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).