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.

How can your opponent know?

‘In a fight, if I don’t know what I am going to do, how can you know?’

These were words from Sensei Lee in last night’s class. He was speaking to unpredictability, and the necessity of the same. His thought is this: if you’re going into a confrontation with a preset thought as to what techniques you will use, you probably will lose! While you’re thinking, ‘I’ll probably shoot out a front kick to the chest and follow up with a reverse punch to the head,’ your opponent will have probably already have punched you in the face.

You don’t need a plan. You need to maintain composure (breathe) and stay aware. Your opponent is your trigger: A) They give you an opening via Kyo such as changing position, or telegraphing an attack or B) you make an opening by attacking their lead hand and attacking, or by parrying an attack (that you bring out of them) and delivering a strike.

Nishiyama Sensei always said: “Think, and you’re too late!”

It stands to reason that repetition in training, understanding Bunkai, doing Kata  and participating in controlled Kumite will give you the tools you need – all you need to do is let you come out of you with conviction.


Shotokan Balance

“If you’re going to be involved in a confrontation, be righteous.”

That was Sensei Lee answering a question last night from a white belt about when it is ‘ok to fight.’ In essence, his reply was that it is best to walk away, but when you cannot, then you must commit.

Poise“There are reasons and situations where you cannot walk away: when the safety of a loved one is in danger; where your own safety is in danger; where a stranger is in need of your help; where the liberty of a human being is jeopardized. Those, I believe are righteous causes.”

He went on to clarify that once you have made the decision that you must stand up for yourself or for another person, you commit – your goal is simple: to end it all suddenly, to end it all fast.

Shotokan, he said, is a never-back-up Martial Art that, when mixed with intention and determination, is very difficult to defend against.

He concluded “I will teach you to fight. You have to balance that with a positive attitude and a solid character.”

I stood there thinking that the questions from the junior belts are often the most valuable…

Karate…As You Do

In Issue 102 of Shotokan Magazine Sensei Bob Remington (pictured below) listed these as components of Body Awareness:

Five Attributes of Body Awareness:

  • Maintain a vertical centerline
  • Move from the center
  • Stay relaxed
  • Keep the weight toward the center
  • Extend intention

GYAKU-HRAs a Black Belt looking forward to my Nidan testing, the one thing that I am working on in perpetuity is body connection, and a technique to develop and test body connection is the gyaku-tsuki (reverse punch).

Last night before class, I was practicing a few reverse punches on-the-spot when Sempai Howse came over. He didn’t say anything at first; he just got into a front stance and went slowly through the mechanics of the technique. He did a couple slowly, and then did one or two full-speed to show how it all comes together.

Between punches, he’d tap his lower belly with the fingers of both his hands to indicate core engagement. Then he would put his hand together like an arrow and push them out from the area just below his belly button (Hara area) to show where the energy was coming from and going (from the center and outward via both power and intention). Then he would ride his draw arm back and forth, tight to his Gi just above his belt, to show that the punch was linear and coming from the body – not the shoulder.  The only word he said was ‘under’ as he demonstrated this in order to remind me that a punch comes from your core, under your shoulder, and no from the shoulder. Finally, he would touch his forehead to remind me about posture: head back, weapons out.

In no more than four or five words he covered the list above from Sensei Remington.

Moral: Karate concepts are deep. Telling a Karateka how to do something is useful; showing them is vital.

Concentration! Master Egami said so…

One of the most fascinating Karate stories I have ever read is the one where Master Egami traveled extensively in search of an effective punch (tsuki). That is, the one that was the epitome of ‘one punch, one kill.’

Egami had developed his body to a point where it was perfect muscle – not unlike Nishiyama Sensei in his prime and the Hollywood Bruce Lee. The result of Egami Sensei’s research was that no one could hurt him with a punch to the stomach – even to the solar plexus. When Egami was at the point where he had lost hope that the Karate punch was effective, he came to a profound conclusion:

“To control the unrest-fulness of [the tsuki] being ineffective I searched for new ways to do a tsuki and ended up Egamiconcluding that karate techniques must include a concentration.The tsuki must be completely effective. To attain this, you must think that you are making the strength go through to the infinite. All the strength must go through the body, not even partially reflected in the moment of contact. A truly mortal blow is the concentration of force on one point. Said in another way, you pour all your being into the body of the opponent. Effectivity will therefore vary in accord to your state of mind.”

In our Dojo, Sempai Howse teaches this very concept, but he uses the term intention: You don’t strike ‘at’ your opponent, or ‘toward’ your opponent,’ you strike through your opponent with a clear and concise objective in mind. The focal point is way beyond your point of contact.

In Karate, as in life, what’s in front of you can only stop you if you let it; effectiveness is truly a state of mind.

See, Sempai Howse, I am getting some of this!


Where is your energy headed?

The image here illustrates something that Nishiyama Sensei used to teach, Sensei Lee teaches, and our Sempai teach: Direct your energy.

top viewShotokan is linear. It is direct. It is straight, and it wastes no energy. Hence, your feet, your eyes, your Tanden and your fist are directed to the center; to the meeting place of your focal energy point. Just as important as all of these is your intention (a good topic for my next blog). In the illustration Intention is the grey, dotted line. Intend your energy to go through your target.

Seems simple enough….But getting this concept to infiltrate your karate movements isn’t. Body connection, posture and intention are concepts that come with time.

Fortunately, in our Dojo we have senior Karate-Ka who can a) explain this concept in detail and b) can illustrate how it looks; how it works.


Mokuso! Switch off, Switch on!

Commonly translated as “meditation”, mokuso literally means silent or still (moku)  + thoughts or thinking (so). Perhaps it can also be read as a still mind, a mind like a mill pond or a clear mind.

In any event, class should start with switching off everything but karate, and perhaps end by switching it back on…

Here’s what I mean.

MokusoMokuso for me is a pause. It’s a moment or two to turn off the mental noise. This comes with practice, but I find that when my mind is especially busy, I go through the simple process of inhaling and exhaling for three long, exaggerated breaths. Initially, I used to imagine my inhale as introducing new, fresh energy to my body, and the exhale as transferring old, tainted energy out.  Now, after a lot of practice, I don’t imagine anything. When I start my first inhale, my mind knows to settle down – Switch off!

It’s preparation for what is to come, providing clarity of mind for what you learn in class. Before you take anything in, you have to make room, so to speak.

Mokuso at the end of class is a different thing. Funakoshi Sensei used to say that dawning a Gi, or entering a Dojo was a time different from all other times – it was sacred to him, and his demeanor visibly changed when he did either of these.  Hence, Mokuso at the end of class is a moment of switching gears again, not meaning to clear your mind of all you just absorbed, but rather to prepare again for life in the outside world where your Shotokan philosophies are still at the forefront, but settle down again from your hardcore training and prepare for life– Switch On!

As Jesse Encamp would say, it’s ok to love karate, but don’t wear your Gi to work!

Switch off! Switch on, Grasshopper!