Author Archives: Jeff Hutchings

The Aim of Karate-Do

(Excellent reader feedback on the article below: I would think the biggest difference noticed between the sport photo and Traditional Karate-do Budo is: no protective gear, not so much stance. Traditional karate competition is ‘Non-contact’ but is demonstrating distance control.)

As part of the course requirements for the World Japan Karate Association (WJKA) Instructor Trainee program I currently enrolled in, I was asked to write a paper on the differences between Sport and Karate-do. Sounds simple enough, but when I got into it I found that, as a karate-ka still looking for the essence of karate, it posed more than just the main question.

This is precisely one of the reasons I signed up to do the instructor training: it encourages me to have a deeper look and to try to find understanding in the not-so-obvious philosophies and teachings of karate-do.

In the end, I wrote that sport and karate-do have some similarities, but Karate-do (traditional Karate steeped in the principles of Budo) is as much an inward quest as it is an outward pursuit.

In examining sport karate, one thing stood out to me in particular during competition, and I think it serves as a good analogy for seeing the differences between Sport karate and Karate-do. In my research, I came across many images similar to the following.

WKF

What stood out to me is the body position of the competitors. Granted, not all sport karate fighters assume this position, but I have noticed that it is a theme in their fighting style: hips (and body) are Hanmi (off-center from the front) as opposed to the more Shomen (more centered to the front) fighting stance used in Traditional karate.

Now, I want to be clear, I’m sure that either of these competitors could knock the daylights out of you in a real situation, but I believe the overall aim of their practice is different than that of us traditional karate-ka.

In our practice, we stress the idea of intention. Intention is the mental and physical energy that we project ‘towards the opponent.’ Sensei Toru Shimoji teaches that your center line, including your stance, feet, and your lower belly (Hara) point to the opponent in front of you.  As he says, your energy goes where you are directing it. Your body deportment has to project your intention through your opponent. The goal is to have your own energy encompass them and draw them in.

In this way, as Sensei Power demonstrates, you hit with your body – you penetrate beyond the point of contact. Thus, having the body/hips in Shomen, or even casual Shomen, I believe, is more effective in delivering a concentrated, powerful blow.

To take this notion further, traditional karate-ka have an overall aim of studying karate in order to find its essence: its personal value to the practitioner that goes beyond physical skill and adeptness. There is an overall feeling of facing front and pursuing self-discovery with an unwavering commitment.

In the opening of the class, we bow reverently to the Shomen and to the Sensei. This I believe is indicative of the overall pursuit. In a fight your hips, eyes, breath and hands are forward.  In the karate-do journey your intention and your energy are forward…centered to the goal.

Shomen ni rei!

Building the Podium

“Georgia’s friend really wanted a medal, and he worked really hard. So, my sister, Georgia who won two medals, gave him one of hers!” Adele – 9.

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Claire and Mya and competitors from Poland

“Dad, all the other kids from the other countries are just like us! They were so nice! I made friends with a girl from Great Britain, and a Polish girl gave me a thing to hold my name-tag and a fridge magnet form her country!” Claire -11.

If nothing else came out of last weekend’s World Traditional Karate Championships, I think Georgia’s unselfish act of kindness and Claire’s realization about humanity were well worth our involvement.

Kids once too shy to stand alone and do Kata in the Dojo, and young athletes who would once whisper when spoken to, took on a world stage as members of a huge Canadian team. Seven year olds ripped out Kias in front of international judges, and 11 year olds stood toe to toe with finesse karate-ka from Poland, Brazil and the Czech Republic – to name a few. Adults battled through rigorous Kumite and Kata to shine for their nation.

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Grace looks toward her team while holding the flag.

In Karate, I now understand more than ever, the milestones are in the journey – getting a black belt or winning gold is merely secondary.

A young Grace Curl came to the six-ring arena to compete with her heart and eyes filled to the brim – and her belly out of control with worry. We reminded her to breathe and to remember that she belonged there – she was as good as anyone on the floor. Grace found her courage and was soon practicing amongst hundreds of competitors, shoulder to shoulder with her teammates.

She ended up on the podium with a medal, proudly holding a Canadian flag.

As I’ve said before, the small steps to the mountain’s summit are where you test yourself, where you have to dig deep to keep moving: where you take what you’ve learned from the steps behind you to make it through the steps ahead of you.

This weekend I heard coaches and Sensei in a dozen languages telling their competitors the same thing we did: ‘You got this. Give it all you got!’

All this may be conceived as the softer side of karate, but frankly, if we aren’t using our dojos to teach resilience, perseverance and sportsmanship, we’re missing what Gichin Funakoshi had in mind when he fathered karate to the mainland.

Karate without heart is the samurai who dares never to go to battle.

This weekend the senior black belt competitions were ferocious and astoundingly skillful, but they ended in handshakes between nations. Competitors stood on the podium belting out national anthems, bursting with patriotism.

That’s the wider, fuller, karate world, I believe.

In my humble opinion, if little Grace can take on her fear and end up standing tall on the podium at a World event, then surely we can get our heads together and keep them together to ensure that there will always be a traditional karate podium for her to stand on…

Small Steps to a Big Stage

Are karate-ka in the Dojo ready to be World Champions? That remains to be seen.

Are they willing to train in the Dojo three nights a week as well as at home almost every day to get better? That they are.

Give students an opportunity and the rewards are tangible. Their karate is getting visibly better, but so is their self-confidence and sense of focus. Our goal for the competitors in the Power karate Dojo at the upcoming World Championship is simple: Give it all you got, and do the best that you can.

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Sensei Shimoji assisting some of the young competitors

In a black belt teacher’s session with Sensei Toru Shimoji recently, as well as the grading afterwards, one thing was made clear to us: students develop and learn in different ways and at different rates. Our goal – as those attempting to impart karate knowledge – is to enable each student: get to know them, understand them, and then you can bring them along in their progress.

We’ve all been told that karate needs to be an individual thing, but until I started assisting competitors in team kata, I’m not sure I really understood this.  Three students of differing height, weight and personality trying to accomplish exactly the same thing at exactly the same time. The one size fits all approach to sharing knowledge doesn’t always work.

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Team Kata

What you get out of students is directly proportional to how you engage them. As Sensei Shimoji taught us (and as is always employed by Sensei Power), you have to figure out what works: some learn by watching, some learn by listening and some learn by a more tactile approach – like fixing their Hikite.

They all learn when they are inspired.

At the end of the day there are only a couple of things that are for certain when preparing for something like a worldwide competition: as we try to bring out the best in them, they’re helping us find the best in ourselves.

If Karate were Mount Everest, gold medals are merely base camp, but every positive step that helps them improve is a summit.

Try This for You

Eleven hours of training in a weekend seminar and no bad knees or hips.

I didn’t think it was possible.

I learned this weekend that you don’t need to contort your body to perform a technique. I learned to conserve your energy while letting momentum, dropping power or natural rotation carry a technique forward. I learned that nothing in karate is one, two, three, but rather should be an uninterrupted one-two-three that eventually becomes a fluid onetwothree: eliminating limb lock-ups and dead time.

I learned that a Kiai that lasts for 3 seconds, along with full body tensing is nothing more than an opportunity for your opponent to clean your clock. Slam and jolt karate techniques look strong but typically leave you tired and winded.

Freezing into a technique means you have a brief thaw-out before you can move on; energy drops off.

Interestingly, none of this was ‘told’ to me. Sensei Shimoji throws out a concept and uses the ‘Try This For You’ teaching method. Essentially, you can take his suggestions and demonstrations and test them, try them, and then do your own analysis on how they are working for you.

The Shimoji effect is about pointings: he will point you to concept, method or technique, and it is then up to you to discover how it works for you – or doesn’t work for you – by self-study and trial and error. He never dismisses the teaching or style of any other dojo, but rather shares what he has studied and understands. His sharing of ideas reminds me almost precisely of Musashi in the Book of Five Rings: “Ponder this deeply!”

Sensei Shimoji Juniors

Sensei Shimoji doing an extra training session with our World Cup, Team Canada Juniors. “Every child is individual and that is how you have to teach them” T. Shimoji

Karate is a living thing and we are all capable of contributing to its evolution.

So, in a nutshell, this weekend’s seminar with Sensei Toru Shimoji taught me to open my mind and start thinking outside the block!

With hip flexor issues, delivering a roundhouse kick was always hit or miss. If I didn’t get around on the supporting foot I’d wrench my knee and not get the hip throwing the kick into position. When I was younger this wasn’t a concern, but now it surely is.

Sensei Shimoji, with his eye-opening knowledge of bio-mechanics, spelled out what we should and should not engage when doing roundhouse kicks. He demonstrated that a front leg, ball-of-the-foot pivot to send the heel forward to begin the kicking process, allowed a smooth and fast back leg roundhouse kick. The kicking foot went from the floor to the opponent’s ribs or temple without any jolting muscles or locking joints.

Kicking with your body’s momentum and energy, and not just a limb, took on a new meaning.

I got enough out of this seminar to blog for hours, but the one thing I believe I will always hang onto now is the thought that an open mind and self-inquiry about an age-old Martial Art is the way to take it to the next level.

“Strive to get to the place where karate makes you happy.” Sensei T. Shimoji

Karate: Let Me Demonstrate

In 1921, a crown Prince who would later become the emperor of Japan observed a Karate demonstration held in the great hall of Shuri castle in Okinawa – a witnessing that changed the history of karate.

NewsIn the spring of 1922, the ministry of education announced that Master Funakoshi would hold a demonstration of ancient martial arts in Tokyo. This demonstration was the fuse that lit Karate on fire in Japan and then across the world.

From the Bodhidharma of the 5th or 6th century, who is said to have travelled to China from India on foot to train Shaolin monks in what would eventually become Shaolin Kunfu, to Master Nishiyama who came to the USA in 1961 to teach Karate, the visibility and demonstration of karate have been paramount to its success.

So, why are we so humble when it comes to our modern-day practice?

We go to class with our Gis folded away in our bags, we train predominantly behind closed doors and we don’t seem to be out singing the praises of the Karate that we so fervently believe in.

Humility is a child of the traditional karate practice, I know, but are we holding karate so close to our chests that we aren’t doing it justice?

Bandwagons filled with fads come and go with amazing visibility and popularity – thousands and thousands of people jumping onboard in hopes of finding better physical or mental health – and yet traditional karate seems to remain in the shadows to a large extent.

The common complaint now is that kids are bored or over-sports’d, they are overstimulated with technology or lethargic due to lack of exercise: there’s no balance, apparently.

I know I’m preaching to the choir, but Karate is a pretty darn good mechanism for finding balance.

Yesterday we took some of the kids in the Dojo to a local park for extra training. There they were, out there in the September sunlight working hard on the Heian katas and loving the grass beneath them as they worked on En-bu. Sensei was encouraging them to breathe through their movements, and they were engaged as if they had found new Karate life.

IMG_20180909_121204We weren’t out there to make a spectacle, but as Karate subscribers, we should be glad if we did. I’d love to see headlines in the local paper read: Traditional Karate Students Enjoy the Open Air or Karate Team Finding Well-being in Nature.

Perhaps its time to take the cap off Karate again and talk about what it can mean to anyone who picks it up: Karate for Mental Health, Karate for Self-Protection, Karate for Longevity, Karate for Concentration, Karate against Bullying, Karate for Self-Discovery, Karate for a Balanced Society…

Perhaps its time to rewrite the headlines.

Sensei Toru Shimoji: From Okinawa to Newfoundland

It’s not often that karate practitioners in Newfoundland, Canada, can say that they are have the opportunity to train with a Sensei originally from Okinawa who was a member of the Nishiyama Sensei teaching staff.

[Seminar Date: Sept 14-16, 2018]

Toru ShimojiThis coming September, Sensei Toru Shimoji will be making his second stop to our Island and will be doing a Seminar and conducting a Grading for the Power Karate Academy of Mount Pearl. Sensei Brian Power is a longtime student of Sensei Shimoji, and being able to bring him to NL is an honor and a tremendous boost for karate in this area.

Sensei Shimoji is a renowned teacher of the art and travels extensively to do so. In Nishiyama Sensei fashion, he is relentless in his endeavors to deeply understand the art and to pass it on. He utilizes his degree in Kinesiology to help karateka comprehend efficiency and effectiveness in movement. Sensei is the owner/operator of the Jinsendo Dojo in Atlanta, Georgia.

I met Sensei Shimoji at last year’s seminar and soon found out that that he is not only a champion of the art, but a tremendous teacher. His understanding of body movement, as well as the intricacies of breath and energy management are eye opening.

His teaching is a mix of philosophy, instruction and demonstration. Last year he took the Heian Sandan kata and used it as a basis to understanding efficient movement, energy projection, posture and Kime.

Some very interesting concepts of kata were discussed, including perfect kata or perfect for you. The idea was that kata is individual, and practitioners must develop kata basedSensei Toru Shimoji on their ownership of it, accounting for personal physical limitations and individuality. This had nothing to do with changing or altering a kata, but rather with improvisation that still works: not being able to do the robust jump in Enpi doesn’t mean you avoid the kata, you simply conduct the sequence in a manner that maintains a valid application.

In line with his karate training under Master Yoshio Kuba of Okinawa, as well as Nishiyama Sensei, Sensei Shimoji’s teaching includes an element of hard work, but also focuses on the refinement of movement and the importance of mental and physical intention in your training.

After each segment of the seminar I found myself frantically writing notes around topics such as lighting up your spine in transition; the edges of energy in your stances; projection form your hara; fluency for power in movement; and breathing as your underlying current for training.

Sensei Shimoji also conducted youth sessions and his passion for karate as he worked with kids was very apparent. Kids thrive on his energy and his gentle mannerisms.

I’ve been blessed to have trained under a variety of gifted Sensei and to add Sensei Shimoji to the list is an honor. He doesn’t concern himself with politics, what Dojo you’re from, or your particular ‘style’ of karate. He comes with an immense portfolio of knowledge and life experience to impart to anyone who wishes to take it in.

His philosophy is simple: karate is universal and all are welcome.

More information on the upcoming open seminar and grading can be seen here: Sensei Toru Shimoji in NL

Karate Keys we are Offered

Opening the Dojo doors to guests, whether it be a student or another Sensei, is like having another musician join your band. They may not know all the songs you play (nor you theirs), but at the end of the day, the language of music is universal and it adds something to the entire set: what they bring teaches you something and enhances the sound overall.

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Sensei Barry Power worked with my daughter, Claire, on feet and knee stability during transitions

I had the pleasure of attending a class taught by Sensei Barry Power this past week. Sensei Power is the brother of Sensei Brian Power (which wasn’t hard to recognize in the Dojo), enthusiasm and skill were second to none, as well as the ability to communicate pertinent Karate lessons.

In the short time we had assisting Sensei Power in teaching the junior kids, I learned quite a lot. Not only new drills and methods of working on stances and posture, but ways of keeping everyone engaged and focused. He illustrated a few things when teaching a simple step, for example,  that resounded with all the higher ranks there, and he was then able to have kids demonstrate the technique.

Having Sensei Power in was good for the Dojo: it was a new arrangement on something we are all working toward – better karate.

This little ramble isn’t to simply sing the praises of anyone, but I think it’s necessary that we are open minded when it come to our Art. Karate is an art with many subtleties and verities (even within a single Karate style) and I believe the more of these that we consider and examine, the better for karate in general.

Like an onion, the layers of karate are never ending, and sometimes it take a different vantage point to find your way into the next layer. Karate teaches power, strength, finesse, agility, suppleness and focus. Some Sensei encapsulate all of these while others seem to specialize in some of them – it depends on their pedigree and where karate has taken them personally. So, each time a new Sensei steps into your Dojo, it’s like you are getting a lesson on the path that they have travelled and are still travelling. You’re being handed a new key to one of the many secret chambers of the art.

Of course, what you do with the keys you are offered is entirely up to you, but one thing is for certain, you need to be open-minded and continue to pass it on.

Georgia’s Kata: More to the Right!

If ’well-rounded’ means appropriately utilizing both sides of your brain – bringing to life both the Logic and the Art – then Karate is a means to that end.

If becoming well balanced is a matter of being able to supplement factual, sequential thought processing and movements with imagination and intuition, than Karate is one method to get there.

Kata is a fine example of where we engage logical, sequential thinking to produce the correct body movements and the correct linear techniques, all the while using rhythm and some intuition to give it a nice energy flow. In doing so, kata is balanced – not too abrupt and mechanical – and more enjoyable!

BrainAnytime we can bring imagination and an air of Art into our lives we’re becoming better people.

Watching the junior class last night do Heian Sandan, something came to mind. Kids have an innate ability to process things such as the sequences and linear movements (left brain activities), with right brain functionality: they give the kata personality. You can almost see the wheels of imagination turning as they move through the techniques.

One tiny little girl (Georgia) with a perpetual smile, lays out her movements in exaggerated stances and her movements are not forced; no tension and with feeling. Georgia is still in a state of mind where Karate is fun and her kata is induced with right brain/left brain coordination: there’s a simple art in her techniques.

I’m not suggesting we do Unsu with a grin on our faces and make it whimsical, but can we be doing it more mindfully? Can we progress through the remarkable movements in Shotokan karate more artfully, remembering that karate training is about us, and not about those watching us or testing us?

Some time ago, I asked Sensei Toru Shimoji about Kata videos and if he could suggest which ones I should watch. In my thinking, I wanted to watch videos that were true to traditional karate and where the techniques were being done ‘properly.’

His response? “Jeff, watch all of them.”

His response wasn’t to encourage me to watch a quantity of videos, but rather to watch a whole range of people doing the same kata. The lesson is this for me was that there is something to learn from anyone who does a Kata: from some I’d learn the proper sequences, the proper hand and foot movements, but from others I’d learn about giving Kata life – making it a personal art.

I can’t think of many other activities that affords us the opportunity to assimilate both hemispheres of the brain.

As life-long martial artists, I’d suggest that we take a page from Georgia’s outlook: run through Bassai Dai once in a while without the stiff body and steel-trap mind…let it flow.

But, then again, that’s just my right brain talking!

Motivation: They’re Looking to Us

“I made a deal with my mother,” Osamu Ozawa explained. “I said, ‘Let me train two times a week, and when I come home, no matter what time it is, I will study two hours.’”

How’s that for dedication and for desire to know karate?

Ozawa was a prominent student of Gichin Funakoshi, and as schoolboy in the 1930’s he’d walk to the train station and commute to Osaka – the trip was a hour and a half each way. Once there the training was military in its regimented discipline and relentless in its requirement for physical endurance.

So why would a kid bother to endure so much to learn a martial Art? More importantly, how can we engage kids in our own Dojos to commit to and stay interested in something like karate?

For Ozawa, it was his both the speed and grace of karate that drew him in – he became obsessed with reaching the level of adeptness that he saw in demonstrations of the Art.

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Sensei Power Sr. teaching a junior class

That in itself is a lesson from history, I believe. In order to get kids in the Dojo and keep them there we can talk about karate and the benefits of it all we like, but they need to see it in full flight. They need to see something that they can strive towards, be it taking them to competitions, or having them watch and train with more senior karateka in their own Dojos.

Jordan Spieth and Ricky Fowler, world-renowned golfers, say they play golf today because they watched Tiger Woods and had a burning desire to do what he was doing.

I believe a Sensei who is flanked on both sides by dedicated Sempai and students who have been training for years is in better position to run a highly effective and vibrant Dojo. Kids love to know that they are surrounded and supported by dedicated adults. They love to see Karate demonstrated and applied.

In Ozawa’s day, the other thing about the Karate vision was that Sensei, teachers and coaches had a definitive mission in mind in the Dojo. Granted, the training at the time was often harsh and brutal, but their thought was that this was the way to teach emotional fortitude and discipline. Whatever the case may be, they had a plan.

Perhaps the tides have shifted and we are now teaching Karate as a means to confidence, power and respect, but the fact remains that a Dojo needs a clear mandate to succeed. This mandate is then communicated through the ranks: Sensei, Sempai and students know what is coming and what is expected. Teaching kids is somewhat like playing out a mighty Atlantic salmon – it takes the correct and timely mix of strength (discipline) and flexibility (understanding).

I’m not the expert on Karate membership logistics but I do believe that what karate teaches – when done right – can be a powerful, positive influence on young bodies and minds, and figuring out what gets kids into the Dojos and what keeps them there is important to figure out.

A dedicated, sincere effort is what counts. After all, it is true to say that it takes a village to raise a child…

Karate: What Your Body Said

Sometimes I think Karate people had a lot more figured out than meets the eye. I think that the lifelong study of Karate – not through third-party research or simply watching and analyzing someone else – but through extensive, personal experience, opened up windows to some profound understandings.

Posture is a good example.

Sensei Bruce Lee said Karate is as much about body deportment as it is about anything else. ‘Deportment’ is one of those loaded words: posture, behavior, manner, bearing, and demeanor. He always stressed to need to look the part – no slumping in class, no slouching in public. He encouraged being upright, elongated spine and head erect, no matter if you were in front of the mirror brushing your teeth, doing a Kata, walking to work or driving your car. He, like so many seasoned Sensei, knew good posture contained within it more than the obvious benefits to Karate.

We know posture improves skeletal health by keeping bones and joints in proper alignment, allows for deeper and more meaningful breathing, decreases stress on ligaments, and prevents backaches and muscle pain, but what I didn’t know until recently was this:

“We can actually change the way we feel buy changing the way we move.” Amy Cuddy. Harvard University.

Sensei Power Claire Sam

Sensei Power Teaches Posture In Kata

Just like putting a smile on your face during stressful times has actually been shown to decrease stress, carrying yourself properly can actually affect what’s on the inside. Sure, we know that your mind tells your body things (it’s usually not hard to tell when someone is ill by the way they are getting around), but research is now showing that your body language can positively affect your mind.

So, for every time you’ve heard ‘back straight’, ‘head floating’, ‘shoulders relaxed,’ in class you’ve been given a bit of profound advice that not only affected your Kata, but it also may have affected your sense of wellbeing. When you take the split second to ‘straighten up,’ your body is sending an affirmative message to your mind that you are well.

Sound a bit much? Not according to a recent CBC episode by David Suzuki that looked at human posture. In essence, one of his guests (scientist Cuddy mentioned above) states that your positive deportment, including your affirmative, natural posture, not only talks to others, but it also talks to you – is a shot it the arm for your own mind.

In the case of Karate, we walk up to the line of competition with authority, and just before we perform a Kata we tune in with our bodies and express ourselves with strong body language. Sensei Power teaches that one of your most effective weapons is your body language to your opponent – weaknesses in posture or physical attitude is an opening for your opponent to attack. Now we know that this body language is also important to your own self.

I’m no expert here, but I do know the value of sending positive messages to ourselves, as well as teaching kids to do the same. Watching your posture is a simple one that works.

So, for all the Sensei who ever told you to straighten up or watch your posture, be grateful, because every time you did, you probably did your mind a favor (as well as your technique).

Moral of this story? Many adept Sensei teach some amazing scientific concepts, and, secondly, Straighten Up! It’s good for you!