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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

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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.

 

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.