Sunday, November 29, 2015

Uchi Uke/ Gedan Barai and Mnemonics: How can you remember what you haven't learned

You've heard before that kata is the lesson plan, not the lesson (that was from me), and that the movements are incomplete; they point to principles that your instructor must elucidate. Of course, having learned the lesson, the movements in kata become mnemonics for the student, aids to make the lesson stick. What happens when your instructor never learned the lesson? In this instance you get the kind of karate instruction that says after 10,000 repetitions you will know (or not). Today's post is on uchi uke gedan barai.

Perhaps you've been told that this compound "block" found in kata and featured in ido geiko represent simultaneous backfists to groin and face. Do we really need a memory aid for this application?

Here's the lesson. Pay attention at 1:58 as Maul Mornie (SSBD) applies an arm-bar. It flies by so don't miss it. This application of uchi uke gedan barai uses the principle of leverage to flip the opponent behind you. An important part of the lesson is understanding how to get close enough to your opponent to damage him. Adversaries do not normally offer up their limbs for destruction. Notice that the scenario involves a face to face confrontation.

And now for the mnemonic. At around 20 seconds into this video, karateka will charge each other. Notice the karateka running with his hands held in the uchi uke gedan barai pose. Whenever you see karateka running at each other with their arms held low and high, remember Maul Mornie's arm-bar throw. Also, refer back to my article on force couples and artful poses with hidden meaning.

For more information on SSBD:

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Understanding Kata: Couples and Collisions

For some, Karate is principally about striking.  Mechanically, we would be talking about collisions. It is kicking and punching, and also managing the kicks and punches. Kata, the dance so misunderstood, would then be a catalogue of such technique. The footwork and body mechanics, from this perspective, is oriented towards facilitating collisions between fist and nose, foot and ribs. This, however, is a limited perspective. Karate is not only about collisions, but also about couples: force couples (a system of equal and opposite forces on parallel paths).

"GTFO," you say. Hang on. The force couple is the foundation of many martial arts. You will recognize it in the Yin-Yang symbol- the circle with swirls of black and white. When you combine equal and opposite forces on parallel paths you get rotation. You will also see force couples in kata if you know what you are looking for. Here are some clues: simultaneous pulling and pushing actions; pivoting and turning (obviously); certain actions and poses to which no application can be attributed other than "chambering."

In this excellent demonstration by Maul Mornie (SSBD), we see a force couple in action at the 1:16 mark. There are several names in karate for this move, gedan bari and manji uke, come to mind. Traditionally, gedan bari, although a compound move, is thought of as a downward sweeping block, and little consideration given to what the other arm is doing besides simply chambering. Similarly there is a kata move most interpret as a violent removal of the male genitalia- again hardly a thought to what the other arm is doing. What Maul Mornie demonstrates by the simultaneous pulling and pushing is a force couple which rotates his opponent around the horizontal axis.

Force couples abound. Not only can they be applied to torsos as in the previous example, but also to limbs. Here, Lorenzo Bagnai (Isam Firenze) demonstrates an arm-bar. Lorenzo once said to me, "Se non c'è coppia di forze non c'è nessuna tecnica." (no force couple, no technique) To which I replied,"Huh?. . .you mean like gunting in FMA (scissors)?" "Esatto!"

Speaking of scissors ("hasami" in Japanese) there is the infamous crab claw takedown (kani "basami") of Judo. This just to illustrate how pervasive the principle of the force couple is. Look for it in your kata and you will have a better karate.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Save the Dancing for Later : Tekpi/Sai Applications

I've said it before, but it bears repeating, if you don't know the martial applications of your kata (jurus) you are just dancing.  This is doubly true for traditional weapons kata (jurus), but I guess instead of dancing let's call it rhythmic gymnastics or baton twirling.  Don't be that guy manipulating the weapon without a clue to its use.  People in the know, know that the only thing threatening about you is the war face you put on.  Instead, learn about weapons like the tekpi from someone like Maul Mornie (SSBD).  Be an authentic martial artist.

After watching the above video, watch it again.  During the second viewing, pay attention to Maul's body position and structure.  Notice his foot placement (the receiver almost tripped).  Pay attention to the fight tactics (uppercut to set-up the collar bone break).  Watch it a third time, I did and I was there, because it's so cool.  And remember what I said before, even though you may never carry a tekpi for protection, the training will pay off and you will have a better karate.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Tekpi (Sai) The Sword Breaker of SSBD

I just spent a weekend in Desenzano, Italy learning how to use tekpi directly from  Maul Mornie (SSBD).  The weekend consisted of instruction on gripping the weapon, grip changes, striking, blocking, and quite interestingly, joint locking.  Totally accessible and friendly, Maul is open to all questions.  Here he is in action.

The tekpi of Brunei and the sai of Okinawa bear strong family resemblances.  They are both three-pronged forks having a long, thick central tine between two shorter and less substantial ones.  The tekpi is primarily an impact weapon, dubbed the Sword Breaker, it can be used to beat bladed weapons away, and of course to beat your opponent purple.  There is no catching of blades with the tekpi, neither between the tines nor with crossed central tines.  That's crazy.  If you understand a little bit about mechanical advantage, two long levers (the sword and the central tine) against your wrists is a recipe for decapitation or "you're not going to believe this but" cocktail conversation.  Note- since you will not be catching swords between the tines, it it perfectly ok to have your thumbs or other digits gripping the tekpi between the tines or indeed wielding the tekpi from the "wrong end."

You might think all this fuss about sword breaking is a bit anachronistic and that tekpi have no use for the modern-day, unarmed fighting guy or gal, but you would be wrong.  According to Maul, the use of the instruments improves the practitioner's structure, mechanics, manual dexterity, and strength.  And why should they not?  Tekpi are steel rods.  You don't whip them about the air without deriving some noticeable benefits, like heavy, penetrating hand strikes and a vice like pinch grip.  When you strike with tekpi, you strike as if wielding a hammer, downwards usually (there are also sidestrikes and uppercuts).  Because these instruments are heavy, you must use your entire body (legs and core) to swing them properly.

Proper use of the tekpi makes the weak arm stronger.  Traditionally, the tekpi was held in the left hand (for right handed warriors), while the right hand wielded the killing weapon, typically a blade of some sort.  This is not unique.  In the West, there is a traditional combination of sword and dagger, then of course there are the Samurai.  Over the course of time, practice with the tekpi actually makes the weak hand the stronger hand, which is not an unwanted development.  According to Maul, the weak hand is actually the more dangerous hand because it is the one used to control the opponent's body and put him into vulnerable positions.  Since close quarters, unarmed fighting is very much about controlling the opponent's body to finish the fight, tekpi training is a perfect complement to Silat and a better karate.

Any errors or misinterpretations are my own.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Silat Buka Lingkaran for Karateka

First, I am sorry for not updating this blog in such a long time.  For my handful of readers, it is not that I have forgotten you.  Moving to Italy presents some distractions.   Just know that I have been training regularly in Silat Cidepok under the instruction of my pal Lorenzo Bagnai, and also attending seminars in Silat Suffian Bela Diri and Silat Buka Lingkaran, given by Maul Mornie and Alvin Guinanao, respectively.  Who knew Italy is the Silat capital of Europe?  Recently, Lorenzo and I had the pleasure of traveling to Gorgonzola (just outside Milan) to learn Silat from Alvin.

Wow!  As a rank beginner in Silat, you might conclude that I am easily impressed by the novel, maybe.  I like to think that a lifetime in the martial arts would enable me to discern the good stuff from fluff.  Lorenzo, who has been teaching Silat Cidepok for ten years, was mightily impressed by Alvin's technique, just as he is impressed by Maul's.  I hold these gentlemen in high regard.  Each has something to teach all karateka.  Here's a vid of Alvin's seminar in Gorgonzola.

Now there are a number of things that can be gleaned from Silat that will make kata more intelligible to karateka.  Among them are flow and gelek ( the notion of turning, often with the limbs of your opponent intertwined with your own).  The notion of flow seems to be stunted in karate.  It is as if the primacy of the "ikken  hissatsu" ideal, where the karateka strives to deliver the one deciding strike, reduces everything to choppy, staccato like movements ending in a punch or a kick.  In contrast Alvin uses strikes to set up opportunities.  One technique flows to the next, twisting, turning, striking, rolling.  He attacks low, then high, whatever it takes to keep the opponent off balance.  Mix it up with Alvin, and you will be off kilter quickly, and then on your face.  In much of what I have learned in Silat, the job is not done until the opponent lays broken on the ground.

I have said before that the numerous turns that you find in kata do not represent opportunities to face a new opponent, rather they represent a takedown or joint destruction.  In the above video, you can see the potential for these devastating technique.  Note that the turns apply as well on the ground.  Some karateka might be familiar with kata that involve falling to the ground, and kicking from one side to the other, without realizing that the turn on the ground itself is the destructive application, the power of gelek.  Falling may also be turned to one's advantage, especially if you are falling on top of your adversary's extended knee or elbow joint.  No movement is wasted.

When you are practicing your kata, ask yourself if any movement seems wasteful.  Does it seem more art than martial?  Cross training in Silat with someone like Alvin, Maul or Lorenzo as your guide will help you make sense of it.  Besides teaching me Silat, they have made my karate better.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Where is the threat?

If you have been assiduously practicing your kata, you might be under the impression that the greatest threat came from the left hand side, particularly when four toughs block your path.  Yeesh!  In my previous blog, I ranted about the insanity of the multi person attack scenario.  Now, I ask you to prove it to yourself.  How would you fight four attackers?

While you are cogitating on that, let me say that apart from avoiding dark places where four baddies can sneak up on you, you can really only deal with one person at a time.  So, either find a way to line up the four assailants that you might take them on sequentially, or prepare to take a beating.  You see, it doesn't work.  While your mind is fixated on fighting four men, you miss out on the important kata lesson of dealing with the most dangerous threat, and that is the single attacker in front of you.

The right and left hand symmetry of  kata is not to emphasize multiple attackers, rather it is to demonstrate that the man in front of you may present you with an attack from either side.  Your responses, then, is to move off-line to a side which is advantageous to you.

If you dispense with the multi-person attack scenario, and think of only one attacker, it will be easier to see how a combination of moves set-up complex technique.  You will see that kata is intricate and at the same time conservatively simple.  If the strike to the face does not immediately have the desired effect, follow-up by wrapping your arm around the back of his head, and turn whilst simultaneously dropping your center of gravity.  Which kata did this application appear in?  (Hint, it is the one where you were told to elbow the guy in front of you in the chin at the same time as you elbow the guy behind you in the gut.)

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

That's crazy. Me, Tarzan.

Happy New Year!  Sorry for the scarcity in posts.  Between natural disasters and personal upheavals there was no time to ponder the deep meaning of Karate.   With a little time to breathe and since I am out of practice, allow me to rant  about the shallow stuff.  In a chat with fellow karate geeks, one of the pillars of a system I am fond of  was quoted (I'll paraphrase for you), "kata is not only a fight with multiple opponents but it teaches you the main technique of karate."  I would like to take this moment to argue that no kata ever demonstrated how to effectively deal with a group of attackers.  If fighting multiple attackers is the premise of all kata, karate ought to be dismissed as outright foolishness.

Think about the Heian/Pinan series of kata for example.  If you were surrounded on four sides, you are seconds from getting pounded into a grease stain, so forget about turning to the left.  It is hard enough fighting one attacker, if you want to take on four you had better have a firearm and standoff distance, so let just deal with one attacker m'kay.  Let's place that attacker squarely in front of you, what would you do?  I would step off line, maybe to the left, maybe to the right, to get a better angle on my opponent.  Maybe I would stay in place, occupy his center.  It would depend on what attack I am countering, but it would always be against the person directly in front of me.

"But, but, but," you start to object, "what about all those turns?"  Oh, you mean the embusen, the pattern of lines your feet trace on the floor as you purportedly meet attackers who ambush you in the capital letter "I" formation, or something similar to the Nazca drawings.  Recognize that patterns exist in kata, just as they exist in poetry and song.  They exist to make the message memorable, but they are not the message.  I don't know how many times I read, ". . .his armor clanged upon him, as darkness clouded his eyes," every time a soldier died in one of Homer's epic poems.  Mnemonics.

The embusen, helps you remember a theme, elbow joint destruction at the bottom of the "I" and punches in the vertical part.  Also, kata have complicated embusen so as to accomodate turns, not for the purpose of meeting multiple opponents.  The turns are the  most important part of the kata as they contain the most destructive technique.  Grab hold of the guy you are tussling with, turn suddenly and drop your center of gravity.  Depending on what part of your opponent you grabbed, you either snapped a limb or threw him to the floor.  Kata is that simple and that complex.  But fighting multiple opponents? That's crazy.  It is not that fighting a gang of toughs is impossible, it is simply not the primary, not even the tertiary lesson.

On kata teaching the main karate technique, yeah, sorry, not really.  Teachers teach karate.  If you are ever told to repeat kata many times until you understand, then your teacher, and his teacher before him failed.  This kind of karate frustrates me to no end.  It is the same as expecting the illiterate to learn to read by tracing words from a book.  I know of one illiterate autodidact who taught himself to read.  His name is Tarzan, a fictional character created by Edgar Rice Burroughs.