Monday, January 31, 2011

meaning from kata

There seem to be three ways to get meaning from/into kata:  "sensei says", reverse engineering, and "that looks like..."

In "sensei says", the movements in kata have a certain meaning because the instructor/organisation says they have that meaning.  And the meaning might be bloody good, effective and easy to apply under pressure (Or it might be in the "jumping over swords" category).  It is just something that is taught.  And what is often attached as technique to the kata might be attached there to emphasise a certain point and not actually be the best or only meaning for a kata that that instructor will teach if you stick around long enough (but that's another blog post).

Reverse engineering is essentially looking at the movements in the kata and playing around with them (preferably with a test-dummy  training partner) until you find something that works.  That can then become the meaning behind the kata.

The third way is "that looks like...".  I've been doing this one a lot lately - "That looks like the first turn in seisan", "That looks like this bit of shisochin", "That looks like....".  Meaning is ascribed to bits of  kata based on the practitioner's past experiences with doing techniques/applications/fighting.  This variety of meaning is personalised to the individual who has it (until they become a teacher and instruct it to their students, whereupon it becomes "sensei says").

Which is better?  None of them.  All of them can be great (depending on who the sensei/organisation/individual is), or all of them can be crap (again, depending on the people involved).  What is important is that part of understanding the kata is understanding how meaning is derived.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Happy Australia Day

For Australia Day, my training consisted of doing kata 26 times - 21 x saifa and 5 x sanchin.

It was interesting doing the same kata so many times in a row.  I performed saifa in 3 different ways: half speed with deliberate emphasis on each movement; soft and flowing with no real kime, but keeping proper structure; and as fast as possible while keeping structure and techniques coherent.

Doing it so many times in a row ironed out 3 different problems I have been having (the tomari-ryu addition that we do at the start, driving with the rear foot in the 3 forward elbows and blocking on the wrong side after the kicks), but it was interesting many repetitions it actually needed for me to ingrain the changes.  It implies that doing things in class will be of no use without lots of work at home, as the number of repetitions done in any class are not enough to ingrain them.

I think I need to find training partners for outside of class times.

Sunday, January 23, 2011


Anyone who has read my post on how I am dividing up my training this year will know that I am focusing on saifa and sanchin kata this month.  Well, I'm meant to be, anyway.

The reality is that I have spent a fair amount of time doing saifa, and also because of the summer training I have been doing with my sensei I have worked quite a lot on seisan, shisochin and happoren (if only to get them stuck in my head while I learn them).

Sanchin, on the other hand, I have hardly done at all - maybe half a dozen times this month.  Hardly enough for a "focus" kata, let along for one of the two foundation kata of goju.  There are a couple of reasons (apart from the lure of the new kata mentioned above): I have a crappy body structure when I do it; and it's very hard to do.

When you get down to it, these are both poor reasons not to practise sanchin more regularly.  Doing it will a) improve my body structure (provided I concentrate on it while doing so) and b) become easier with regular practise.  So I have made a new resolution:   1000 repetitions of sanchin by the end of the year.

I started this evening, with 10 in a row.  I'm keeping track of them on the wall of my garage.  Only 990 to go!

Most goju schools, when talking about sanchin say a similar thing:  the name sanchin translates to "3 battles", and the three battles that are being fought in sanchin are for control of the mind, body and spirit.  In our school we have a different take on sanchin; the three battles that we emphasise are concentration, breathing and tension.  Sanchin is a kata that emphasises grounding and expansion.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

big to small and standard to personal

Two things my sensei has been talking about recently that have struck a chord with me are to do with how we develop as karateka.

The first is regarding how we perform techniques.  As beginners we learn full, large movements; three-hip punches, the formal setup and execution of mawashi-uke, chambering of kicks and punches.  These are to train us in correct form and power generation.  As we develop, however, we should not be keeping the same large, overt movements, but should be internalising them while keeping the same feeling and function.  In other words, going from big to small.

The second is how we perform kata, and is very much related to the "big to small" concept.  There is a standard way we learn to do kata, with standard applications that are learned as we do.  But this is again a learning technique.  A kata, while coreographed, should have personal meaning to the person performing it, and will change slightly to reflect their understanding of its principles and the applications they associate with it.  As my sensei said to us recently; "if you are teaching it, teach it this way.  Then the important lessons don't get lost.  But for yourself, if you want to do it [an alternate, or differently emphasised way] differently, is that wrong?  No, as long as you know why you are doing it that way and it works with the principles of the kata".

So, big to small and standard to personal; easy to say, hard to do

Friday, January 21, 2011

What is important?

Currently I'm doing summer training a couple of times a week with my sensei and a few other students.  We are primarily going through 3rd dan curriculum material (I'm 1st dan, and won't have to worry about a 3rd dan grading for quite a few years yet), so am in the peculiar situation of having exposure to a major component of my style's technical content without the pressure of needing to recall it or demonstrate it in the near (or even reasonably distant) future.

To give you an idea, we have been doing: ba duan jin, the beijing 24 taichi form, some yamani ryu bo (shuushi-no-kon), shisochin + applications, seisan + applications, happoren, a variety of advanced flow drills involving knee techniques, joint locks, elbow techniques and using the same hand to receive and counter.  It's a fair bit, and almost all of it is new to me.

I'm keeping notes, videoing myself as soon as possible as a future reference and trying to practise solo what I can, but if I can't remember all the techniques, applications or drills, I'm not too concerned.

For me, the important things for me to get from this month are the principles underlying the techniques:  grounding, moving off the line of attack and through their line of weakness, breaking and controlling the opponent's balance, never losing contact, keeping "live" and compact at all times (except when using expansion as a method of power generation), focusing on the different methods of power generation, attacking low to hit high (and vice-versa).

And those, for me, are the important things.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Meaning in kata OR when a punch is not a punch

When people talk about how to extract meaning from the movements in kata, they often refer to how the physical actions can be directly translated into a technique.  Often, this is the case, but is opposite to how kata were designed (technique first, kata second).

Kata is 'written' in shorthand, to assist with solo practice of techniques.  Not everything in them is meant to be taken literally.  I have gained much insight from Kane and Wilder's The Way of Kata, through general reading, through the techniques we practice versus the kata we do  and through things my instructor has demonstrated and said

For me, this is some of the shorthand of kata.
  • If a hand is touching another part of my body, it implies being grabbed by the opponent (eg: saifa opening)
  • moving forwards is an aggressive technique (but the movement is not necessarily part of the technique)
  • likewise, moving backwards is a defensive technique
  • open hands can mean grabbing/holding the opponent
  • hikite (retracting hand) almost always has something in it (usually part of the opponent)
  • backfists can mean elbows (straight out, or downwards)
  • shikodachi implies an offbalancing technique or a takedown/throw (eg: seienchin, seipai)
  • nekoachidachi implies an optional kick/knee
  • all kicks can be knees
  • chains of punches (such as in the open palm deflection, tetsui, punch, punch of seisan) aren't literal - they mean to beat the crap out of the opponent with multiple techniques
  • turns often imply takedowns
  • a block, when it finishes a sequence in the kata, is not a block; it will be a hidden strike or a limb entanglement (eg: double block at start of pinan/heian sandan)
  • a sequence in kata is not always showing something from start to finish - it may be offering options for what to do in the middle of an engagement.  For instance, the traditional start of saifa is often practised as against a hand grab.  Why have they grabbed your hand?  You have grabbed their groin, and they are trying to stop you.
  • Some sequences in kata give you options of what to do if the first option fails.  The next sequence is an alternative ending/option for use after the previous technique's entry.
  • There is a lot of double-up and redundancy between kata.
But none of this shorthand is particularly useful unless you know the techniques first!

Friday, January 14, 2011


I'm concentrating on Saifa kata this month.  Here is me doing it as a reference point to compare to at the end of the year.

Since taping this, I have improved about a dozen things with it, relating to power generation, driving off the rear leg (instead of pulling with the front as you should be able to see me doing in the first few steps) and weight distribution.

First fortnight done!

The first fortnight is complete, with no missed sessions!  I'm in the groove at the moment, and haven't had any real difficulty in fitting in at least half an hour each day. All this in spite of torrential rain, holiday throngs on the beach, air so muggy you could bite it and two little kiddies.

So far I have:  started learning happoren, done some serious throwing practice with my sensei, gone from 20-18 pushups in blackjack to 20-13 (an increase of 75 pushups), started fixing my stance, identified 5 major areas for improvement, lost 1/2 kg, and got my resting pulse down from 75 to 69.

Here's to the next fortnight!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

What to work on?

Current things I need to work on:
  1. weight distribution - between front and rear feet, and between heel and ball of feet.  I'm all over the shop, with too much on the ball of one foot
  2. using the appropriate leg to move myself - more tenshin ho!
  3. connection of the arms with the torso when performing techniques - my arms tend to "float" too much
  4. carriage of the upper body - I have computer user's stoop
  5. fluidity of movement - a leftover from my shotokan days, I am too rigid and static in my techinques and kata.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Training program

blackjack + isolated kata training
Regular Training + makiwara
kettlebell + kata review
Regular Training + makiwara
blackjack + isolated kata training
kicks + 2nd dan kata + makiwara
taichi and weapons
Kata focus:
January - saifa and sanchin
February - sanseru and tensho
March - seipai and happoren
April - seienchin and sanchin
May - kururunfa and happoren
June - gekisai and tensho
July - hakkusho
August - seisan
September - shisochin
October - sanseru and sanchin
November - saifa and tensho
December - seipai

One week down

The first week is done, and I trained on every day.  It was an interesting experience.  I have fallen into a pattern of training in the evening after dinner, as with two small children this is the only "me" time I can generally find.  It hasn't been too hard to motivate myself so far.

This week, we went down to the beach at Anglesea for a few days, so I did kata on the beach as the sun was setting.  This was a lovely experience, but had a couple of interesting side effects.  Firstly, there were still hundreds of people going for walks along the beach even after 9pm, so I got a lot of sidelong and curious stares.  Secondly, I found the pattern of footprints I left was very good feedback to how I was performing the kata - were my angles there, was I uniform on both sides in the symmetrical portions of the kata?  I even found the foot impressions in damp sand gave me feedback on my weight distribution in certain stances.

Other "highlights" of the week - training in 35 degree weather (95 farenheit for those americans reading), hitting the makiwara for the first time this year and jumping back from the large spider that came rushing out from under the padding, and starting to learn a new kata - Happoren.

New Year's Resolution - 365 days of training

As is the fashion at this time of year, I have made a few new year's resolutions.  The most significant one though, is to do some karate training on every day this year.  So far, two days in, and it's going great!

In reality, I'll be pretty happy if I get in over 300 days, which will be around 200 days more than I did last year.

My rules are pretty simple: 

  • 1/2 an hour minimum in one session
  • general fitness doesn't count, except for pushups, pullups, situps and kettlebell
  • makiwara and hojo undo count
  • any martial arts training counts - even if I just do ukemi for 30 minutes (not that I could, I'm not that fit)
  • watching video doesn't count (no matter how much I want it to)

I'm starting to plan out my year so that there is an overall theme to the training I'm doing (outside of what I'm doing in formal class, and what springs from that).  Dave Oddy's Goju Study Guide has been of great help to me in doing this.

The first thing I'm going to do is take some footage of myself doing kata to give myself a reference point to compare against when the year is up.  If they're not too embarrassing, I may post some, particularly the ones that differ from the mainstream versions.

I will use this blog as a sort of journal to keep track of my progress and to explore some of the things I encounter along the way.