What Now?? Just Breathe…

Sometimes there is almost a synchronicity in the works for anyone trying to understand a Martial Arts concept. Yesterday for instance I came across an interview with Sensei Toru Shimoji and in it he spoke about Breathing and about Ki Sense. I found it so interesting that I emailed him to start a discussion. And in Sensei Shimoji fashion, I got a response the same day with a superb response about breathing.

breathe-martial-artsLast night, as I assisted in Sensei Power’s junior class, he started the class with a talk on the importance of breathing to control emotions, and he showed the kids a video on the same. The kids were enthralled and all wanted to talk about how they experienced anger and how they liked to try to deal with it.

I went back to sensei Shimoji’s email this morning and this portion particularly stood out to me:

“Emotions have a powerful influence in our Ki usage. Conversely, the concentration of Breath Energy will influence our emotions. They are linked, interdependent and interrelated and interactive.”

We know that breath energy influences our emotions, so teaching kids that they can use their breath to control what they are feeling (and reminding adults) is a lesson that can go with them through every aspect of life. Whether breathing in competition to settle your adrenalin, or breathing at work or school to clear a muddled mind, we can all benefit from a few mindful breaths  (three concerted breaths, several times a day, reduces stress by a significant amount).

After all, life is 90% how we react to it…I can’t think of any occasion when ‘Just Breathe’ wouldn’t be a good response.

Karate – It’s Time

Years ago, after a hiatus form Karate, I put on some gym shorts and a tee shirt and went down to my rec room. I didn’t bother to google the Heian Katas or the grading sequences – I just stood in a natural stance, put one fist out, one back, and did a few slow punches.

And, to my amazement, thoughts came back like rainfall into a stream after a long drought. ‘Keep your elbows in; get good rotation on your fist; punch from the hip; eyes forward; posture correct.’

I was doing karate again.

Karate MouseAfter a few weeks of this I decided it was time to get over myself (and the excuses in my head) and get back in the Dojo.

The next week I was going up and down the floor with some old Dojomates and wondering why I had waited so long to go back. The bad knee that I thought would sideline me was hurting but became part of my training; yes, I was out of shape, but sitting at home wouldn’t help that; nope, I couldn’t remember even the Heian katas but it sure felt good to go through them again; reservations about feeling out of place disappeared the second I walked in – the dojo judges no one.

By the end of the first class I had a good sweat going and a clear mind.

While not training, what I had missed out on was a place where there is no unhealthy competition, no feelings of trying to be better than someone else. The dojo is a place where you work at becoming better than your current self: gaining a clearer mind and a stronger body along the way.

Karate is good medicine – no negative side effects.

What is worth defending

Dan Inosanto said that Love is the highest art – in ancient times it wasn’t about self-defense. It was about training hard to perfect a Martial Art that allowed you to defend your mother, your father, your children or your tribe: it allowed you to literally preserve life.

Times have changed…somewhat. In my everyday life I don’t think too much about having to defend myself or those close to me. But, there are still scenarios when you’re faced with doing so. Take for instance a situation where a man intentionally kicked the walking stick away from a visually impaired teenage boy. Would defending the boy be a righteous use of force? You’d better believe it would, and I wouldn’t think twice. There is no higher form of humanity than that of defending those who need it most. Fortunately though, these heinous acts of cruelty aren’t that common in these parts.

Perhaps then we can rethink self-defense a little.

MNK_LOGOLooking beyond the physical ability to defend against an assailant, self-defense is self-preservation and can be about maintaining composure when someone offends you. It can be about diffusing heated situations without the use of force. It can be taming your own demons like anger and fear – learning to handle these is probably more important than deflecting a punch to the face. We can take it a step further and say that sometimes we need defense against our own, cluttered minds. Martial arts has been called moving Zen, and a predominant philosophy is Mizu No Kikoru, a mind like calm water.

Physically of course, there’s the whole idea of defending yourself against ill health by showing up to the dojo every week and breaking a good sweat.

I think it’s safe to say that karate as self-defense is about creating greater peace – inside and out.

Pondering Posture

 “Some say the eyes are windows to the soul. This may be true, but posture is most assuredly the reflection of one’s spirit. It tells a story, more eloquently than words ever could, of your strength, your resolve, and your confidence. Posture is an essential element of warrior bearing.” Forrest Morgan

There are times when we all walk into the Dojo and something triggers us to elongate the spine and stand upright. You can feel the difference – you even feel better. But 3-4 moves into a kata and it’s gone again. We all know that subtle weaknesses in your posture (Loosely translated from Kamae in Japanese) take away from your karate’s look and feel.

It’s easy enough to maintain good  body position for a few moments, but not so easy to keep it, even though (as Morgan stated above) a good posture makes our Karate stronger, it aids our determination, and it bolsters self-assurance: feel like you look good and you look good. Besides that, years of karate without paying enough attention to correct structural alignment will mean physical issues down the road.

mc_ship_9148-1_640Technically, in movement and transitions, if you’re starting out with common posture idiosyncrasies such as your head tilted or shoulders forward, you’re already at a disadvantage. It’s like sailing into a storm with a negative sidebend in your mast.

An invaluable exercise is to run through a kata you like while your Sensei is watching for posture irregularities and pointing them out.

Another important point (that I tend to forget) is that you don’t need to muscle though your techniques or your kata in order to eliminate Kyo (dead time or openings). Eliminating Kyo has more to do with subtle tension and intention than it does might. Strong-arming your techniques typically means your posture takes a nosedive.

So, warrior…karate is posture is karate.

Sensei Toru Shimoji Seminar: New Friends

On the weekend I watched Sensei Toru Shimoji interact with my daughter as well as with other kids of various ages in the Karate dojo.

Sensei Shimoji is a former student of the likes of Sensei Hidetaka Nishiyama, and is well known in his own right as an elite Karate teacher, and what I noticed was that age didn’t matter. In this seminar, he paid as much attention to the littlest ones as he did to the more adept, older ones.

He was the vessel, they were the cups, and everyone got an equal share.

He corrected them, he complimented them, and he taught them the same karate principles as he taught the adults, but in a way in which they could relate. He’d fix a back stance (sometimes over and over) and he’d tie a belt; he’d demonstrate and he’d observe; he’d offer suggestions and clap at their successes. The kids were being molded…and they loved it.

My daughter’s observation was this: “He is such a nice man! And his Karate is epic!”

Kids were learning about respect, about the movement of energy, about body mechanics and camaraderie. The teachings were coming from a stranger to NL form Atlanta, Georgia, and yet it felt like they’d made a new friend who genuinely cared about where they went form here.

This new teacher was talking about calm in the midst of chaos and about exuding positive energy. He was teaching principles such as setting a goal to help someone else get better.

Some of this might seem lofty to some, but the fact is that they were getting it. They did their Kata, Kihon and Kumite demonstrations with pride and with a remarkable thread of technical ability.

The building of character through Karate is no cliché – and what better place to start than with the kids, the next generation of the Dojo…and of society.


Lao Tzu: Whoever is soft and yielding is a disciple of life

Screenshot_20170612-141439“The hard and the stiff will be broken.”

Another good example of how karate mirrors life. We all know that Shotokan is known for bone-crushing power, and we also know that the stiff and tense fighter is slower and less able to adjust to an opponents varying attacks. Power alone is good if you’re fortunate to land the right technique at the right time – if not, your finished – you’re one-dimensional.

There’s not much chance of changing your mind against an attack if you’re going at your opponent with teeth clenched and every muscle tensed like stone. Besides that, half your energy has been expelled before you get near the target.

On top of that, as we age, conserving energy gives us more stamina. We use energy where we need it: at the right point of Kime.

The trick is to not relax yourself out of the fight, but rather to keep Zanshin (continued awareness). You can keep your muscles on alert without having them on fire.

I like this from Jesse Enkamp:

“Your mind and body are two sides of the same coin.

  • A strong body cannot exist without a strong mind.
  • A flexible body cannot exist without a flexible mind.
  • A relaxed body cannot exist without a relaxed mind.”

He feels that trying to relax is like trying to go to sleep.

Clear your mind (breathe), and then be aware of all of your body (up, down and center as one Sensei puts it).

In my training I’m trying to get energy to flow between movements, rather than going through techniques like I’m a suit or armor.

Tension in the mind is tension in the body…and that can hurt.

Shotokan Karate is living proof that in order to carry on a tradition that survives, and never waivers far from its roots, you need teachers who are not only dedicated, but knowledgeable. I think knowledge goes beyond knowing karate, and a good Sensei is able to cover three important concepts: instill confidence; teach good karate; and stoke your interest to study the art and know more.


I was recently watching Sensei Inoue Yoshimi online. He was using a chart in his class to discuss particular karate principles. His thought is that the focus needs to be the point where balance, speed and timing intersect, and goes on to say that your timing is only as good as your adeptness with balance and speed. He uses a Venn diagram to illustrate this. How’s that for intelligent karate!


This got me thinking about my own training.

Sensei Bruce Lee’s Venn diagram may look like this (Sensei Lee effectively teaches that Spirit is something your karate can’t be without).

Sensei Bruce Lee Venn




Sensei Brian Power teaches his students concepts that look like this.

Brian Power

What they are all teaching is that there are a number of karate principles that have to intersect – really come together – in order to get your karate to the next level. This is a cognitive as well as a physical challenge.

In NL we have intelligent karate – we have Sensei that are like information taps that are flowing karate right from the source.



As seen here, Musashi’s thoughts on Timing/Interval (Hyoshi) and Distance (Ma or Maai) are pretty complex. But what is clear is that he taught that issues in combat arise when our awareness lags behind physical movement, producing a disconnect – dead time or Kyo in us or in the opponent. In Musashi’s day, a Samurai in combat who changed his facial expression slightly opened him up for attack, as it was seen as a pause in his defenses.

For me, transition between movements is a weakness: a slight front foot shift before an attack, or slight posture changes when switching stances, often open up a space when an astute opponent can attack.

A common thought is that if your opponent’s reach isn’t as good as yours, you need to initiate the offensive, and conversely, if your opponent is on the offensive, you need to utilize your defense and counterattacks. Either way, understanding timing is the difference; understanding where dead time exists and being in a position to cover the distance to take advantage of it, or to shift adequately to take away his action space or to parry the attack.

The bottom line:  My Hyoshi and Maai need a lot of work!

Reminders and Discoveries

When I think about a good karate class I think that there are three components: we’re shown what we don’t already know; we get reminded of what we already know; and we’re encouraged to take a deeper look for ourselves. I believe that once and while in the Dojo, you need to hear, ‘Now, go figure it out!’

So, we’re taught how to do karate, but we’re also taught to discover karate. The discovery part is the intriguing part – the part that makes karate a lifelong study.

gateEngineering students in the early 1930’s weren’t told specifically how to build the Golden Gate Bridge, but they were given the knowledge to figure it out: what methods and tools to use to get it done. In the end it took knowledge as well as imagination to complete.

Reminder: Your toes have to grip the floor – this eliminates the tendency to move your foot before a technique while also giving you a sense of strength

Something New: Enpi/Empi “Flying Swallow” introduced as a new kata

A Deeper Look: How is it that the transition between movements in a kata are as important as the techniques themselves

Karate is the tool box; Kata is the Golden Gate Bridge. Now, off I go to figure it out…

What Sun Tzu said

1347178311“To win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the highest skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the highest skill.”– Sun Tzu, The Art of War

When the great warrior philosopher wrote the second sentence of these words he could have meant a myriad of things; your demeanor and control of your own fear can shatter an opponent prior to the altercation; using strategy in the initial instant of a fight to end it; or simply taking the fight out of your opponent with a strategy other than violence.

But what about the internal enemy? What about the noise and anxiety in your own head that is oftentimes harder to beat than the guy standing across the ring from you. Does the Art of War still apply?

Sun Tzu didn’t get worldwide proclaim simply teaching people how to win battles with their hands and feet; he did so by understanding that the biggest battles are within. Hence the reason the Martial Arts are used now to treat conditions like Social Anxiety, PTSD and struggling Self Esteem.

Subdue means to quieten, and coming from a guy that knows anxiety, mitigating it and reducing the fear of it is all about being able to quiet your mind.

A traditional Martial Arts Dojo is a place where you only strive to get better than your own self. You condition your body for better health, and you spend hours with nothing on your mind other than the task at hand – utilizing both sides of the brain.

From personal experience, Kata alone is a rewarding therapy.

A good Dojo is a family where there is a leader and a few like-minded students, all striving to get better for various reasons. A Dojo is a place where goals area attainable, but it takes commitment to get there. What that means is that every time you pass a test or accomplish something, you feel like you did it of your own accord. Doesn’t matter if it is doing your Kata in front of the group for the first time, or you get awarded a new rank – they are accomplishments that you pushed toward… and you had to quiet your doubting, anxious mind to get there.

Sun Tzu knew that karate isn’t one-dimensional, and he also knew that training your body in turn trains your mind.

He understood that the Martial Arts are indeed Moving Zen.