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.



Doing Damage by Doing it ‘Right’

The thought of questioning karate, or having to adjust a technique to fit your body seems like blasphemy to some: if it isn’t in its original form, its wrong. After all, we’ve been doing the same stuff for hundreds of years. How can it be wrong?

EmpiWell, the science of kinesiology has proven it can be, and part of improving karate is digging deep and sometimes accepting that we were wrong – accepting that sometimes there is a better way to practice and to execute techniques.

I’m 45. I have a somewhat unstable right knee and a left shoulder that dislocates. My left Haishu-uke in Kanku-Dai isn’t as vertical as it should be and my Handachi position in Empi isn’t as deep as it should be. So does that make it wrong?

No, the small adjustments I have to make allow me to still do karate. Sticking to solid, age-old karate principles and forms is crucial to the life of karate, but doing self-harm trying to do every waza in it’s original form is futile.

Accepting our limitations in the Dojo means two things, I believe: we don’t have to give up training, and we open the doors to a wider range of potential  Karateka of varying age and physical ability.

David didn’t kick Goliath in the head; he used his best weapon and dropped him with a rock.

Not everyone is great at everything, but everyone is great at something.


Inspiration: That’s My Job


So, mastery in the Martial Arts doesn’t come quickly…or easily.  According to Mas Oyama (notorious for his brutal training and conditioning program in Kyokushin karate) after 1000 days you’re a beginner, and you can look for mastery after another 9000. The thing is, most of us twice-a-week karate people aren’t focused too much on Mastery, but we do want to continue to get better. Getting better requires some rigorous training; rigorous training requires discipline; and discipline requires inspiration.

Inspiration here is more than dragging your arse off the couch to make it to class. Inspiration is finding the spirit to dig deep and go at training like your life depended on it. So where does that inspiration come from?

For the person next to you in the Dojo, it should come from you.

A Shodan should be able to look at the Nidan and say. ‘man, he’s really serious about this stuff!’ And a green belt should be able to look at a brown belt and think ‘that’s where I need to get. I need that spirit.’ If you’re a white belt – oftentimes feeling like a deer in the headlights – your Sensei should be able to look at you and feel like you’re head is really into it: attentive and fired up.

I think we need to own inspiration, and help it spread. No matter who you are, when you tie on your belt you should churn up your karate spirit. (It’s been said that when Guchin Funakoshi donned a Gi he was transformed.)

The karate Dojo is already an excellent place to work together toward the common goals of becoming better fighters and better people, so adding a bit of contagious inspiration is sure to bring the spirit up.

“Be the change!”



Book of Five Rings…Again

After my daughter’s Shotokan class last night, her Sensei, Sensei Brian Power, made a comment that got me thinking…again. He was teaching his class about timing, and after class he noted the Book of Five Rings: “Timing. It’s all in the Book of Five Rings. The Samurai had it all figured out, and so did Nishiyama Sensei and others like Avi Rokah.”

We had a little discussion about this, and it prompted me to revisit the book that I’ve already read a couple of times. Here is one of my underlined passages from Musashi: “You win in battles with the timing in the Void born of the timing of cunning by knowing the enemies’ timing, and thus using a timing which the enemy does not expect.”

Timing in the Void. Timing of cunning. Timing which the enemy does not expect.

There’s enough to study in that one statement alone to keep a Martial Artist busy for a very long time. Karate without understanding timing is like a Corvette with a flat: looks good but isn’t getting very far. Recognizing the Void, the space where there is an opening (subtle dead time), can be like catching a rotating fan with your hand: it won’t work if you aren’t committed.

I’m not well enough advanced yet to write a full blog on timing…I’m just thankful for the reminder about the importance of timing and about Musashi’s book. After all, there’s lots to learn about karate outside the Dojo, as long as you’re taking it into the Dojo to truly figure it out.

(I was introduced to the Book of Five Rings years back by Sensei Bruce Lee. Sensei Lee always caries a copy in his briefcase.)

“Timing in strategy cannot be mastered without a great deal of practice.” M Musashi

‘Every Movement – Small Amplitude’

Sensei Minoru Higa defined karate this way: ‘Every movement, small amplitude. All movement from the Tanden.’

Higa Naka

Sensei Higa shows Naka Sensei the Pushing Hands Drill

This, he says, is the lifelong journey for Karate people: to do more with less and to do everything form the body’s center.

As our karate progresses we need to eliminate the wind-up and the pull-back. We need sharp, powerful techniques that are in no way telegraphed, and that come form the body’s center in the most direct line to the target. Elbows sticking out, head going forward, or knees wavering before an attack are wasted energy as Sensei Lee says. Arms and legs are projectiles from the body: there’s a small cannon in your lower gut. The gut tightens and a foot or fist delivers the hit – direct and on target. A deadly movement with a small amplitude.

As with everything in karate, this come with time and repetition. Proper repetition is the sandpaper of karate.

When I’m in my boat fishing, I’m not too concerned about the long, rolling wave. I can see that coming a mile off. But the quicker, sharper, steep wave (that comes with no warning) is another story.

In the same vein, it’s the reverse punch that fires like a rocket from the opponent’s hip, direct to your center line, that will sink your ship!

Kakie: Pushing Hands

In doing some reading recently about the origins of karate, a line stuck out to me in a poem written by our karate forefather, Gichin Funakoshi:

To search for the old is to understand the new.

The old, the new

This is a matter of time.

In all things man must have a clear mind.

The Way:

Who will pass it on straight and well?

To search for the old is to understand the new. So, I went searching for something old to apply it to some of my current training. Enter Kakie: Pushing Hands.

In my current training, we hear about intention: your intention, your opponent’s intention and then suitable responses to both. And according to Minoru Higa Sensei (Born in Naha, Okinawa on September 18, 1941. His first experience of martial arts was at the age of 11), learning Kakie examines three different concepts: recognizing the opponent’s intentions, responding to the opponent’s intentions, and always having the upper hand.

From the start position (see below)  one partner begins the exercise by pushing his right forearm towards his opponent and rotating his right palm so that it faces his partner. He thus pushes his partner’s arm back towards him. While doing this the opponent resists slightly the pushing motion of his partner. As he does so he turns his left hand flat palm open and facing up to catch his own right palm in. The opponent then continues the exercise by pushing back towards the attacking partner’s forearm in the same way with the attacker resisting the opponent.

Fights are at close range, and this ancient karate exercise aids strengthening and stamina, awareness regarding your opponents intentions. as well as the principle of maintaining the upper(inside) hand.

There is nothing new under the sun… but plenty to be discovered again.