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.