I often recommend that my students make use of a full length mirror as part of their training, in order to make visual acknowledgement of their form. A mirror is a useful tool because what you see in the reflection is also what an opponent will see when facing you. In addition, it allows those with poor body awareness to 'see' individual transitions taking place. However, we must also develop to a point by which we begin to let go of the visual cues and come to 'internalise' the subtle feelings associated with movement. Aesthetics then becomes a secondary consideration over what is required for function.
Old-style karate is less concerned with what a techniques looks like and more concerned with how well it functions. There is more freedom to move in a natural and fluid way, as opposed to always maintaining the same height and exclusively employing rigid rotations of the waist and excessive muscular contraction in order to express power.
Here's my recent interview conducted by Shorin stylist Noah Legel from the US for his aptly-titled website, Karate Obsession. It includes some very interesting questions about my background, approach to training and thoughts on different aspects of karate. Noah has a real passion for old-style karate methods and this certainly carries over into his well written and thought-provoking blog.
Anyway - hope you enjoy the read and my thanks to Noah for having me grace his pages :-)
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
One of the main characteristics of traditional karate is the emphasis on simplistic and direct techniques that stay close to the body and are free from any excessive motion. This is of course desirable in self-defence and within these outwardly straight-forward movements there can be found numerous scientific principles and sophisticated body dynamics. Indeed, the functional strategies of traditional karate may be expressed through a comparatively small toolbox of body positions and motions, all of which are linked together via a common thread. However, one must always have in mind that it is this central thread that represents the true essence of the art, not necessary the plethora of individual techniques.
A key principle of motion that I'd like to write about here is that of 'circularity' and the difference between square and curved movement paths when executing tenshin, tsuki, uchi, uke and keri. One of the best ways to imagine this principle in action would be to think about how one would drive a car around a bend in the road ahead. If the bend happens to have a gentle curve then you'll easily be able to make small adjustments to the steering wheel with hardly any use of the brake. In contrast, if the bend happens to be sharp (such as a right angle or hair pin), then employing the brake would be more of a certainty and in some cases, the car may have to come to a complete halt before changing course in order to safely negotiate the manoeuvre.
The term 'Muchimi' is used in traditional karate and refers to the 'heavy and sticky' feeling sought during the application of certain techniques and is one of a number of a key feelings developed during the practice of kata.
The word ‘Muchimi’ is actually derived from the old Okinawan dialect for rice cakes, which is 'Muchi' (Mochi in Japanese). So in karate, ‘Muchimi’ literally means to have a 'rice cake-like body'. If you've ever tried a Japanese rice cake then you'll know exactly what feeling this describes!
The combative application of muchimi can be very effective and traditionally, there are actually two methods of expressing this principle:
Like all other qualities found in karate, there are times to use muchimi and times where other principles are applied to create contrasting feelings For instance, there are situations where you may want to be heavy and sticky, but then there are other circumstances when you may want to be light and swift. It is really the experience to know not only how, but WHEN to express these qualities that makes them practical and functional.
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.
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...
Last weekend, I was invited to teach a seminar down south in Reading UK. We covered lots of subjects over the course of the day, but here's a few minutes of video footage from the event, where I'm providing some advice on close-range power generation and specifically, the use of 'whipping' energy in Tetsui-Uchi that's often seen to be a trademark of Shuri-based karate systems.
In the video, I discuss and demonstrate the requirement to sequence the joints so that energy may perpetuate from the floor, up through the body and out of the striking limb. I also emphasise the need to utilise gravity by being in control over your state of balance. All of these principles can be found in most (if not all) traditional karate techniques.
Now that I've finally fixed the audio problem on my computer here in the office, I've been busy reviewing the video footage taken at my applied karate seminar in Malta in December last year. My intention is to share with you all a selection of short tutorials from the weekend to offer a flavour for some of the topics covered.
The first day of my seminar in Malta focused almost entirely on the four 'uke' (age/soto/uchi/gedan) movements and their subsequent appearance in a number of kata across the styles. The video below shows one of the drills I covered to help participants understand the numerous ways in which the technique of Gedan Barai (lower sweep) may be applied combatively.
I'm very excited to announce that after the long wait and its very successful launch last weekend at The Martial Arts Expo in Coventry, my new book entitled, 'Naihanchi (Tekki) Kata: The Seed of Shuri Karate Vol. 1' is now available to purchase via the online store or my new dedicated website www.naihanchi-kata.com!
This is the first volume of a three part publication that looks at Naihanchi Kata in accordance with five distinct layers of analysis, presenting my own approach to the study of this fascinating form, which along with Sanchin Kata from the Naha-te lineage, represents the very bedrock of traditional karate.
Click HERE for more information, to read a free preview and to order your copy today!
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.