, my main knuckles are a little darker and redder than the others, but not significantly, and there is no physical "build-up" that can be seen.  They feel a little more leathery and thicker, but I have found no pain on cold mornings, or tightness when playing clarinet or touch-typing from them.

Why am I using it?  I can hit just as hard on my homemade heavy bag, at different angles and with a greater variety of techniques and without strange looks from my wife.  But what the makiwara gives me is feedback on how I am making contact, whether everything is in correct alignment, or whether I'm just flailing away with poor technique.  The heavy bag is too forgiving of crappy technique for that.  I am punching better, punching harder and my general body structure in day-to-day karate is improving too.  Next, to start using different strikes on it.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Silat Seminar

Last month, I attended my first Silat seminar, run by Maul Mornie of silat suffian bela diri.  It was possibly the most enjoyable seminar (martial arts or otherwise) I have ever attended.

So, what is it?  Silat Suffian Bela Diri is a Bruneian martial art (about the only one I've heard of, at that).  It is the family art of Maul Mornie, who took the seminar.  From my impression, it is an integrated weapon/weaponless martial art.  By integrated, I mean that the core principles of the art are the same regardless of whether there is a weapon or not, and that the same body structures are used in empty and armed conflict.  Maul seems to spend a lot of the year travelling from country to country running seminars in the art.

Things I enjoyed:
  • 6 hours of doing nothing but physical partner-based training
  • the core principles and techniques are congruent with the core principles and techniques of my karate, so I was able to pick them up well, and not have "culture shock" as my body tried to do unusual things
  • using a knife, and actually looking at the range of motion/ability to damage that an edged weapon has
  • the directness of it all - no stuffing around, just short (time-wise), sharp, efficient technique
  • the pedagogy - I felt the seminar was structured well, we were exposed to the core principles of the techniques we were doing, the reason and intent behind all drills was well explained, and change was introduced at just the right pace for me throughout the day.

I will definitely be going back again, and highly recommend Maul's seminars.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Back to Training

I managed to return back to training for the first time this year a couple of weeks ago.  My goodness how I had missed it!

Good points from the session:
  • I retained my overall fitness, and finished the session tired, but not too drained
  • The work I had put into sanseru over my break actually paid off, and I was able to keep up with the others, and work the applications to a similar level.
  • It was my first ever black belt class and I was pleased that I was able to work at that level for the entire session
  • It was very beneficial being able to spend more than 1/2 an hour on a karate session

Things which stood out for improvement (for me)
  • Our school, while emphasising a practical, HAPV and bubishi-influenced approach, also does some sparring-specific/general techniques including the gamut of high and varied kicks.  I'm not a huge fan of these, so I spent almost no time practising them on my break.  It took me almost a week for my hamstrings and legs to settle down again!  Generally, it highlighted to me the need to practise all areas of karate, not just those I consider beneficial or important.
  • Choice of partner is important when doing paired techniques/applications.  One partner had not done one set of techniques either, and we struggled to do sufficient practice for me to fix them in my mind fully.  But he was an outstanding partner later on in a drill we had done before, and I learned a couple of new things from him during that session.  My other partner for the day was very quick on the uptake, and we were able to nut out the sequence, and then the core principles of the applications we were doing. But, she was not able (willing?) to go up to a more fluid/less compliant 'speed' once we had started grooving the technique.  After working with her, I knew the technique, but in a different way, it was not fixed in my mind fully either.  It also made me question how I am as a partner - was I doing the best I could as a partner for them and where they were, or was I being a selfish partner - all take and no give.
  • Being new to black belt, my school has a large curriculum that starts at this level.  I'm back on a very steep learning curve, and I will need to make sure I can cope with and internalise the new information I am getting.  On the technique level, in an hour and a half, I was introduced to 12 new techniques and two new applications from sanseru.  On the principle level, we ran through an application drill I already knew, but which was altered by applying a different principle of power generation. 

Did I say how glad I am to be back?

Friday, March 5, 2010

Saifa #2 - Core principles and techniques

This is my own current understanding of what is going on in saifa, based on my experience of it solo and the bunkai I have learned from it.  I haven't had a chance to talk about any of this with my instructor yet, so in a later post, I may change my views (or maybe not - I can be quite stubborn at times).

Saifa can be broken down into 6 (7 with the mawashi uke at the end) technique sequences. 

The first is the initial angled shift forwards, rotating the elbow out and stepping back into shikodachi with a backfist strike.

Sequence #2 is the up-down open hands with a kick

Sequence #3 is the double leopard-fist strike and circular fist-to-open hand motion

Sequence #4 is the turn, hammerfist and short rip.

Sequence #5 is the deflection and punch

Sequence #6 is the kosa-dachi, pivot and bringing the right arm in front of the body.

Technically, the mawashi-uke at the end would be sequence #7, but I haven't learned a saifa-specific bunkai for it, and it could fit in with the finish of Sequence #6 if you are imaginative.

So, I see 6 main technique sequences.  What do they have in common?

As I have been taught them, sequences 1, 2 and 4 are all defences against some sort of grab.  Sequence #1 is against a same-side wrist grab, #2 is against a double hand grab (of both wrists) and #4 is against a shoulder grab from behind.  As I have been taught them, sequences 3 and 5 are against punches, but could also work as effectively against lapel/throat grabs.  6 is taught as against a punch/push to the chest, but I have a theory (and only a theory, but based on similar techniques I learned doing aikido, and referencing one of the two-person drills from Choki Motobu - #12 to be precise) that it could be applied to an early attempt at a rear bear-hug.

Sequences 1,2,3 (in application, but not in the kata), 4, 5 (in application only) and 6 are all moving around/off the line of attack.  In the kata, #3 and #5 move the line of the attack off-line, but work best in application if they are accompanied with a slight angled evasion.

Why train against grabs?  Why would someone grab us?  Generally, the answer is, so they can either pull/push us off balance, or more likely, pull us into a strike of some kind.  So I see saifa as a kata where the core principles are:
 Against a grab -
move off-line to avoid the follow-up
immediately off-balance the opponent using that initial movement.

    Saturday, February 20, 2010

    Saifa #1

    My current focus of training is the kata saifa.  I know, I know, sequentially it is the first "real" kata in most goju schools and could be viewed as a poor cousin to its more glamorous and senior katas such as kururunfa or sepai, but I really, really like it.  (I haven't learned sepai yet either, so that rules that out)

    Coming from a shotokan background (and an eclectic one at that:  the only kata were 6 taikyoku and the 5 Heian - the remaining majority were not practised at any level within the organisation), saifa was a revelation to me.  Our method of training it (learning the meaning of the technique represented in the kata), the manner of body movement and the way in which it immediately "fit" with me were all pleasantly surprising. 

    For a short, relatively straightforward kata, there is a high degree of finesse and technical complexity contained within it.  It contains (apparently) relics of the old, hidden manner of passing on kata in its mis-directed head turns; the tai-sabaki concepts include direct and angled opposition, redirection and encircling methods of movement.  And at its core, it takes a direct, no nonsense approach to the age-old problem of: "oh shit!  How do I get out of this?".

    As I do more work with saifa, I will blog more on how I am viewing it, and what I am doing.

    Tuesday, February 16, 2010

    DIY Training Equipment #3 - kakete striking post (wooden dummy)

    This is actually the first piece of DIY training equipment I made.  It's just over a year old now.  I have long been attracted to the mook jong (wooden dummy of Wing Chun kungfu, and have often thought it would be useful somehow to a karateka.  But until I started doing goju, with its emphasis on close-range technique, I hadn't been able to quite work out how. 

    While the primary inspiration for me was the Wing Chun mook jong, I actually based the main part on the Choy Lay Fut mook jong which has a counterweight arm.  Under this, I put Wing Chun-like lower limbs, creating a hybrid I felt would be useful to practice the range of karate technique I wanted to.

    Then, in doing some research, I came across Mario McKenna's blog (listed on the left) in which he makes mention of the kakete.  Right! I thought, it's a valid thing to do for karate! (and it has a name into the bargain)  So I set off to make one.

    It's very, very hard to get an untreated round post.  Everything is treated with either cyanide or arsenic based compounds, none of which I want to pound into my skin.  So I opted for a 90mm (4") square fence post of untreated pine.

    At the time, I had no idea where to put it, so I opted to make a "mobile" kakete by placing the post upright in a large tub, and filling it with quick-set concrete.  A couple of cross pieces on the post help keep it firm in the concrete.   I'm using the term mobile fairly loosely, as it ended up being around70kg in finished weight.
    The centrepiece of the kakete is the swinging arm.  I made the rectangular hole by drilling out inside the hole and squaring it up with a chisel.
    You can see below how I worked out the dimensions it should be.  It gives me a nose-navel swing range, with the centre position at my solar plexus.

    It's held in place by a 100mm bolt through the arm.

    The arm itself is mountain ash, an Australian eucalypt.  The length of the arm is the same as my extended arm from my body with hips square and fist clenched.  I made the "wrist" with a jigsaw and sandpaper.

    An angled hole drilled through for the leg, and a partial hole to put in a lower arm, and the work on the body was done.  I used 30mm mountain ash dowel for the leg and PVC pipe for the lower arm (because I ran out of dowel).

    To give resistance in the main arm, I opted for a non-traditional approach, using bungy cords to give me resistance when pressing up or down on the arm.  It worked fairly well, but the degree of resistance isn't huge and the hooks I used to attach the cord keep pulling out every month or so.

    Recently, I have switched to a more traditional design, hanging 12kg of window sashes from the rear of the arm. 

    To start with, the kakete sat on the floor of my garage, and would move as I struck it.  This meant I could use it like a makiwara, and follow its movements around.  On the down side, it meant that there wasn't a great deal of horizontal resistance.

    So about 6 months ago, I buried it in the garden.  Now it is solid, provides good resistance, but has no give so isn't the best for makiwara-work.

    I have also built an additional piece that slots in, in place of the main arm, converting the kakete into a wing chun dummy.  I have found that different kata lend themselves to this:  tensho, for instance, works very well with the single arm, but seienchin works best with the double arm arrangement.

    Friday, February 12, 2010

    Why do kata?

    Because I am doing karate, it follows that I am also doing kata.  It is one of the few things that all karate styles, schools and organisations have in common (daido juku notwithstanding).  It doesn't seem to matter as to what use you have for them, but if you're not doing kata, you're not doing karate.

    Beyond the definitional usefulness, why do kata?  For most karateka, there will be several reasons, but usually one will predominate.  I have considered these as stereotypical schools, but in reality, there will be elements of several in any karate organisation/dojo.

    So, why do kata?

    For some schools it is, in the immortal words of Tevier, "Tradition!".  It was passed on to them by their sensei, or their sensei's sensei, or from the founder of the style himself.  They do it because they do it.  There doesn't need to be rhyme or reason to how or why kata is included beyond this.

    For others, it is art.  For these and the next category, kata are "performed".  How it looks is of prime importance and the form of a kata gazumps its function every time.  For many of these schools, there is no functionality.  It's not needed, and gets in the way of a good performance.

    The other performance schools are those for whom kata is a competitive endeavour.  The kata's function is to be honed to a finely crafted piece of performance where each millimetre of positioning of the limbs and body is crucial.  Why do certain movements in a certain way?  Because that is the ideal that the kata is being judged against.

    Some schools use kata as curricular material; thus on discussion fora you will see people discussing which kata they are learning for their next grading, or the scandalous occurence of a brown belt performing a (in hushed tones) "black belt kata!".  Kata for these schools are a means of enforcing an hierarchy and creating a sense of "secret" knowledge, in that only certain levels have access to certain information.  In order to gain this information, the karateka needs to toe the party line and rise through the ranks, gathering their knowledge piece by precious piece.  The functionality in the kata is there as a discriminator.  People who have learned their kata this way tend to get irritated or even outraged if others learn the kata out of turn, or "before their time".

    For others, kata are a form of martially-oriented calisthenics.  The stances are exaggerated to enhance their difficulty, and vigour and repetition are promoted as of prime importance.  The techniques exist to be physically demanding of the practitioner.

    Then there are the schools for whom the kata is a catalogue of martial techniques and principles.  The kata contain the means to deal successfully with any attack.  Diligent practice and analysis of the kata will provide the keys to these techniques.

    Superficially identical, but in reality almost the opposite are the schools for whom kata are a solo form of practising techniques and principles.  The difference is, is that the techniques are already being practised and honed in partner-training, and the kata hone the techniques and allow them to be practised alone.  Analysis of the kata is not a major focus as the techniques and principles are known and already being trained regularly.

    Which school(s) do you belong to?  Are there any I have missed?

    Saturday, February 6, 2010

    DIY Training Equipment #2 - Makiage

    I first got the idea for this from an article by Michael Clarke in Blitz Magazine, and have since refined it after purchasing and reading his book "Hojo Undo - Power Training for Traditional Karate" (a book I would highly recommend, by the way).

    It's a wrist and forearm conditioner.  You hold it between the hands, and roll the weight up, then down.  After 2 or 3 times doing this, while trying to keep it steady, you can really feel it working.  I use it with hands in the sanchin ready pose, both palms up and palms down, which gives the shoulders and lats a bit of a workout too.

    Construction was from a scrap of 30mm Mountain Ash dowel I had lying around, some 4mm polypropelene rope and 5kg in dumbbell weights.  A hole drilled through the dowel, and voila, a makiage.

    The makiage is one of my favourite tools, probably because I like to get close and offbalance/interrupt my opponent by grabbing and pulling, pushing or turning.

    Tuesday, February 2, 2010

    DIY Training Equipment #1 - Punching Bag

    Being of a frugal and handy nature, I have made many of my training aids myself.  One of the first that I constructed was a heavy punching/kicking bag.

    New ones of any size cost around $150-$250.  This is money I don't have, and couldn't really justify at this point in time anyway.  So I scrounged around and found enough material to make a functional bag.

    I used an old brazilian hammock (without the wooden spreader), a 25kg bag of sand, a couple of rubbish bags, lots of old curtains and a couple of rolls of duct tape.

    To construct it, I taped up the bag of sand into the rubbish bags securely, then wrapped it in about 10cm thickness of old heavy curtains.  This gave me the core of my bag.  I folded the hammock in half, and placed a large wad of curtain in the bottom of the fold.  Then, I hung the hammock by its ends from the garage ceiling and tightly wrapped it up with duct tape, stuffing more curtains around and over the top of it.  Finally, I did a second layer of duct tape, making sure there were no sticking out seams or rucked-up bits.

    You can see the result here.  It weighs approximately 35kg and is about 1.5m long.  It hits well and my kicking is improving markedly now I have an appropriate target to work with.  The bottom third of the bag is very dense, and if I were to build it again, I would have divided the sand up, so it was in two bags, and distributed them better along the length of the heavy bag.  The duct tape surface is smooth and doesn't wear or catch at the knuckles, but can get slippery with sweat.  Still, for $8 for the tape, and the rest from junk lying around the place, it's not too bad.

    Wednesday, January 27, 2010

    Kihon: basic or fundamental?

    In stereotypical Japanese karate, the three pillars of karate education are said to be kihon, kata and kumite.   Okinawan karate has a different emphasis, with greater regard being given to things such as hojo undo and analysis of kata technique/principles.  Still, common to all is the practice of isolated techniques such as punches, blocks and kicks: kihon.

    In English, I often see kihon translated as "basics" or basic techniques.  (a disclaimer: I have no ability with the Japanese language.  Just as my Italian is limited to a few musical terms, so my Japanese is limited to the smattering of martial arts terminology that most karateka pick up along the way.  This post is going to be entirely not based in my deep understandings of the Japanese language.)   And indeed that is how I practiced the majority of my karate for several years when I learned shotokan.  A typical training session would spend the major portion of the time stepping forward with oi-tsuki, and back with gyaku-tsuki (or one of the 4 "basic" blocks).  In my first month of training, I estimate I did at least a couple of thousand punches.  In this way, I learned how to kick, block and punch.  While my shotokan training was with a small independent group, my brief experience with the JKA indicated that very little was different in their approach to training.

    What is the rationale behind this, and what effect does it have on the mind of the practitioner?  It was explained to me that we focused so much on the basics:
    • in order to perform the practised techniques without conscious thought
    • to produce the "perfect" technique
    • because the concept of ikken hisatsu (one strike, one kill) was to be found in the perfect technique, and that training in this manner would develop the appropriate skill and mindset (I suppose, because we would do each technique as an isolated instance that was training the one hit side of things?)

    For the most part, kihon training was done, because that's what you did.  It was an end in itself.

    In my current goju training we perform kihon as well, although for a much reduced portion of training time.  Similarly we perform many of the techniques in isolation and mostly into the air (although we do sometimes use pads/hands as impact targets).  There are a few differences though in how I do kihon in my new dojo compared to how I originally did it:
    • more techniques are practiced
    • the aim is to develop the techniques so that students understand how to do them.  Then, they apply them in paired work/kata/flow drills.  The technique is not the end in itself
    • The kihon techniques are themselves being used to teach and reinforce certain core principles of movement.  Shifting, body alignment, hip use etc... are the (deliberate) foci

    If you were to take a snapshot of kihon training at the two dojo, they would look pretty much the same.  The difference, for me, is in the way in which kihon is being viewed.  In one, kihon means basic, as in simple or not complex.  In the other, it means basic, as in fundamental, underpinning everything.  I know which I prefer, and I definitely know which improves me more.

    Monday, January 25, 2010

    Going Solo

    Currently I am solo training.  My last karate lesson was my grading in December.  While classes begin again next week, I won't be attending for at least another 2-3 months, as my youngest daughter was born only 4 weeks ago.  Until she is sleeping, and my wife and I have worked out a stable routine, I'm on my own.

    Training alone has certain advantages and disadvantages, and it is the disadvantages that more immediately spring to mind.  I, like most people, am a creature of routine, and having set times to train and a purposed location to do so in make it easier for me to do so.  When I'm training at the dojo, my sensei has prepared the program for the evening and is in charge of timing, intensity and content.  I need do nothing except concentrate on my training.  I'm around others, so there are the external pressures of the  peer group and not wishing to let down/appear weaker in front of friends and colleagues. There is also the positive motivation of working with others, and the absolutely essential reason for having a partner:  someone to practice on!  And I get feedback from more experienced heads.  I get none of these training solo.

    Not having a structure is a distinct disadvantage.  My sensei has a sound grasp of the pedagogy of karate instruction, and lessons have a reason for being, and interrelationships in content/purpose within lessons, between lessons and between semesters.  Basically, my solo training has none of this unless I come up with these myself. 

    Not being at the dojo means I am not exposed to the 'new' or to further explorations of what is already known.  I'm a shodan (brand new at that) in this style of karate, and have had no exposure to 4 of the system's kata.  Our school also has a number of shorin kata in the system as well as some kobudo, that only commence post-black belt.  My exposure to the rest of the curriculum is stagnating.

    So what are some of the advantages?  The first one that comes to mind is ownership.  When I train by myself, I feel and am in charge.  I am responsible for how hard, how well and how much I do.  For me, it means the level of seriousness I take to my training is just that little bit more (not that I am not serious in the dojo; but alone, I have no-one else driving me or taking care of the lesson so I have to be more aware and switched-on).

    Flexibility in time is another advantage.  I am finding that I cannot currently fit in a 2-hour session in around my other commitments, but I am able to fit 2 hours in to the day; 10 minutes here, 1/2 an hour there.  I am finding that for technical issues, this can be advantageous, as problems I had earlier in the day have been resolved by my subconscious in the interim, and are easier to work through in a later session.

    The preciousness of time was an unforseen  advantage .  Because I often only get snatches of time, I am more determined to use them to the best of my ability, rather than just go through the motions.

    Being able to tailor my training to my perceived weaknesses (and strengths) is another advantage of going it alone.  For instance, my weakest kata is currently Saifa, but at the dojo, it seienchin is the current focus.  So, at the moment, I'm concentrating on Saifa - breaking it down, practicing it more frequently than the other kata, looking at the whys of my points of failure in it. 

    In my solo training, I am better able to explore and understand what I have already learned and been exposed to.  I have the time to examine and practise more closely the different techniques, principles and concepts that form the mudansha curriculum.  I means I can go from having seen, to knowing, to being able to do, to being able to explain.  This is very useful for me, as I still have a number of bad habits to unlearn and replace with better ones!  This is very hard to do in a formal class, but by myself I can concentrate and work slowly on doing so.

    The final advantage for me is one that could very easily become a disadvantage.  I like being able to have a different focus or routine each time I train, and I can do that and do it easily training solo.  But it is all too easy to just do the things I like, instead of the things I need to do.  Stretching and warm-ups spring to mind. 

    Having said all that, I miss the dojo!

    Saturday, January 23, 2010

    Why this blog?

    Why do we need another blog on karate on the internet?  There are many people with decades more of experience than me, who have trained with famous people or who have had more frequent encounters with "the real world" of violence.  So why bother?

    There are a few reasons, I suppose.  Firstly, I think my thoughts and experiences have merit, at least enough to put out there to the rest of the world.  Secondly, I have stopped formal training for around 6 months, with the birth of our second daughter.  I need an outlet for my addiction!

    I am also the consummate lurker on martial arts blogs and fora; I regularly scan and follow about a dozen at any one time.  I guess this blog is a way of me giving back.  It can be a daunting process joining in on a discussion topic on a forum; this blog is a more accommodating way for me to contribute.

    Finally, I am at a stage where I am trying to work out and organise my own understanding of my karate; what it is, why it is, where it's going.  And there's a lot to try and understand.  Writing it down, and putting it where others can comment/critique can only help me.  It will also keep me honest!

    I hope (at least some!) people will read this blog at least occasionally, and hopefully even get something from it.  If not, then I will still be getting something out of it through the act of having to think and write. 

    Karate without thought is just exercise.  Karate with only thought is mental masturbation.

    the first post

    Hello everyone (assuming anyone's reading),

    My name's Michael and I'm a shodan (first level black belt) in goju karate.  That's why I've called this blog "First Steps" as I've just taken mine. 

    As part of my grading, I was asked what gaining shodan meant, and I replied that it was that I was to take responsibility for my own karate learning.  This blog is the intellectual part of that self-responsibility.  It is where I will attempt to articulate my changing understandings of pretty much everything, and anything martial that I am thinking about or experiencing.

    It hardly needs saying, but: All opinions/thoughts in this blog are mine and mine alone.  They should not reflect adversely on the many instructors I have had over the years, but are my own experiments in understanding this thing called karate.

    Enjoy!  I'll try and update at least twice a week (but more infrequently, if I have nothing worthwhile to say.  This blog is an exercise in self-improvement, not in blogging practice).