Friday, March 30, 2012

From Tachi Waza to Ashi Waza

My 7th grade teacher, Miss B, was fond of saying, "Keep things for 7 years before throwing them out." That's not a bad rule. My sock drawer could use a little of this discipline. The point is reducing clutter, getting rid of the useless. If Miss B took a look at a typical karate lesson plan I just know there would be a number of things she'd love to trundle off to the dumpster. Take the tachi waza, stances: kiba dachi, zenkutsu dachi, sanchin dachi, kake ashi dachi. Like sweater vests, how many do you really need? What are they doing in the syllabus except to have students stand in funny ways while developing leg strength and preserving tradition? Miss B would have gotten rid of them all. I am all for reducing clutter, especially as springtime approaches. Before we fill the dustbin with seldom used and appreciated karate technique, let's see what can be put to good use.

In my previous post I spoke of neko ashi dachi, the cat stance, as a counter or defense to leg attacks. The unweighted leg is immune to sweeps, trips and reaps. These leg attacks are found in sanchin dachi (ouchi gari) and kake ashi dachi, the cross legged stance. Kake ashi dachi can be interpreted as almost any of the ashi waza in Judo (deashi baria, kouchi gake, kouchi gari, hiza guruma, sase tsurikomigoshi). Note, I am not implying that Judo is the source of this bunkai. Throwing and leg attacks are found in many martial arts older and contemporaneous with Karate and Judo, Shaolin Kung Fu most importantly. However, Judo is the most refined of martial arts when it comes to throwing and provides handy terminology.

So now we have a great bundle of ashi waza instead of funny ways to stand. Throw them away? I think not. Try out a few of these ashi waza. Your tachi waza will never be the same. Sorry Miss B, I'm keeping my tachi err ashi waza.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Sweep the leg!

If you are a martial artist of a certain age, the movie line, "Sweep the leg," should conjure up images of the original Karate Kid struggling to win a match and the girl. The Karate Kid was your standard morality play: overmatched good-guy versus technically excellent, but heart-in-the-wrong-place, bad guy(s). The karate matches themselves, and in particular, the tactical use of neko ashi dachi, tsuru ashi dachi (might as well include kokotsu dachi) illustrate the disconnect between the real physics of fighting and fantasy.

In the real world, Daniel-san would have been creamed by opponents who actually trained fighting skills. All that wood finishing and auto maintenance would have little transfer, sad to say, to fighting . Ironically, the neko ashi dachi Daniel-san is forced to adopt because of a damaged knee is the perfect defense against a leg attack such as the dreaded foot sweep. With most of the body-weight on the rear leg, the front is pretty much immune from sweeps. And that's about all neko ashi dachi is good for, avoiding sweeps and trips. Close-in, Daniel-san would would have been able to avoid all the leg attacks utilizing neko ashi dachi.

As a fighting stance? Come on! Neko ashi dachi limits your mobility. I struggle to suppress a laugh when I see opponents face-off a long distance from each other in neko ashi dachi. Neko ashi dachi also fails as a base from launching strikes; there's no way to put your weight behind the strike. You'd be flailing, which is pretty much what Daniel-san was doing. Try throwing a power shot at the heavy bag from neko ashi dachi. You can't. With most of the weight on your back foot, when you made contact with the bag, more than likely you fell over. If you didn't fall over, ask yourself whether there was any knockdown power in that strike.

But, but, but, "What about the crane kick?" you ask. It is after all a front kick launched from a completely committed neko ashi dachi (that is all of the body-weight rests on the rear leg). Yeah, that's Hollywood. If do right, no can defense. I would have fallen to the ground laughing and ceded the match.

Next: What leg attacks?

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The BS Bunkai Test

Some people wanna fill the world with silly bunkai. . . My good buddy J shared a Hein nidan (Pinan sono ni among the Kyokushin karate crowd) bunkai video he had found online. While we both had a laugh at the instructor's expense, deep down it alarmed me. I checked out some other interpretations of this kata on the net. Poor Heian nidan. Sadly, this particular kata is a magnet for very shakey, logic defying interpretation. If your BS detector isn't sounding off, it's time for re-calibration.

The first hint of fishy bunkai is an elaborate response to such a simple attack as a punch to the face (from that pesky guy standing to your left). One doesn't need any special training to respond to a punch to the face. If one is accustomed to sparring, a parry followed by a counter work well. If one is inexperienced, stepping back, covering up, running away work too. So what gives? It seems to me that some folks are offering up hokey cures for non-existing ailments. And another thing, if you were getting punched in the face and you tried doing the "suggested" arm-twisty maneuver, it's a sure bet you'd get a few more shots in the face. Try it. Reality is the best cure for fishy bunkai syndrome.

The test:

Walk into any boxing or Muay Thai gym. Put on head gear and a mouthguard and ask an obliging partner if he or she wouldn't mind throwing punches at your face. Tell your training partner that it is your aim to catch the first punch and turn it into victory. Get back to me with the results.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Kata as a mixed martial art training syllabus

I recently had the misfortune to read a book on the meaning of kata by a Japanese author. Besides having his own karate dojo, the author has doctorates in sociology and Japanese civilization. One could argue that this man, on paper, is just the authority we should be seeking guidance from. Unfortunately, I can't recommend this book. Chapters on the history of Japan and the uniqueness of its people; barely a paragraph on karate much less kata. I'll leave the author's name and work out.

If you distilled the essence of this book on the meaning of kata down to two words you would get "navel gazing." Let's pause and think about it. Maybe that is all there is to the kata of Japanese karate. Maybe it's like the tea ceremony, which is not so much about serving and drinking a tasty beverage, but "being in the moment" and finding some revelation in the gestures and empty spaces.

Did I sell you? If you're like me, you don't get high off empty gestures. I want to learn how to fight, get good at it, and then get drunk on my awesomeness, or else be teased with the hope that by learning and practicing, something close to awesome is within my grasp. Air technique, and the contemplation of it, won't do it.

And this brings me to where I left off last time. Let's say kata start out with the practitioner emerging from a position of vulnerability with a juji uke, and that juji uke, we agreed (we did agree, no?) was a small joint manipulation, in this case a finger lock. Think of the deadly karate practitioners you'd be churning out of your dojo if they became well versed in the art of finger locking. You could spend weeks, month, even years on this one subset of skills, and that's just the first bunkai in any kata. I could be way, way off. Juji uke might not be about finger locks at all. Bummer. You now have a bunch of ladies and kids capable of destroying their attackers (provided they were actually drilling finger locks and not just dancing the kata), but complete nincompoops at dance. Boohoo.

When it comes to kata practice, instead of counting belly button lint, turning inward and trying to imagine what you don't know, aka the usual approach, take from arts other than Japanese karate. Your karate will be better for it.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Kata is in your face

How does your kata start? If you answered turn left and face your attacker, you win the booby prize. The lesson is close quarters, self-defense. Most kata start with your eyes closed, legs are straight, heels touching, hands held low and in front of you. In other words, you start from a position of vulnerability. As you open your eyes, it's like the curtains rising to a scene of your own mugging. Your assailant is in your face, maybe applying a front choke. What do you do?

In many kata, the first move is to drop your center of gravity and perform a juji uke. Juji uke (cross block), in this scenario, looks like you are crossing your wrists about face height (hands formed as fists) and bringing your arms down slowly to the sides. If instead of "blocking" you are grasping one or two digits of your attacker's hands placed around your neck, you can make use of the advantage of leverage, peel the attackers hands away and release the choke. Move your hands smartly, and you disable the attacker's hands. This is juji uke as small joint manipulation.

The rest of many kata offer similar scenarios united by a concept of close proximity. I don't for a minute believe any (okay, maybe some) of the bunkai offered by gurus that involve intercepting/catching a strike from the middle or long distance and then applying joint manipulations or throws. It's too hard. Complex motor skills against an ambush attack? Please. Test this out. Have a partner attack you with a barrage of strikes. More than likely, you'll flinch, cover-up, then clinch. The bunkai lessons can be applied once the grabbing starts. If there's no grabbing, run away while you have the chance.

Food for thought. Zenkutsu dachi gedan barai is a lousy block, which is how I learned it many years ago. In the "kata is in your face" paradigm, gedan barai is a great cross grab, wrist release technique: with your free arm smash down on your attacker's offending arm while simultaneously twisting and withdrawing your entrapped wrist (hikite). Of course, gedan barai might be used to block. . . knees for example. Is instruction required for something so instinctual? No. In the case of the wrist release application, the lowering of the center of gravity (zenkutsu dachi), the forearm smash (gedan barai), and the withdrawal of the entrapped wrist (hikite) combine yielding elegant bunkai.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Language: name that stance

That which we call a stance by any other name would be as effective. . . or not. Names matter. What's the difference between Montague and Capulet, or zenkutsu dachi and lunge? A lot.

You say zenkutsu dachi. I say lunge.
I have a beef with almost all Karate stances. Take zenkutsu dachi. It's a lunge isn't it? You are lunging to strike; lunging to sprawl; lunging to takedown; lunging to reap a leg. With zenkutsu dachi we are limited to: take a long step; distribute your weight 60% on your front leg; wait until instructed. What happened to the rear leg? At least draw it up so that you can lunge again, back pedal, turn around, run. And what's going on with the rest of the body? Why freeze a moment in time and give it a name? The emphasis on learning the nomenclature and weight distribution of stances evinces a very superficial understanding of balance and its relation to movement. Call something a stance and you put the emphasis on the legs doing nothing more than rooting the body to the ground, and this is bad. A body moving dynamically teeters on the verge of collapse, and this is good. It's how we run, ski, throw a punch/kick, and yes throw an opponent as in Judo's osoto gari.

By naming something (eg. Chinese Hand=> Empty Hand, aka Karate) we take possession of it. We can also inadvertently place limits on it.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Bunkai-Do you see what I see?

There are many in the karate world who will tell you that there are no hidden applications. Unfortunately, there are many in the karate world who will teach you bogus applications and take your money too. What's the average know-nothing karate guy or gal going to do? Let me break it down for you.

If you believe kata is open to free interpretation, and depends on your mood and circumstances, you have wasted your time. You should have been taking up boxing and looking up at cloud formations for inspiration; with boxing, at least you'd be able to punch out anyone who disparages your musings on cloud formations. For the poor karate guy who goes to the school where bunkai is up to you, read on. Performing kata, no matter how many times, will get you no closer to learning applications than the first day you put on a white belt. You've heard, perhaps, insanity defined as repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results. It's crazy to believe some new self-defense application will come to you in the nick of time simply because you marched through the Pinan series for many years.

Don't despair. Unlike clouds, the marbling of beef, or melted cheese on toast, the forms in kata are not random. This needs repeating. The forms in kata are not random. Did you ever notice that certain movements in kata recur pattern like? Did you ever notice that these repeating movements appear not only in different kata, but in different styles of martial arts? No, I'm not just talking Goju-Ryu and Shotokan, but also Judo, Tai Chi, Kuntao Silat, Aikido, etc., etc. No hwaaay?! Way! Here's something to ponder: maybe the guru's telling you there are no hidden applications, only know one way of fighting, or only one martial art.

Let that thought marinate a while and consider the different ranges in a fight. There's long distance, about as far away as you can kick. There's middle distance, about an arm's length away. Finally, there's close distance, close enough to smell the coffee on your opponent's breath, close enough to drive your forehead into his nose. If you belong to the Shotokan school, or a popular derivative, Kyokushin, you are probably most familiar with long and middle distance fighting. Why? Because tournament rules say those are the only approved ways of fighting.

When all you have is a hammer. . .
everything looks like a nail. The same applies to karate folk who are conditioned to fight in the long and middle distances. To them, everything looks like a punch, kick or block, except for the things that don't. These get dumped into the mystery bin of free interpretation. Be wary of the things that don't look like punches, kicks or blocks: they are the most susceptible to faulty interpretation. You will spot faulty interpretation when sensei says with a straight face,"this spinning jump is for when your legs are attacked with a barge pole," or, "now turn and face attacker number three." If kata were meant to help you fight multiple attackers (not that they can't), or barge pole wielding assailants, kata would come with submachine gun applications.

If you want to understand kata, you must dispense with the tournament mentality and consider fighting as comprising long, middle, and especially close distance engagement. You know that mystery bin, I'll bet the funny stances and gestures can all be explained, better yet applied, in a close distance fight.

Next, on the language of kata.

Friday, March 2, 2012

towards a better karate

I am writing for a small audience of karate practitioners who believe their karate could be improved. If you see the rise of Mixed Martial Arts and begin to doubt your karate training, this blog is for you. If you have heard of hidden applications in kata, this blog is for you. If you are a practitioner of other martial arts like Judo, Aikido, or Tai Chi, and still hanker for more, this blog is for you. If you think kata sucks, this blog is for you. I fit the above profile and these are my thoughts on making a better karate.

The three K's
Traditional Karate may be said to be incomplete without it's three main components:kumite (sparring); kihon (basics); kata (forms). Kata is the DNA of karate. Like genes, kata give evidence of karate's origins, and also its potential. A better understanding of kata will help us determine where our karate may have gone wrong and how we might fix it. Naturally, any change in our understanding of kata will dramatically change our practice of kihon and kumite.

In the posts to follow I will explain how I interpret kata and make it integral to my karate training. For now, I will leave you with the thought that drives my obsession: Kata reveal that Karate is the original Mixed Martial Art.