Monday, August 31, 2015

What you need to learn karate

The answer is simple.

A kata, patience and hard work.

The masters of old would study a single kata for years to study every small detail so that they could use it to brutally breakdown an opponent should they be called upon to do so. Understand that many old karate men were brawlers, bodyguards and police. They practiced in their yards or behind closed doors in the middle of the night wearing normal clothes and learning through patience and diligence.

In Gichin Funakoshi's autobiography, he explains how they never even received instruction on what the movements meant. They only practiced, practiced and practiced some more.

This is all that is necessary.

The reason you don't hear this being offered as a viable option from karate instructors is because they have a conflict of interest. Mastering a single kata takes years, mastering multiple kata takes decades. Karate instructors make the bulk of their money off tuition fees and belt testing. Without several kata they would soon run out of things to test and once a student mastered the kata there would be little reason to keep paying the instructor. With ranks, multiple kata and the idea that it takes a life time to master karate, they can keep students paying for decades.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Kata the Scales of Destruction

In music one practices scales for several reasons. Muscle memory, dexterity, technique, theory, ear and tune, but most importantly because they are the building blocks of music. Kata is much the same way.

A single kata is a scale. It contains the notes and the order of the notes to be most effective and it can be used to practice many of the same skills as in music, muscle memory, timing, dexterity and so forth. One practices the kata to get better, but kata is not conflict just as scales are not music no matter how sweet they sound. It is an exercise. Like scales the notes or movements of the kata once understood are used in creative and sometimes spontaneous ways to defeat an opponent. This doesn't apply only to the order of perceived "techniques" but the motions of the techniques as well. It's the principles that are important.

Also like scales, each individual kata stands on it's own. While there is overlap in technique between each kata, because each kata is a complete and integrated fighting system each has it's own strategies, which may or may not work together just as one cannot take a C scale and A scale and shove sections together and expect it to be melodic, while one can readily mix up the sections of a single scale and begin to play with making music.

This is where one starts making the departure from exercise into art. Technique is not art, the creative use of technique is art.

Principles and Strategy

I've been thinking a lot about the principles and strategy of Seisan. Use your body weight to power attacks, use both hands, attack on multiple levels, control the head, strike to disrupt and fight the void are some of the general principles of the kata.

It's a little easier to name principles than strategy because the principles of Seisan align with the principles of many karate kata. The strategy of the kata is a little trickier. From what I can tell the strategy is to unbalance the opponent with direct hand and foot patterns and then throw violently to the ground. Basically, disrupt, unbalance, throw violently could be called the overall strategy of the kata as I practice it.

First you must disrupt the opponent's actions, whether that be an attack or just movement to make sure that the opponent cannot cause damage. The next part is to unbalance the attacker in some way to ensure that they cannot continue the attack and to set up the throw. Once the opponent is unbalanced they are thrown violently to the ground.

It's important to understand the strategy of Seisan because we want to practice goal oriented karate. It's not enough or prudent to know a handful of disjointed techniques if we don't know what they are meant to achieve or how they work together than they are just a list, not a tool and definitely not art.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Kata a book written in motion

Kata at it's heart is an instruction manual. A book that tells us through movement how to potentially protect ourselves.

Listen to what your kata is telling you.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Goal Oriented Karate

It's always important to keep in mind while you're training what you are training for. The goal of karate should be self protection. There are other benefits to practicing karate, but they are not what karate is for in the classical sense. Repeat after me.

Karate is for self protection.
Karate is not for fighting.

When we generically think of a physical confrontation, we might think about two guys, because it's always guys, squaring off toe to toe and beating each others brains out. People that stay in the fight as long as they can must be showing their commitment and heart. I mean who doesn't like Rocky? But wait, Rocky is a fight and we're talking about self protection.

Every single karate technique you practice should have the ability to end the fight immediately. This is either through escape or physical damage that allows you to escape. If someone has a grip on you a disrupting blow, something that distracts them, can be enough to get free and get running.

It might not be popular in our fantasy culture, but the point is to remain unharmed and able to go about your day, not pick fights.

Of course the best way to stay out of trouble, is not to be there.

Keep this in mind while you're training.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Sunday, August 16, 2015

The Pajama Factor

My wife and I are watching a martial arts demonstration. Two people wearing gi with hakama inside a beautiful dojo with shrines on the wall and polished hardwood floors. They turn gracefully and one slams the other to the ground in a spectacular throw.

She turns to me and says, "This is kind of like LARPing."

For those of you who don't know LARPing is Live Action Role Playing. It's usually something reserved for those dressing up as orcs and paladins and other such characters from dungeons and dragons who whack the crap out of each other with foam weapons.

"They're participating in a cultural heritage," I say.
"I guess," she says and she turns her attention back to the demonstration.

She does have a point. The clothing and decoration of the dojo is inconsequential to the caliber of the martial arts being taught. It's just as easy to practice kata in shorts and a t-shirt than it is to practice in a gi. It's still the same kata.

In some ways the clothing legitimizes the techniques or the practice in some way. The other day someone said to me "I thought you did karate without shoes?" As if being barefoot was essential to performing karate techniques.

One expects the expert to look a certain way for some reason. If the uniform isn't covered in patches than it should be plain, but old and tattered from hard use, a different kind of decoration.

It's hard to tell sometimes where the cultural heritage ends and the fantasy begins. Whether it is respect or infatuation. I think most of the time what is being sold as martial arts is just a role playing game.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Multifunctional-Compound Movements

Like many karate kata, each movement in Seisan can have multiple applications. Many movements can be translated into strikes, blocks, unbalancing movements, limb entanglement, limb clearing, joint locks, chokes and throws/ take downs. Almost every movement contains these qualities. Some movements emphasis striking, others locking and others unbalancing and throwing, but they still have all the parts. Because of these aspects all of these actions can more or less be performed at the same time.

Take the first repeated opening sequence in the kata. In most styles this is some sort of outside middle "block" followed my a middle thrust of some sort. In the version I practice one explodes forward in sumo stance. If one is within the fighting distance of Seisan, which is about the distance from your chest to your elbow for maximum effectiveness one has the opportunity to strike the opponent about four times before the thrust. Twice with the "prepatory movement of the block" generally one fist at head height one fist at belly height and one fist is pulled back while the other snaps upward. The prepatory movement intercepts and sweeps out of the way any incoming straight attack, striking the limbs, if the technique is unobstructed this becomes an uppercut to the neck with a simultaneous punch to the solar plexus, which is followed by a back fist as the lower hand snaps upward. At the same time the leg is exploding forward into the sumo stance and strikes at the person's feet, ankle, shin and knee. The strikes to the head and legs should work to unbalance the opponent and the following thrust can be a punch/ push that can send the opponent toppling over.

The beauty of these types of movements is that if one aspect fails or is unsuccessful the entire movement doesn't fail because there are other aspects of the movement that can still succeed. One also doesn't have to think about the movement to accomplish this. If the distancing is correct and the proper body mechanics are used than one need only deploy the movement without regard for what the other person is doing.

 These types of movements allow the kata practitioner to respond in a non diagnostic way to sudden violence, while maximizing the chances that a technique will land.

Happy training. 


Thursday, August 13, 2015

Good Training Day

Spent the morning with kata and kettle bells, running through Seisan ten times with a one minute rest in between. The plan is to shorten the rest periods until I can run through the kata ten times without stopping while holding the bells. It should be an interesting goal to work toward.

Did some sparring with someone new today. I've been sparring so much with J lately it's hard to tell where the bad habits might be. Apparently the answer is knees and kick defense. I have a bruised and knotted shin thanks to old bad habits. Should have just moved off line when I saw it coming. It's something to work on.

It's always good to train with someone who isn't a karateka to pressure test techniques. A good technique should work on anyone regardless of size, strength or whatever they might be doing at the moment. I'm pleased that so far my techniques are holding water.

I'm hoping that this person didn't get scared away.

Happy training.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Ishi Sashi

I'm always experimenting with different training implements, so when I finally had some money to burn I got a pair of ten pound kettlebells to play with.

I usually make most of the stuff I use for training. My dummy/ striking post is always a work in progress, but I made it by hand from a large branch that fell off a tree in my property. I hacked it up and used the big chunks for projects and smaller branches became kindling.

The ishi sashi are something a little different. Unlike the chishi, which can be made with a stick, a plastic bowl, a couple of nails and a bag of quick setting concrete, the ishi sashi are a little more complicated. Not only do they need a handle, but they need to be small enough not to hamper too much movement, but heavy enough to give a reasonable amount of resistance. Steel/ iron is the only good way to get the weight up and the size down. A 10 pound bag of beans is as large as a pillow while 10 pounds of iron will almost fit in your hand.

I'm using these to supplement my normal strength training routine. Besides doing a few dedicated ishi sashi exercises I've also been holding the weights in my hands while I practice kata. All the movements are done slowly and deliberately because otherwise I'll tear my joints apart.

My initial thoughts so far is that they are interesting and torturous at the same time. Half way through the kata your shoulders start to burn and your forearms get tired and start to burn. It becomes very tempting to slack off on the movements. Based on this little bit of experience I'm guessing that these will work my shoulders and wrists more than any other muscle.

So I'll be updating the site with more findings, thoughts as they come. Happy training.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

I practice Seisan

I only practice one kata. It's a Kyan style Seisan, which I learned while training at a Seidokan dojo on the coast almost ten years ago, but I've only seriously started to study it two years ago. I could go into why I only practice one kata, but it's too complicated and boring.

Sometimes I feel like I should have picked a kata like Naihanchi or Sanchin, but Seisan seemed like it would be easier at the time. Even though it's sometimes considered the universal kata because most styles of karate have a version of Seisan there is very little content out there to explain the movements or it's principles. There are many theories about Naihanchi and Sanchin, but very little about Seisan.

While it was the first kata learned in Seidokan much like Naihanchi is learned early on in Shorinkan, it seems to be thought of both as a basic kata and an advanced kata. I can't really comment on this one way or another because the movements for one kata are usually as much of a mystery to another.

What I have learned about Seisan is that it's a group of multifunctional movements, which can be used to break down an opponent swiftly and mercilessly. Movements for grinding someone up or locking them up and both at the same time. I believe this can be said for most kata it's just a different means.

Seisan means 13, which seems rather strange. Some people think this means the number of techniques or the steps. While there are five sets of repeated movements and 8 sets of none repeated movements this can be debated because I believe some of the movements are just different expressions of the same principles. The number is lucky in Chinese culture and the Okinawans did admire the Chinese.

It doesn't really matter what it means. I mostly just think of it as mine.


I practiced kata outside this morning for an hour. I almost think that kata was made to be practiced outside. It's just too stuffy inside. I'll practice in my den, but it's so cluttered with stuff that it's hard to concentrate. The outside seems fresh and full of energy.

It does creep out the neighbors. Sorry.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

In Search of Karate

I've been practicing karate on and off since I was 16. In terms of martial arts practice this means next to nothing. The one thing I have learned about karate is that there is no certainty. Good and bad are measured many times in degree rather than in stark black and white. Kata for instance depending on who you talk to is either the heart of karate or a complete waste of time. Both views have their merits based on their understanding of it's purpose, but since the purpose of kata can vary as much as its interpretation than there is very little point in trying to argue whether one way is more legitimate or correct than another.

To put it simply, some things work, some things don't and some things work depending on the situation and the environment. This is the only certainty.

The person who enjoys performing kata and competing in point sparring tournaments is equally as legitimate as the person who ensconces himself in tradition and practices the kata for more practical reasons.

This will be both a training journal and a place to post my own ideas about karate and how it can be practiced.