24 November, 2013

Ryukyu Martial Arts and other great blogs

For the few that follow my blog, I would like to point out an excellent resource that (if I haven't pointed out yet in a previous blog) I would like everyone to visit and examine.

Ryan Parker Shinshii (Sensei in Okinawan) is a great wealth of information, from conditioning to application of techniques to research and development of bunkai.  The world could do worse to have more like him.  I would greatly recommend following his blog, or looking him up on youtube - he is a rare person who shares his knowledge freely and has a keen mind that cuts through the BS too often associated with the martial arts.

While I am at it, I would like to point out some of my favourite blogs.  Please excuse any repeats from previous posts.  These are ones which I visit and revisit regularly and find something new or important every time.  The world definitely needs more people like this.

As always, yours in training (where you will find the way)...

Kempo Hakku and Chinese Influences

I have been thinking again about the Kempo Hakku found in the Bubishi.  For those who do not know about this document, it is the so-called Bible of Karate.  It contains references to pressure points, philosphy, ethics, forms and useful self defense techniques that can be found in (some of the) kata of differing karate traditions.

I have decided to write a brief post about these 8 Lwas of the Fist Way, and compare some thoughts I have found about Chinese Quan Fa.  Regardless of the actual connection between Karate and Quan Fa, I think this comparison might be interesting and at least useful as a recording of my own thoughts.

First, let's give the 8 Laws of the Fist Way, then some principles that some may be familiar with.

1. Jinshin wa tenchi ni onaji. -The mind is one with heaven and earth.

2. Ketsumyaku wa nichigetsu ni nitari. -The circulatory rhythm of the body is similar to the cycle of the sun and the moon.

3. Ho wa goju wo tondo su. -The way of inhaling and exhaling is both hard and soft.

4. Mi wa toki ni shitagai hen ni ozu. -Act in accordance with time and change.

5. Te wa ku ni ai sunawachi hairu. -Techniques will occur in the absence of conscious thought.

6. Shintai wa hakarite riho su. -The feet must advance and retreat, separate and meet.

7. Me wa shiho wo miru wa yosu. -The eyes do not miss even the slightest change.

8. Mimi wa yoku happo wo kiku. -The ears listen well in all directions

You can find similar translations all over the place.  Perhaps a better translation is found here:

And now, here is an excerpt on the methods and 'secrets' of quan fa from another excellent blog, Be Not Defeated By the Rain:

From another perspective, 「直橫」is a boxing mnemonic, and is one of the most important principles in Southern kung fu, like  swallowing and expelling「吞吐」floating and sinking「浮沉」twisting and turning「擰轉」it describes how to use the body. The martial artist form Lingnam Lee Sai Wing states in his work 《工字伏虎拳拳譜》 states:

"The Art of Boxing is easy to learn and hard to attain its essense, one has to first understand its rules and practice its standards, afterwards one has to train the qi and power and be proficient in receiving the enemy's attacks. Understanding this, one's kung fu increases, from this [basis] one seeks the straight and sideways, swallowing and expelling, forward and retreat, entering and exiting, the secret of the four places, the method of the five gates, the shape of the eight faces, the road of life and death"

One can see from this that straight and sideways is an important wushu concept, and to treat it as standing up or lying on the floor is to distort its original meaning. The literati have always liked to play with words but to deliberately distort an important martial concept is to me unnecessary and seem to be intentionally misleading.

Here is a brief summary of the methods or movements key to Quan Fa:

  • Straight and Sideways
  • Swallowing and Expelling
  • Forward and Retreat
  • Entering and Exiting
  • Four Places
  • Five Gates
  • Eight Faces
  • Floating and Sinking
  • Twisting and Turning

So, I would like to draw attention to the most basic of these, floating/sinking (Heaven and Earth) and spitting/swallowing (I see a clear reference to inhalation and exhalation, aka Goju).  It seems clear to me that these four basic methods of dealing with an attack are found in most, if not all, of karate's kata.  But we also see examples of certain other aspects in some of the forms as well.  Sideways is obvious in Naihanchi, and things such as forward/retreat and enter/exit (either of these two could be linked to Sun and Moon, but more obviously a reference to the feet meeting and retreating from another) as seen all over the place.  Twisting and turning are found in kata from all styles of karate (Taikyuko, Heian, Saifa, Kururunfa come to mind off hand).  What I can't place is the 4 places and 5 gates.  8 faces seems to hint towards the eight basic directions of attack (N, S, E, W, NE, NW, SE, SW) and also the directions in which the ears should listen.  Interesting...

At any rate, it is late, and I have to think more on what all of this means.  I hope to cover my thoughts in more detail in later articles.

As always, the way is in training...

Don't Forget to Remain a Student

Just a micro post to highlight a great post over at Shinseidokan blog:

The title of my post is taken directly from the end of this blog post.  Mike Clarke Sensei says:

In the rush to be a karate teacher, don't forget to remain a karate student.

Excellent words to live by!  As always when I hear such good and simple advice, I am humbled and glad to be able to study something I love to much.

13 October, 2013

Importance of Weapon Training

This post comes from a variety of thoughts circulating in my head recently.  It has come as the result of recent discussions with those wiser than me in karate.  And that topic is of the importance of weapons training.

Now let me preface all of the proceeding writing with information about my current state.  I have been doing karate, in some form, for the last 15+ years, more than 10 of which have been in my current style of Goju Ryu.  In those 15 years, I have studied at least 4 years of Iaido and at least 10 years of Saijutsu (as a component of karate).  I have also have the opportunity to play with tai chi sword, butterfly sword, nito (Musashi's two sworded style), eskrima sticks, butterfly knives and bokuto/bokken.  I have use briefly also a bo.  So I am not a stranger to weapons training, but definitely not well experienced in anything but sai and iaito, which I would claim some measure of capability.

But specifically I have been really thinking hard about learning traditional Okinawan Kobudo.  Not only would this reinforce my interest in Okinawan Karate, it would directly benefit it.  It can be seen as a form of strength training at the least, but this would be a poor reason to study it.  It is an entire history of the islands I have come to respect with lessons that reinforce what I know and would let me learn that which I have yet to imagine or comprehend.

Recently (I mean for the last 50-100 years) karate has been taught separately from kobudo, despite there being a solid history of their combined methods being taught together.  In fact, many of the greatest names in karate have kobudo kata named after them.  This alone should give any karateka pause to consider studying kobudo.

But beyond this, I don't want to learn just any weapons.  I want to learn the most esoteric.  I have recently seen some great applications of weapons forms.  Here is an example of applied nunchaku or surujin technique:

I have also come to the realization that much of the island's bo techniques are based around not just the staff (what in Chinese Quan Fa is called the Grandfather of weapons) but also the oar (eku) and spear (yari).  So much of what I want to learn is the technique and application of armed combat from the masters of armed and unarmed combat from the Ryukyu islands.  I see and sense a great depth there which I have yet to tap or understand, and hope to in the future.

Anyways, this leads me to the question: why did the split happen?  Why is karate taught alone, and kobudo the same?  I ask this because I ask myself what I would want to teach.  My answer is always a complete art: one with strikes, locks, throws, weapons (improvised or otherwise), escapes, restraints and healing technology.  When I look at the curriculum of a other martial arts, I see the inclusion of at least a few weapons forms/techniques/styles.  Why should I or my students (should I ever have any) be any less demanding of our art?  When I look to the past, this is what my lineage should hold: all of the above.  The history of karate is deeper than the common place "peasant/famer's art" that is considered standard history: it is one of police and palace guards.  It is one of such depth that I hope to one day see enough to consider myself a true student rather than someone lost in the deep end of a swimming pool.

The way is in the training, as always...

Fighting taller and stronger

This is an old post I meant to post months back, but I am finally posting it as something to think about.

I had a dream.  The details are somewhat fuzzy, but I think I was bicycling past some guy, who hits me in the back of the head as a I go past.  My male ego flares up, and I stop and ask WTH that was about.  He responds that he thought I was a boxer based on my reaction.  I proceed to try to hit him in the face, unsuccessfully.  I woke up, realizing how stupid this situation and my reaction are/were, and calming down to realize this was a dream and not real.

My reaction to all of this was multi-fold.  First, I need to ensure I always check that ego at the door - it serves no purpose but to escalate primate behaviour with no good plausible outcome.  Second, I need to examine my own technique and be aware of using my own height and weight as an advantage - technique should trump physical characteristics and should work without those advantages.  Third, what the heck am I going to do against someone who has reach on me?

The first point I think is self explanatory - I strive to be a humble person, but there is always an element of pride in one's skills as a martial artist.  Be humble!  Don't rise to the bait.  Best to be more aware, more careful, and avoid going past some smartass.  And if it happens, get away!  The goal isn't to dominate or prove who is the alpha male - it is to get home and protect those I love!

The second requires some clarification.  I am one of the most senior karateka in my dojo.  Also, at 5'11" and 205 lbs one of the heaviest.  It is easy to become complacent with one's skill and (without ego) superiority over others when you have all the advantages (experience training, reach, mass, strength (theoretically)).  I need to strive to avoid that - break down what I do and how I do it so that it will work for even the lightest, smallest person.

The third now also becomes obvious.  If I rely on mass and technique, I just need to find someone with comparative experience and greater height to end up on the losing end of an exchange.  I need to work my techniques and polish up my bag of tricks to deal with those situations.  Case in point, there are probably 4 people in the dojo with greater reach or strength or mass that I would be hard pressed against.  Am I preparing against an opponent like them?  That is the test of my skill I should strive to best.

27 September, 2013

The Spread of Misinformation

I have recently become increasingly aware of both my own naivete the spread of (mis)information on the internet as a whole.  Without cited sources (which I try to do, but often fail at) one should treat such information with at least a dash of skepticism.

I modified an old post, found here:
to reflect one such change.

I apologize for any further misinformation spread on my part.  I encourage others to increase their vigilance when dealing with popular legends, myths and theoretical connections that we wish to make.

Also, my apologies specifically to the author and teacher at Tsubokai, Alan Wolfenden.  It is never my intent to post misinformation, so I encourage those who find something incorrect in my blog to point it out to me.

18 August, 2013

Quotes, Research, History, Training

Just a quick post to link to another great blogger, author and martial artist.  His posts are often insightful and I would like to just highlight one of the latest.  I am found of quotes, and this post has a great one.

The quote here is:
You can never cross the ocean until you have the courage to lose sight of the shore.

Very true.  What are you willing to lose sight of in order to attain that goal?  And you must at some point leave the shore to venture out and find your promised land.

Another post I wanted to highlight from another wiser than myself, who studies the old school systems that formed modern karate.  His training videos, skills, and knowledge speak for themselves.

This post highlights a couple of interesting ideas.  The native grappling and arresting techniques inherent in karate (tuidi) are very likely linked historically to Japanese bujutsu.  This opens a whole area of interest to me, as well as redefining what the origins of karate are and why it looks nothing like others arts in China and Japan - it is truly a synthesis of many.

13 August, 2013

Where to put what you add

This applies to many arts, as I have been looking at the kata list of many systems in the recent past.

I sometimes wonder why masters of the arts feel the need to create additional forms.  Not that I don't understand the desire to add to the art, to add your own lasting impression.  But why is it always the lower side of the curriculum - it is always for the most junior students.

Now, I can understand why this would be necessary, at least for the first few generations.  After all, assuming that you learn from a battle hardened warrior, he is not necessarily a born teacher, nor does he necessarily have the basics organized in a way that is easiest to learn, or in escalating terms of difficulty.  So as a student of such a teacher, you set about organizing what you have learned.  Perhaps you take some of the easiest things and organize them towards the start of one of your new student's learning career.  And then either you, or one of your students, starting adding forms to help in this.  Perhaps, like Anko Itosu, you create forms for children starting to learn your system and arts.

But cut forward to modern day.  Why create a new style, or keeping what you were taught, you decide to add to it.  But you are not adding something missing from the system - a weapon, or technique, or skill set, or whatever you find isn't included.  You add more to the lower end.

Is this done because the students are dumber than in your day?  Or perhaps it is just because you start children younger and you need something even a 5 year old can do?  If this is all just for children, why bother having adults learn this curriculum - it becomes irrelevant once you have the higher levels.  For that matter, why bother having it for any one older than 12 - at that age they can easily begin learning the true art, and 5+ years of training puts then in a good position to prepare for blackbelt.

Or is it because you believe you need to add to the system, but you don't know or believe that you are capable of adding something more comprehensive?  Or is it because you haven't learned anything so you don't know what to add?  Or is it because you want to believe in your own image as a great and powerful martial artist?

I am not accusing anyone - this is all just a thought exercise on my part.  It is relevant as I wonder if I will ever make a contribution to my own art.  Something truly non-trivial.  Something that adds depth or at least something not yet included natively.  I could go and learn Indian stick fighting or Filipino dagger techniques, but would they mesh with what I know and do?  The how of getting from point A to point B is interesting as a thought exercise.

Food for thought, as the saying goes.

21 July, 2013

Why is Suparinpei so great?

This post is long overdue - my apologies for those wondering what happened.  To sum up the last few months I have been looking outside the blogging world and making connections, and taking a well earned vacation.  I have also taken up some basic hojo undo exercises, which I find rewarding in their benefit as well as their simultaneous difficulty and simplicity.  I have also been a little tired of blogging - not all of my thoughts are what I want to share, and they aren't what I want to embody.  So why share negativity?

At any rate, I have been working on the below for a little while.  Just a few thoughts for those with familiarity with karate or similar systems where solo forms comprise a significant part of practice.  It also leads from my last post about the hierarchy of forms within a system.

The question on my mind recently has been: what makes any form the capstone of a system?  And as a subset to that question, how many years of practice does it take to understand it?  Karate is unique among martial arts in that it contains forms for combat which are largely misunderstood by most if not all.  Even those with a solid background in their application do not understand all movements in all forms, and hence we often see masters (who founded their own schools!) puzzling over certain movements their entire lives.  Somewhat like a physical koan.  With this in mind, I must look to the form I have learned as the highest in our system - Suparinpei.

Now abstractly, a capstone to any system could be the hardest lessons to teach.  The techniques require greater skills to apply successfully in a battle, but present a wider range of options and abilities in keeping with the core intent of the art.  This is in keeping with Western educational theory, but is unlikely to be applicable to Eastern education methods.

The capstone could also consist of deadlier techniques, those which will unquestionably kill the attacker.  The release of such techniques at a lower level would be irresponsible for any teacher without truly knowing a person for several years, possibly decades.  This sounds a little too much like reserved special techniques only given to the chosen few.  While it is a romantic notion and perhaps could even be the case in certain styles, it isn't as practical nor as likely.  If such knowledge does die out, then it can be rediscovered.  As the saying goes, there is nothing new under the sun...

The capstone could also, like in some koryu, be those that are the oldest and most central to the system.  They contain the intent of the style in the most simple and yet difficult to understand techniques to which you have been building over the course of your studies.

There could be more possibilities - if those reading this have any ideas, I would be glad to read them and increase my own knowledge further.

In regards to Suparinpei, it is said to contain the full syllabus of Goju Ryu.  So perhaps one could see it as a recap or condensation of all other forms?  If this is the case, then why include the others?  IF this is the case, why isn't the form longer, or feature less repetition, so as to include a single defining technique/principle from each of the other forms in the style?  This is also problematic when considering the history of the style - if some forms are newer than Suparinpei, or even older from a different style or lineage (eg: not of White Crane connected origin) how can Suparinpei encompass those forms and their lessons?  If we accept that it only contains the lessons from Higaonna Kanryo Sensei, does it only encompass Sanchin, Seisan, and Sanseiryu?  Moreover, there are records indicating that Suparinpei existed on Okinawa before Higaonna left to study in China.  There was also at least a form of Seisan as well before Higaonna left.  So where does this leave us?

The above were my thoughts in abstract about suparinpei.  But after a lot of reading and training, I am beginning to discover more information and come to realize several things physically about this kata.

First, who am I to question this?  I have made the beginner mistake of assuming that because I learned the form that I know it.  I see the surface, but I have not really seen more than the surface of the form.  With additional reading and study I have come to find an incredible amount of information in the simplest movements.  The subtle body mechanics, turning, stepping, where you place your feet and how that hinders your opponent and makes your technique possible or more effective.  The repetition in directions, the timing - I forgot the subtle science that is kata.  This has caused me to go back and look at other forms as well - especially my favourite behind Suparinpei, Kururunfa.  The opening has long bothered me, and the more I watch and learn and play, the more I come to think and understand and try.  I understand more fully now why they say you could have all of your training in a single form and be complete.

As always, the way is in the training.  Training means physical, mental and somewhat spiritual.

19 May, 2013

Order of Kata: Progression, Individual Needs, or the Way of the Disciple?

I have been thinking a lot about the order and progression of kata, specifically within the Goju system.  Recently reading an article at Total Karate brought some of these thoughts to the forefront.

I have seen a lot of theories about the order and progression of kata within a system.  Since I honestly don't have much of an opinion of the goju kata and their order (perhaps a case of being too close to see what is in front of me), I have been doing a lot of reading.  I don't think that this was often written down in the past by others, as I have found scant resources dealing with this topic specifically, and definitely little to nothing from the older masters.  I should note, I am still working through some older material at the moment, so there is still hope.

First, let's start off with some definitions.  When I refer to order I refer to the order in which the forms are taught within a system.  When I refer to progression this is an admittedly loaded term which is bundled with the assumption that there is an increase in difficulty or skill with later forms versus beginner forms.

Now for some theory.  Why have more than one form in a system?  Many of the arts are founded on a few principles which are supposedly recorded in a core form, usually the highest in the system.  This form is said to contain everything in the school - by practicing this form you can see the basics that have been isolated for training specific skills in other forms or drills.  For more on this line of thought, please see another post at Classic Budoka.

Another possibility is that the higher forms are more difficult.  Perhaps as a beginner you must learn the most basic techniques that will help you survive.  AS you progress, you can refine the technique into more subtle movements.  In this progression, the later forms are more minimalistic and obviously more difficult.  This has a certain logic to it that draws my mind to it - like learning in school, why start with calculus when you don't understand the basics of arithmetic?  But logic nor my own tendencies necessarily dictate reality...

Another possibility is that you learn a form or two to gain the skills you need.  Then you realize that something is missing, and in your research find it in another form.  So you pick it up to round out your skills and strengthen your own weaknesses.  So a form you learn later, and perhaps teach later, does not have any inherent difficulty or skill refinement that is a progression from earlier forms, but rather a new set of skills that are equally important for someone with only the preceding forms as a basis.

Here is a fact for thought: some masters reportedly had a favourite kata.  I have had favourites at each belt level, and it has changed as I learned new forms.  Shishochin at shodan, seisan at nidan, kururunfa at sandan, and now suparinpei at yondan.  Does this reflect a modern ADHD-esque behaviour compared to the stalwart and dogged determination of past practicitioners?  Or is there perhaps little difference between forms and it is up to the karateka to determine where they should spend their time?

As a comparison, here are the core forms of Goju as learned in my lineage:

Kyu belts
  • Taikyoku kata - gedan, chudan, jodan (additional taikyoku crop up throughout the ranks)
  • Gekisai ichi
  • Gekisai ni
  • Sanchin
  • Tensho
  • Saifa
  • Seiunchin
  • Sanseiryu

  • Shisochin
  • Seisan
  • Seipai
  • Kururunfa
  • Suparinpei

I should note that Seipai and Kururunfa are both learned together at Sandan in preparation for Yondan.

And here is a breakdown from Miyagi Chojun in his article Historical Outline for Karate-Do, Martial Arts of Ryukyu:

  • Junbi Undo - preparatory exercises for building strength and flexibility for basics.
  • Kihon Kata - basic forms, specifically listing Sanchin, Tensho and Naihanchi.
  • Hojo Undo - supplementary exercises to develop muscles, bones, ligaments, fascia to support martial activities and explosive power required.
  • Kaishu Kata - all forms except the kihon.
  • Kumite - where the application of the kaishu kata is unbound from the kata.

The category of kaishu kata is left pretty open, likely to include Shurite as well as Nahate school forms.  At the time of this writing, Miyagi was heavily involved with the Okinawan Karate Study Group and there was a lot of agreement between the masters that the different forms of karate were immaterial, they were all one at heart.

I should also note that there are stories from different students of Miyagi that indicate different kata were taught to different people at different times.  So was it a matter of flavour of the month (or year or cycle) or was there a method to the madness?  Did some students show predisposition towards certain forms than others?  And what are those factors, so that we may today know which forms we could study from to gain the most benefit before moving on?

Finally, here is a list of the forms I have seen listed in other schools.  I believe this is a generic listing, but it may well trace to a single student of Miyagi.

  • Sanchin

  • Gekisai ichi and ni
  • Saifa
  • Seiunchin
  • Shisochin
  • Sanseiryu
  • Seipai
  • Kururunfa
  • Seisan
  • Suparinpei

  • Tensho
Oddly Tensho is listed last, but I doubt that it is learned last.  Indeed, in almost all articles and books I have read, Sanchin and Tensho are the core of Goju.  I have even seen mention that the other kata are all derivations from Sanchin's basic tenets - I find this hard to believe due to the simplicity of Sanchin and the small number of techniques found within.  I don't see how Sanchin can lead to Kururunfa, for example, with its elbow techniques and kicks, nor to Sanseiryu with its jump, kicks and finishing posture.

Here is a quick list from the Shuri side of things - the 15 kata of early Shotokan, before they started going nuts with them:
  • Pinan 1-5 (Heian)
  • Naihanchi 1-3 (Naifanchi, Tekki)
  • Kushanku (Kanku)
  • Passai (Bassai)
  • Seisan (Hangetsu)
  • Wanshu (Enpi)
  • Chinto (Gankaku)
  • Jitte
  • Jion
 I find it interesting to note that the Naihanchi comes after all the Pinans.  This is how I learned them when I did Shotokan, although after the Tekki's it was a free for all of forms.  But Funakoshi specifically mentions that he started with Naihanchi (a memorable point of reference is the saying Hito Kata San Nen, Three Years to learn One Form).  If Naihanchi is likened to Sanchin, then should it not be taught earlier?

Before completing this article, I broke down and asked my Sensei.  His answer was simple.  That was the order that it was learned by a sensei further up the lineage, so that was the order it was handed down.  While this doesn't invalidate the above, it does put this line of reasoning into perspective.  Perhaps it really doesn't matter, and I am making a mountain out of a mole hill.  My own studies should continue, despite this information.  The way of study is to find your own way?

27 April, 2013

First quarter and training results

Quick update on my personal training which I mentioned in a post back in January: Daily Training.

First, it should be noted that I have largely stopped daily training.  There are multiple reasons for this, mostly due to some lingering injuries and a burst of time spent at work.  But here is a little summary of the points I noted:

  • Sanchin causing knee pain.  I need to look further into this - perhaps perform this with less tension in the legs.  I have very strong and big legs, and it is possible that I am pulling too hard with the larger muscles than what my weakened ligaments, fascia and smaller muscles can handle.  I did find this to be great training though - I could be exhausted after a single form.  Truly, I need to read and experiment more.
  • Tensho is relaxing, but no great breakthrough.  I have not had much in the way of great internal work that I have been hoping for.  Perhaps I need a different mental aspect when doing this form, but honestly trying to create this myself without some indication is difficult.  I need to learn more about the Chinese systems and see what they utilize.
  • Tiet Tsin Kune seems to help shoulders and lower back.  Oddly, a lot of the internal stuff also tends to really aggravate my neck and shoulder area.  Sometimes even this Hung Gar form does it too.  Perhaps I am over practicing it, or perhaps this is the chi trying to escape? ;)
  • Pao Chui is also helpful for energizing, but I just don't have room for it.  It barely fits inside the dojo, forget my little condo home.

I pulled something in my leg during the end bit of a 9 hour training in the beginning of the year.  I am sure this influenced by sanchin practice, as well as discouraged me from continuing.  I know the pain isn't real damage, but I had a bad experience with this earlier.  About a year and a half ago I had such severe knee pain that I would wake up at night, several times, almost crying.  It was starting to even wake my wife, despite trying to hold it in.  Only after some good physio, strengthening, stretching and massage was I able to sleep normally.  That was a very draining period, and I didn't want to relapse.  I have found that stretching carefully as well as other movements from yoga and calisthenics have helped immensely, but I need to remember to keep up this practice!

Recently I have also started to include some irregular Naifanchin practice into my routine.  There is something very Sanchin-like about this variation of Naihanchin that speaks to me.  The breathing is similar, and I like the emphasis on non-traditional strikes.  Too much of karate focuses now on the usual seiken (forefist) technique, where the original forms had much more variety.  Indeed, looking at other Southern Chinese arts shows a great variety of hand forms and unique striking possibilities.  I want to start changing my own preference from fist to open-handed variants.  On that topic, there is a great article from Ryan Parker at his blog.

Of particular interest to any karateka should be the use of ipponken, nukite and washide uchi techniques.  Really interesting information by one who has done the research and practiced what he found.  I have never had anyone teach me the boshiken technique, and its not in any form I know or was taught, but I find it very useful for massage!  I suspect there is a strong link between correct massage (hitting points to release stress and muscle tension) and hitting soft points to weaken enemies - perhaps a correlation between karate and jujutsu here, where bone setters would also be jujutsu masters.  Wishful thinking on my part, but it gives me hope for my own studies.  Thumb strikes are great to get into little places like collar bone, armpit, knee pit (?) and arteries like carotid and femoral.

Well, this was a longer post than intended, but I hope something of interest has been exposed to others.  At least I have set my own mind straight - more gentle leg tension in Sanchin, more playing with Naihanchi, and look into mental exercises for use in Tensho.  I need to get back into a daily routine as well, even if it is more gentle.  As I mentioned recently, don't let perfect be the enemy of good.  Daily something is better than daily nothing!

21 April, 2013

Amalgamation of martial arts knowledge

Super short post today, referring to a great post by Zacky Chan at his blog.  This hits me in a few ways.  Well worth reading the post in full there, and I recommend his blog as a whole.

What strikes me is that he has combined disparate areas of study into a way of his own, and continues to do so.  This once again makes me wonder what I should be doing next.  Is teaching a step I want to take or do I tie on the old white belt and start again in something new...

A friend of mine is a high ranked Aikidoka, so I have been wondering if I should start under him from scratch, or look for something else.  I don't want to put any strain on our friendship, but he is looking to build up his own dojo after his return from Japan.  I need to learn more about his style before I can commit, I think.

05 March, 2013

Don't let Perfect be the Enemy of Good

Super brief post about another great blogger, who has been a bit missed and whose blog I hold great interest.  Joe Berne over at Karate Conditioning has gone through a lot, and I wanted to point out a great little nugget (among many) in his latest post:

When Life Interferes...

The one nugget that really stood out for me was this:

Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
This is a great quote that encapsulates something I have read by many other martial artists.  Don't think that because you can't do X, you shouldn't do X-1, or perhaps Y.  This is a common syndrome, one I am equally guilty of.  But in the end, one must push through and just do what one can.

Every aspect of training is valuable, and one step is still further than no step at all.

Learn from the Best

This is just a quick post to push another great post from Wayne Muramoto over at The Classic Budoka.  His insights into training, martial arts, and the experience in general are always welcome to me and help give me an extra boost.  I highly recommend him.

His latest post, all about self discovery and pushing yourself to learn, mirror some other interesting points made by Jesse Enkamp in his Karate Nerd (tm) emails from KaratebyJesse.  You need to explore not only what you do, but why and how.  Learn the history, study the past masters in your style and in related styles.  What did they look for?  What are you looking for?  Everything is a benefit to your training and in the end to the product: You.

I am continually impressed by the knowledge and persistance of others, over and above what I have been able to accomplish.  It gives me hope and motivation to reach my own potential, and I hope that those interested in The Way will also find these people to be equally insightful.

Summary of what I have learned from these recent posts/emails:

Push yourself once in a while.  Find some aspect of training you are weak on (just finding it can be tough, we all have blinders on) and work on it.  Learn something you didn't know previously.  Improve something you had as your worst skill.  Continue to improve.

I know this is corny, but I recall an anime/manga in which one of the protagonists said he found a way to beat a clone of himself - improve one iota.  Our goal as martial artists, over all other people, is to improve ourselves.  We must strive to be better than we were last year, last month, last week, yesterday, an hour ago, one minute ago.  If we can make that small improvement, than the effort was no misspent and we are making progress.  Whenever you feel you are on a plateau, recall what you could do before the training session...have you gotten one small benefit?  Then relax and be glad - 99.9% of people out there aren't even trying for that much.  Don't be too hard on yourself in regards to any lack of progress.

This is starting to become a favourite saying of mine, and a bit of a catchphrase, but The Way is in the Training.


28 February, 2013

Great Posts and Random Thoughts

Just wanted to provide a quick link to a great post at another blog, as well as a couple of thoughts I have read (can't claim them for my own, I am not that clever).

In addition to learning a new Japanese term, there is an interesting and good point over at The Classic Budoka.  Find it here:

In essence, the post details how and why teachers of traditional fighting arts would and did preserve their arts through deliberate deception.  This hit home, as it mentions an anecdote of a friend of his in karate whose experiences in Okinawa compared to Japan.  This makes me wonder to what degree my own training would benefit from visiting and perhaps becoming better acquainted with a teacher in Okinawa.  Who else to better provide me with the insight and serious training of the original soul of my chosen art?

This then got me thinking a bit again about something I have often pondered, and have referenced in my previous post if my memory serves.  This topic is what is the original purpose of karate?

Orthodox karate history (which like all orthodox history is popular but holds little enough fact to be frustrating to anyone who has researched) holds that karate was created out of a need for self protection against samurai.  This ignores the documented fact that karate development preceeds the Satsuma occupation.  So again, why not focus on stick weapons if blades were not allowed, akin to the development of Filipino martial arts?  I cannot imagine the use of the eku (oar) would be proscribed on a nation of islands and fisherpeoples.

I have read some articles that suggested karate was developed as a means for settling disputes or arguments between people or villages.  Somewhat like the ancestor of sumo was a more practical method than the sport it evolved into.  I should note that older karate is filled with a variety of grappling and throwing techniques, preserved largely in kata and through some lines.

Famous karateka like Sakugawa, Aragaki and Matsumura were bodyguards and involved with local police.  Perhaps the formative founders of these traditions had a particular focus along these lines, and did this influence what they studied and passed along to their students?

One might also note that a primary influence on karate was the continuous introduction of the Chinese martial arts.  Those arts were varied, but largely could be classified as fighting arts used by bodyguards and revolutionaries, as well as military and monastic orders.

So where does this leave karate?  I have my own suspicions based on what I have learned, but that is exactly the problem - what I have learned may not be "correct", or for that matter similar.  And in the end, does this matter?

If others would care to comment on what their own chosen martial art(s) mean to them, I would appreciate it.  As always, more food for thought in the quest to find the right question.

14 February, 2013

Your Own Budo...

I follow a variety of blogs and articles in the martial arts world.  There was a series of posts on Sensei Kim Taylor's blog that got my attention.  For those who haven't heard of him, google him.  He is a well known and respected teacher of iaido, jodo and a variety of koryu kenjutsu.  So when he weighs in on a subject, I think it worth considering.

Since it isn't a traditional blog that I can easily link to, I have provided the link to the page, as well as the title of each post and a relevant section from each to ease the searching.  Just use the Find feature of your browser.  Please visit the original to see the posts in their entirety.  He has a great sense of humour and I have had the privilege of training under him albeit briefly in the odd seminar.

Post: So How Long Before I Can Start My Own Budo?

Less than you might think actually. Less than ten years in the case of the "big 4" post-war Aikido folks, at least according to Stan Pranin who wrote an article here concerning the practice and views of Kisshomaru Ueshiba (7-8 years), Koichi Tohei (2-3 years), Gozo Shioda (9 years), and Kenji Tomiki (8-9 years). All four of these instructors headed important and influential lines of aikido practice.

In the koryu, offhand I can think of Takaji Shimizu in the Shindo Muso Ryu jodo lineage who received Menkyo in 7 or 8 years practice. He went on to establish the jodo line in Tokyo after moving from Fukuoka.
Sensei Kim goes on to discuss how those who don't go and teach and perhaps innovate (gasp) are being lazy or have some misunderstanding of what they are learning.  What have I gained from this line of thought?  Teaching is an important part of learning the art - there is no better way to learn something than to have to teach it.  Also, don't be afraid.  Go and show what you know.  Continue to train and develop yourself, your style, and your take on the lessons learned.  Who knows - you might be a "master" when history smiles upon you...

Post: How To Be Sensei

The most boring of all ways to be a sensei is to go through all the years of training and organizational hoops, not to mention payment of fees to your organization, and eventually be named a sensei. Takes a long time and seriously, way too much hassle.
My personal favourite, and the one I recommend to everyone who is serious about learning the martial art is to lose the tontine. You end up as sensei when everyone who practiced the art in front of you has died or quit. I say lose rather than win the tontine because to someone who is in this stream of sensei development, making it to the top is not a reward.

This was a humbling and sobering reminder - to be the best amongst your peers, you need only wait until they die.  Quite a shock when we all strive to improve ourselves and (perhaps) best others in combat.  I have always prided myself not on pushing to get through things quickly, but focusing on my training and letting the improvement handle itself.  I often think of this as the boring way, but perhaps I am not alone in thinking it is the best way.

Post: How Not To Be Sensei

While this is sort of like death and taxes, very hard to avoid if you hang around long enough, there are some things you can do to prevent being a sensei.
If the inevitable happens and your sensei quits (by getting frustrated, married, dead or bored) you do not necessarily have to step in. You can find another sensei, it's allowed and even encouraged in this case, especially if you're less than 70 years old (if you're older than that you might be told to "grow up" and start teaching whether you like it or not, but it's worth a try).
In your quest not to teach, you should not only consider those older and more highly ranked than you are. If there's some bright young thing who isn't too obnoxious and is more highly ranked than you are, give him a shot.
If you don't like the guy who is just behind you, and you're getting a bit long in the tooth yourself, you could do the junshi thing and retire when your sensei does. This will force your junior to step in as sensei thus saving you from the job and screwing him at the same time. Double bonus.

If you have tried all the above and you still can't avoid the job, take comfort in the probability that you won't have to do it for very long.

Again, the humour is obvious, but a hint of truth rings through to me.  I wonder sometimes if my idea to wait until godan to begin teaching at my own school is a bit foolish.  Perhaps it is selfish?

As always, the way is in the training.

29 January, 2013

Theory on Suparinpei Origins

Having recently learned a version of suparinpei, and having done some research into this form for my grading, there was one thing that always bothered me about it.  It wasn't about the kata, or its history - both seem to be fairly well understood.  For those who do not know much about Goju Ryu kata, I encourage you to read some better sources than me, but for the sake of this discussion I will list the basic history as I understand it.

Orthodox history of Goju attributes all of the core kata (gekisai ichi & ni, saifa, sanchin, tensho, seiunchin, sanseiryu, shisochin, seisan, seipai, kururunfa and suparinpei) as being taught to Miyagi Chojun from his primary teacher Higaonna Kanryu.  This is the usual story told to most karateka.  But if you dig a little, you find that it is far more likely that Higaonna only taught four kata (sanchin, seisan, sanseiryu and suparinpei) and that these forms are from white crane, which Higaonna studied during his time in China.  While it is known and admitted that Miyagi invented gekisai ichi and ni, as well as tensho, this raises the question as to the origins of the others.  There is a lot of speculation in this regard, but it becomes obvious that they are likely interpretations or derivations of other Chinese forms which Miyagi added to the originals he learned from Higaonna.

Now, what my Sensei told me is that Suparinpei is linked to General Yue Fei.  I found this a very hard claim to understand for a number of reasons.

  1. General Yue Fei lived from 1103 to 1142 BC.
  2. General Yue Fei was in Northern China.
  3. General Yue Fei is linked to Eagle Claw and Xing Yi Quan.
  4. Some of the proposed systems from which the additional kata come from are: Tiger, Crane, Dragon, Five Ancestors, Mantis/Cricket, Hawk, Lohan and Lion (these come from other researchers, not myself).
The main issues I have with the above facts should be obvious - time, distance and unrelated arts.  While I haven't been able to find much information on some of these styles (Lohan, Lion, Hawk, Cricket) I have read a bit on some of the others, particularly Crane, Dragon and Five Ancestors.  While I find it likely that Tiger, Crane and Five Ancestors are the primary source for modern karate, this still didn't answer my questions about Yue Fei.

Recently I have done some reading about Eagle Claw, and I was surprised to see a couple of coincidences that might explain the connection my teacher told me about.  First of all, the idea of a connection between Eagle Claw and Karate is moot - Eagle Claw didn't come to Southern China until the early 1900's, well after the development of what is considered modern Karate.  But this doesn't limit out the possibility that Yue Fei's contributions are without possibility.

Among the core forms of Eagle Claw is something called Yue Shi San Shou, or General Yue's Fighting Style.  This also goes by another name, Yi Bai Ling Ba Qin Na, or 108 Seizing and Grabbing.  It should be noted that Suparinpei means 108 Hands, and while this is likely coincidental it still gave me hope to dig further.

Yue Shi San Shou (aka Yī Bǎi Ling Bā Qín Ná 一百零八擒拿 – “108 Seize Grab" techniques) is considered the "heart" of the Eagle Claw system. It is believed to be the original material passed down by the style's legendary founder Yue Fei. This material has 108 different categories of skills/techniques that are trained to a level of perfection with partners. One thing to remember is that each sequence is only an example of that category which contains numerous variations and off shoots.

Further digging about Eagle Claw led me to find additional articles which reinforced my ideas.  But in particular they noted that Yue Fei's techniques were popular amongst the fighting arts in contact with it, and his soldiers spread the art after his death.  This leaves the possibility that some concepts did migrate south and influence the Southern Chinese quan fa that did influence Karate. 

 Legend states that general Yue Fei (1103 - 1142 b.C.) of the Song dynasty, developed a a series of very effective fighting techniques to teach his soldiers, thus creating the "108 hands" and a system that was named Yue Shi San Shou, meaning "Yue Fei fighting techniques". After his sudden death, his faithful soldiers went all over China and taught his system. There isn't any reliable information about the historical continuity of the system, but years later, during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1664), in general's Qi Ji Guang book about war strategy and martial art, there mentioned the "Grab of the Eagle King". This mention in a way proves that the system was preserved and well known at that period of time. In this same book, Qi Ji Guang mentions Ba Shan Fan (another name for Fan Zi) as one of the most effective fighting systems of the Ming Dynasty.

I believe it is very likely that General Yue Fei's system, along with his legend and hero status among the residents in China, created a more keen interest in his methods and helped to spread the style in some form.  Not only this, but since this was first implemented in a military setting, it is also possible that many of the soliders who became monks would teach these skills as well.  Now match this with the multiple temple burnings and the flight of monks from those temples, and it becomes a little more likely.

Not to mention the fact that the ideals of Eagle Claw and Karate seem to be similar (grappling for the purpose of striking, not in an of itself).  In all, I think this was best summed up in the below excerpt from another article.

Early 20th century Okinawan masters, such as Gichen Funakoshi, spoke of developing the hands and grip so as to be able to seize an opponent tightly. In his early works he also demonstrated joint locks and take downs. Others, such as Goju Ryu's founder Miyagi developed his hands to the point that he could rip off chunks of bark from trees or be used to penetrate soft areas of the body. Within most karate systems today, however, this training is not longer emphasized. Only within older karate kata are the ancient skills of grasping and piercing techniques still retained.

Now, all of this isn't to say that it makes sense and there is a connection.  After all, Suparinpei is just the modern name of the form, said to originally be called Pechurin (百步連).  This is likely a homophone for another phrase in Chinese, but using Google I translated this as '100 Steps in Succession' and so perhaps all of the above is a coincidence.  But I was glad to be able to find some connection and give my mind something further to ponder upon.

06 January, 2013

Daily Practice - Sanchin, Tensho, Suparinpei

As regular readers of my blog will recall, I have been aiming to do regular daily practice and exploration of the softer, yin side of my practice.  I would like thrice daily, but at work this is difficult and akward, so I am doing twice daily for now.  This culminated with a decision to work on some qigong and the kata Tensho.  I have found myself doing this the last few days on a very consistent basis, after New Years.  This is entirely coincidental and not in line with any sort of resolution, but rather good timing against overcoming a bit of a Christmas cold, feeling energized, and learning one version of the top form in Goju, Suparinpei.

Anyways, in my practice of Tensho I have been experimenting and exploring a few different concepts within the form.  I have been performing is with different emphasis on each repetition in an effort to explore muscular tension, internal tension, mental focus, and breath control.  I will continue to work on this and develop the internal power I believe inherent with proper practice of TCM and its close derivatives like Goju karate.  I find myself preferring the Okinawan emphasis to my forms, and so in this I have been doing research to find out what past masters have thought on Tensho.  The information is surprisingly sparse, and so as with all my research I have been pushing for related topics to try to find something with depth.  I have resolved to play with the form and my own ideas on softness to try to come up with my own flavour of the form.  Achieving the proper, relaxed ideal I have in mind is incredibly difficult but I feel rewarding.  As I find myself fond of saying, the way is in the training...

As mentioned above, I have also been focusing on Suparinpei, the crown of Goju.  Having finally learned the schematic from my Sensei before the winter holidays, I have been somewhat obsessed with it.  Watching videos, reading articles, and practicing what I have been shown and how it contrasts with what I see other styles doing.  For those in a similar world, I highly recommend making a study of a given form in this method - find the different versions according to large schools, teachers older and newer and compare what is being done.  Watch the hips!  Be aware of the breath.  See how the practitioner tenses.  Be aware of the timing of a single movement like mawashi uke - this technique alone can change the intent of a given application.  Fascinating and I feel like I am finally beginning to connect with some sort of central concept for my art.  The more I practice, the more I realize I am truly at the beginning, and there is so much progress to make that I am excited for what additional practice will bring.

Anyways, back to Tensho.  In the course of my research, I found that many people group Tensho with Sanchin for obvious reasons.  So due to the lack of depth people have given Tensho, I was immersed again by people's thoughts on Sanchin.  In the past I have read things about Sanchin, and I know that Sanchin is the heart or core of Goju.  But until I started reading more about it and really thinking (actively) about this fact, I didn't really feel that I understood what it meant, or how this short and simple form could be at the core.  But two things have recently changed by mind, and I am now including Sanchin into my daily practice.

The first is a video I was watching, about an unrelated art.  Bak Mei, or White Eyebrow, is a Southern Chinese Quan Fa style with an interesting history.  At any rate, I was watching a video, link provided below, when it mentioned a relation between essential basics in Quan Fa and other arts like Karate.  This sparked a bit of a revelation to me, and sparked further interest.

Bak Mei Salute power details

I then found a great little intro article, which I believe is taken from the intro to the book The Way of Sanchin Kata: The Application of Power by Kris Wilder.  The link to the article is provided below.  Needless to say after this inspiration from Bak Mei and the versatility of Sanchin, I have ordered the book and this fuels my own practice and research into the benefits of this basic form.  It has been many years since I thought of this form as difficult, and I am glad to be able to discover more depth to this form.  I finally get what the interest in this form is, and why it is still so essential to current quan fa styles as well as part (extinct) styles.  Forms for combat experience and Sanchin for conditioning.  The way is in my training...

Sanchin Kata Fundamentals

So my current twice daily practice looks to be shaping up nicely.  Just after I wake and just before I sleep there is one Sanchin and one Tensho waiting for me.  Suparinpei is added in as well to help start developing some understanding and depth.  It raises other questions I have as well about my art, namely:
  1. Why do we order the forms the way we do?
  2. Are the forms a progression from simplest to most difficult?
  3. Are the forms a progression from most essential to the more obscure?
  4. Are the forms even a progression and what does advanced mean in a curriculum?
  5. Why do we study all the forms now instead of only a few?
  6. If some forms were added after the fact, what is it that they provide in terms of new material?
  7. If we want to add another form into the style, what are the criteria for its inclusion?

I find all of this providing a great sense of freedom in my training.  There is no limit, only that which I set for myself.  For now I have no plans or end goals, only to continue training and to continue learning.  I suppose that is as close as I will get to a resolution.