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.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Seienchin Part 2

This is now a multi-part series.  You can find
Part 1
Part 3
Part 4 here

So, finally, I have found some time to think some more about seienchin. As usual, my reason for doing these posts is to help myself make sense of what is happening in the kata and to explore different possibilities.  I am expecting to make mistakes and to pursue leads which go nowhere, but that's what happens when we learn.

I took a video of myself doing the kata, and have attached it here.  As is usual, I have noticed quite a few things wrong with it and have fixed them up somewhat as a result (after all, isn't that the whole point of video-taping yourself?), but haven't had a chance to tape myself again.  Some things to note are that my arms are pushing too far forward in the double triangle "block" in Section A, and my hands are meant to be sweeping across high and low, not along a single mid-line in the two backward steps in shikodachi at the start of Section C.

I will concentrate in this post on Section A of the kata

Section A:
Three angled forward steps in shikodachi - each single step has multiple hand techniques attached; then a composite portion with a short "head" involving rapid back/forward movement in natural/han-zenkutsudachi at the top of the spine.

Since writing my first post on seienchin I have attended a 2-day seminar with Masaaji Taira sensei of the Jundokan.  He is renowned for his development of flow drills for the goju kata and one of the ones we explored at the seminar was his flow drill for seienchin.  Section A in his flow drill is a defence and follow-up to both wrists being grabbed.  The Jundokan version of Seienchin (seiyunchin) kata is slightly different from the version I know.  The main two differences are in the very first movement of arms.  In the version I know and practice the forearms are angled out from the body, in the same plane as a chudan uke (but still turned in so that the arms form a triangle.  The feeling is a strong "out".  In the Jundokan version  the forearms still form a triangle, but they angle in towards the body, almost brushing the chest.  The feeling here is almost identical to the feeling from the Yoshinkan aikido  solo-training exercise, hiriki-no-yosei-ichi (but held lower and closer to the body)

The second main difference is in the nukite "strike".   In the version I know, the nukite comes out from the body, and in the Jundokan it goes across the body.

I like Taira sensei's entire flow drill.  I like it a lot and it has found a permanent place in my mental and actual practice of this kata.  Its technique sequence for Section A is logical, immediate and realistic in how it makes sense of an entire suite of movements for each of the shikodachi steps.  The one "weakness" (if I can call it that) is in the way the nukite is utilised, as a punch to the midriff.  While I have absolutely no problems with the concept of a nukite (or any other attack) being generally representative of any attack at the level it occurs, I do wonder why the kata would not just contain a punch there instead.

Having said that, the way I have learned (and continue to approach) the opening section of this kata is that each shikodachi step contains a series of separate techniques.  The opening shift to 45deg. indicates moving off the line of an attack but doing so towards the opponent (if that makes sense).  Each separate movement of the arms can be interpreted as a technique, or they can be combined together.  If we view them as separate movements, each movement can make use of the 45deg. shift, not just the very first triangle block.

The triangle "block" can be interpreted as a simultaneous block-and-strike of an incoming attack.  The rear hand intercepts the incoming strike (on its inside), while the lead hand attacks the throat/face/chest of the attacker.  I like this as a concept for a number of reasons;
firstly it works against pretty much any attack above the navel; and it works equally well against curved or straight attacks
secondly, it puts pressure on the attacker and gains the initiative
thirdly, it works against grabs (both single and double) to the chest or arms
fourthly, it works if they attack from a distance, or from a very close range.  From a close range, the angled shift can incorporate an attack to their lead leg (although this needs a crescent step or staying on the opponent's outside to work well)
fifthly, this as an attack can either be a finisher, but if things go wrong, it flows well into the next arm movement. (which can then be interpreted as a variant upward elbow wrap): 

In isolation, the second movement of section (from the triangle block position, sweep down, into the belly and up) doesn't seem to make a lot of sense.  It works well as a follow-on to the first movement, as mentioned above.  With the first movement used as a wedge to a strangle or double grab, the second can become a clearing motion of the attacker's arms.  Better, it can be used to trap the arms in an elbow-press, with subsequent throw/offbalancing of the attacker (leading into the third movement).

I will continue this train of thought in a subsequent post...

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

more sanchin

I did some sanchin training with my instructor today - checking out stance, transitions and turns.  My body structure is improving, but needs a little more work on extending/lengthening my spine.  Stepping, I am bobbing a  bit much from the knees, and punching I am not extending enough, with a slight disconnect between my body and arm.

In fact, extension is the main thing I need to improve on at this stage.  I am getting the grounding OK, but extension is one of the major things sanchin is about (much like happoren).  As my sensei said, the three battles are "concentration, breathing and ex-tension".

Sunday, May 15, 2011

DIY Training Equipment #4 - Training Weapons

I have been attending some silat seminars recently and, with my sensei becoming increasingly involved in learning silat, I have made myself some training knives. It seems a waste to go to a seminar and then not practise the techniques or principles learned - a waste of money, of my time and of the instructor's time.

So, at the last silat seminar we did some golok (machete) work - no "techniques" as such, just basic stances, basic cuts and some djurus/flow drills with the basic counters to the basic cuts.  At the seminar I only had a stick, which is less than optimal as it is hard to get the correct feel of blade direction through the air.

So, after looking at some of the goloks that others had at the seminar, I made a couple out of 12mm plywood, with polypropelene rope handles.

They are modelled on a machete I used as a teenager to hack through blackberry and ragwort on my parents' property.  The blade length is my fingertip-elbow length.  They are a little lighter than a real machete, but not by much - the added thickness makes up for the less dense material.

It makes a huge difference in training having a blade-shape to swing.  It moves through the air differently, and if you are off-angle, both the feel in the hand and the sound it makes through the air let you know straight away you are doing it wrong.  Much better than trying to train using a stick.

The training knife I made out of one of the offcuts, and is modelled on an aluminium training knife I have.  It actually sits better in the hand, even though it is lighter than the metal one.

So now, I have two training goloks and two training knives - why two?  So that I can practice with the other people from my dojo the two-person drills.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

What is ki?

One of the perennial questions in the martial arts is "What is chi/qi/ki?"  Does it really exist, what does it do, how does it work?

There have been a few posts on this topic on forums I frequent, and I'm posting here an expanded response I made on one of them.

I identify different ways of defining ki/chi/qi.

  • Ki that is a visualisation aid or metaphor for what the body is doing ("sink your ki into the ground", feel your energy shoot along your arm and out your little finger") I have no problems with as they can, depending on the person, aid in getting the correct technique or feeling better than, say, explaining something in anatomical terms.   Personally, I sometimes visualise a flowing, glowing line in my mind's eye when putting on certain locks and holds; it helps me get the correct bits in the correct place with the correct rhythm, but it's a way of mentally processing what I should be doing, rather than a causative factor.
  • Ki as a direct analogue of "energy".  There's a good entry on this at This would be the viewpoint I take as my primary one and my martial arts practice is aimed at becoming more efficient and effective in my application of energy/force through my training
  • Ki as part of a paradigm for explaining how things work (such as providing a life force or explaining why certain maladies exist in the body).  This sort of ki I put in the same basket as the humours, phlogiston, the aether or miasma. (Subsequent discoveries and paradigms with more evidence/explanatory power have superceded them, and shown them to be incorrect in their explanations of why things have happened) 
This is the one that annoys me especially when people use the language of the current paradigm to explain how ki actually does exist.  "Bioelectricity" is a particular annoyance, as is the idea that it is an energy which cannot be measured . 

I have seen these phrases and explanations in many places and from many authors, most recently by Kris Wilder in "The Way of Sanchin Kata" and by Jwing Ming Yang in "Essence of Shaolin White Crane.  But bioelectricity is just electricity that is produced by living things.  We all make it, it's easy to measure (an 8 buck multimeter from Dick Smith and some water to wet your hands with, and you too can see your electricity levels - it's the basis of the lie detector) and it has a known "circuit" in the body. We call it the nervous system. 

We also know that some organisms can use and detect this bioelectricity - sharks can sense electric fields of their prey, as can platypus; torpedo rays and electric eels can use it to stun their prey at a distance.  And all of them have specialised organs and other anatomical features to do this (and mostly live in the water - a torpedo ray can try and shock you on land all it wants; unless you're touching it you won't get shocked). 

Humans have none of these things, and the claims made for any type of ki that is based on biolelectricity or on remote transference of "life force" have no actual evidence-based testing to distinguish them from normal biomechanical or psychological causes. (or even a working definition of "life force" that can stand up to objective scrutiny:  see  - 
warning: gore alert)

  • Ki as a way of saying "I don't know" but sounding as though you actually do.  People in authority don't like to admit they are ignorant or wrong, particularly those (as is often the case in the martial arts) whose authority stems from their perceived greater knowledge-base.  I have a distinct dislike of this one as well, not only for its innate dishonesty but also because when someone says "It's because of ki", the listeners then add extra meaning to the phrase that cannot have been there originally, as "I don't know" only means that - not that it can't be explained, not that it is contrary to what we do know, not that it is magical or spiritual - it only means we are unable to explain it at this point in time.  Something similar has happened to the term "UFO", which means we don't know what the flying thing was that we saw.  Nowadays, with added meaning, people who hear "UFO" think "alien".

Thursday, April 28, 2011


This is now a multi-part series.  You can find
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4 here

I have been doing a lot of seienchin (seiyunchin) lately - it's my kata of the month, and one that I've identified as needing a bit of work on anyway.

This is the first in a series of posts on how I view seienchin; the principles it contains, the applications that can be associated with/extracted from it (both those I have been taught, and those I can find); the mechanics of performing it and how it compares with other kata.

The aim behind these is for me to explore and learn a bit more through the writing of these posts, so take them for what you will - my musings on and exploration of something I don't know much about (yet).


Seienchin, as I understand it, is unique amongst the non-tensho/sanchin goju kata because it doesn't have any kicks in it.  Like sepai, sanseru and shisochin, it does not finish with mawashi-uke/tora-guchi; but it does finish in neko-ashi dachi, the same as all the others except sanseru and suparimpei  (and tensho and sanchin of course).  It is typified by the majority of the kata being performed in shikodachi, more so (as a proportion) than any other of the goju kata.  This gives the first hint about what the kata contains; shikodachi generally indicates a takedown or off-balancing of the opponent.  Seienchin then, contains a large number of techniques that should work at close-range to off-balance/throw an opponent.

Why doesn't seienchin have any kicks in it?  My feeling on this is based on the range at which the kata takes place - too close for kicking.  Instead, the legs are used to push against the opponent's legs, taking their balance in that way.  There are also spaces provided in the kata for attacks with the legs to take place (knees, sweeps, low kicks), they are just not emphasised.

Seinchin as a kata has 5 main sections:
  1. Three angled forward steps in shikodachi - each single step has multiple hand techniques attached; then a composite portion with a short "head" involving rapid back/forward movement in natural/han-zenkutsudachi at the top of the spine.
  2. Two angled forward/back "arms" in shikodachi. These "arms move away from the origin at 45deg. And then back along the line to the spine.  Each step has synchronous hand movements.
  1. A straight-back down the spine in shikodachi (same movement repeated each side), then forward along the spine to end with a hammerfist and kiai. Generally, hand and foot are synchronised.
  1. A composite section stepping 45deg diagonally (in the direction of the kata origin) off the spine, forward/back in shikodachi.  Then, coming backwards in neko-ashi-dachi along the spine towards the kata origin.  Then, turning and repeating the section on the opposite side of the spine.  Hand and foot techniques are synchronised.  Section C forms an arrow-shape.
  2. A short end section, with one step forward along the spine, and one back to finish. Hand and foot are synchronised.

Seen from the top, seienchin has the general shape of an X on a stick.  I have no idea if there is anything of significance in this shape (probably not).

Part 2 to follow sometime soon, in which I post me performing the kata and ramble on about what I think the bits of section A mean.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Imaging and imagining technique

Recently (the last year or so), I started doing something different when effectively applying a technique.  I would get an image in my head of how the technique should feel - mostly as some sort of flowing line, combined with sensations along parts of the line.  Depending on the technique, there might be loops, a fulcrum or two, or branching or steps.

It's very weird, but whenever I do the technique with that image in mind, it almost always works exactly as it should.  Now, when I am learning techniques, I try and work out what its image should be, and I find that doing so allows me to pick it up quicker - If an image looks forced or doesn't hang together, I tend to find that I'm doing the technique wrong.

Mental imaging as a way of helping to understand and guide the body through a technique is something I have seen mostly mentioned with regard to kata practise, where one is often exhorted to imagine they are being attacked by opponents, and to work out how the movements of the kata might be a response to those attacks.  This imagining is something I have indulged in for years, almost from the moment of starting karate, and indeed I have found that running through a kata/technique or two in real-time in my mind before going to sleep helps me to improve my ability in doing that kata or technique the next time I actually do it.  It doesn't beat the real thing, but I find that it allows me to nut out problems I have, and use time that isn't normally available, for training.

But this whole imaging thing is new to me; it wasn't a conscious decision on my part to do it, it's just something that my brain has thrown up of its own accord.  I'm interested to see what it comes up with next.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Silat Suffian Seminar

I had the good fortune to attend a 2-day seminar this weekend with guru Maul Mornie of Silat Suffian Bela Diri.  It's a Bruneian martial art and mostly weapons-based.

This weekend, we did knife-knife, knife-hand and machete work.  It was my first time working with machete (apart from my teen years hacking acres of blackberry) and although we didn't progress much beyond the fundamentals with it, I still found it fascinating.

We started Saturday with an hour and a half of basic drills - the basic cuts with a knife (over/fore, back, thrust), and the basic defenses against those attacks.  These formed the basis of the rest of the seminar.

It was interesting to me that all basics began as knife v. knife.  Everything we did for the seminar (even the empty hand v. knife) went back to this basic premise.  It was also interesting to my uneducated viewpoint (I have done bugger-all knife work before) that the knife was never used to block/check/intercept the incoming knife (no metal on metal).  As almost all my previous weapons work has been sticks of varying lengths or with bokken, I am used to using a weapon to deal with a weapon as a normal response.  Although I did not ask about this, two potential reasons were highlighted.  The first was to do with initiative and simultaneous attacks - using the knife (or machete) to defend the incoming attack puts you back to square #1 - neither has the initiative, and it is slower/harder to counter-attack.  Using the empty hand to deal with their incoming attack means that your knife can immediately attack them, thus gaining the initiative.  The second was to do with the risk of damaging or breaking the weapon with a metal-metal clash.

The initial drilling was broken down, first as single attack-response flow drills for the 3 attacks, then combined, then footwork added, then the same drill with knife v. open hand.  As far as I can make out, the reason for this is several fold:  to give a sense of how to read the body-language of an attack from a particular angle (and it worked pretty well - we were giving full-motion attacks in this drill, and by Sunday afternoon when people were tired and not thinking, and giving short attacks that were not what the technique practised was, I was finding I could read and intercept them fairly well); to familiarise ourselves with a blade coming towards us so that we desensitise and lose our fear (while still maintaining a healthy respect for the weapon); to develop a natural, unthinking response to any particular attack; and to provide a foundational platform for the rest of the seminar.  On the Sunday, we also started morphing these into 'freeform' drills, where any attack, in any order could be thrown.  The drills were designed to deflect/control initially, and worked well against multiple attempts (eg. 'pistoning' stabs)

One thing that attracts me to Silat Suffian Bela Diri is the foundational 'simplicity' of it.  Everything we did or saw this weekend was based around these basics.  The footwork, stance, everything sprang from these basics.  And there was a lot of apparently complex stuff, but throughout, there werethe foundations at its core.  On the topic of 'fear' in the paragraph above, the body structure and maintenance of an appropriate body structure seem essential to make this martial art 'work' as efficiently and effectively as Maul was showing; a 'fearful' reaction (flinching the body away, for instance) would break that and concede initiative to the attacker.

As we were doing these basics, there were a number of different training approaches taking place.  We were made to change partners regularly, to talk to our partners while we performed the drill, and to make sure we were jumbled close in with other training pairs so that we became used to acting in a busy, imperfect environment.  Other variants included trying to do the drill while keeping an eye out for Maul as he wandered around with a pool noodle, whacking those whose back was to him; it was a good way to train out of weapons-focus, and simultaneously practise moving your opponent while still performing the drills.

Sunday to start was similar, except we did machete fundamentals.  Again, very similar to knife, but with its own unique aspects due to the length and nature of the weapons.

Maul Mornie is as good a martial artist as I have ever seen.  He has that quality of making absolutely anything he does look effortless, regardless of his partner.  He also (and this is from the viewpoint of a teacher) has a very sound ability to explain how and why he is able to do things to his audience.  This was reflected, not only in his immediate teaching of techniques, but also in the structure of the seminar, where what we did in the first hour of the first day, was built on and still used in the last hour of the last day.  We not only did lots of "what" (10 hours of partner-training) but we also had a highly structure "why" and "how" built in.  It was as good an instructional session in a physical pursuit as I have ever attended (and I've done a lot over the years, not just martial arts).  The focus of the seminar as far as I could make out was to introduce the foundations of the art - it was not a specific self-defense focus, and not a senior-students-only focus.

As we moved into techniques, what struck me was how from the instant of contact, the opponent's body-structure was broken/controlled, and this was not lost for a moment until after completion of the technique.  Maul seems to have an inexhaustable supply of techniques, but what was revealing was how he would demonstrate the technique we were to perform (often explaining the salient principles to get out of it), then would say 'but in reality', and show how with a knife in hand, that technique is unnecessary as they have been cut/stabbed in an instant.  The techniques were not the point: the principles that underlay them are. 

As far as the techniques themselves went, many were superficially familiar to me from my other arts.  But, I found doing them as Maul showed to be, well, better.  There are at least three techniques (2 armbars, one takedown) that I am never doing the old way again (unless I need to for a grading, but since my sensei feels the same way, I doubt I will).  I fell in love with the efficiency and control that was inherent in them, and sprang from the fundamentals we had been practising all morning.  And yet as I said before, the techniques were not there to be "this is what you do", they were to instill the core principles of the style.

A number of the techniques were presented to us as "empty drills"; that is, they were to practise something in a perfect environment so that it became a commonplace response for us that could later be used as a need arose in a chaotic environment.  The nature of the seminar was not to do that, but we were encouraged in our own training to view them as such and to work with them in chaotic/resistive/novel situations.

It may be that I was in a receptive frame of mind, as I have been practising recently in throwing and offbalancing people more regularly, but as the seminar progressed, some of the principles of how to break a person's body structure and offbalance them really started to click with me.  It was that classic moment of something that had seemed so complex suddenly becoming so simple that I almost felt stupid I hadn't got it before.

Basically, I had a ball.  I ended up sore (but in a good way), tired, and a better martial artist than I was at the start of the weekend.  It  was a privilege to see an expert in their art at work, and a pleasure training with so many different people from many different arts.  Maul Mornie is returning in July, and I'm definitely going again.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Thoughts on daily training so far

Now that I've been going for a couple of months, my thoughts and attitudes to daily training are changing. 

Organisation of time is so important - without my weekly schedule, I would waste each session by frittering away my time wondering what to do next.  But more organisation is needed within session.  Without someone else to motivate me, I need to break my sessions down in more detail so I can actually get maximum benefit from what I am doing.  How to push myself well beyond my comfort zone without anyone else there (either to push me by direction, or through competition) is still problematic to me.

One side-effect of my daily training is that I find I now have the time to iron out flaws in what I am doing; a change from only training a few times a week, where I am mostly concerned with learning new things.  One thing I am trying to avoid, however, is doing to much of anything on autopilot - I am attempting to train mindfully.  This is having a flowover effect in my training during karate lessons, where what I am working on by myself is not necessarily what is being worked on in class, and yet I am loath to change what I am focusing on, because I am seeing the benefits of it. 

Another side-effect that I didn’t initially expect, is that I'm actually working on fewer things, not more.  I expected to be going through all the kata I know on a regular basis (13 + the beijing 24 + baduanjin), but I am mostly concentrating on 4 of them:  tensho, sanchin, sanseru, happoren, with more than half my kata time spent on these.  The majority of the rest of that time has been spent on saifa and seisan.  I just seem to be ironing out problems better using these kata, and the few times I am practising the others, they seem to be improving parallel to my improvements* in the more practised kata.

The hardest thing is not getting out there and training, it's trying to train with all the bloody mosquitos around!  With all the rain that Melbourne has had this summer, and with the Yarra and Wetlands less than 100m from our back garden, I have spent most of the last couple of months trying to fend of the little bastards.  Every step in sanchin has been accompanied by a small cloud of them leaving my ankles momentarily only to descend again as I settle in to place.  Thank goodness with the cooler weather, they seem to be diminishing in numbers.

*by improvements I am talking about power generation, body structure, flow of technique, weight distribution and not about how it looks - that improves as a corollary of the other things

Thursday, March 17, 2011

75 days in - a New Year's Resolution Update

A brief update on my New Year's Resolution to train at least once every day of the year.  Well, I have failed.  Not miserably, but I missed training on Saturday.

In my defense, I did 6 hours of gardening - shifting soil and mulch, pruning and mowing; and then went out for dinner and a movie.  However, I knew that this was going to happen and didn't plan around it (Actually, I had intended to get up around 6:30 to do some taiji, but my youngest had me up at 1am and 4:30am, so that fell through).

So, I have done 74 of a possible 75 days so far - still on track to top 360, and I should break 300 days without any problems.  I know at the start of the year, I thought that would be acceptable, but now I'm in the rhythm of daily training, I will be disappointed if I don't get to at least 350 days.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Karate and Evolution

Karate and Evolution.

Over on the Blitzmag forum, I have been peripherally involved in a few conversations recently regarding karate, its efficacy, what constitutes "real" karate, and the concept that much karate that is being done is either not true to its origins (either okinawan, or if talking about okinawan karate, to China), or not true to the principles of "real" karate.

What follows are my musings on issues and points raised in some of those conversations, from an evolutionary perspective. None of which, by the by, is of the least importance to the training or practise of karate. (And is, quite possibly, very wrong).  But it's fun to think about.

Social v. biological evolution.

Evolution in biology is inter-generational and Darwinian - in other words, the inheritance of characteristics caused by genetic mutation and 'favoured' over other characteristics in a population due to the influence of selection pressures.  Individuals cannot evolve; their genetic information is passed to the next generation, assuming selection pressures permit this to occur.

Social evolution is both inter- and intra-generational and  Lamarkian; individuals, societies, modes of learning or doing can all change within their own lifetime, as well as passing on their characteristics to the next generation.  Lamarkian evolution is often simplified as the inheritance of acquired characteristics - the thought experiment of giraffes reaching for leaves in the treetops, and passing their stretched necks onto their offspring is the classic example given.  Selection pressures are still a part of Lamarkian evolution, and play a similar role.

And unlike in biological evolution, where genetic information tends not to cross between species or between higher taxon (with some exceptions), in social evolution, cross-pollination and re-fertilising from outside can and does occur.

Mainline, Offshoots and Diversity

In one thread , "Magpie" wrote the following:

The JKA style of shotokan karate which has Funakoshi as the master, and Nakayama as the innovator.    And:

 I dont like shotokai at all, shotokan and shotokai may have come from the same background but they are like chalk and cheese to me, totally different in everything.

In the same post, implying that JKA is the true, undiluted line and shotokai is, by implication, not of the true line and therefore not an authentic example of Funakoshi-line karate.

One way to view this, and I get the impression that this is Magpie's view (although I stand to be corrected) might look like this:

The mainline of JKA is a seamless whole from inception to currency; other "breakaways" are like sideshoots that are not as valid or "authentic" as their parent.

From an evolutionary viewpoint, this is not so. The splitting of one karate group into another can be likened to a speciation event.  One species, with a degree of diversity within its population is separated by some sort of barrier (physical, behavioural, physiological) that causes them to diverge from each other over time.  Neither is the superior, each is adapted to their own particular set of environmental pressures.

If we were to view the same splitting from an evolutionary perspective, it might look something like:

As you can see, JKA and Shotokai diverged at the same point; each are equally related to the 'common ancestor', Funakoshi-ha shotokan.  By the same token, so are all the other offshoots on the JKA side of the tree.  None is more or less 'mainline' than any other.

The number of splits in the tree do not indicate distance from the common ancestor.  Shotokai is not closer or "more pure" than JKA because there is only one split between it and its progenitor, whereas the tree shows half a dozen between JKA.  The true measure on this type of tree is distance from the point of origin.  Shotokai and JKA (and every other group on the tree) are identically distant.

A view such as this makes no claims to degree of similarity to the "original" common ancestor.  What is most likely, is that none of them are.  Generally, every modern day 'species' will have certain features inherited from their common ancestor, but will have their own unique features that are the result of adaptations to their own unique history and environmental exposure.

The degree of difference from the features of the common ancestor is influenced by the strength of the environmental pressures.  In martial arts, these pressures include the other martial experiences of the founder/senior students, societal constraints or cultural differences due to the art being taught outside its country of origin.  So, conceivably some lines could retain more of the ancestral features than others if they are subject to different types or strengths of environmental pressures.

This is a common claim of many martial arts - that of "purity" or "as taught by the founder".  Again, evolutionary theory can be used to show why this may never be the case.  In biology, in the absence of a directional selection pressure, evolution (as measured by genetic or phenotypic change in a population from one generation to another) can still occur.  The mechanism that causes this is known as genetic drift, and is caused by random mutations in DNA that are known to occur at a relatively constant rate. 

Genetic Drift, as applied to a martial art (or any other generational social activity where oral/personal transmission is the norm) can lead to differences in techniques or kata, or differing emphasis on certain principles or training methodology.  This is where Magpie's line about JKA and Shotokai ring true - they do have different approaches, but neither can honestly claim to be any closer to the original than the other.

Progress in evolution, Point of Origin and Diversity.

In the same thread, another poster, baihe, commented to the effect that he had been to Okinawa and that Okinawan Karate was "dead".  The implication being that if real, living karate couldn't be found in its place of origin, then where could it be found?

I thought about this for a bit, and was unconvinced, both of the general argument and the comment specifically for a couple of reasons.  Without knowing his training history (which schools, teachers, length of stay, frequency of training, prior knowledge at that point in time to allow him to make such a judgement) it wasn't possible for me to evaluate his claim, and as it was not supplied, I remained unconvinced. 

But there is also an interesting evolutionary perspective that similarly belies his remark.  It is a corollary of genetic drift; wherever a species (or in this case, a type of martial art) has been the longest, you will find the greatest genetic diversity.

We see this in our own species.  Our species evolved around 200 000 years ago in Africa, and in the last 100 000 years has migrated out to every other continent of the globe (with the exception of Antarctica, as there is no permanent breeding population of our species there).  The continent with the greatest genetic diversity is Africa.  Any two individuals from anywhere else in the world are more genetically similar to each other than someone from Somalia and South Africa are to each other.  (incidentally, this is not an argument for race - the genetic similarity between any two humans is such, that if humans were dogs, we would all be labradors).

Applying this perspective to karate, its place of longest duration is Okinawa.  Thus we would expect the greatest diversity of karate schools and approaches in Okinawa - including crap ones and fraudulent ones.

Emigration, Immigration and Re-migration

Karate emigrated to Japan from Okinawa in the 1920s, in several waves.  Post-war, Japanicised karate made its way back to Okinawa, particularly when coupled with sport karate, taking root there too.  So, Okinawan karate has even greater diversity through the re-migration of other 'species' of karate back to its shores.  Because karate evolution is lamarkian, not darwinian, cross-fertilisation and hybridisation may well have occurred as a result, increasing diversity still further.  This is why I remain unconvinced about baihe's assertion that Okinawan Karate is dead.  With such high diversity, it is impossible to talk about "Okinawan Karate" as a single entity (a bit like we cannot talk about "the tree" - which species?  Eucalypt, Oak, Fir, Acacia?).  This feeds into another blitzmag thread recently about "real" versus "fake" karate, but that's a topic for another post.  With greater diversity, there is also a greater likelihood of poor, fake or unsuitable schools .  Is it possible that baihe's experiences were more with some of these than with their opposite? (Graphic below:)

Phew, that was fun!  I'll probably continue in another post about monophyletic v. paraphyletic origins of karate, the Founder effect, and more.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Viewing things from a different perspective

As part of my ongoing efforts to fix my body structure (which can be pretty poor), I have been trying to get my posture correct for sanchin - head being pulled up from the top, no swayback, not hunching.  My problem is, while I have changed my posture in the last little while (and for the better too), my sensei still keeps telling me that I have some of these issues!  And no matter how I try and fix it according to his instructions, I haven't had much success.

What I needed was a different perspective.  What I was feeling in my body felt 'right', so I couldn't make sense of what he was seeing.  So, I videotaped myself.  Well, that was a different perspective alright.  It turns out, what I was doing, was very different to what I thought I was doing.  It took me about 5 minutes after viewing my video and doing another couple of takes until I had what now looked like a posture my sensei had described. It felt very strange, but somehow'right'.

The upshot was, yesterday at training, I was trying to do everything with this 'improved' posture, and while it still feels artificial, I was finding that certain techniques were quicker or had more power behind them as a result, particularly when doing pad work.  I also checked with my sensei and I am on the right track (but, as usual, still need some more improvement).

This is where videos are invaluable for learning.  Just as person-person  instruction is essential for learning a physical pursuit, so too is the ability to truly see what your body is doing.  Our bodies lie to us all the time, and while having someone else give feedback can assist us in improving, the raw, uninterpreted footage from a camera gives me a more detailed and comprehensible understanding of what's really going on.  I know what I think my body is doing, so when I see it is different, I see how my body is lying to me.  A mirror can give similar feedback, but is not as useul, as it only gives front-on views, and is instantaneous with the movement - part of my attention is always on the doing, not on the looking.

But video feedback is only useful if you have the perspective of knowing what it is you are looking for.  Without that, what's the point?