29 April, 2011

Karate's connection to other arts? What affects what?

As a student of martial arts, with an interest in the history, there are often interesting little links between people, places, forms and styles that I find fascinating.  What follows are some cool ideas that I have searched for, read about, googled and just plain wondered about.  One interesting idea is that Karate and Bujutsu/Budo form mainland Japan have collided and produced unique results.

The first example is Wado Ryu Karate, the child of Otsuka Hironori.  His background is mainly two-fold - a solid background in Shotokan under Funakoshi Gichin and a menkyo kaiden (I believe) from Shindo Yoshin Ryu (the main branch if I recall correctly, not the Takamura branch).  I have not had the chance to look as much into this, but it provides me with some mental fodder for what the combination of jujutsu techniques into a karate curriculum would amount to.  What would the reverse create?


The next comes from a few different articles I had read, one recent and another further back.  The links are below.  Basically there is the theory that Takeda Sokaku visited Ryukyu at some point in his wandering training.  He went to search for and challenge teachers of the local martial arts.  While there is no direct evidence of such meetings, the idea is interesting and at least a fun mental exercise.  I have yet to look further into this as well, but the ideas I find most interesting are the addition or modification of striking techniques into the Daito Ryu curriculum, and the inclusion of some wrist or joint locks into the karate curriculum.


Another idea I find interesting is whether any of the above may have not occured with karate, but with Motobu Ryu Udundi.  It is a very different art (from what I have read and seen in video) than traditional karate styles, and perhaps some of the flow and suppleness of ju- or aiki-techniques have something to do with this.
This all comes back to the koryu I have been reading so much about recently, as well as Aikido and Daito Ryu.  To what extent have spear techniques influenced staff techniques?  Has kenjutsu affected the jujutsu techniques passed down by Takeda Sokaku?

Well, I think that is enough mental mashing around for now.  Everytime I type Takeda Sokaku I spell it differently. :P

26 April, 2011

Breaking Kuzushi

When I first heard the term "breaking your opponents kuzushi" I was a bit mystified by the meaning.  My Sensei described this to us as destroying the balance than an opponent has.  The more that I read about kuzushi, the more the concept intrigues me.  While I am sure that I am butchering the intended meaning and usage from the Japanese language, I hope that my ignorance will be forgiven.  I am using this term as I have been taught, and my own lingual studies are still woefully inadequate.

Lets turn to history again (what a surprise!).  The best example I can think of is when Kano Jigoro was learning jujutsu, and with intense study had bested one or another of his teachers.  While his teacher wore the expression of surprise (and a little dismay), Kano explained that the key to his victory was kuzushi, and the ability to disrupt balance in your opponent.

The best description that I have heard for how to accomplish this was pretty straight forward:
  • From the front, you need to get their head over their knees AND their knees over their toes.
  • From the rear, you need to get their head over their hips AND the hips over their heels.

I am emphasizing the AND in both of the above descriptions, because this is something worth remembering for those trying to understand and learn the mechanical aspect of balance.  It is something that I emphasize when I am trying to get partners to work on a throw, to check that they are doing it correctly.

There are two important reasons for balance.  The first is the obvious for everyone with a grappling background - you get tossed ass over tea kettle!  The second is obvious for everyone with a striking background - the force you exert is equally relayed back to you, so without balance, you get flung back ass over tea kettle.  Same problem, similar result, different reasons.  But it all makes sense.

There is one final aspect to balance, and that is the mental.  If you are able to break the rhythm of your opponents attacks (perhaps more an issue in striking arts than in grappling/throwing - I don't know and I am assuming here), you are disrupting their intent.  If you continue to block, you keep the opponents intent and their are on their mental balance, and you are off.  If you react to the attack with a counter, you begin to get the opponent on the defensive, and that is the beginning of the end.

If you thought countering an attack was hard, try countering the counter, or countering the counter of the counter, or ... well you get the idea.

The point is that you need to keep your balance, physical and mental.  I won't say anything about emotional, as it helps to be crazy if you live the budo life.

21 April, 2011

Evolution of a Martial Art

Recently I am immersed in two great books by Mr. Ellis Amdur all about koryu, their history and the mental aspects of these arts.  One other thing that I have realized is that the martial arts are living entities that change over time, especially depending upon those who teach them.  The evolution of an art, as it is passed down, interpreted, absorbed in part into other traditions that survive where the main line does not - it is a subject of endless fascination for me, bring up so many disjointed ideas.

One example is that of the formation of judo by its founder Jigoro Kano.  After a lot of serious study as a young adult, he began the first aspects of judo at the young age of 22.  The art continued to change as he and his students were exposed to various techniques and aspects that Kano admired.  He wanted to take the jujutsu that he had learned and adapt it to modern life as he saw Japan change around him.  He removed some techniques from the various ryu, replaced them with others, changed the intent and focus of the studies, tried to include a "more Western" approach to the systematization of his curriculum.

Another similar example is that of Aikido and its founder Morihei Ueshiba.  Ueshiba took the lessons of Daito Ryu, as taught to him, and refined the concepts and techniques, specializing in some and removing others.  Of course, the spiritual and religious aspects of Aikido cannot be understated, and their inclusion is as much as part of the whole as any physical aspect of the art.

When I think of my own dojo, our organization has been collecting arts, forms and techniques for many years (decades, although this is before my time there).  But we don't seem to absorb, refine, and remove that which is deemed extraneous or redundant to our goals.  It seems rather the opposite - we are trying to expand our curriculum base.  While this sounds wonderful, let me tell you that it makes gradings difficult, as knowing three or more versions of a given kata, and being able to differentiate between them at will is very tricky!  Now add to this that over the course of several dan rankings and you can see an almost exponential number of variations to study.  Of course, the purpose of these variations is to present the differing applications of the techniques, but it is easy to feel overwhelmed.

And so, I wonder, is this the way it should be.  We try very hard to maintain the core kata, techniques and curriculum, but who am I to say what should stay and what should go?  How does one know what to focus on (for themselves, for their own repertoire) and what to discard?  Is it that you don't like those techniques, or have a different way to deal with those situations?  I think part of the answer lies in my own ignorance and the lack of completeness of my training.  I don't yet have the entire curriculum of Goju Ryu, so I feel certain this is one aspect of my misunderstanding of the above.

Further questions come to mind.  What does this mean for cross training?  How do you take techniques from totally different arts and integrate them into your own, while maintaining the original intent of your system?  This is incredibly relevant when it comes to bringing in concepts and practices totally outside the scope of your art.  For example, if I wanted to integrate Qi Gong into Karate, how exactly would I reconcile the two into a harmonious whole?  And if I somehow did that, what would I have - a hybrid recognized by whom, to what extent, for what purpose?

I recall an article or blog post, which I will try to dig up if I can find it.  It was about how one should not just add in, for example, a judo throw into karate.  That throw doesn't necessarily fit the intent of the style, and it probably won't fit the kata or application of any move that a karateka of that style would understand.  This is perhaps more applicable when considering jujutsu, where the multitude of  techniques for accomplishing a given type of throw or lock are incredibly numerous between styles, yet very different.  So in this sense, is cross training a hindrance, in that it tries to force a square peg into a round hole?  In many ways, the holes in karate are meant to be filled, but by what often remains a mystery.

There is an essay written by Ellis Amdur in the book Koryu Bujutsu by Diane Skoss.  He writes about how his Sensei in Araki-ryu told him that when he leaves for America, he (Amdur) would need to adjust and adapt the school for his students and his environment.  Call it what you will (Amdur-ryu, Amdur-ha Araki-ryu?) but it is now his expression of Araki-ryu.  It is a very romantic notion that I could be as good someday as recognized masters.  Perhaps that is another driving force in the martial arts.

Another idea, floating around amongst all of this, are stories and the practices of martial artists past.  Often then a teacher would send his students to other teachers, or friends from their days training together, in order to broaden their skills, deepen their understanding, and pursue the martial arts along their own path.  It seems that this practice is not as it once was - I don't think many would approve of introducing their students to a new art and away from their own.  There is a lot of ego in the martial arts, by necessity I think, but this is perhaps one of the drawbacks.

Everyone has their own strengths - some people pick up new techniques more easily than other people and other techniques.  Perhaps this is another side of what your martial arts become in the end.  They are ultimately an expression of yourself, your life, and your abilities as a human, artist and warrior.

20 April, 2011

Realism in Training

At my dojo, there used to be a regular tournament circuit that people would attend and participate in (this is before I joined, at least a few years prior).  That practice has since stopped, mostly because of a shift in the way we practice our sparring.

My sensei has us focus on singular items in our training, at times focusing on embodying a certain mentality, at others working on specific techniques, combinations or theories.  These include keeping tension in the legs in order to respond more quickly, trying to shift your intent to the evasive nature of a crane, and trying to sense the attack when it is imminent as opposed to reacting to it.

But overall, we try to have a more realistic sparring style, with the inclusion of throws, grappling work, etc.  We drill simple reactions to knife attacks and strive to treat them as a serious attack every time.  I find that this mental shift in training is what makes for a better experience, and it gives me some measure of confidence in my ability to protect myself.

Some of the items that I find the most interesting are what I have mentioned - mental embodiment of a style of response, treating everything as a serious encounter, evasive movement into a better position for your counter-attack, not defending but instead attacking the attack, relaxing the muscles of the arms to increase speed, sharpening your attention.

We also did a little review recently of the correct sparring posture to adopt.  Both feet facing forward, heels off the ground, bend the knees, one hand guarding at temple level and the other on guard at jaw level (such that the elbow protects the solar plexus).

Another key point I thought of was the fact that in a knife fight, you have to understand and accept that you will be cut - BUT - you don't want to get cut somewhere likely to be a grave injury.  The principle is similar to those of basic pugilism.  I would rather take a punch to the stomach than to the head - I have trained my stomach to absorb impact to a certain degree.  With a knife this isn't the case, but I would rather have a cut along the outside (non-fleshy part) of the arm than on the inside, and similarly there rather than my torso, and the same applies to the head.  Human nature is programmed to avoid blows to the head and groin before others, and this can be used to your advantage.  But it also means that you need to keep in mind what you are risking in any given situation.

Anyways, that is the end of another rambling post.  I just wanted to share some of the above disjointed ideas.

18 April, 2011

Healing Arts to suit Karate?

As I progress through the martial arts, I find myself accumulating the normal aches, pains and injuries that anyone in a contact sport acquires.  And I wonder if there isn't something that my training in the martial arts can help me with.  So I begin to dig into my memory of martial arts history, once again.

To start, historically, the Asian martial arts are probably based upon, at least in some way, the Indian art of Kalaripayat(tu).  This is a system native to India, and includes a variety of animal-based forms, a number of weapons, interesting unarmed techniques (and very acrobatic counters) - but of interest in this case is the healing aspects of the system.  Not only are there the usual conditioning exercises found with most arts, but also a system of ayurvedic medicines and massage treatments.

Then we consider the Chinese arts of Quan Fa and Gong Fu.  There are many well known herbal remedies that were used by martial artists to speed their recovery and increase their vigor.  Diet Dat Jow for those with some form of Iron Palm/Hand training is a good example.

In relation to this are the Okinawan arts, which owe a lot to their Chinese forebears.  In the Bubishi, there is a list of herbs and medicines that were intended to help heal the martial artist.  These have fallen out of use (to the best of my knowledge).  While some cunning work by Patrick McCarthy has uncovered the formulas, I don't think they are of much interest to the majority of people.

Then there are the internal arts to consider when it comes to health.  Tai Chi, Reiki, Qigong, to name a few, are all relatively well known in the martial arts community (at least) as health promoting and general healing arts.

As for myself, I have been looking more into herbal medicines recently.  The use of arnica-based creams for the average muscles strains and bruising problems is a good example, but not the limit.  I have also had a passion for teas, and the use of a tea to help calm the stomach or relax the body is also in my (incredibly limited) repertoire.  I try to monitor my general health carefully for signs of weakness or illness coming on, so I can take preventative measures.  I have found oil of oregano, goldenseal and echinacea to be very effective in this regard.  I have to urge others to be cautious with this sort of medicine, and to consult a professional and educate yourself a lot about this.  I am starting with a great book called Western Herbs for the Martial Artist which I recommend for those interested in the subject.

Beyond that, I have been applying simple self massage to my feet, legs, back and arms, as well as to my wife (after a strenuous workout), and have found the effects to be subtle but beneficial.  Working in the direction of tendons, around ligaments and muscles around the bones in a firm but gentle manner.  The relief is small but the mental aspect of helping yourself can be substantial.

What inspired today's post is an injury I sustained on the weekend, performing a simple ab workout I have done many times before.  As a result, I have a slightly inflamed shoulder muscle and neck muscle (you can tell I am a real medical professional here).  I forgot the most basic of first aid and health care - R.I.C.E. - Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation.  I didn't ice it right away, and its lingering a little longer than I would like.  Couple this with another post by Mr. Wayne Muramoto about health in the martial arts, and I am inclined to take a more broad view of my health.  I have decided to include some more basic weight lifting and simple exercises to increase the resiliency and strength of my supporting muscles.

Sorry for such a rambling post, I might clean it up later, but I wanted to post something about this tonight before I forgot.  So what complements Karate?  Conditioning to prevent injury and some massage afterwards!  I think many artists can benefit from something as simple as this.

15 April, 2011

Complete Martial Art

Recently I have discovered the interesting world of koryu.  I have been reading some books, with aims on reading more.  The first is Donn Draeger's book Classical Bujutsu.  The second is a compilation of essays put together by Diane Skoss, called Koryu Bujutsu.  I have just started reading Old School from Ellis Amdur.

All of these books are from well recognized authorities on koryu, and are oft-recommended books, and I understand why.  The views of martial arts, martial thinking and martial life are interesting at the very least.  I have found that my thought processes have changed as a result of trying to think about and understand the martial arts from the koryu perspective.

Along the line of books have been blogs, although those about koryu are few and far between.  Wayne Muromoto has a blog, the Classic Budoka, which is entertaining and informative.  In going through past posts, I came across an article on whether Karate could be considered a complete art.

Classic Budoka: Karate an Incomplete Art

The points he makes are solid - striking, grappling and weaponary all combine into a more complete whole.  After reading it, and given that the above books were already in the forefront of my mind, it got me thinking - what is a complete martial art?  I searched around the internet and found that the term for this in Japanese is Sogo Bugei or Sogo Bujutsu (depending on your definition of martial art).  From what I understand of this term (as it is applied to koryu) means that everything that a warrior would need know in order to practice his/her profession - the use of all common weapons and tools for all types of combat.  In the case of arts like Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu, there are religious, mystical and health related arts included.  Some proficiency in almost every weapon (or at least the preferred weapons of your school) is required, as well as dealing with being unarmed.

The Chinese martial arts have a long tradition of including healing arts within their systems.  While not all styles are aimed in this direction, it is true that a great many famous martial artists have been doctors, herbalists, bone-setters and so-forth.  I recall that Jigoru Kano, when looking for a Sensei, went calling on bone setters until he found one who had a connection to a jujutsu ryu (or at least who admitted it).

So, after all of this is floating around in my head, I ask myself, is my training towards a complete martial art?  Am I looking to be a more complete martial artist?  Something about completeness draws me in.  So, then, what do I already have and what do I need to seek?

Given my training in Goju, I think I am on firm ground with regards to striking.  And Goju does have its share of grappling/close range techniques.  Couple that with our cross-training in jujutsu and some of the above is covered.  We also practice sai, and I have started Iaido.  The use of Tensho as a basis for health and well being is less obvious than other chi kung exercises, but my school includes some of that in our training as well.

Overall, I am not a complete martial artist.  But I am working on it, in my own way.  I wish there was a guide on how to do it, but I guess I just need to get out and figure it for myself.  If anyone actually reads this, maybe post a comment and let me know of your thoughts and experiences.

14 April, 2011

Animals of Goju

The Chinese martial arts are well known for their use of animals in the names and design of their styles.  One often sees this in movies where both hero and villain claim a mastery of eagle or dog kung fu.  It seems that animals provided the inspiration for many martial arts.  A great example are the five main animals of Shaolin kung fu: tiger, monkey, dragon, crane and snake.  Out of all of the animals of Shaolin, the one which is most important to a Karateka is crane.

White Crane is a well known style in southern China, and is one of the formative arts which has led to modern Karatedo.  But this is far from the only animal that is extent within the world of Karate.

The crest of Shotokan, for example, is a tiger, although I don't know of any direct connection with tiger kung fu from China.  Similarly, when I asked my Sensei about the animals of Goju, he said that our style, overall, is based on the dragon.  Not that it came from dragon kung fu - crane is still the basis.  But some of the influences for our style hearken back to a variety of locations.  Suparinpei, our highest form, came from the same temple as Hung Gar and similar Tiger-Crane kata and exercises.  So there is a connection between crane and tiger patterns and idealogies, and that has some bearing on the intent of our kata.

As my Sensei explained, our dragon comes from two animals - tiger and crane.  The core kata of Goju can be broken down, as follows:

Saifa - basic kata, learned when you first get to the temple - the "outside the gates" exercise.  Once you were there for a few years and showed that you were serious, you were allowed in to learn the "real" stuff.
Sanchin and Tensho - these are conditioning and breath-work kata.  They involve the circulation of chi, the focus of intent, and precise movements.  Rooting yourself to the earth is a part of this as well.

Now for the animals:

Tiger - Seiunchin, Seisan and Seipai - grounded, strong, powerful movements - you never leave the floor.

Crane - Sanseiryu, Shisochin, Kururunfa - can be more easily seen in the tobi geri in the first, the crane like dodging and ikkajyo in the second, and the quick hand motions of the third.

Dragon - Suparinpei - the combination of tiger and crane in its highest form (for Goju, at least)

Outside of my Sensei, I have never seen the animals or division referred to as the above.  There are a lot of theories about the origin of kata and their connections, but since this was unique I thought it was worth posting.

13 April, 2011

The Meaning of Os

Recently, as I was coming in to my weekly assist (teaching while under direction), I heard my Sensei describe the etymology for the term Osu, or Os.  This term is used throughout Karate, and perhaps in other arts, but I always understood it to be a very terse sort of grunt of acknowledgment.  The Western equivalent would probably be Yea, which is Yes with the ending chopped off.  The sort of thing you might say when lifting a heavy object and someone asks if they can open the door for you.

I had never before heard an explanation for this, and later I asked him to repeat the definition for my own edification.  He explained that the word is a compound of two other words, Oshi Shinobu.  For those with an understanding of japanese and the martial arts (my own comes solely from manga and deciphering japanese terminology, so take my understanding with a grain of salt), the term Shinobu should seem familiar.  It is a component of the term Nin (as in Ninja), and when applied to a person it becomes Shinobi (again, another term for Ninja).  But I digress.  Besides being an interesting linguistic diversion, what does this actually mean?

Shinobu means to persevere or endure - the original name for ninjutsu is the techniques of perseverence.  Oshi means pressure.  Together, the phrase would mean something like "to endure under pressure".  The contraction of these two terms becomes Osu, or Os as it is pronounced.  The way that my Sensei described it, it has a deeper meaning than to continue despite hardship.

For the samurai, failure to perform at a task meant death.  And not just you - your failure would have rippling repercussions - your family and your servants would also need to be killed.  Stories like that of the 47 Ronin served as a guide - you didn't want people around to get revenge for the death of their father or lord.  But what does this have to do with Osu?

What Osu meant, when uttered by a Samurai, was that whatever task had just been agreed to, it would be carried out under the strictest of penalties.  When your boss summons you in and tells you the project must be completed by Friday, no matter what, answering Osu is like saying "I will die before this task is left uncompleted to your satisfaction."

Pretty extreme.  But what does this mean for the average budoka?  When you enter the dojo, when your Sensei gives you instructions on what techniques to carry out, when your Sensei corrects you, you respond with Osu in a clear and affirmative voice.  You are saying that you will do as they have instructed without delay.  You will not do something outside of that scope.

One thing that I think people may take for granted is the seriousness of a budo.  While there may be an air of levity to training with friends, it is for safety at least and training at most that one remembers that your partner is putting their health (possibly their lives) in your hands, just so you can learn.  It is a thought that humbles me greatly whenever I bow to someone before we engage in any activity.

12 April, 2011

Every Journey of a 1,000 miles begins with a single step

After reading so many positive and interesting articles and posts on a variety of other blogs, I have decided to start my own.  I am hoping to unite my hobby (I call it a hobby, but its mostly a way of life) with another interest - writing.

I guess I should introduce myself.  I am a Canadian martial artist who has trained in karate for over a decade at this point.  I began in a synthesis of Shotokan Karate, Judo and Jujutsu.  I continued in a pure Shotokan school for a while until achieving my Shodan.  After my Shodan, I switched to a great Goju Ryu Karate school where the training consists of a broad Goju syllabus supplemented with Jujutsu and chinese-based methods and forms.  As a compliment to Karate, Sai is also taught to yudansha students.

I am currently a Sandan, with my Yondan steadily approaching.  As a part of Yondan (for my organization) some familiarity with Iaido is required so as a result I have started training in that art as well.  The subtle differences in Seitei gata and Koryu never cease to amaze and confuse me, but more on that later.

I hope to chronicle my training, my thoughts, and bounce around interesting ideas.  Maybe this will interest others as well, as feedback is always appreciated.