Bam! The Perfect Storm

In Dan-level training sessions, one thing becomes painfully clear: you’d better learn to move, and movement can’t be latent, chunky or telegraphed. We get stuck in the mindset that movement is a step, a shift or a parry that we do before a defense or attack, an entity separate in our training from our strikes. Step…punch is full of dead time (Kyo).

It’s becoming clear that an offensive move (or defensive) isn’t a move and strike or move and block. It’s not step…punch, or shift…block. It’s a single entity. It’s a timed, single waza. Bam! You’ve shifted and delivered – a perfect storm of mind, body and spirit.

lunge.jpgLike a stone in a slingshot, it’s recoiled and released. The energy in the elastic bands carries the stone to target, this energy stays with the stone, and the opponent feels like he’s getting hot by the entire mechanism.

In elevated karate, we don’t get hit by a punch, we get his by an entire body that is drenched in forward-moving energy.

Where it gets tricky is when you attempt to deliver a double technique during this single burst that is delivered in a full, half or quarter beat (dear god, a quarter beat is less than a blink).

Bam!—–Bam!   Bam!—Bam!      or Bam!Bam!

In my training, sometimes the technique gets lost in the attempt at speed. If I try an overzealous jab/punch combination my jab sometimes looks like I’m darting the leading hand out and following with a reverse punch, making the sequence useless. Speed is a moot point if the technique isn’t correct. Nishiyama Sensei would say 10 times slow, one time fast. You have to walk before you yori-ashi! Repetition is the only cure.

So, intention forward but posture neutral, sacrum engaged (hips more shomen), hands up, feet gripping the floor (not too much outside-inside pressure), hamstrings taut, inner energy boiling up to 99 degrees, and…Bam!

Easy, eh?

Water and Stone: The Harrison Project

“In the struggle between the stone and water, in time, the water wins”
Japanese Proverb

There are proponents of Karate who feel that karate is best served when everything besides karate moves is kept out of the Dojo; that in order to preserve karate and pass on anything of real value we need to practice and sweat endlessly (without questioning) through the Katas, Kihon and Kumite: the stone.

According to them, all else is fluff.

Having said that, if I were to look back on my karate life, the things that have served me best are the confidence and self-security karate gave me – not the blocks and kicks.

Granted, I love the traditional karate I have learned (and continue to learn). It has kept me healthy and it has taught me to persevere to become better.

But it has also taught me to self-explore and refine the softer skills like energy control, attention to attitude, intention and breathe management: the water.

Picture1This week in our dojo, a young guy in the junior class named Harrison Luff stepped up and impressed us with his demonstration on using breathing to control stress. It was in response to an activity that our Dojo started to try to get kids to tell us how karate inspires them. Harrison did a presentation using several different liquids to demonstrate how our minds can become busy and congested, and he then added more solution to show how breathing can help us become calm and clear our minds again. It was an excellent demonstration and Harrison’s Dojo-mates loved it. It was inspiring to say the least.

A number of kids in the class submitted various kinds of art, videos and letters to describe what Karate means to them, as well as to talk about their understanding about what Sensei Power’s ‘Just Breathe’ teachings meant to them.

It became clear that these kids were learning that the water and stone of good karate aren’t separate from one another. As one girl put it, “I do kata outdoors and concentrate on my breathing when I am feeling stressed – and it really helps me feel better!”

The old Japanese proverb quoted above suggests that the water is stronger than the stone. In its patience and persistence, water wears the stone away. The power of water is formidable.

A good Dojo, I believe, is teaching good, traditionally-rooted Karate and it is also teaching higher level concepts that relate to life in society. A balanced mind and a positive attitude – when backed with strong Karate – are two side of the same priceless coin.

Thank you, Harrison, for a very visual demonstration on a concept that every one of us can learn something from. Don’t ever stop questioning, exploring and learning.

Merry Christmas, all. I wish you all the best for the Holidays and Health and Happiness for the New Year!

mmmmPA!!!

So, whats in a Karate move? Energy. And according to Sensei Power its ‘mmmPA!!!!’

One thing is the control and flow of energy: where and when to expend it while always keeping it churning. I used to do Kata like every move was a Kiai, exhausting myself after a single Kata during a grading. Inside I  knew it didnt make much sense – not much point in all the good karate in the world if after a few moves you’re exhausted. But the old thinking was that good karate was exemplified by physical strength.

Kata, I now believe is a series of energy flares on a continuum or a timeline. At YOI it is elevated (the ‘mmmmmmm’ gutteral feeling) and then it is maintained throughtout the sequences, with more emphasis of energy on technuiques ( the ‘PA!!!’ explosion).

Energy has to be maintained during transitions and slower waza (energy as in intention eleveated and forward moving). Dropping your energy opens you up.

The continuum I believe is Zanshin – ‘remaining mind’ or continued awareness.

I’m still working my way through all of this and to help I came up with a visual:

Energy Wave

We’re fortunate that we have Sensei who understand this stuff and can pass it on…

 

 

The Karate Tree

The “Tree of Life,” a symbol of immortality; a tree grows old, yet it bears seeds that contain its very essence and in this way, the tree becomes immortal. Seeds pass on the genetic makeup of the tree itself. It remains ‘rooted in the earth, reaching for the stars.’

A mature tree grows in such a way as to not waste energy, it grows in humility, although at specific times its colors are brilliant.  Strong against the storm, it is steadfast in simply living.

Enter karate.

Tree of LifeMy daughter, Claire, made me this Tree of Life, and in thinking about it, it raises important questions. What’s in my tree of life? Am I passing on anything of value? Am I still growing?

I feel I am still growing and Karate is a vehicle for that.

Karate is a mind, body and spirit methodology. Physically it keeps us strong, and helps us learn to move with fluidity. It helps us learn to project our very character into our living (good and bad). I’m not certain karate always actually builds character, but it certainly helps one explore it.

It helps us develop a way of maintaining a clear mind and focused concentration. This, I think, is a substantial part of my Tree of Life – part of a fascinating journey.

Karate, like Claire’s tree, reminds us that although we need to stay rooted, we need to keep growing. In the Dojo we need to keep at it until that kata is ‘just right for me,’ or until we get our breath and movement working together like wind and wings.

In life, no matter the age, I believe we need to just keep moving, staying mindful on the journey.

Karate ‘Tight Lines’

May be a bit of a stretch, but karate can be a bit like fishing: hesitation or unaware time can cost you.

It took me a while to get the knack of setting the hook on a trout that hit my bait, especial

Dad

At 82, my father understands how being alert catches fish!

ly when trolling the big lakes and pond for bigger fish. You have to be alert, always in the zone – ready to react. With a relatively long line out behind the boat there can be no hesitation before or after the nibble or strike. Hesitate after the fish hits the line and you miss it, hesitate or give him slack line after you hook it and it’s gone: it’s all about being aware and being alert.

Karate is no different. The first one is obvious, hesitate in combat and you miss your opportunity to defend or to attack. As the Samurai understood, hesitation is death.

Similar to hesitating, or giving a fish slack line after you hook it, if there is any sort of indecision or even a micro-pause after a technique, you are creating an opening for your opponent.

Through video scrutiny with Sensei Power, my slack line sometimes comes in the form of a slight outward front foot turn when moving forward, or a very slight foot drag after moving. Either way, there is a break in the flow of the technique, detracting from its effectiveness and its strength.

To take the analogy further, awareness in karate is like your line when fishing, slightly taut but not tight, with no interruption in you physical or mental attentiveness.

As my father reminds me when I get a salmon on my line: “Easy and Steady…Soft hands, now…”

You have to find your own zone, I believe…

Intention to the front, please

Intention: A thing intended, an aim, plan or goal. Of course, a goal or a plan always denotes a destination, somewhere you intend to get – somewhere your focus is.

In the Martial Arts this is a vital concept. How do we turn out intention physiological? How do we reach a place in Kata and in Kumite where intention is the horse before the cart, the catalyst for the technique?

My initial understanding of intention was over simplified: I intend to destroy my opponent; I intend to throw an oi-zuki/gyaku-tsuki combination; I intend to do a sharp and fast Jitte. This is more of a plan, and having a mental plan in karate often costs you time and restricts your defenses, i.e., you think too much.

IntentionIntention I now believe, is giving constant direction to your energy (how many times did Nishiyama Sensei state that!), and that overall energy is forward – always. As Sensei Power puts it, even at the end of a technique in Kata or Kumite, there is a ‘pressure’ forward, an overall feeling of Zanshin or continued awareness, which is the fire in your belly and the alertness in your body for the next move. All the while your center (Hara) dissecting your opponent like a laser beam.

Yesterday in the dojo we looked at intention and Go No Sen, and Sensei Power reminded me that even while shifting back to receive the attack, your intention is going forward. The energy is recycled through your body and physically sent forward again in the counter.

Maintaining intention eliminates dead time in Kumite and quells subtle stops and starts in Kata.

Sounds easy enough, but doing it…well, that’s a different thing!

Mokuso: “A Moment of Presence”

Frequently lately I am blessed with the opportunity to play music with a gentleman named Adrian (as well as a number of other extremely talented friends). I primarily play stringed instruments like guitar and mandolin while Adrian plays whatever is within his reach: guitar, mandolin, harmonica, banjo, and the list goes on.

Listening carefully to Adrian (I often do, even as I’m playing along with him), I admire that not only does he play an amazing arrangement of notes in a song, he hits the notes with precise timing.

The space between his notes is musical beauty.

Recently, on the Karate front, I’ve been pondering Mokuso, roughly translated as ‘meditation’, but much more than that I’ve found. As I often do, I posed my thoughts and an inquiry about Mokuso to a karate Sensei that I consider a very learned resource and one always willing to share his thoughts on a topic.

On Mokuso, this is part of the superb exchange I had with Sensei Toru Shimoji:

Most of us, including me (!) suffer from busy and chatty mind that runs like a hamster on a wheel. I’ve been working hard to take time throughout the day to simply breathe and enjoy the space between my thoughts. It was fleeting at first, if not accidental, that I would find myself there. Typically, thoughts are closely hooked to the past and future, pulling and projecting, as you argue, judge, plan, worry, etc. and etc. It becomes a routine, a pattern. Mokuso can help you break this habit, with deep silent breath opening a space between the thoughts. Once there, the moment of presence is blissful. Like a child, you will repeat pleasurable experience, so the idea of Mokuso is not work, but rather returning to a state we once had.

Mokuso then is using the breath – breathing deeply – as a means to clear the mind without trying to do so, to get to a place where we enjoy the “space between our thoughts” – stillness. A conscious attempt to try and clear your mind simply creates more mind traffic, but sitting quietly and doing nothing but breathing reaps the benefit of a clear mind. Simply breathing and perceiving the stillness allows you to have an open mind to experience the class and absorb the instruction.

One day I’d like to get Adrian and my musical friends as well as Sensei Shimoji in the same room: two seemingly different authorities on the very significant concept of the space between – both of whom have a lot to teach me!

Tuidi – Okinawan Karate Tools

If you’re going to master Kumite, you’d better know how to fight inside and out.

Growing up in a small outport, when the spring ice started breaking up and got too ‘slobby’ to go ice panning on, we were constantly reminded: ‘Mind yourself around the ice! Keep your distance!’ Otherwise meaning stay off the ice for fear of mother’s wrath!

In Karate, keeping your distance is fundamental to the Art – Maai, or engagement distance as Jesse Enkamp refers to it, is fundamental in competitive Karate.  Staying right on the peripheral edge of where you need to be to engage your opponent is critical. Stray slightly inside this edge and you’re in the combat zone; slip slightly outside this edge and you limit your attack possibilities. A concept from Kendo, correct Maai is life or death – no different than engaging a knife attacker.

TuidiHaving said that, enter Tuidi, an Okinawan term for fighting techniques used in close. We Shotokan people never want anyone to get too close to us or to grab us in an altercation, but in case someone does, you have to have a few tools in your toolbox. After all, if we look at Kata, every move is an engagement move: attacks and destructive defenses, the stuff that happens when you cross the invisible combat line.

Seizing someone’s neck, an arm lock and break, or dislocating an opponent’s shoulder aren’t pretty, but neither is losing a real battle. We need to get to know our Tuidi.

Once again, Karate imitates life: fundamentally most important is what happens on the inside.

Karate Infusions…Feed the Pond

I recall a time when the Dojo I was in had 50 participants, and the seminars and competitions on the weekends (there was one somewhere in NL nearly every weekend) had hundreds of participants. I grew up in a very small rural town and yet there were a dozen young guys my age doing karate. It was the thing to do.

What happened?

streamI can’t help but wonder – as traditional Karate people – have we held on to the old so dearly that we haven’t made room for anything new. Has the adage that karate must never change gotten boring? Has the fear of allowing karate to evolve under our watch cost us in the long run? How is it that something that is so good for us on a multidimensional level, young and old alike, faded so much in recent years? How is it that that karate practitioners with 10, 20 and 30 year’s experience no longer don the Gi or step foot in a dojo? Chibana Chosin, said to be the founder of Shorin-ryu, had this to say:

“Karate, as it is transmitted, changes every few years. This is a common phenomenon. It happens because a teacher must continue to learn and adds his personality to the teachings. There is an old Okinawan martial arts saying that states that Karate is much like a pond. In order for the pond to live, it must have infusions. It must have streams that feed the pond and replenish it. If this is not done then the pond becomes stagnant and dies. If the martial arts teacher does not receive infusion of new ideas and/or methods, then he, too, dies.”

The very mention of evolving or changing karate scares the daylights out of many traditional Shotokan Karateka, but should it? Can’t we improve on something that is already very good with subtle infusions of wisdom and experience from around the world? We can still separate the wheat from the chaff and teach karate principles that are solid. We better understand the biomechanics of human movement now, so how can we not evolve and make our karate even better – not to mention easier on the body!

As an example, something as simple as a slightly higher stance or lower stance can both be taught with the principle of balance at its core. Fundamentally, the two Sensei who teach these are no different, and both have valid reasons for their preference – we can learn from both. As we progress, I think we need the varying teaching styles and opinions and explanations of technique. Then we adopt and build what works for us – there is a certain appeal in this.

Basically, if you know any real karate, I don’t need to know your politics, I just want to know what you know.

In the end, we don’t need to tear down the old dojo – maybe we just need to open it up and let some fresh air in.

Like Gord, Get Behind Something

gordon

 

 

 

 

 

Karate is a one passion of mine, and music is another, so when I heard Gord Downie passed away – although we’d been expecting it – I hated to hear that it had happened.  The Hip brought us Canadian music at its finest, and Gord brought us a message: Get Behind Something.

Gord tackled huge issues like the treatment of indigenous youth in the North and was relentless in his pursuit of fairness and justice.  Trying to shape a better future for young people is not only admirable, its essential.

We’re in an electronic age where there’s plenty of access to negative energy and paths to troublesome futures. But like Gord, some of us can make a difference.

So, here is a shout out to all the Karate Sensei and Sempai who helped shape my future over the years.  I am grateful.

And to those still teaching Karate, I applaud you. Karate that teaches respect and confidence is a force against that negative energy. You’re giving kids opportunity to grow and to make good choices. You’re getting behind them.

Godspeed, Gordo, and Sensei and Sempai…for the sake of our youth, keep it up.