Monthly Archives: March 2014

Weeds

In Karate as in life, something that happened in the past is just that…in the past.

An evening in the Dojo where you’re dragging your feet: your kicks stink, your Kata is about as sharp as the back end of a butter knife, or your mind is madly off in all directions, are nothing more than hiccups.  In the grand scheme of things, all your training – the good, bad and the ugly – are still vital elements of your training. To get philosophical, the Zen Masters would tell you that your weeds are to become your fertilizer.

Kanku DaiRecently my Kanku Dai sequences in the Kanku Dai Kata were nothing short of flimsy. My balance seemed off and my sets and strikes were soft and out of tempo. Still, I was training, and the very concept that I was recognizing that my Kata was poor on this particular night told me something:  a) I was recognizing that I was being self-critical and this was distracting from the task at hand and b) I obviously still had a burning desire to get better…weeds for fertilizer.

There are two things you can do about yesterday, your last class or last year: worry and regret. I’m no philosopher, but I’m pretty sure that neither of those will make today (or your karate) any better.

Accept the happenings of the past, or last classes’ shaky Kata, as valid training time, and harden your resolve to keep training – keep getting better. The past can be an anchor that holds you back; cut the rope on that!

Be grateful for the weeds…

What’s Your Typhoon?

history_of_karate_karate_masters_c1930s“During one particular typhoon that I remember, all the people of Shuri huddled together within their homes, praying for the typhoon to pass without wreaking any great damage. No, I was wrong when I said all the people of Shuri huddled at home: there was one young man, up on the roof of his house in Yamakawa-cho, who was determinedly battling the  typhoon.

“Now the young man on the roof assumed a low posture, holding the straw mat aloft against the raging wind. The stance he took was most impressive, for he stood as if astride a horse. Indeed, anyone who knew karate could readily have seen that the youth was taking the horse-riding stance, the most stable of all karate stances, and that he was making use of the howling typhoon to refine his technique and to further strengthen both body and mind. The wind struck the mat and the youth with full force, but he stood his ground and did not flinch.”      By Yukio Togawa, form “My Way of Life”, Gichin Funakoshi

 The part of this quote from Funakoshi’s book that stood out to me is this: “…he was making use of the howling typhoon to refine his technique and to further strengthen both body and mind.”

Pondering that, I’ve asked a simple question of myself, and I’ll ask the same of you. If Funakoshi Sensei can train in the heart of an Okinawan typhoon to strengthen his Karate and his body and mind, can we not take a closer look at what is keeping us from getting better?

This winter has been long and harsh, even draining during some stretches, and it alone has given us plenty of ‘reasons’ to stay away from the Dojo. Not to mention the injuries people have suffered due to the relentless snow shoveling and slips and falls on icy driveways and parking lots. Busy schedules, time restraints and deadlines, other commitments and just plain workday exhaustion are also ever prevalent in our lives – all of which can keep us from training.

Having said that, Sensei Lee often reiterates that one thing is for certain: the Karate diehards who come to the Dojo feel better leaving than when they arrive, and that when karate becomes a lifestyle it is no longer an effort.

We currently have one Senpai in the Dojo who has an upper body injury that makes him cringe every time he does certain movements, but he’s still in the Dojo training, and thanks to his resolve to train, not only is he is getting better, but so am I.

Life can make it hard to train, but stay rooted, hold your ground…you’ll be glad you did.

The Body Weapon

In my Dojo the Yori Ashi comes up nearly every night. Last night we stood in a fighting stance just back from the padded wall and shifted to the wall and delivered reverse punches, jabs, front kicks and hammer fists. The strikes were observed by our Sensei, but it was the body shift that was the focus of his instruction.

Body shifting, simply put, is moving the seika tanden from Point A to Point B. As in all methods of generating power, body shifting can be used offensively and defensively. Yori ashi is produced by extending one foot to a wider or longer position, then retracting the other foot to re-establish relative length or width. Sensei Bob Remington

The part of the quote above from Sensei Bob Remington that we often work on in my Dojo is using body shifting offensively. It is emphasized that when shifting, you lead with the Hara and the body moves as a unit – fast and solid.

The emphasis is here: we don’t shift, then strike. The Yori Ashi works best with the shift becomes the strike.  Envisioning your target behind the opponent, drive the body forward, and let the controlled momentum of your entire weight (plus your explosion into the technique) be the weapon.

Liken it to this: Getting hit with a baseball, or getting hit with a baseball that is duct-taped to the front of an oncoming truck.

That impact, my friend, is real Karate.

Shotokan Tiger

113583797A solid, low stance, even in linear movement. Muscles tense, torqued and ready to spring the body forward as a unit in attack or parry. Outward appearance sharp and aware but not anxious or tense. Internal strength churning like the escalating energy of a revving engine..

I like how this description can fit Shotokan or the tiger: hard and soft, aesthetic and strong all in one.

The tiger symbolizes the keen alertness of the wakeful tiger and the serenity of the peaceful mind which Master Funakoshi experienced while listening to the pine waves (i.e. shoto in Japanese) on Tiger’s Tail Mountain.

Hassel, R. G., Shotokan Karate, It’s History and Evolution

tigerWhen Funakoshi wrote the Tora No Maki (official document of a style) of Shotokan Karate, his friend and famous artist of the time, Hoan Kosugi created the now famous Shotokan Tiger for the cover. The tiger symbolizes the constant awareness of Karate and the peaceful mind which Funakoshi expressed as imperative to the mindset of the Karateka in everyday life.

There are plenty of training session where I don’t resemble anything close to a tiger in the Dojo, but I love that fact that I don’t have to look far to see those that do. In some Karateka, the strength, fluidity, agility and power are impressive. In this sense, seeing is indeed believing.

Keep your mind clear, your Karate heart on fire.

Oi-Tsuki – A Simple Punch?

oi_tsukiSounds simple enough, but in last night’s class under the constructive scrutiny of a 5th Dan I practiced the Oi-Tsuki until my legs ached. Why? A) Because there’s always room for improvement, and B) in my Dojo, if you expect to progress though the Dan ranks you need to fix the subtle mistakes.

You can see the Oi-Tsuki as a step and punch where you show nice form, speed and power, or…

Prior to movement: head back, big form (left arm fully extended, draw arm all the way back), deep stance with your legs ready to drive your body forward, hara tight, quick in-breath. AKA Spring-Loaded.

During movement: head back, maintain your vertical posture (no bobbing up and down), lead with your hara (hips square), drive off the back leg, continue the drive with the front leg as your weight shifts, energy focused not ‘on’ but ‘past’ your opponent. AKA Driving Forward.

Delivery:  Simultaneously ripping the draw arm back, punching arm drives out (straight from the hip) to the center, hips rotating forward as if driving the punch with it, settling into a strong front stance, head still back, energy focused beyond your opponent and exhale coming to an end as the punch hits the position of Kiai. AKA Finishing Blow.

 I’m not writing this to teach anyone how to do Oi-Tsuki. I’m writing it because, even after all these years of training, I am still trying to bring such a simple thing all together myself.

As I watched the 5th Dan demonstrating the Oi-Tsuki last night I had a thought about his karate: Getting hit with that would be like getting hit with the force of a Mack truck in the shape of a fist!

Nakadaka ippon-ken

In Sensei Bruce Lee’s class things get practical.

He teaches no illusions about only needing one technique to win a fight or competition. Our training involves protecting ourselves while delivering an attack, and having two or three more ready to launch. He stresses that they don’t have to be pretty – just effective.  He teaches strategy (he is an avid reader of the Book of Five Rings, for example) for movement and distance, and he puts us in practical situations where we do “continuous sparring.”

Continuous sparring is in close, relentless and it gets tiring, but it forces us to work on stamina, and also to learn to close up our openings and to take advantage of openings or weaknesses in the opponents defenses.

forme-ippon-ken-nakadakaAlong with this, Sensei Lee gets us to think outside the box with our techniques. We use knees, elbows, sweeps, take downs and unorthodox strikes. Strikes like Nakadaka ippon-ken.

While in close, tied up arm-in-arm with an opponent, this technique can deliver a ton of damage. Take for instance a roundhouse to the temple with it, a jab to the throat with it, or a focused strike to the ribs under the arm. As Sensei says “if your opponent is busy absorbing pain, he’s not the threat he was before.”

In real karate, oftentimes practical replaces pretty.

That Gut Feeling

haraIn Japanese martial arts the Hara is a term with a loaded meaning. In my shallow understanding, it is the equivalent to the third lower dantian or tanden – A space below your navel at the center of your core. Dantian is loosely translated as the ‘sea of Qi’ or ‘energy center’.

In Shotokan we hear things such as ‘move from the Hara,’ ’spirit in the Hara,’ or ‘see form the Hara.’ And the reason for such is that our karate is nothing if it is not centered. Our stances are grounded, our center of gravity always maintained, even in movement.

My Sensei, Sensei Bruce Lee, reminds us that the time between starting a technique and completing it is vital. He tells us to imagine three photos taken as we move from one technique to the next. In those photos:  Are we moving from the center (Hara)? Are we maintaining a center of gravity (not leaning or slouching)? Is our posture correct? Are we fast and strong?

I wear a fairly long Karate belt, and as I tie it prior to class I always remind myself that the knot of my belt rests on the Hara, and the ends of my belt point to the stability of the ground. This is a simple reminder of one of the most important principles of my Art: Stay centered in body and in mind.

Your Own Answers

I read this morning that Sensei Michael Clarke, accomplished author and lifetime devotee to Karate, will be stepping back from teaching Karate to visitors to his Dojo. Instead, he will be devoting his time to his own training and to continuing to assist students from Shinseidokan.

I’ve been a long-distance student of Sensei Clarke in a sense, and it started after I read one of his articles in Shotokan Magazine. From there I read his book, Shin Gi Tai, and religiously followed his blog and read whatever articles of his I could find.

Here’s the interesting part. I have learned quite a lot from Sensei Clarke’s book, blog and from his articles, as well as from his responses to my emails, but there’s more. I have learned my most valuable lessons from what he decided not to tell me. That’s right, Sensei Clarke has often denied me an answer, and in doing so, made me a better student of Karate.

In trying to understand that Karate has to become my own, and that my training has to suit me in a way that is making me better, Sensei Clarke’s responses such as  ‘The answer to that is in your training’ have been invaluable.

I’ll succinctly summarize Sensei Clarke’s most valuable teaching to me with this quote from Miyamoto Musashi: “See Nothing Outside of Yourself.”

A sincere Thank you, Sensei Clarke…especially for what you didn’t tell me.

3-10-2014 11-17-06 AM

Jion Ice Fishing

6th Dan Andre Bertel is in the dojo seven days a week for one or two hours each day – That’s a lot of training. Small wonder he can probably tap you in the temple with a roundhouse kick before you could flinch. Most of us can’t train that often (as much as some of us would like to), but I wonder have we gone too much in the other direction. How much is the average Karateka training now?

My answer is that a good many are training once or twice a week, some with gaps even in this frequency.  Some train enough to get them through the next belt test. Although karate is somewhat a psychological endeavor where we look for clarity and calmness in mind as we train, the only real way to get better is to physically train – and train often.

Research on principles and technique are a sizable part of the karate process, but I don’t think there is any substitute for doing it. Just look at Karateka in your own Dojo doing kata. You can rest assured that those who are fluid, fast and strong with solid stances and excellent posture are training diehards.

Outside my regular training time in the Dojo or in my Rec room, I toss in bits of training wherever I can: a few smacks at the Makiwara while I’m waiting for my laundry to dry, or a few front kicks in the kitchen as my eggs are boiling. Last weekend I was out ice fishing by myself in frigid temperatures, and as I’d start to feel that I was getting cold I’d do a couple of easy run-throughs of Jion and Kanku Dai. There was no one around and there was something refreshing about doing Kata in this solitude.

If Karate is part of your mindset, there’s always time to train.  

“Everyone has a plan, ’til they get hit.” – Mike Tyson

In my Dojo there are Karateka who can, in a flash, inflict formidable shock or pain on you if they chose to do so. Having said that, we don’t train recklessly, but we do take and deliver some pretty good strikes, bangs, ‘blocks’, kicks and punches. As one of my Sensei puts it, “In here we strike with controlled impact. In real life we strike through the opponent. “

I believe that if we have no idea of how to effectively use our bodies to absorb and deflect the impact and shock from an attack, we are not training very effectively. After all, who among us is good enough to go to a competition – or defend ourselves in a real confrontation – without ever taking a couple of knocks?

Here again, we have to disassociate: if your mind goes to the area of your body where you just got hit, there is a gap – you’ve leaving an opening to be attacked again.

These gaps in your own defenses, or in your opponents, are where fights are won or lost.

In Karate we use everything as forward-moving energy… A tap in the gut or a knock here or there shouldn’t change that.