Wednesday, September 30, 2015

A trip to a local dojo

I was recently invited to attend a class at a local Wado Ryu school here in town. I got my gi out for the first time in a few years and pulled out my white belt, which is the only belt I've actually held onto over the years, and headed down for a little training.

It was a fun energetic hour of training, but I probably won't be going back. The money issue aside, I'm not willing to clutter up my brain with a lot of superfluous movements. I don't think it's worth ingraining what I see as bad habits.

While I was running drills with one of the brown belts they said "Are you a black belt in another style?"

I told him that I just train, which is the truth. Later on while talking to one of the sempai, I confessed that I'd never made it past 5th kyu in any of my previous styles. In one of those styles I actually refused to test because I didn't really care to go to the next belt.

It's always confused me that on one hand we're not supposed to care about the belts, but on the other if you don't have the correct belt around your waist than you don't matter. Anyone who truly doesn't care about the belt system is kind of a heretic.

This isn't to say anything bad about this particular dojo, because they seemed like a good group of guys and gals. I'm hoping that I can train with some of them outside of their dojo.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Deeper than I thought

It's very hard to explain to normal martial artists what it's like to practice a single kata for years. I believe that they think they can imagine it, but I know that I never imagined that a kata could go so deep and yet be so simple at the same time. The closest I can come to explaining it is relating it to language.

A kata for the most part is almost like an alphabet. Kind of. Except some of the grammar is written into the alphabet itself. Almost like "i" before "e" except after "c." If it were written "A" "B" "Cei" "D" "iE" "F".

The steps for example in the Seisan kata I practice tell you how to power the hand movements, but also whether you are the one giving pressure or if you're receiving pressure. If you try and flip them around they don't work.

I'm digressing a little here.

Practicing a single kata is like being fluent in a language. You know it front and back, inside out and backwards. You can play with the words and structure to make jokes or whatever you want. It's also designed to work together.

The hard part is that for many martial artists, they feel that practicing the alphabet is speaking the language, and they assume that if something looks the same in two kata than it must be the same movement. Since there are no real hard and fast rules regarding kata analysis, I can't say this is wrong, but it would be foolish to make the same assumption about language. The English and Russian alphabets both have letters that look like a "b." If we assumed that they made the same sound we would be wrong. The "b" letter in Russian is pronounced like a "v" in English. Yet, they look exactly the same. It's only by comparing the letters around it and the words that they make that we see that they are different.

It's also hard to explain that the kata movements can be proactive and not necessarily reactive, and in Seisan at least the directions and movements have more to do with where you are in relation to the opponent and where you want them to be rather than a defense against any specific attack. This breaks the kata down into pretty easy to swallow chunks. It's really the only thing that we can know for sure about the opponent. They can either be in front, behind, on either side as well as inside and outside of the arms. It's rather simple, but the ramifications are rather large.

We can also assume that movements that are not done in a mirror fashion do not require the opponent to be in any specific orientation where as movements that are done with a focus on the right side and then practiced with a focus on the left side are for specific orientations because the left side needs to be trained equally as the right side. Like a left hand punch and a right hand punch, but grabbing someone's head and yanking it around doesn't require you to balance left with right. You'll get pretty much the same result no matter what.

This is just a little bit of the picture. When I first started practicing in this fashion, I couldn't imagine Seisan being more than just a simple collection of punch combinations and reactive drills to prescribed attacks, but the more I practice the deeper it goes.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Sport fighting versus Survival fighting: Part 2

After giving it some thought, I decided that this post needed a part two.

Another of the significant differences between sport and survival is the goal. Sport fighting is very much about domination. When you put someone in a choke or a lock you submit them. The ego is very much at play in the sporting arena. It's where people develop their ego. It gives them a sense of worth or meaning. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it can grow wild. I think most martial arts boost ego rather than diminish it, but that's another post. This is the point of the sporting arena. It's about having fun of course, but it's also about proving that you're the best.

The goal of survival fighting is to end the conflict without injury, preferably to all parties involved. This does away with any legal entanglements or acts of retribution from those involved. Yes, if you have to injure a criminal you should expect violent retribution from them, their friends or even their family. It's something that is usually glossed over when talking about self defense. The easiest way to accomplish this is by running away. This is the real ego killer. Better to run and kill your ego than stay and kill yourself.

In the ring, fighters are matched by experience and weight. Unfortunately out in the real world your attacker will most likely be bigger, stronger and more comfortable with violence than you are. Just by being big and strong yourself can be a viable means of self defense on its own. A criminal doesn't want to fight, they want something. They're going to pick soft targets. If you were a criminal, would you rather mug the bodybuilder walking into the gym or the shaking elderly woman shuffling her way into the grocery store next door. It's just like in the wild, the old and sick are hunted down by the lions because they're easier prey.

In the last post I wrote a little about the difference in techniques and I'd like to expand on it a bit.

Submission fighting is very big in the sporting arena and it's very effective in this context, but for your average person who does not have a duty to act, like a policeman or security officer, they're pretty worthless. One exception possible being chokes, but only chokes performed from the front. (Because if they're performed from the rear you can just escape instead of choking them, so it's not self defense.)

Let me lay down a scenario. A person attacks you without provocation, so it's legitimate self defense at this point. You get dragged to the ground where you put him in a skillful arm bar. Now what? In legal terms force is only legal if the threat is still present. This does not mean the person is still present, but the threat. The arm bar neutralizes the threat, but now you are kidnapping, which is a felony. You can't break the arm legally speaking because you stopped the threat. To escape you'll have to let go and hope the guy doesn't become a threat again. See the problem. Locks not only immobilize the threat, but yourself as well and escape is the goal.

The fact is that you'll be most likely outmatched in size and strength, taken unawares and will most likely be injured. To survive this you might have to do some really brutal shit. The equivalent of shooting someone with a gun. There's a reason you don't see this in the sporting arena.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Sport fighting versus Survival fighting

Due to the growing popularity of combat sports like the Ultimate Fighting Championship, there is a tendency to mistake these athletic competitions with survival fighting. It's a mistake that I encounter frequently. People mistake the artificial environment of the arena with violent encounters out in the real world.

The explanation for the difference between sport and survival usually has something to do with the rules. Sports have rules and survival is thought not to have rules, but this isn't entirely true. Self defense is a legal concept. It has to do with laws, statutes and evidence. One cannot use more force than is required to extract themselves from a dangerous situation. Therefore, if one is to survive after the violent encounter one must follow the rules of society.

The rules that specifically draw the line between sport and survival is that of targeting and striking surfaces. Almost all of the first response targeting areas in self defense are illegal under most sporting rules. The neck for example is off limits in the UFC. A solid blow to the side of the neck can knock a person out. A blow to the front can crush a person's windpipe. A blow to where the base of the skull meets the neck can kill. The eyes, groin, ears, kidneys, back, knees, joints and fingers are also illegal targets.

What can be used to strike is also limited. Open hand techniques are banned, as well as headbutts and dropping elbows. It is also illegal to kick a downed opponent.

These rules are good for the sporting arena. They encourage fighters to fight square on and pound on the strongest parts of the human body with some of the weakest. It prolongs the fights and ensures that participants won't end up permanently injured. It would be dangerous to assume that the same techniques used in the sporting arena would work in a violent confrontation.

In sport bringing someone to the ground and submitting them is a solid tactic. A single-leg takedown requires you to change levels and scoop up one of your opponent's legs. This requires you to present one of your most vulnerable targets to your opponent, the back of your neck. A dropping elbow could easily kill you.

Keep in mind that the rules of sport are not in place because they are not effective. They are in place to keep the participants safe. If you're fighting for your life, the last thing you want is for the other guy to be safe.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Magic in the martial arts

It doesn't come up very often, thankfully, but you do run into a fair amount of mysticism in the martial arts. Karate is not immune to this unfortunately.

I recently came across a person claiming that practicing kata would allow you to regulate your internal energy flow and double your strength. Something to do with a person's biofield and electromagnetic field.

This is nonsense.

Not only is is pseudo-scientific hokum, it's also incredibly dishonest. It's also very disturbing the number of people that buy into this type of quackery. Obviously, some people are taking 70's kung fu movies a bit too seriously.

The believers will claim that gaining superpowers. (It's almost too ludicrous to write.) Is the result of subtle energy fields that are not yet known to modern science. This might have been the case fifty years ago, but physicists today now have the capacity to detect some of the most minute sub-atomic particles in the universe, such as the higg's boson, which is what gives all things mass and is the cause of this wonderful thing that makes life possible, gravity. I'm sure that we'd be able to detect a phenomenon  that would cause a person to double their strength without regular exercise.

The United States government in the past has also funded research into such hokum as remote viewing and astral projection. This is supposedly when a person's consciousness leaves their body and travels to far and exotic places, not to be confused with spring break in Mexico. I'm sure that if the government feels fine with wasting its money on this than they wouldn't mind wasting it on biofields to double a soldier's strength.

Unfortunately the martial arts is filled with such scams and many other types of dishonesty. It's tempting to just let people practice as they wish and let the sheep get fleeced, but this is dishonest as well, but there is a simple solution. The next time someone tells you it's possible to gain  magical powers by manipulating imaginary forces you laugh at them and walk away.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Never Ending School

My biggest beef with karate schools is that there is no ending. Don't get me wrong I love learning. I've made it an essential and enjoyable activity in my life, but if you're teaching a skill at some point the teaching needs to stop and people need to start thinking for themselves.

At any school, academy, college or university, there are classes and one takes them to learn a skill. Once the skill is learned, the classes stop. It's possible to carry this very far until one receives their PHD or equivalent degree, but then the formal instruction ends and self learning begins. This is reasonable.

A karate school on the other hand does not operate on this premise. A karate school is designed to make the students attend classes for as long as they are able. It's not uncommon for people that have been studying karate for 20-30 years to still attend classes on a weekly basis. All the kata have been learned and hopefully the applications have been learned but they keep showing up. In the context of a social activity this is awesome. In the context of learning a skill this is terrible.In any other skill if you've been taking classes for 20-30 years and still need to attend classes regularly than you suck. Have you ever heard of anyone taking piano lessons for 30 years? Probably not. They might study for 30 years, but they aren't paying their music teacher for that entire time.

It's possible for a karate student who has trained for a couple of decades to be more competent and more knowledgeable in karate than his instructors and still be paying those instructors for classes. I call this a scam. Like having your chakras realigned by a crystalagist every week to keep your chi flowing.

A person shouldn't have to practice karate for four years just to start learning. It takes five years to master a single kata and two years at the most to become competent in that kata.Why spend four years learning what amounts to dance routines and then spend the rest of your life trying to train out all the bad habits you picked up in those four years.

Karate is a concrete skill. It is physics, anatomy and movement combined to cause harm or prevent it. It is nothing more than that.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Designed for sport

When I first started training in karate, I studied at a very traditional dojo run by Doug Perry. We had two classes of kata per week, one weapons class and a kumite class. Basic 3K karate meaning kata, kihon and kumite. It's the basic template for most traditional dojo. Traditional dojo usually try and set themselves apart from "modern" karate, the type of freestyle martial arts, which is more about stunt choreography and showmanship than practical technique, by advertising as not being a sport. The focus is on personal development, or spiritual growth.

I accepted this to be the case, because my sensei said so. I didn't really have any reason to not trust this because I hadn't done the research. The more research I do however leads me to believe that classical karate was intentionally changed and made more superficial to fit into a sporting format for recreation. This I believe is what gave rise to what we usually refer to as traditional karate or post WWII karate.

For a martial skill to be useful or practical it needs to be simple, easily deploy-able and effective. This can be supplied fairly easily. Think of police or military training. It doesn't take twenty years to train a soldier or a policeman. It can take a few months at the very least.

Traditional karate fills none of these criteria. It's techniques can be simple, but because of the sheer number of named techniques knowing the correct circumstance to use any specific technique is almost impossible. It's why you see karateka windmilling and losing their technique when pressed. It's not that they don't know any techniques, it's because they know too many. It's not easily deploy-able because it takes years and years of training to even become competent. How long does it take to master traditional karate. Probably 50 years. If you start at 30 years old you'll be able to successfully defend yourself by age 80. The failure of these two criteria make it not very effective.

When looked at from a sporting perspective, traditional karate makes a lot of sense.

Kata is used as performance art. Only a very superficial understanding of the kata is necessary. It's possible to win kata tournaments and have no idea what any of the movements mean. The number of kata available to a person is firmly in the double digits. This allows for extended years of practice just learning the patterns of these kata. It also offers a handy way to separate people into subsequent rankings. Kata 1-5 are beginner kata, kata 6-10 are intermediate kata and kata 11-15 are advanced kata. This basically ensures that a person can't compete if they only know one kata, no matter how good or competent they may be at it.

Kihon then becomes the artificial links that supposedly bind all the kata together, but they more importantly serve as the watered down list of techniques allowed in competition. Notice all the dangerous techniques that are designed to end a violent confrontation immediately are not among the basics, even though putting down an opponent is the entire point of karate.

Kumite is obviously the most sport like of all the aspects, but it can be ignored in some traditional dojo as if not participating in one event makes them more practical even though they participate in the performance art.

We're left with a sport that can be enjoyed by young and old. This makes it rather wonderful for recreation. When you're young you play tag, when you get older you perform kata and when you get even older you enjoy karate in a more internal way, and there's a handy rank structure to keep everything tidy and organized (for the most part). There's nothing wrong with this.

This is perfect for sport, but terrible for practical application.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Bunkai Wizards

Two gi clad men face each other. One punches and the other unleashes a torrent of locks and strikes ending with a throw performed with a flourish.

I see it all the time on YouTube channels. Someone else coming out with their own interpretation of kata. There's nothing wrong with this. I love that people are thinking more about kata, but the applications still have to be good.

I call these people bunkai wizards. I call them this because they seem to pull techniques from thin air without regards to structure, physics or an uncooperative opponent. All while disregarding each kata's individual combat strategies. It always looks good in the video because the other person must stand still after the first jab and wait for the person demonstrating to rain down holy hell on them.

If the technique works than the person being demonstrated on shouldn't have to hold still. They should be actively trying to make the technique fail. If the technique still works than it's a good technique. Think of a simple punch. Does an opponent need to be ignorant of what a punch is for you to crack his head open? No, they just need to be open. It's even okay if they know you're going to punch as long as they can't stop you from connecting.

The applications I see usually have too many steps, have points of failure and rely on specific responses from the opponent. As a general rule one should strive to put a person down in three movements. Not three techniques, three movements. The best case scenario is not having to take action at all, but a close runner up is just one movement.

Every movement/ technique should end a conflict immediately if done correctly. This includes escape.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Offensive foot work

Seisan, like many kata, includes offensive footwork. Every step forward should send your shin, knee and foot into the leg of the opponent. This same movement also generates the power for the hand movements of the kata. These movements are used in conjunction to attack the opponent from above and below simultaneously.

Besides injuring your opponent, it also increases the chances of off balancing him and creating an opening for a strike, throw or trip that could end the confrontation.

Fighting distance

Seisan kata is an in-fighting system. It's techniques really start to shine when you're close enough to hug someone. I sometimes say it's the distance of your shoulder to your elbow or your hip to your kneecap when in sumo stance. Others might say that it's fighting within clinching range.

Outside of this range most of the techniques become worthless. It's because of this that one must intimately know their own fighting range and stick to a strategy that highlight's it's strengths. Seisan is not a passive kata. It charges in and grinds people up, so staying this close is in keeping with it's strategy and strengths.

Friday, September 4, 2015

By the numbers

The way most people are taught techniques is through memorizing applications to counter specific attacks. Someone punches and you block, someone grabs your lapel and you perform lapel break number 4, someone grabs your lapel with his little finger out and you perform lapel break number three, someone has their wrist bent at a 30 degree angle and you hold your mouth just right and then you can perform wrist lock number 47. This is basically a list and a list is not art. Art has to do with creativity.

Having a response plan for every little circumstance is like having a stack of paint-by-numbers kits. You can paint a lion or a landscape, but it doesn't make you an artist, because it doesn't teach you to be creative. It teaches you to fill in the boxes with the right colors.

An artist takes his brushes and his brush techniques and applies them to an empty canvas to create something new. Will it be wonderful the first time, probably not, but he's still flexing those creative muscles in his brain. This is how karate techniques should be used. They are not used to combat specific situations. They are used to combat general situations by the application of principles, but they need to be used creatively. This is achieved through creative practice.

Creative practice is allowing a person to experiment with the techniques. They are no longer answers to specific questions, they are tools used to accomplish a task just like the painter's brush. Instead of drawing a picture you're learning to take someone out.

A laundry list is not art, creative expression of ideas is art. Karate is an art, not a list.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Every action has a weakness

Every technique, movement, action has a weakness, an opening that is created because of its very nature and physics.

A choke for example usually requires a person to use both of their limbs leaving most of their body unprotected including the highly sensitive testicles. A crushing grip and a tug like you're starting a lawnmower will give many people incentive to let go.

Punches leave you unprotected on one side, kicks leave you standing on one leg, locks can be easily countered if they are unsupported by the ground, a car or a wall. Everything has a weakness. Guard the head and you leave the kidneys, liver, solar plexus and floating ribs vulnerable on the torso. Even the way you stand has weaknesses. Squat down low and you can stop a line backer from the side, but a baby to your front could tip you over without much effort.

It's important to be aware of the weaknesses of each type of technique and to use those weaknesses as the basis for your counter attack. The opponent will basically be telling you where to attack. He attacks high and you attack low, he moves left and you move right. This is sometimes called fighting the void or fighting emptiness. You go to where your opponent isn't.

One of the advantages of training in a set amount of techniques is that you can become very aware of your own openings and take advantage of them by having prepared responses to close those gaps. You'll know what the opponent is going to do because you give him no other option.

Know where the weaknesses are and you'll always have an opening.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

A small lesson in body mechanics

The elbow is a hinge joint and one of the best points to gain leverage against another person. It's also one of the biggest mistakes I see people make when i watch limb control videos.

For reference when I refer to below or above the elbow, I'm using the anatomical position as a point of reference. This is a person standing erect with head forward and palms facing forward.

There are two ways to control the elbow and the way you do it depends on whether you are inside or outside of an opponent's attack. Being inside of attack is like being hugged. You are between the attackers arms. Being outside is the opposite. You are outside of the attackers arms.

If you are outside of the attack you want to push above the elbow moving the arm across the opponent's body. This will twist the spine very easily and compromise their structure. It will also block off an attack from the opponent's other arm. Being below the elbow on the outside is very dangerous. The arm can bend leading to a nasty elbow into your face. With control above the elbow this isn't possible. This also has the added benefit of accomplishing defense and unbalancing at one time in what can just be one move.

If you are inside of an attacker, one must control the arm below the elbow on the forearm. It isn't a very good leverage point when used in this way, but it keeps the arm from bending around your defenses and attacking you with any number of strikes.

A quick review.

Above the elbow on the outside.

Below the elbow on the inside.