August 15, 2013


Exerting control over an opponent is often the objective of a partner drill to practice resolving physical conflict.  With control over your opponent, you can safely escape or neutralize the threat to ensure your safety.  In training, control over the opponent may be indicated by “getting in” with your attacks, making contact, unbalancing, or simply neutralizing all of the opponent’s offense with your defense.

People practice controlling opponents physically to learn about themselves, to help teach others, and sometimes for dubious egotistical reasons.  Learning about ourselves is the prime reason for practicing the physical control of other people in a karate class.  By practicing defending, attacking, unbalancing, and dominating an opponent, we quickly find out what works and what doesn’t work within the limits of a drill.  On the flip side, the opponent can learn their own openings and weaknesses when we successfully control them through attack or defense.

However, when a skilled practitioner indiscriminately dominates an unskilled practitioner, the ability for either person to learn from the encounter is lost.  Excessive domination during a drill can cause damage to unskilled opponents or instill a sense of hopelessness in their training.  Students that are severely outmatched often revert to “survival mode” which can be a safety risk and a recipe for disaster.  Some even give up, in a show of submission (the opposite of what martial arts should be teaching us).

The use of indiscriminate power against lesser skilled opponents is simply a domination game to feed the ego of more skilled practitioners.  The domination is not indicative of any actual superiority outside the rules of the drill, and an ego-driven practitioner may even break those rules simply to maintain their domination over the opponent.  Likewise, they may break the rules to avoid being dominated.  And what does this prove?  It means nothing except in the fragile mind of the “skilled” practitioner – they didn’t lose the drill.  However, from the perspective of a less skilled opponent, intense domination can come across as great strength and skill on the part of their opponent.

From an instructor’s perspective, that perception from the less skilled student is regrettable (I don’t really give a hoot about the ego-maniac).  Students perceive a domineering person as intense and skilled, even if they broke the rules to win the drill.  I wish the students could see the difference between pushing their limits to learn about themselves versus outright domination for the purpose of setting social status.  They need to see the value in getting information from a drill rather than gaping in awe at overwhelming intensity. 

Competitive social domination games come with no analysis of how control was gained in the match.  Someone “won” and that means they are better, and that’s the end of it.  Partner training should not be a competitive game to prove status.  In meaningful training, someone gained control – how did they do it?  Why did it work?  Will it always work? Did they break the drill to “win”?  What is this drill working on anyway?  Maybe that’s the most important question – what are we working on here, and did this round help me learn it, or just demonstrate that someone more skilled than me is more skilled than me?
Submitted by: Matt Baran, Sandan

April 16, 2013


Last night I had the frustrating experience of training while injured.  Training with an injury is frustrating because the normal energy and spirit of karate training would aggravate the injury and lengthen recovery time.  It takes a fair amount of self-control to watch your fellow karate-ka vigorously training while you have to find ways to improve at a slower pace.  It is a mildly lonely feeling to be in a group of companions but unable to behave in the same way as the group.  However, this solitary feeling allowed me to really focus on myself during training, and I picked up a nice reminder of how quickly our training can lapse into ineffectiveness unless we keep a close eye on ourselves.

The lesson came during the kihon section of class, as we were warming up in zenkutsu-dachi with a kizami-zuki/gyaku-zuki combination.  I noticed that even in slow motion, my body was adjusting around the discomfort in my left side due to some bruised ribs.  Sub-consciously I was letting my rear knee collapse and rear foot come up on its edge, allowing my hips to make the required range for gyaku-zuki without the proper tension in my core muscles near my injury.  Even though I had made the conscious decision to train slowly and put up with some discomfort in my ribs, my subconscious was letting my training slip to avoid that discomfort.  How quickly our body will betray our conscious intentions for its own short-sighted ends!  We must be vigilant as we train, because this unconscious betrayal of our training will happen every time the ego is threatened, risk of failure is present, or unpleasant work is at hand.  I find it ironic that my initial disappointment with low intensity training was met with an important lesson that could only present itself in the quiet, introspective mind brought on by that training. 

Submitted by: Matt Baran, Sandan

April 3, 2013

Planting the Seeds

There is a difference between knowledge and understanding, and this is an important distinction to make with regard to training.  Knowledge is made up of facts.  It is face-value, literal, what-you-see-is-what-you-get information.  Knowledge can be copied and repeated, and a person with tons of knowledge is often mistaken for someone with understanding of the subject matter.  On the other hand, understanding is the ability to make deep connections between pieces of knowledge, and between knowledge and events.   It is the awareness of the context and limitations of a piece of knowledge, and the ability to use this context to make new connections and deductions from the facts.  Knowledge is required for understanding, but knowledge alone does not equate to understanding.  Understanding cannot be communicated between people, only knowledge can be transmitted.  Then it is up to the individual to transform that knowledge into their own understanding.

In karate, an instructor may have an amazing understanding of the material, but he/she is only able to provide knowledge to the students during a lesson.  The responsibility to develop an understanding of the lesson falls on the student.  Understanding must be cultivated from the instructor’s information in the same way a vegetable garden is cultivated from seeds.  This requires self-study and a conscious effort by the student to focus on the given information.  Through persistence inside and outside the dojo, knowledge slowly grows into understanding.  Our instructors are very aware of the need for individual study, and new information is never given until the old information has borne fruit – to give more information would simply distract from earlier lessons. 

So let us not be collectors of information, or consumers of knowledge.  Without conscious effort to understand for ourselves, these activities are shallow and insignificant.  Let us closely examine the lessons we learn and put in the extra effort required to gain something truly meaningful.  A garden that produces well requires constant attention – weeding, watering, adding nutrients, etc.  A person who collects seeds and never plants them cannot be called a gardener; likewise, a person who attends a karate lesson but doesn’t scrutinize their own training cannot be called a karate-ka.

Submitted by: Matt Baran, Sandan

February 25, 2013

Kata Bunkai

There exists a very wide variety of opinions regarding kata application, or bunkai.  A quick search on YouTube for applications of any particular kata may reveal any number of different types of results.  There is what I would consider a continuum of approach to bunkai.  At one end of the spectrum, there are applications that examine basic direction of movement and power generation in karate situations.  At the other end of the spectrum, through kata study we examine self-defense and fighting strategy.  If we never evolve beyond the initial stage, we are missing out on the most valuable information that has been encoded in kata for us to study.  

We must start our study of kata somewhere, and the beginning of that study will involve learning the proper path of movements and the correct direction to generate power in those movements.  Applications at this point in our training may be performed against a stationary target (such as an extended arm) or against a karate attack such as oi-zuki.  These kinds of application can help us to recognize the range of motion needed and the methods of power generation for a particular technique.  This may also assist with imagining opponents during kata practice by helping us to visualize an attack that we are somewhat familiar with from training.  However, this type of kata application is very limited in its usefulness, and minimal time should be spent in this phase.  I would argue that for advanced karateka, as we learn our kata this step should be skipped entirely since we are familiar with the basic motion and principles of movements we see in kata.

Our goal in the study of bunkai is to gain our understanding and spend our time studying application at the other end of this continuum.  Looking at applications in the context of self-defense and fighting strategy is where we can learn the most from the kata.  It is looking at a kata from this approach where we can understand the philosophy of “five years, one kata.”  Taking this approach, there is virtually no limit to how much information we can extract from a single kata.  At this level, we examine applications to kata from a self-defense perspective.  We are no longer looking at karate attacks from oi-zuki distance.  We look at more realistic self-defense scenarios with attacks from a very short range.  For example, the first movement in Heian Shodan may be defending against a lapel grab and hook punch from the front.  We study how turning to the left in the first movement will put us in a more advantageous position with respect to our opponent and can move them to our left.  We then look at how the opponent is likely to react from that scenario.  Their natural movement from what we have done to them in the first movement will then put them in a position where they will be in distance for oi-zuki.  In our study, we start each bunkai sequence from a natural position (shizen-tai) rather than from the previous movement since this is a more realistic scenario from which we will need to defend ourselves.  The application ends when we have neutralized the opponent and have gotten ourselves into an advantageous position. 

We start with study of bunkai by following exactly with the movements of the kata.   As each kata is studied, patterns will tend to emerge and we can see a greater strategy for fighting inherent in each kata.  During this type of study, we ask ourselves many questions about the specific movements in kata, such as: why are we moving in this direction, why is this stance important, and what is important about the path of the entire movement?  Then as we progress, we allow for some variations in the movements which are consistent with that fighting strategy for the kata.  In the earlier example from Heian Shodan, for example, if the opponent stays in place instead of moving, we adjust and can make gyaku-zuki instead of oi-zuki as the kata states.    So examples of variations may be to adjust a technique to the distance of our opponent, a rotation may become a smaller change of direction, or we may perform movements off the opposite side or in a different sequence.  We may choose to look at the pattern of foot movement – for example, stepping directly to the left into zenkutsu-dachi in the first movement of Heian Shodan.  In this situation, we can adjust the specific blocks and strikes from the kata to adapt to different situations.  Our study develops beyond just application of the movement, but to derivations and adaptations of the movements based on principles and a strategic theme found in that kata.  Taking this approach will unveil a wealth of information in any kata.    

Kata application, like self-defense in general, must become a very personal kind of exploration.  We need to find what works for us and what we would be comfortable using.  I believe that there are many applications for every single movement in kata, and each student needs to explore for themselves to see what they can extract and learn from the movements.  An instructor can give us ideas and help us to improve upon our thoughts, but no one thing will work for every person in every situation.  We must examine the kata for ourselves and must practice these movements for them to become natural.  We must try out our applications against an opponent to see if and how they work and to help us understand how an opponent will react when our movements are applied.  And this must become a regular part of our training if we wish for these movements to become natural and fluid reactions should we ever need to use them.    

Submitted by: Kimberly Baran, Sandan