Sunday, November 29, 2015

Bad Ass Babe Project

There are ups and downs to practicing karate with your wife. The upside is that you get to share a wonderful past time together and the downside is that it can be frustrating to have a person you outweigh by almost 80 pounds put you on your ass. In truth, she's also my student, and I've used her as kind of a guinea pig when it comes to training methodology. She had no martial arts training at all when we started this little experiment together, and really she's the reason I ever got back into studying karate. My opinion of traditional karate hasn't changed very much, but my opinion on whether you need a "qualified instructor" definitely has, so we decided to take it as a challenge and see what happens.

Over the years, I've used her to hone my teaching ability by figuring out the best way to try and transmit the techniques and concepts that I've been discovering in the kata. While everyone is different, it's very, very challenging to teach a woman who has had absolutely no exposure to this type of physical endeavor. Many boys at least have the experience of rough housing with other boys or their siblings and she's had neither. My rule has been that if a drill or exercise doesn't help her get better, or if she isn't able to apply a technique on me than I throw it out and look for something better. Techniques need to work on someone bigger, stronger and more skilled, otherwise, what's the point.

I've taken a different direction in our training recently by throwing out everything that is rigidly scripted. I group attacks with sections of kata, since many kata movements can be used for several different types of themed attacks, but I leave her to use her own judgment in how to use those movements. Sometimes her maneuvers work and sometimes they don't, but I leave room for her natural reactions and intuition. I've been taking this slow and working on each part of the kata individually.

The result so far has been very rapid improvement in both understanding and application. She's also enjoying it a lot more, because it makes our training sessions more of a game than just rote memorization. Infighting has become much more of a challenge for myself because her ability to adapt and find the weak points has become more natural leaving myself to adapt even faster.

I'm calling this new training experiment the Bad Ass Babe Project or BAB, and I'm going to use this as kind of a training journal for her.

So far, I may have created a monster.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Practice Slow to Move Fast

I've gotten faster over the years, not because I practice fast, but because I practice slow. Slow might be the wrong word to use because I've slowly sped up with time without me being aware of it. I practice as slowly as I need to, so I can perform each technique correctly.

I've often read that one must practice at full speed and power if they are going to increase speed and power, and I just don't believe it anymore. It makes sense on the face of it that one must practice fast to become fast like a runner pushing themselves harder during each run, but it is not the same thing. The runner gets faster through the building of strength, but the martial artist does not rely on strength.

Having a strong body is not technique, it is merely the expression of natural ability, genetics. If a strong body defeated technique than there would be no need for the martial arts. The gym would be enough. Moving fast to get faster would be like lifting weights to lift heavier weights. Speed and power for the martial artist comes from technique, the proper body mechanics used to trump genetics and prevail over strength alone.

Technique needs to be practiced correctly. Haste makes waste the old saying goes and it's true of karate. Practicing fast before the movements are understood and ingrained completely in one's self leads to sloppy ineffective movement. Perfect practice makes perfect. We need to be careful not to condition ourselves with incorrect body mechanics. Like sharpening a blade without a constant angle, no matter how much we run the blade over the stone it will be dull, warped and weak. The angle needs to be constant and correct for it to become a razor.

Over time one will become faster through diligent and methodical training, which will stay with them after the peak of their strength has faded.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Invisible Enemy

It's easy to get sucked into the idea that the imaginary enemy in kata is at the end of your fist. Many techniques are demonstrated at the very edge of your sphere of control, the imaginary space around you which you can impact. It's because our limbs move in a continuous fashion in most kata. We assume that because there is no re-positioning of ourselves to circumvent our opponents body or limbs that they must not be there. They must be on the very borders of our technique because we don't reset. We have to remember though that sometimes kata has no punctuation. The beginning portion of one technique can be the ending portion of another technique. The kata can be compressed to remove all the spaces and unnecessary movement. It's what helps us squeeze an entire fighting system into our brain without memorizing a textbook full of technique variations.

The next time you practice kata think about all the different places your opponent could be. Are they arms length, or are they so close you can smell what they had for lunch. Are you standing face to face, or are you behind them. Also think about what techniques you could use effectively in those situations. A technique isn't very effective if you're close enough to count their eyelashes.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Inoculation to Pain

I'm not a big fan of body hardening, but I do think it has a place in karate training, but not the way that many people pursue the activity. Most karateka that I know of that engage in conditioning exercises do so to make their bodies more resilient to damage. They harden their knuckles and arms, their throats, their shins and sometimes their testicles through striking them with various objects or having someone strike them. I've seen very impressive feats done due to this type of training. But, I'm dubious of how much it actually protects you. Even if all your nerves are dead you can still break. I think body hardening can be a replacement for full contact sparring. Let me explain.

The only real value that full contact sparring has in my opinion is intensity and pain. If you're a self defense minded individual, it serves little purpose being so beat up all the time you can't defend yourself. The safety equipment required makes most karate techniques impossible and all the safety equipment in the world can't protect you from a concussion. If you're sport oriented and know the date and time of your next fight then you can do some really hard training and give yourself time to recover. The drawbacks out weigh any of the benefits in my opinion. This is where body hardening comes in.

The fact of the matter is that fighting hurts. Especially in karate when your forearms can become a cyclone of death meant to destroy anything it touches. We need to inoculate ourselves to pain, so we're not stopped in our tracks the first time we get hit hard, or strike hard. This is where body hardening comes into play. Body hardening allows you to slowly build up intensity and control the conditions to minimize the risk of injury. It doesn't take much to bang your forearms and shins on a piece of wood a few times a day, and you don't have to worry about your partner rattling your skull by accident. It's a much simpler way to see if you can take the pain than finding someone you trust to rumble with.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

No Explanation Required

One hears many stories about those "olden days" of karate when men were men and karate was toudi. Something that comes up fairly consistently in what little stories we have is that karate teachers gave little to no explanation of kata and didn't allow questions. The pioneers of karate-do I think carried on this tradition of no explanation. It doesn't seem that this is possible, but I'm beginning to figure out that it makes a lot of sense.

When one is taught one kata there doesn't need to be a lot of explanation, not because the subject matter is small or that you'll just get it in time, though I think you will with practice and thought, it's because karate is like riding a bicycle. All the explanation in the world won't help a person learn to ride a bike. They just have to get on and try and only until you feel yourself balance and push the pedals do you finally understand what everyone's been telling you. Explaining to someone the myriad ways a kata movement can be used doesn't help. If they don't understand the abstract concept that one thing can be many things than they won't be able to use it. The way you make them understand is by attacking them.

The teacher attacks the student not with prearranged movement like yakusoku kumite, but rather creates the correct environment and opportunities for the student to use a particular kata movement. The student is not told what attack will be used. The student will then either succeed or fail. This continues until the student understands the movement by using it through trial and error with the correct circumstances for the movement. No explanation of the movement is required to learn in this fashion.

I'm not saying this is what happened, but it seems very plausible. It's almost a precursor to one step sparring and yakusoku kumite, but with real violence replaced with sport style attacks for the tournament platform. It's just one theory.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Back to the Bubishi

Every time I take a turn in my training, and I understand things a little more clearly I go back and read my reference material to see if my change in point of view changes my readings. Most recently I've picked up the Bubishi. It's the Patrick McCarthy translation.

I first read the Bubishi when I was 16 years old. I was a brand new karateka and like everything I'm interested in, I read absolutely everything I could find on the subject, cause I'm a nerd. I remember that first time reading it and going "okay, what does this have to do with karate?" I thought it was supposed to be an instruction manual. The history was interesting, but incredibly dry, so I didn't pay much attention. I mostly focused on the last section, which was about fighting tactics, but was mostly simple counters to violence. The small set of special circumstances that aren't always apparent in kata. Honestly, I just didn't get it at the time. It wasn't anywhere close to what I was currently practicing even though my sensei supposedly quoted from it. He must have been reading a different version.

I had read that several famous karateka cherished this book, and I really just couldn't figure out why. Surely there's more to karate than this. It was too simple. There wasn't anything mysterious in it, and it was incredibly short. In Mr. McCarthy's translation the bulk of the book is just explaining the book. The actual translated text is very short especially if you took out all the pictures.

Rereading it now, I suddenly get it. The Bubishi is almost like everything that you can't record in a kata. The principles and ideas behind structure, balance, power generation, where to hit, when to escape, how to train by yourself, how to make kata a tool for fighting. Karate I'm coming to figure out isn't all that complicated. You hit the meat at these weak points and it becomes injured. If there's stuff in the way you move it, and if you can disadvantage it, so it can't fight back, all the better.

I think in a way we are all kind of searching for that mythical answer of karate and sometimes we're not satisfied with the simple or the abstract. We want the complex and concrete and possibly a little mysticism. Without it, karate is just a bunch of hard work. Maybe that's why the Chinese call it gong fu.

Thursday, November 12, 2015


I mentioned this a little bit in my last post. Mushotoku is practice without the thought of gain or profit. It's a Zen concept that's applied more to sitting meditation, but I think it helps with just about anything.

I get grief for this concept for a couple of reasons. First it's Zen and some karate people are very anti-Zen, mostly because of Anko Itosu's 10 precepts, one of which states that karate did not come from Buddhism. I totally agree and he should know or did know, but this doesn't mean that we can't use Zen concepts and practices to make our karate better. I don't find activities and concepts mutually exclusive. I'd much rather find binding principles across disciplines.

The second reason I get grief for this is goals. You need goals. Goals are important, but many goals are abstract especially when it comes to karate. It's not like weight loss or weight lifting where there are clearly defined goals. Kata can be subjective and when practicing for self defense one should hope never to use it. This is where mushotoku comes in.

We should be able to practice karate for the sake of practicing karate. The goal should be the practice itself not the attainment of specific goals. Goals are great, but they can also be discouraging. Reaching and failing creates a negative lesson, trying gets you nowhere. Practicing and never using can make karate pointless. Why practice karate for self defense if the odds are very low that I'll ever need it? Besides, I have a gun. Basically it needs to be fun. You should enjoy the act itself. You'll keep practicing and as long as your mind is open, you'll keep learning.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Things you learn practicing one kata

The first thing you learn is that you have discipline. It's kind of one of those Catch-22 things that you really need discipline to learn discipline, because if you don't have discipline you'll never practice enough to have it. You learn that you have discipline because it's really, really, really, really boring. At the beginning.

The first year of practicing only one kata you're just going through the motions. You might as well be dancing. But I found that it's very important to practice mushotoku. This is practice without the desire for gain or profit. It's a Zen concept and people jump down my throat sometimes about this, because they believe that Buddhism has no part in karate. I agree, but these same people usually have the suffix Do attached to karate. Read Gichin Funakoshi, he makes a distinction between karate and karate-do.

The concept kept me going because with one kata it's all you have. There's no belt testing, no classes, no new kata to learn, no new movements to master. It's just that one kata that you've chosen to master and it happens when it happens, you just have to keep going.

You obviously learn patience. There's really no need to rush because you're not going to understand things in an afternoon, or a month, or a year. I personally didn't start getting a handle on what I was actually doing until after year two. You get an idea, but it's nothing you can put your hands on. It's just a feeling.

You can tell when others understand their kata. They're not just moving their arms and legs. They're not miming movements. They are actually doing something in their mind. They completely understand everything they are doing. Their body moves in concert. Not everything is fast, because not every technique needs speed sometimes it just needs leverage.

You learn that the kata is part of yourself. It's hard to explain, but you come to learn it very intimately. You own it, you don't rent it. It doesn't stop because you stopped practicing at the dojo. The dojo is not going to make you a karateka. You are going to make you a karateka. I think this is appropriate, because if you practice for self defense you're the one that's going to save yourself. Not your sensei, or the style, or even your technique because when you get right to the bare bones of it, it's just you and only you. The kata is just a reference point.

You learn that you can get good fairly fast. At least compared to how most karate dojo train. It's just arithmetic. A thousand hours of one kata is a thousand hours of one kata. A thousand hours of 10 kata is 100 hours per one kata. A thousand hours of practice is a little less than three years of study if you study for one hour a day. So if you practice 10 kata for three years you'll have one hundred hours of practice for each kata spread out over that time. You hit the one hundred hour mark at three months and ten days if you only practice one kata. Like I said, arithmetic.

You learn a lot when you only practice one kata, and the best part is you don't need to pay anyone to do it. You can do it in your backyard.

Monday, November 9, 2015

A simple karate exercise routine

I threw out my back a few days ago, and It's just now feeling well enough to do a little training. Kata only no exercising for me, which I hate. Exercise fills a different need for me than the karate. Some people feel that physical fitness and the martial arts go hand in hand that being a better weight lifter will make them a better karateka. I'm not picking on lifting it's just that "workouter" sounds weird. Exerciser? While physical conditioning is a must if you're an athlete, policeman, a member of our armed services or anything else that's highly active and intense, it just isn't all that necessary for self defense. If being big and strong was all you needed to overcome others than martial arts books would look more like exercise books. I personally workout to look good naked. Oh and the health benefits. I forgot about the health benefits.

There are benefits to being at least moderately in good shape for karate. You can train longer, you'll be less prone to injury, and you'll just be healthier. One of the true benefits of exercise on karate is weight. If you're a skinny guy, like I used to be, bulking up will give you more power. This has nothing to do with muscle power and everything to do with mass. If you have more mass, and you learn to put it in motion than you'll have more power. So if you want you can just sit on the couch and each junk food and it will do the same thing. But it's unhealthy, and you won't look good naked.

Here's a very simple workout routine that you can do to help both your karate and your body. You perform five sets of burpees with one kata repetition between each set. So it will look like this.

This is a burpee.

Kata (warm up)
1st set of burpees
2nd set of burpees
3rd set of burpees
4th set of burpees
5th set of burpees

Depending on how many burpees you pick for each set this routine will only take you about 15 to 20 minutes. When I've done this, I use the kata portion as a rest meaning I go slow. I like to practice kata slow anyway, but I don't go fast. If you want to go fast you can, but the burpees will kick your butt.

Picking the number of reps is the tricky part. I'd experiment a little, maybe start with 5 for each set. If you're really gung ho than you can do 10 per set. I'd wait at least a day between routines, but no more than two days of rest. For steady improvement, just add one repetition to a set each workout. So you'll start with 5-5-5-5-5 and the next workout will be 6-5-5-5-5 and the next workout will be 6-6-5-5-5 and so on.

This has worked really well for me in the past. It's basically just a version of interval training, but without all the timers and junk. I like it because it gives you a good workout, you don't need equipment and you can do it basically anywhere.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Disrupt the machinery

If you want to kill a car, you could spend a fair amount of time beating it with a crowbar until it was unable to run, or you could take a few minutes and cut the fuel line, disengage the throttle, remove the battery or foul a few spark plugs. It's much easier and quicker to mess up the small components that allow the car to run than trying to break the transmission or one of the axles. You disrupt the machinery.

Karate is about disrupting the human machinery.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Novice Test

You're sparring against a novice, and he's frustrating the crap out of you. You've been training for years, practicing all the kata, doing all the drills, exercising and hitting the punching bag everyday. Your form is impeccable, and you placed first in the last two kumite tournaments you entered. You know you're good, but this guy is connecting. He's trained for a month, he can barely perform the basic blocks and he's a goofy mess, but he keeps tagging you with this big-eyed expression of terror on his face. He's making you awkward, unbalanced and worst of all he's making you look bad. You don't want to admit it, but it keeps going through your head "he's not doing it right."

Sound familiar? Has this happened to you? Does it fill you with a little bit of fear? It probably should.

Usually after the guy has a few more months of training and gets his "form," you start schooling him. He telegraphs, hesitates, and generally tries the same thing over and over again. This usually puts your fears to rest for a bit, because you can tell yourself it was just a fluke.

This has happened to me a few times, and I took it as a big warning sign. My junk didn't work as good as I thought it did.

Let's be blunt. If you can't completely annihilate a pure novice, your karate doesn't work. I mean if everyone is following their dojo kun than you shouldn't be running around fighting other karate practitioners anyway. You'll be defending yourself against thugs that presumably don't know karate. Are we starting to see the problem?

You can even find quotes like this one from Motobu Choki “The techniques of kata have their limits and were never intended to be used against an opponent in an arena or on a battlefield.” 

This basically means that at the very least karate should work against the untrained.

This is a hard truth, and it's even harder to face. The dojo has a big sign on the window that says "Learn Self Defense." It has a long lineage. You've also put in a lot of effort. All the fees, the testing, the practice. You've got a black belt or you're about to have one. You've been told it works. Your sensei said it works.  It's all supposed to mean something. Worst of all, it's your identity, the core of your ego.

What do you do?

Do you ignore reality, or do you face it and do something about it?

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Kata is the shape of the weapon

We build our weapon through the kata. The weapon of the human body. The kata is the shape of the weapon, the practice of kata is the forging of that weapon. The number of positions that a body can make is almost unimaginable. To hunt through all of them to find the most effective movements and patterns for self defense would be time consuming and cumbersome. The kata gives us a platform to work from.

A person builds it and shapes it until it is as hard as steel and supple as silk. This is only the first step. The building of a weapon is not the application of that weapon. Once it's built it needs to be used, stressed, and abused to find the limits of its function. Only then can it truly be understood.