August 31, 2011

Breadth and Depth

Within Shotokan karate, there are twenty-six different kata.  Each one is different and offers us a unique opportunity to learn something about karate.  But it can take many years to perfect the movements and learn all the intricacies, subtleties, applications, and strategy hidden within each kata.  You should realize that it is often a trick question when you are asked if you know a kata.  To truly understand a form can take a lifetime. 

So how can we approach the study of multiple kata?  One approach is to balance breadth and depth of study. 

Through purple belt, you generally work on one kata for each belt level, and each one introduces concepts that are important for your development at that level.  But as you move to the next kata, you never forget the one(s) you learned previously.  Instead, you continuously revisit these kata and learn something new and continue to improve. 

At brown belt, you will work on one kata for quite some time, and you test with this form several times.  For the first time in your training, you are expected to show improvement in a kata from one test to the next, not just in physical performance but also in understanding.  You will also be introduced to other kata at this stage, increasing your breadth of knowledge.  Use these other forms to help develop the depth of understanding in your Tokui kata. 

At black belt, your journey is similar.  Now, any of the twenty-six kata is available for you to study.  To choose a kata, you need a basic understanding of many kata to know which one suits your training needs.  Your Sensei will guide this selection, since he or she knows  what you need in your training and which kata will help you the most.   Typically, you will work on two kata – one that fits you well and one that is complementary to keep balance in your training. 

A breadth of kata knowledge is important throughout our study, particularly in exams and tournaments.  In tournaments, you are expected to be able to perform any kata that you have previously tested with.  At black belt, competitors perform a round of Shitei kata, followed by a round of Sentei kata before they can perform their Tokui kata.  In dan exams, students perform their Tokui kata and then perform one that is selected by the examiners, generally of opposite feeling.

It can’t hurt to learn many new kata to expand your breadth of knowledge.  In fact, through continuous training you will develop an understanding of many kata.  Just be careful that you don’t become a jack of all trades and master of none.  Always balance that breadth of study with depth of knowledge of your kata.   

Submitted by: Kimberly Baran, Nidan

August 23, 2011

You Get What You Give

There is a balance of give and take within the dojo.  Whether it is between Sensei and student, Senpai and Kohai, two students, or two competitors, that balance must be maintained to preserve and develop your relationships within the karate world.

Often between Sensei and student, it can be hard to see that balance.  It may seem that Sensei is always giving, and students often hit the pitfall of always taking.  But Sensei will give the most to the students who give back – Sensei gives his or her time, knowledge, assistance, and effort to the students who are also giving back the most by doing things such as attending class, having a respectful attitude, trying hard, helping their juniors when appropriate, and incorporating advice.

Between Senpai and Kohai, the relationship is similar.  Senpai is giving back to both their Sensei and to other students by correcting students, helping their juniors, and by always trying to set the best example of what a karateka should be.  And you can give back to your Senpai by being respectful, listening to their advice, and doing your best to change your behavior to follow their advice.

Between any two karateka, no matter what the rank, you give to your partner by always doing your best.  This manifests itself most prominently in partner training.  You should always be giving your full effort.  When going with your seniors, always give your best effort to help push them in training.  When going with your juniors, set a good example and push your partner to just beyond their comfort level to continue to improve their training.  In competition, always give your best effort to help push your opponent to be their best.  Then in return, your partner will give their best to you and will help you improve.       

If you want to get more out of training, then rather than look for what more you can take, look instead for what more there is for you to give.  In all karate relationships, remember: you get what you give. 

Submitted by: Kimberly Baran, Nidan

August 17, 2011

Hearts and Minds

In his famous manuscript on combat strategy, “A Book of Five Rings,” Miyamoto Musashi stated, “Whether you parry, slap, strike, hold back or touch your opponent's cutting sword, you must understand that all of these are opportunities to cut him down.”

While Musashi was a swordsman primarily concerned with surviving life-or-death duels and the chaos of war, his principles for engaging an opponent translate well to karate.  He notes that we never parry an attack just to avoid being hit, and we never dodge a strike without planning a counter.  Every single motion should contribute to an effective counter attack on your opponent by improving your position, weakening your opponent's balance, taking away your opponent's options, etc.

To understand this principle is one thing, but there is a barrier to overcome when you apply it to karate training.  To effectively use every movement as an opportunity to “cut” the opponent, we must harmonize a strategy in our mind with the willpower in our hearts.  What I refer to as the mind is the conscious awareness of aspects such as distance, timing, strength, and weakness which is used to formulate an effective strategy for a fight.  The mind is used off-line to train good reactions and transfer the simulated situations from training into instinctual reactions in a live fight.  What I refer to as the heart is your unconscious will that governs the actual execution of technique; it is your inner-most desire or feeling whether you are aware of it or not.  The heart requires training to overcome our natural reactions and develop the willpower to execute a strategy in a dangerous situation.  The balance of training with your mind and heart together is necessary to capture Musashi’s advice.  Without using your mind, your strategy will be weak and ineffective; without training your heart your execution will betray your strategy and revert to your natural reactions.

Consider a defense against jodan oi-zuki where the defender shifts to the side to avoid the incoming punch and deliver a counter from the side of the opponent.  This strategy first entices the attacker to fully commit their attack but dodges at the last second to gain a superior position at the opponent's side for the counter attack.  Against a strong opponent, a natural reaction is to step well outside our countering range because deep in our heart we want to be far away from the dangerous, fast moving object.  Another common reaction is to move to the side much too early because we fear that we will wait too long and get hit.  Similarly, our preoccupation with the danger causes us to focus on the blocking limb, adding too much strength and tension, and we lose our positioning advantage because of our hesitation.  We must train our heart to remain strong in this type of situation by practicing effective technique until we are comfortable with the movement. 

Musashi's principle applies to all types of movement in karate from kihon kumite to free sparring to kata applications.  The important question is - are you just blocking, parrying, and dodging, or are you executing a strategy to end the fight?  The answer is in your heart.

Submitted by: Matthew Baran, Nidan

August 9, 2011

Winning isn't Everything

As karate has grown more popular in the world, it has developed a competitive aspect to it. Tournaments and competitions were introduced as a means of motivating karateka and giving them a chance to test their skills against their peers.  But as a result of competition, karate is considered a sport in many places.  However, we must not forget that karate is ultimately a martial art, and like any art, it is about refinement and improvement, not winning and losing.

By treating karate as a sport, one's vision is narrowed, and it can be easy to lose out on the intricacies of the art and many of the benefits that we can gain from training. Sports are mainly based on physical prowess, and competitions are a means of measuring that. But karate is not limited to the physical aspect. Learning different techniques and forms is just a starting point; by continuing to improve our technique, we are building endurance and strength of mind. A sport tends to end once off the field or court, but karate continues beyond the dojo. Every idea learned in karate can be translated and applied to actions in our daily lives. While athletes eventually retire from sports, there is no retirement from karate-do.  It is more than a physical activity; it is a way of life.

That's not to say that competition is bad. Tournaments have a place in karate training, and can help in one's development. Tournament training provides excellent motivation, and can lead karateka to push themselves harder than they normally would. At a tournament, whether local, regional or national, there is an opportunity to interact with the greater karate world, meeting students and Senseis from various clubs. This enhances the sense of community that exists in martial arts.

One also has to face their fears by performing in front of a large crowd, in a somewhat high pressure situation. This provides a sense of tension and excitement that one might encounter in real combat. Only by being calm and collected in the face of pressure will a karateka be able to defend oneself effectively. But there must be some perspective, since ultimately a tournament is just another form of training. Winning a medal or a trophy highlights good performance, but is not a foolproof indicator of true skill or knowledge. If we approach a tournament with the mindset of a martial artist rather than an athlete, we will recognize it for what it is: special training.

Thus we must train with the idea of self-improvement and learning self-defense, and not just to win against an opponent in a tournament. In all forms of training, always strive to do your best and continue to improve yourself. When competing, put your best foot forward, show what you have learned, and how well you've learned it. If, at the end of the day, you have performed to the best of your ability, and put in every ounce of your effort, then winning or losing is immaterial. As Master Gichin Funakoshi said in the Niju Kun (the 20 guiding principles of karate): “Do not think of winning; rather, think of not losing.” It is a philosophy applicable not just to karate training and competition, but to every part of life.

Submitted by: Arpan Ghosh, Shodan

August 4, 2011

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

As we advance in rank, we accept additional responsibility in the dojo.  It is important to understand our role in class, and what can be done to help our fellow karateka.  Junior members naturally look to their seniors as an example of technique and behavior in class.  It is everyone’s job to set a good example by demonstrating their best technique and etiquette.  This benefits not only your own karate training, but also lifts the training level of other students.  Accepting this responsibility not just to ourselves, but also to act as a good example to others, adds motivation to perform well in class.  

During training, unless specifically told otherwise by Sensei, it is not our responsibility to tell other students what they should be doing, particularly in terms of technique.  Rather, we should be showing them through our actions so that others can look to us as a role model.  In kihon and kata, this is easy - it simply means that we should always be doing our best in training and giving our full effort at every moment.   

In kumite training, both partners should learn something from every exchange.  So we should go into training with every partner both ready to defend ourselves and ready and willing to learn and improve.  We have respect for every opponent, which implies always giving our best effort in the exchange.  In partner training, our role as seniors is subtle but  very important.  Our responsibility is to control our technique to the level of our opponent.  This way we learn to go at full speed and in control of our movement, which is necessary as we advance in rank.  We also learn subtleties of kumite strategy by adapting to each opponent that we face.  Thus, it is helpful to the training of both partners if we develop an understanding of our opponent and adjust accordingly. 

When paired with our juniors, we must understand their abilities so that we can push them just beyond their comfort level to motivate their progress.  We teach not by telling people what they should be doing, but rather by exposing strengths and weaknesses in their technique so they can feel what is right or wrong.  It is the difference between telling someone “you would have been hit” versus making controlled contact to demonstrate that their technique was insufficient.  And this will help our training as well, since we learn to identify openings in our opponents’ techniques, learn to recognize them when they occur, and learn to react in the moment to take advantage of those openings within the rules of the engagement.  It’s a subtle but very important distinction in the approach to partner training.  Instead of looking for mistakes to tell our partner what is wrong, we are giving our best effort in training and looking for opportunities to improve ourselves.  This improves our skills while allowing our partner to learn from the exchange as well.  Having the right attitude and approach to training, both partners can benefit from every encounter, and we should thank each partner that we train with for teaching us something. 

Remember, junior members will look up to their seniors and respect them more for being able to set the example and for being able to demonstrate what is right.  It is easy for anyone to tell someone what they should be doing, but showing them and leading by example requires more restraint and more skill, and will ultimately command more respect.  Always keep in mind that in training, actions speak louder than words.

Submitted by: Kimberly Baran, Nidan