Sorry it's been a while since I blogged here - rest assured, I haven't been sat twiddling my thumbs!
Over the past few months we've been juggling a pretty big house extension plus two new additions to our family - a beautiful baby girl called Isabelle Rose and a pet dog called Cookie! Added to the work I've been doing to help progress our dojo up here in sunny Cumbria, it's been a little hectic to say the least!
However, things have started to settle down a little and so I should now be able to squeeze a little time here and there to get back blogging for my website.
Thanks to those who have kept in touch regarding the second instalment of my Naihanchi book series and my sincere apologies for letting the original planned release date slip. The good news is that I'm back in the saddle (so to speak) and just this week I managed to finish drafting another chapter. It is my aim to give this project priority over the next few months and once it's finally published I'm sure (or indeed I hope) you'll all consider it worth the wait! Nevertheless, your continued support is always very much appreciated :-)
OK - so now let's get down to the reason I sat down to blog today...
Here's a short video taken in the dojo a little while ago, where we spent some time looking developing the ability to strike effectively at multiple angles using the same hand, utilising some of the lessons on body dynamics taken from Naihanchi Kata.
For the sake of the drill, I chose four key trajectories to work with (up, hook, reverse hook and down) and we looked at how best to join them together with smooth transitions from the core, whilst still aiming to create 'shock' at the end of each blow as if they were single fully committed shots.
For traditional karate practitioners, striking hard and with full intent to switch of the threat to facilitate safe escape safety should make-up our primary strategy for physical self-defence. It is simply the most clinical way of ending a confrontation. Other skills gained through the holistic study of kata bunkai (such as limb control, clinch work, joint attacks, throwing, choking etc.) may then act as secondary support options, to be applied when things don't go to plan, and aiming to return us back to a position of dominance whereby we may continue on with our primary striking options. Therefore, neglecting the development of effective strikes during your dojo training is from a pragmatic perspective, a recipe for disaster.
Generically speaking, I would suggest that traditional karate is based on the effective management of the transition between two body states - relaxation (softness) and contraction (hardness). Like In (Yin) and Yo (Yang), practitioners should aim for these two complementary opposites to be harmoniously integrated together, as what often may look very hard on the outside, is usually found to be supported by softness and suppleness on the inside.
Kata serve as an opportunity to develop the two essential qualities above and to build a greater sense of awareness for the transitional periods of space and time found between them. For it is these transitions that hold real potential.
It's been a while since I posted a video to my blog, so here's a 15 minute tutorial covering my Naihanchi Kata limb control drills!
Naihanchi (or Tekki) Kata is the core form for all Shuri-based karate styles, providing the essential framework for their functional combative strategies. My dojo syllabus has a number of limb control drills that come from the lessons given within the movements of Naihanchi Kata and the video below is a sample tutorial for one of these.
During the performance of kata, it can become quite easy to fall into the trap of producing specific shapes simply for the sake of aesthetics. With standardisation across styles, plus the pressure for kata to become visually eccentric and pleasing for competition or gradings, many students who follow a modern-day approach may be conditioned to aspire to form first and then wonder at a later date why the kata they follow do not directly transfer into the functionality they may require for practical application. But of course, kata was never originally developed to visually impress.
"A kata is not fixed or immoveable. Like water, it is ever changing and fits itself to the shape of the vessel containing it. However, kata are not some kind of beautiful competitive dance, but a grand martial art of self-defence, which determines life and death." - Kenwa Mabuni
So starting at 10pm on Friday 24th October, along with 23 of my students, our dojo performed 100 repetitions of Naihanchi Kata in unison with thousands of karate-ka from around the globe to help celebrate World Karate Day!
Not really sure about how demanding the 100 Kata Challenge would be, I expected one of two outcomes - it would either be surprisingly easy or surprisingly tough. In actual fact, it was probably somewhere in between. I used the first 25 repetitions or so to warm up, before bringing my attention inwards so that the event would become much more than just a physical endurance test. I also took time to suggest that my students do the same.
It was decided on October 25th 1936 (during historic 'Meeting of the Masters') that the Ryukyu traditions of Okinawa were to be officially named Karate 空手 (Empty Hand). In 2005, October 25th became recognised as ”Karate Day” to pray for the expansion of traditional Karate, world peace and happiness.
This year, a special event was conceived by James Pankiewicz, owner of The DOJO Bar in Naha and director of Challenge Okinawa! He "challenged" karate dojo of all styles to pick their favourite kata and perform it 100 times. The invite was extended to the world martial arts community who's styles hold true to the ethos of Traditional Okinawan Karate. I have personally known James for a few years now and I can tell you that he's a true gentleman, plus one of the most dedicated karate practitioners you'll ever have the pleasure to meet..
Over the past few years within the health and fitness world, we have seen a boom in more functional and old-school methods that have in some ways, turned the whole industry on its head. No longer is it cool to lock yourself into a vertical chest press machine and crank up the pounds, but rather for those who are looking to gain more functional development for a particular sport or skill, then asymmetrical challenges, core blasters and dynamic full-body integration exercises are the order of the day.
As a traditional karate practitioner, seeing things develop in this way puts a huge smile on my face. What many people would consider as being cutting edge principles today is often nothing more than the re-birth of some of the most effective training tactics that were considered mainstream only a couple of lifetimes ago. In terms of karate, there are many connections between traditional supplementary training methods (hojo undo) and modern-day functional practices. Furthermore, in the spirit of constantly evolving the art, linking these to other influences from around the world can yield some fantastic benefits.
I'm currently re-reading the book, 'The Secrets of Okinawan Karate' by Kiyoshi Arakaki and whilst I must admit I'm not that particularly fond of the title, I feel that the content within certainly inspires readers to think outside the box. One particular part caught my eye this morning, causing me to pause, nod and smile...
"Everyone thinks shuto is a technique that uses the hand like a sword or knife. As the definition implies; therefore, the technique becomes deadlocked. The scope of the term itself is too limited to encompass the essence of traditional karate's shuto-uke. Historically, this move can push the opponent; strike to the opponent's upper or middle body; strike the opponent's attacking arm, or leg; hook; parry and guard. All these possibilities are intrinsic in one technique. Modern shuto-uke's usage is completely different from traditional shuro-uke, which employed each individual part of the arm, including the back of the hand, palm of the hand, and side of the hand, as well as the entire arm itself. It is the same story for sei-ken, which should imply strike, hit, stab or nukite."
There is much debate between bunkai researchers as to whether the techniques in kata were designed for one particular application in mind, or whether the movements are more generic to offer options against a variety of scenarios. With the lack of historical information available, we may never know for sure. However, regardless of the opinion you personally subscribe to, it nevertheless pays dividends to look at the movements of karate with an open mind, so that your study does not become as Arakaki Sensei so eloquently described, 'deadlocked'.
Part of the second volume of my book series on Naihanchi Kata will feature the combative analysis of the form as a progressive and sequential learning tool for building a fundamental strategy for self-defence. Here's a brief snippet from the current draft, which will give you a flavour of some of the subjects covered...
"Being able to demonstrate three or more combative applications for each movement of Naihanchi Kata may seem on the surface to be an impressive feat and a worthwhile endeavour. However, I have always felt that unless these discrete applications can be incorporated into a fully integrated strategy that helps to express the interconnected lessons and principles given by the form, then in terms of bunkai, you are merely scratching away consistently at the most superficial layer. I would like to suggest that there is not only a pragmatic reason for the movements themselves, but also a pragmatic reason for the particular sequence prescribed by the kata and it is this sequence, not so much the isolated movements, that holds the real potential, reveals the bigger picture and thus, is worthy of much deeper exploration."
On my most recent visit to Okinawa in March 2014, I was very privileged to have had the opportunity to spend some time with Katsuhiko Shinzato Sensei, both privately and with members in class at his home dojo in Yonabaru.
In short, I can say that the teachings he shared with me over the course of what was only a couple of weeks, have made a lasting impression on my karate, plus the kindness shown by Sensei and his students has made a equally lasting impression on my character, for which I am truly grateful.
I first had the pleasure of meeting Shinzato Sensei back in April 2010, when I gave an intriguing seminar for karate-ka from around the world at the Budokan in Naha. As soon as I witnessed him move, I knew straight away that he had something very special to share.
The footage of Shinzato Sensei on YouTube is amazing but believe me, to witness this man in real life is something else entirely! Many people do not understand what he is trying to impart, but I can't help but feel that through what now must be over half a century of comprehensive and exacting research, he has unlocked something very old in karate and his sophisticated methods of movement breathes a unique sense of vigour back into the art.
Check out the following video of Shinzato Sensei's approach to Naihanchi Kata...
Chris Denwood has been studying martial arts since childhood and specialises in the practical application of karate's traditional principles for civilian self-defence, personal development, life integration and discovery.