December 12, 2012

Self-Defense and Training

It is common to hear people speak of self-defense as a motivation for karate training.  Yet, the dojo environment is not representative of a real self-defense scenario.  So, how can training help prepare us to defend ourselves?  If our motivation for training is self-defense, what can we do in training to best help us accomplish this goal?

No matter what we do, nothing in class will ever completely replicate a real-life self-defense scenario.  Even in intense training, we always have at least two aspects that will keep it from being “real”: (a) by the fact that we are at training in the dojo, the element of surprise is removed from the need to defend ourselves, and (b) we have the knowledge that our partner in training is not actually trying to kill, rape, or injure us.

So, if self-defense is a motivation for training, how can we approach class, or what can we do to develop skills that will help us to defend ourselves? 

1)    Train our mindset – If we keep the right attitude and approach in the dojo, then karate training can help us develop awareness of our situation and our opponent, focus on the task at hand, and can teach us to remain calm in dangerous situations.  We also learn that it’s not the end of the world to get hit – we learn to take a hit and keep focus to continue the fight.  We learn humility so that we do not let our ego get in the way - as one of the Niju Kun tells us, “Do not think that you have to win; think, rather, that you do not have to lose.” 

2)    Approach training with intensity and control – In kihon and kata practice, maintain focus and intensity, and work to improve your technique to make it effective to defend yourself, not to make it look pretty.  In partner training, push your partners to just above their limit so that they are always working a little harder.  With control, throw your techniques like you mean them and at the target so that your partner has a chance to test if their defenses actually work.  Perform basic sparring with intensity.  As you advance in rank, add subtleties to your basic sparring, such as changes in timing to work on reactions and adapting to your opponent.  Keep a strong focus in sparring, and imagine your partner has a weapon.  A glancing punch may not do damage, but imagine that fist was holding a knife and the outcome may be different – train for the worst-case scenario.  In free sparring, learn to focus on your opponent, react to what is happening in the moment, and remain calm under pressure.  In training, make sure to test your techniques against bigger, stronger, and faster opponents.  Seek the harder partners out in training – do not allow yourself to take the easy way out, but rather test yourself to make sure that it works.  Include impact training regularly to practice using techniques to transfer power.  Hit things like the makiwara, heavy bag, or pads to test your technique and see where you need more training.

3)    Train against non-karate attacks – We should never assume that our assailant will be trained in karate attacks and will attack us with an announced oi tzuki or mae geri.  Therefore, we should also include, as part of our training, defense against attacks such as hay-makers, grabs, weapon attacks, etc.  We should practice in a self-defense scenario, as closely as we can.  This can start as simply as trying to determine applications to basic techniques against non-karate attacks.  We should also examine similar applications to our kata, where we defend against “street” attacks.  We should practice as realistically as possible, while still maintaining a safe environment.  This may involve things like practicing in our normal everyday clothing, or using safe alternatives in weapons practice (for example, using a spoon as a simulation for a knife). 

One important point to remember in self-defense training is that we need to have an understanding of self-defense law and its implications.  It can also be helpful to understand the common types of crime, how altercations begin, and what you can do to avoid these situations.  Our goal in any situation should be to do the minimum possible to stop the fight.  Our first defense is always to avoid the situation.  Physical techniques are used only in the most dire of circumstances and as a last resort.  Even then, we must do only the minimum to gain control of the situation and keep ourselves safe, but must never become the assaulter ourselves by doing more than what is necessary.

Self-defense is not the only aim of training, but it is an important element and motivation for serious karate practitioners.  Your motivation to defend yourself will show through in your attitude and approach to training.  Learning to defend yourself is not an automatic by-product of showing up to class.  But with the right state of mind in the dojo, there is much that we can gain from karate training to develop our skills for use in case we are ever unfortunate enough to need to use them.

Submitted by: Kimberly Baran, Sandan

September 17, 2012

Take Responsibility for Your Training

One of the hardest things about training is being honest with ourselves.  It is far too easy to be complacent about our training.  It is even easier to let our own ego take over to fill in the gaps and make excuses and justifications.  The only person who is responsible for your training is you, so we can’t expect anyone else to do the work for us.  Check yourself and see how you would answer these questions about your own training – and do it honestly:

1. Are your skills as good as you think they are?  Do you know as much as you think you do? 

Look carefully at your technique, and be honest with yourself about your skill level and your training.  Always know that there is room to improve, and recognize that we all have room to improve.  We lose the motivation to improve as soon as we think we’re good enough.  Never let yourself think you’re good enough.  Honestly evaluate yourself compared to your fellow karateka.  Does someone else do something that you admire?  If so, try to incorporate that into your training.  Avoid making excuses when you make a mistake – own up to it so that you can address it and improve next time. 

Seek to understand – do not think that because you have trained for one month or one year that you know better than someone who has trained for ten years or thirty years.  Being able to repeat something that you have heard does not mean that you understand.  Until you train it, process it, and feel it, you will not have understanding.  Understanding in karate is not an exclusively cerebral endeavor – it takes hours, weeks, months, and sometimes years of training to fully understand a concept.  It’s easy to think we understand something because we heard it – that’s the first and easiest step in the process.  If you hear something from your seniors that you do not quite understand, take the time to reflect and always work with the assumption that they know better and you just don’t understand yet.  Train hard to gain that understanding.  As Sensei Okazaki tells us - when your head gets too big, you lose your balance. 

2. What are your intentions in training?   What attitude are you projecting to others?

Are you training to learn to defend yourself?  Is what you’re doing going to save your life it that situation ever arises?  Will your technique work against a bigger, stronger opponent?  Will you be able to stay calm and react in a high pressure situation?  If the answer is “no”, then address this in your training. 

The strongest or fastest person will not always win in a fight – if this was the case, there would be no reason to train.  We would just try to be faster or be stronger.  Instead, we need to train smarter.  Check your ego at the door and come to training willing to work hard. 

Take yourself and your training seriously if you want others to take you seriously.  Treat others in training how you want to be treated, and you will be treated accordingly.  If you portray weakness, your partners will go easy on you.  If you portray arrogance, your partners will never try to help you.  If you portray that you are uncontrolled, do not expect your partner to be in control.  But if you project to others that you are training seriously, then you will be taken seriously.  Partners will push you harder, and you will learn and can push your partners in return to do their best.  In this case, everyone can train hard, learn, improve, and all with minimal concerns for injury. 

3. Are you training, or are you trying to win?  Are you willing to make a mistake so that you can learn?

The goal against every opponent must be to learn from the encounter to better our own training.  Are you getting by on your technique, or are you relying on your strength?  Are you willing to take a hit now and then to improve yourself?  We must be willing to make a mistake in order to learn.  There are ways to cheat to “win” in almost every drill that we do in class.  Be honest with yourself about how you’re training.  Are you taking the easy way out? Is your goal to win the drill, or is it to improve and test your technique and that of your partner? 

Push yourself against weaker opponents.  No round should be easy.  Find a way (within the confines of the drill) to push yourself.  For example, in sanbon kumite, work to perfect your timing and to read your opponent.  In ippon kumite, do not plan out your defense but rather try to react.  If a defense pops into your mind, then do anything but that defense when your opponent attacks.  Try a more difficult type of movement, and see how it works.  In kihon, focus on the finer details to refine and improve your technique rather than checking out mentally.  Lower your stances.  No matter what we’re doing, you can always find ways to challenge yourself in training. 

When we all do our best in training, then everyone does better.  We should push each of our opponents to be their best.  By challenging others, we give them a chance to improve their techniques and to test how they work.  At the same time, we also learn to control our own techniques.  We must learn to be in control of our movements so that we can move at full power and speed against an opponent, but can prevent serious injury if our opponent makes a mistake. 

4. Did you get the most out of training?  Could you have done more? 

We must make the effort to get to training whenever we can.  Dojo time is extremely limited, and just getting to training is an important first step.  Once you’re there, make the most of your training time.  Never leave training feeling like you could have done more.  Always give your best effort in training.  This doesn’t mean that everything is 100% power and speed – but you are always focused on improving yourself, listening intently to the instruction of Sensei, and trying your hardest to incorporate these lessons into your training.  When Sensei makes comments in class, always assume that they are meant for you.  Feel like Sensei is always watching you and talking directly to you.   

Take responsibility for your own training – no one else knows if you are giving it your best.  Push yourself to have the same intensity in your training whether it is kihon, kata, or kumite.  If you see something that you like in someone else’s training, then emulate that.  Students often tell me that they like the intensity of going with the most senior members in class, and other rounds aren’t like that.  Why aren’t they?  Don’t complain about it – do something about it!  It is in your power to change how you approach training, and how others will feel when they step across the floor from you.  You are the only one who can control your own attitude.  Learn something from every training.  Take something away from every drill.  Find something to improve from every kata.  Learn a lesson from every encounter with a partner.   

Karate training is an extraordinarily humbling experience, and is really hard work.  Until we are willing and able to honestly self-evaluate our skills, intentions, motives, and attitude, our training will stagnate.  Once we are prepared to truthfully examine ourselves and shed our ego, we will have a better start on the path to self-improvement.  When we begin to take responsibility for our own training, we will see our karate technique and understanding start to reach new heights.      
Submitted by: Kimberly Baran, Sandan

June 25, 2012

Shotokan Kata Geneology

I was thinking about kata applications recently, and how to best interpret the kata movements in a self-defense context.  However, since many kata were developed over a century ago, the self-defense meaning has become obscured and clouded by the passage of time.  In an effort to part the clouds, it occurred to me that the early teachers of the kata in Okinawa had many students besides Master Funakoshi that went on to produce the many branches of karate styles we have today.   This means the kata we practice in Shotokan can trace a lineage back to the same masters as Shito-ryu, Matsubayashi-ryu, Isshin-ryu, etc.  In a way, these karate styles are siblings, cousins, aunts/uncles, and nephews/neices in karate, and looking for consistent elements in another version of kata could help reconstruct the important themes.

When I set out to create this kata family tree, I greatly underestimated the complicated geneological nature of early karate.  Many students practiced with multiple instructors instead of training with a single instructor for their whole life.  The question of when and where a kata was learned or how it was changed by a karate practitioner is basically unknowable.  Further, the same instructor may have taught one student in 1890 and another student in 1900, and the style and emphasis of their teaching could differ greatly.  So even a shared influence in karate is not a gaurantee of kata similarity.  The first step toward a family tree was to trace back the teacher-student lineage (see ShorinRyuTimeline.pdf) of the founders of Shorin-ryu karate styles from about 1950 back to 1800.  The data in the timeline is compiled primarily from Wikipedia entries on karate styles and karate practitioners.

On a side note about the Shorin-ryu timeline, there were two interesting and unexpected results of compiling the data in this way.  First, Kanga Sakugawa is one of the earliest Okinawan practitioners recorded, and he supposedly influenced Sokon "Bushi" Matsumura.  However, the chart shows that Sakugawa died when Matsumura was six years old, a rather young age to believe there was a link between them.  Based on one report of their lifespans, I left their alleged connection out of the chart.  It should be noted that Sakugawa and Matsumura have their lifespans reported at widely varying ranges, and some reports agree with a potential overlap in their training time.  Second, Anko Itosu in my estimation is the most prolific and influential karate practitioner on the current state of Shorin-ryu karate.  The sheer number of students he influenced and the styles his students founded just about covers all of modern Shorin-ryu based karate.  His influence on modern karate is staggering to me.

The next step in my quest was to observe the differences in kata performance across the common Shorin-ryu karate styles.  There are numerous named styles these days, so I followed the karate lineage chart and looked for style founders and direct students of those founders for legitimate, mainstream karate styles.  Then, I searched around the web for the kata syllabus of each style to look at the overlap between Shotokan and the other Shorin-ryu styles.  I produced a comparison chart (see KataSyllabusByStyle.pdf) of the 26 kata practiced in Shotokan to a corresponding kata and the name it is given in the other Shorin-ryu styles.  This chart enables you to pick a Shotokan kata for analysis then search around YouTube and elsewhere for the same kata performed by another style to find consistent kata themes across styles.  The underlying assumption is that the important kata elements will be common to many styles and will aid the discovery of meaningful kata applications.

Finally, with the first two charts in place (and two months later), I could construct my initial goal of a Shorin-ryu karate family tree (see KarateStyleFamilyTree.pdf).  The major caveat is that the only link shown between styles is the shortest link to a historical influence.  The founders were actually influenced by many teachers in a complex web, as shown in the timeline chart.  So the family tree is a "best case" or "closest possible relation" between styles.  Among Kihon, Kata, and Kumite training methods, kata is the oldest method and probably the most difficult to understand.  Hopefully the information I have compiled can help us grasp these ancient training tools and make good use of them.

Note: all of the pdf files linked can be found at

Submitted by: Matthew Baran, Sandan

May 31, 2012

Reflections on Gankaku

The kata Gankaku is derived from an Okinawan form called Chinto.  "Gan" means rock and "kaku" means crane or stork, so a common translation of the kata name is "crane on a rock".  The name seems to be an artistic reference to the one-legged stance with manji-gamae used extensively in the kata.  The original name of the kata, Chinto, means "Fighting to the East", but is commonly interpreted as the name of a Chinese sailor who taught the fighting techniques to Matsumura Sokon in the 1800s.  Another version of the story has Chinto fighting Matsumura Kosaku, a master of Tomari-te who also lived in the 1800s.  This is a bit confusing since both Matsumuras were masters of Okinawa-te during the 1800s and could have introduced the techniques into karate.  The true history of the kata is unknown, but Gankaku does have many unique elements that cannot be found elsewhere in Shotokan kata.

Gankaku is performed on a straight line enbusen, moving only forward and back.  The kata often uses both hands together as in juji uke, morote uke, manji-gamae, and the "hammer and anvil" kamae found before all the side snap kicks.  These movements require a good understanding of body connection between the limbs and torso to make power.  Balance is also a key lesson from Gankaku, with several large scale spinning techniques and many instances of sagi-ashi dachi.  To maintain balance and posture throughout, it is essential to keep the pelvis tucked in and the shoulders relaxed.  To maintain connection through the large scale expansions and spins found in Gankaku, it is also important to keep the elbows near the body.  The kata is considered a Shorin style form with light and quick movements, and the feeling of the kata often suits a tall, slender built person.

The kihon bunkai of Gankaku should emphasize the technical points mentioned above.  Strength, posture, and balance must be maintained throughout each step.  These skills are tested by trying the spinning movements against karate attacks.  If the movement is disconnected or slow in the middle, the power will never be generated to defend against your partner.  Movements such as the spinning gedan-barai, the spinning manji-uke, the various sagi-ashi dachi movements, and the spinning movement into the hammer and anvil position near the end can be tested with a partner or a striking shield to gain a strong feeling.

In self defense application, I believe there are many opportunities in Gankaku to interpret movements as knee strikes.  I find it unlikely that anyone would voluntarily face a dangerous foe by standing on one leg in wait for the attack.  Instead, I believe the arms in manji-gamae can be used to open the opponent's guard while the raised leg strikes the opponent's groin or thigh with the knee.  The spinning gedan barai near the beginning of the kata also includes a knee raise which could be used as a knee strike followed by a throw.  The final spin into hammer and anvil position is different from the previous one-legged stances, and rather than using manji-gamae to open the opponents guard, the preceding movements would suggest that we are already entangled with the opponent, and the spin signifies a strong knee strike to the inner thigh.

Another self-defense theme of the kata is the use of chudan morote uke with a half turn or tai-sabaki style rotation.  This happens with open hands just before the spinning manji-uke sequence, then it happens again with closed hands just after the manji-uke sequence, then a third time in kosa dachi just before the first sagi-ashi dachi movement.  These three movements show different hand positions, different stances, and different variations on the half-turn, but I feel they are closely related.  One interpretation could be to slide inside an incoming punch, guiding it with one hand of the morote uke, while the other hand simultaneously attacks the opponent's neck.  This application has the feeling of blending with an attack and counter-attacking with sen-no-sen timing to surprise the opponent.

The theme of blending with the opponents attack can be found elsewhere in the kata as well.  The spinning manji-uke could start with the left hand high to counter a right handed swinging punch, right hand neutralizing the opponent's left hand, then immediately closing distance, grabbing the neck, and dragging the opponent down with the spinning manji-uke followed by a finishing blow.  Then there is the very first movement of kata which could counter a double handed grab to the chest or throat.  Before the grab is complete, match speed with the attack as you guide the attack slightly up, then both arms down to unbalance the opponent and follow with several quick strikes.  Riding out the distance of an attack requires an opponent who is tall enough to do so and has a good understanding of maai.

These self-defense interpretations of kata sequences may be related by a tactical theme, but they often diverge after the initial movement to show variations on that theme.  Depending on our opponent and our circumstances, the principles of the kata must adapt to common situations.  The four sagi-ashi/manji-uke movements are followed twice by oi-zuki and twice by gyaku zuki, suggesting that the distance may change depending on how the opponent reacts to the keage/uraken movement.  However, the principle of a quick follow up attack can be used whether the opponent stays close or falls back.  Likewise, the three morote uke movements are all followed by raising the body center and sweeping across the body.  The first two use a double gedan barai to potentially lock the arm or grasp the head of the opponent, but the third follows with manji-kamae and sagi-ashi dachi.  This variation is executed in the opposite direction from the other two, which could suggest that different targets are being exposed by manji-uke and struck with hiza-geri.  My main hypothesis is that for any kata, we will see repeated elements to emphasize an important opening strategy and show variations to the follow up movements.

If Gankaku were to be distilled into a single fighting strategy, I would consider the unique elements of the kata which include spinning, sagi-ashi dachi, and tai-sabaki style shifting.  As noted in the self-defense bunkai ideas above, I believe these elements lead to tactics that involve blending with the attack (i.e. spinning), closing distance (i.e. tai-sabaki), and using the legs in combination with the arms (i.e. sagi-ashi dachi, mae-geri, yoko-geri-keage).  The strategy of Gankaku seems to include these three items:
    1) Use the opponent's attack as an opportunity to launch your own counterattack with sen-no-sen feeling.
    2) Close the distance to your opponent immediately to gain leverage
    3) Use both the upper and lower body to expose and exploit the opponent's weak areas

Gankaku has two other sibling kata within Japanese and Okinawan Karate that appear to be based on the same underlying tactics and strategies.  The three versions of Gankaku/Chinto use a vertical, diagonal, and horizontal enbusen, but all use a straight line enbusen.  The vertical enbusen in Shotokan comes from the lineage of Matsumura Sokon and Itosu Yasutsune of Shuri-te, the horizontal enbusen comes from the lineage of Matsumura Kosaku of Tomari-te, and the diagonal enbusen comes from the lineage of Kyan Chotoku of Shorin-ryu, who learned from both Matsumura Sokon and Matsumura Kosaku.  In any case, the linear enbusen maintains the spinning movements and tai-sabaki movements that correspond to the kata strategies of blending with the attack using sen-no-sen feeling and closing distance as the opponent attacks.  The variations of the kata also maintain a multitude of kicking techniques and knee raises, which reinforce the strategy of using the lower body in conjunction with the upper body to break the opponent down.

Gankaku is clearly a unique kata in Shotokan with a rich history and a depth of self-defense information to extract.  The kata is challenging in its raw technical performance due to the spinning and balancing maneuvers, and it also contains a number of fighting tactics that cannot be found elsewhere in Shotokan.  I believe the ultimate level of study in kata analysis is to link these fighting tactics into an overall fight strategy, and bridge the gap between performance of techniques and achieving the proper mindset in a live fight.  I have presented several broad strategies that I believe are taught in the movements of Gankaku, but to bring the kata to life these strategies must be applied freely and without restriction.

Submitted by: Matthew Baran, Sandan

March 9, 2012

Postured stance is for beginners; later comes naturalness

Kamae wa shoshinsha ni atowa shizen-tai

This is Master Funakoshi’s 17th entry in the Niju Kun, and this principle relates very well to training attitude and application.  This is only one potential interpretation, and the beauty of the Kun is that they apply to many aspects of life and training.  This Niju Kun principle can also been translated as “Formal stances are for beginners; later, one stands naturally.” 

When we begin instruction, we generally start from the most fundamental stances.  We learn zenkutsu dachi, kokutsu dachi, and kiba dachi.  These three stances in particular form much of the foundation of our training, and are essential for creating the proper building blocks for future training. 

We need to consider these formal stances not just for the traditional “beginners” (white, yellow, and orange belts).  The idea of beginners can (and should) be extended to a much broader range of karateka, including everyone from the new student to the high ranking black belt.  We are all constantly learning slight nuances of stances that are essential to proper movement, avoidance of injury, proper connection, stability, and power generation.  Due to the intricacies of movement and the cyclical nature of our training, we must always return with the mind of the beginner to examine movements with a fresh perspective.  We take a new look given our current knowledge to further our development.  Each time we examine the fundamentals of stances that are essential to proper technique, and every time that we learn and try to process additional information, we feel like a beginner all over again.  It is only through the humble attitude and willingness to learn that we have as a beginner that we can continue to improve.  

As we progress through training, additional formal stances are added, including inward tension stances.  As we learn more about these stances, we learn more about various connections to our bodies, different strategies for movement, strengths and weaknesses, and nuances of these techniques. 

So, when then, do we get to stand naturally as this Niju Kun principle states?  When is “later”?  This does not mean that brown and black belts get to raise their stances, or that as we get older we get to slack off.  True, we do need to make adjustments for our bodies, but during training we always need to be rooted back to those fundamental stances and make sure that our connections are correct. 

The natural movement starts to come when we look at applications.  When you have practiced a technique enough to understand where you can apply it, then the movement becomes more natural.  Particularly looking at kata application, we can apply this principle.  One idea is to practice kata applications starting from a natural stance.  Any time that you will need to use these techniques, you will not be ready and waiting, but will need to move from a natural position. This concept epitomizes this Niju Kun principle. 

In practice we train our fundamentals in a basic and formal matter.  This engrains the movements in our minds and bodies, so that we learn how to make proper body connection and how to generate power.  We can then apply this knowledge when we practice using these techniques in a more natural manner.  A similar principle can be applied to kumite, where we start off formally in basic stances with predefined movements, then gradually advance to more natural movements where we can make adjustments.  In self-defense scenarios, we again start off formally with single, pre-arranged techniques until we can progress to a free-form scenario.

While this Niju Kun principle specifically refers to stances, this same approach can be taken to any karate movement.  Having the attitude of the beginner opens our minds to new possibilities and allows us to always strive to be better today than we were yesterday, and better tomorrow than we are today.

Our training in Shotokan karate is both progressive and cyclical.  No matter where we are in training, it is important to always consider ourselves as beginners – to always be learning and analyzing the nuances of every movement and trying to improve our skills.  As we progress, and especially as we apply our techniques, we learn to free up our movements and move more naturally.  Then since we have trained so strongly in the foundational movements, our natural movements can be strong and effective. 
Submitted by: Kimberly Baran, Sandan

February 3, 2012

Kata is about correct and proper form; engaging in a real fight is something else

Kata wa tadashiku, jisen wa betsumono

This is Master Funakoshi’s 18th entry in the Niju Kun, and this principle relates very well to training attitude and application.  This is only one potential interpretation, and the beauty of the Kun is that they apply to many aspects of life and training.

Think of karate as a universal language, similar to mathematics.  The benefit of this, and the benefit of being part of an international organization, is that you can go anywhere in the world to any dojo and speak the same language of karate.  This allows for continuity across an organization and across time.  Kihon are the fundamentals upon which everything else is based.  These are the numbers, formulas, and theorems.  Kata are the textbooks which are used to teach us the fundamental principles of karate.  Kumite is our homework and then applications to real world problems, depending on our stage of development.  At first we are given simple “problems” with answers in the back of the book, similar to training with sanbon kumite and ippon kumite.  Later, we are left to synthesize what we have learned and apply the principles that we have learned to real world applications, as in jiyu kumite and self-defense.   

By striving to perform our kata exactly, we learn precise control over our movements.  We study the fundamental principles of the fighting style of the kata.  Techniques, cadence, and movements define a kata, and we learn from studying the principles of body movement that each kata teaches.  By demonstrating the kata with correct and proper form, you can demonstrate that you understand the principles of body movement and self-defense philosophy that are transcribed within the kata movements.  These principles are the most important thing to learn from kata study – we can never learn every single possible application for every single person’s body type in every situation.  Instead, we learn the principles so that we can study and apply them to our unique circumstances. 

Similar to learning math, there is a progression to acquiring knowledge.  We start with more fundamental principles before we can move on to more advanced concepts.  Yet we can never forget the fundamentals as we move on to more advanced levels.  These basics inform and support all our future understanding.  As we progress in our training and gain more knowledge, we continue to train and study the kata that we already “know” to improve our technique and to apply our new understanding to correct our performance of the movements.   

To get the most from the kata, we need not study just the end position of a technique.  The path of the movement and the range of motion are at least as important to understanding the kata.  With kata as our textbooks, we understand that they are written precisely and do not change.  We should then strive to demonstrate our understanding of the kata’s principles by performing the kata exactly, rather than trying to make it “look better.”  Performing kata in a way to make it flashier is like writing a series of numbers and math symbols on a piece of paper.  To someone who doesn’t understand, it may look really good and really smart.  However, to someone with an understanding of the principles, this jibberish will only demonstrate your lack of understanding.  Kata performance should not be dramatized, but should demonstrate understanding of that kata’s core principles. 

Application of kata is where we open up for interpretation and adaptation.  We take the fundamental principles that we have learned and apply them to the real world.  It will never look exactly as it did in our textbook, but the principles remain the same.  Techniques are given names in kata to transcribe the movements, but in practice these may be used differently than the name suggests.  For example, a technique labeled as “age uke” may not be a block, but that same movement may be used as an attack instead.  We should not get caught up in the names, but rather seek to understand the principles of movement which are more important.

Our applications change based on many factors, including: your size, the size of your opponent, distance, surroundings, and attack.  We can, and should, adjust according to our opponent.  To apply the principles of the kata, we may change aspects such as the order of movements, timing between movements, timing within a movement (e.g. slow movements), level of attack (jodan, cheudan, gedan), stances, angles, and/or techniques.  In studying bunkai, a limited number of these aspects may change in a given application, to remain true to the principles of the kata.  By independently adjusting these various attributes of a kata and studying how that changes the application, we can discover the many layers of bunkai which make kata study so interesting.  In a live fighting situation, we move according to trained responses from all of our previous kata study that we have absorbed and synthesized.      

Kihon, kata, and kumite training build upon each other in our training.  Each has an important function in our development as karateka, but we must use each for its intended purpose to gain the benefits.  Through striving to perform kata with correct and proper form, we preserve important principles which are essential for application.  By approaching kata with the precision and focus required, we are setting ourselves up to be able to apply these principles in a variety of situations to best defend ourselves.  Perform kata exactly; actual combat is another matter.

Submitted by: Kimberly Baran, Sandan

January 19, 2012

Why do you train?

With the growing popularity of martial arts, the term “karate” is attached to a variety of activities that have common elements but often have vastly different goals.  There are many dojos, books, and videos which use the karate label, but can be very different at their core.  Using “karate” as a catch-all term does not represent the variety of styles and approaches within the martial arts.  To know which resources will best guide your training, it is valuable to recognize differences in philosophy and principles underneath the physical movements.  It often matters less what specific style is practiced, and matters more what approach is taken to training.  The key is to find the approach that aligns most with your training goals. 

There are many benefits to karate training.  Among many others, you can improve your physical fitness, practice self-defense, develop self-control and confidence, and test your skills in a pressure situation.  While these benefits are possible through hard work and consistent training, there are different approaches to training which will emphasize different training outcomes.  Each instructor and each student will naturally focus on aspects of training which are consistent with their philosophy toward training and their motivations for practicing karate.  There are three main categories within karate training: sports, fitness, and budo.  These are not mutually exclusive, and each practitioner will likely have aspects of all three present within their training.  But your primary motivation for training will fall within one of these categories and may be supplemented by the other two. 

Sports karate is driven by success and failure in a competitive environment.  Training for tournament favors techniques and strategies that tend to win.  Tournaments must be judged on criteria which are observable and consistent across an organization; this rewards uniformity, athleticism, and the external performance of movements.  Benefits from this type of training can include testing your techniques against unfamiliar partners and putting yourself in a pressure situation to test your ability to remain calm.  However, competition in karate can foster antagonistic attitudes and can cause practitioners to lose track of practical applications of karate movements when style is emphasized over function.  This focus on style causes practitioners to worry more about how a movement looks rather than how it feels and what makes that technique effective. 

Fitness karate is motivated by a desire to build strength, endurance, and maintain an overall level of physical health through training.  This tends to be very self-motivated, where students may not look to others to gauge their progress, but find their motivation within.  Fitness training has the obvious benefits of maintaining physical health, and also develops an awareness of natural body movement that can be applied in daily life.  Gichin Funakoshi once recounted a story of how karate training gave him the physical fitness and balance to avoid falling from a dock and drowning while carrying heavy luggage.  However, a focus on fitness karate can cause practitioners to think only about how to move and not why those movements are important.  A lack of interest in karate application can drain the intensity in partner training and be detrimental to their training partners.  Without the drive to continuously improve techniques to increase fighting effectiveness, practitioners focused on fitness will often lose enthusiasm for training due to the repetitive nature of karate practice.

Budo karate is motivated by improvement of the mind and body.  Techniques are trained in a way to be most effective for self-defense purposes.  The mind and spirit are tested and strengthened to withstand the stresses of combat and everyday life.  The internal feeling of techniques holds more importance than outward appearance, because budo seeks to discover the physical movement and the mindset that fits each person uniquely.  Benefits from budo karate can include development of confidence and peace of mind in addition to fighting effectiveness and good health.  However, these benefits take decades to cultivate and this is an individual journey which is very difficult and has no guaranteed answers and no metrics for success.   This approach is very philosophical and requires a lifetime of dedication, patience, humility, and perseverance. 

No matter what your motivation, you need to put in your full effort and train consistently to gain the benefits from training.  Incorporating aspects of all of these approaches in the right ratios will enhance the objectives you have for your training without contradicting your main purpose for training.  There is not necessarily a right or wrong approach to karate, but it is important to make a conscious and deliberate decision about why you train and what you want to achieve through your training.  This knowledge allows you to seek out guidance and resources that fulfill your goals, and allows you to put your whole heart and your full effort into your training.

Submitted by: Kimberly Baran, Sandan, Matthew Baran, Nidan, and Arpan Ghosh, Shodan