Get Comfortable with the Uncomfortable
Note: Shortly after posting this article I received some excellent feedback. Please take the time to read some it posted at the end of the article.
Does the effectiveness of traditional Karate go out the window when you are locked up with an opponent at close range? After all, Karate is linear, and we train with a lot of space: we can cover the full length of the dojo with three or four stepping oi zuki’s. Our Kata follows Embusen that travels in as many as 10 directions, travelling as much as two or three meters on any given path.
We’ve gotten good at this. We generate explosive power when stepping and punching as we contract and expand and breathe into the technique. We’ve gotten efficient as using rotation, dropping and rising power, as well as power from momentum, but what about when we don’t have the space to move much? Yes, we practice defending against when someone grabs our hand as in Heian Sanda or Kanku Dai, but even then we have room to move forward against the opponent to counter.
In Sensei Brian Power’s class lately, we have been getting students used to getting uncomfortable, meaning helping them understand what their options are when the fight gets close up and personal and there’s no quick way out. Close-quarter attacks, kiba dachi for takedowns (throws), and leg sweeps to mention a few. Using Nijushiho, students are learning shorter stances for their benefit.
Why is this so important? Well, Kumite matches in competition and in the Dojo happen at a distance, and they end as soon as opponents lock up or clash. On the street, or in an unplanned altercation, that’s not so. Never practicing in-close Karate is akin to heading out on a big game hunt without ever having held onto a rifle. Having an idea of what a ‘fight’ is doesn’t translate to being able to handle yourself in a dangerous situation.
Having said all that, are we really concerned that we will ever be subjected to having to defend ourselves, or someone close to us, in a real attack? Not to sound an alarm of any sort, but a headline from CBC News in July 2023 reads “Police-reported crime is on the rise again, with violent crime at its highest since 2007.” Statistics Canada researchers found that violent crime rose by five per cent in 2022 — after a six per cent increase in 2021 — using the Crime Severity Index (CSI). That’s twelve percent in two years.
Therefore, in my opinion, one reason to study Karate in its fullness, including hand-to-hand fightback, is that the possibility of a random attack is increasing. Now, if I am even in a fight on the way from work to my car, I am not waiting around for the aggressor to a hold on me. The plan would be to dispatch the attacker before they get that close: perhaps a well-timed mae geri to the groin and fast and hard gyaku zuki to the ribs might deter the attacker….or not. Plans crumble like cookies when they backfire.
Some Karate practitioners who see Bunkai and Oyo in the dojo say we are taking too much license with its Karate application and that it isn’t Karate. Well, the fact is, that is exactly what Karate is and was, and we are leaving out an essence of Karate by not exploring it. One of the primary reasons Karate was developed was to allow people to defend themselves without the use of weapons. I see this as vital, and not teaching the Bunkai/Oyo is a disservice to the Art.
Another thing to consider is that in the 6th century, Bodhidharma used the Martial Arts to help his disciples in the monasteries develop discipline and stamina. Previously, they had been falling asleep during meditation and had difficulty tending to their chores in the colder seasons. Karate helped mitigate these. We all know that the first in a fight, whether kumite, hockey fight, or bar brawl, to get winded or worn out, end up losing.
During Kihon or Kumite we have learned to pace ourselves accordingly, where we use bursts of speed and energy, coupled with good breath control and more relaxed states, to keep up the pace. Diversely, a surprise altercation – one that we have not trained for - usually means that adrenalin goes through the roof, we go into shallow breathing, and we burn out of gas very very quickly.
I’m not talking about Karate ‘application’ that is staged: The opponent steps in with a mae geri, you do a gedan barai, and counter with a tate zuki. I’m referring to using the kaka-uke while in a kiba dachi as a means to get a leg behind the opponent and throw them on the ground, or using sanchi dachi while your opponent is hanging onto you in order to generate a ground-supported burst of power for a rising strike (uho-tsukiage) to your aggressor's chin. We have elbow strikes, knee strikes, headlocks, and neck twists in our Kata that we need to flesh out and apply.
We train extensively in formal kokutsu dachi, zenkutsu dachi and kiba dachi, for example, but not so much in the shorter kosa dachi, neko ashi dachi, sanchin dachi, and so on. These are shorter, very functional stances that will serve us well if an assailant grabs onto us or attacks quickly. Realistically, if we end up in an altercation and don’t ground ourselves in some sort of stance, we will certainly be the ones ending up on the ground.
On Saturdays, Hanshi Don Owens often takes us through real-life scenarios where the fight comes to you - into your personal space. Hanshi was a police officer who taught cadets the nuances of hand-to-hand combat. Learning combinations of techniques that can be used in a fight is essential to rounding out what your Karate experience looks like. From situational awareness to parry and attack, his teachings (like that of Sensei Power’s Jion maneuver to dump an unsuspecting opponent on the floor) are vital to the practicality of Karate as a whole.
Yes, Karate is an Art, but when the rubber meets the road it has to be translatable into functional self-defense.
When our students turn Shodan we tell them that they now need to “start doing more with less.” This not only means more concise moves, but clean techniques also; it means being able to generate enough power – while in a bear hug – to make your attacker wish they hadn’t shown up. To loosely quote Steve Ubl Sensei, ‘it doesn’t need to be a one-inch punch. Work on a zero-inch punch, where you can have your hand on your attacker and still send them flying backward.’
Frankly, Karate has to work on the mat and on the asphalt for it to be called Traditional Karate.
Sensei Robert Remington, Maryland, USA:
Thanks for sharing Jeff…a good read, as usual. There are 4 levels of interpreting the practical moves of kata: Bunkai, Oyo, Henka, and Okuden. These same 4 levels can also be used to interpret kihon and any waza. The Bunkai and Oyo usually demonstrated by JKA instructors are merely demonstration Bunkai, used to justify the shape of the kata but aren’t very practical. Naka Sensei is making some progress but most others interpretations aren’t very practical. The best resources for interpreting Shotokan kata are Vince Morris, Ian Abernathy, and David Ginberline.
When training in practical application, one thing to consider is the available training time in the dojo for most students…an average being 2-3 classes a week. Time taken for Bunkai training takes away from time needed for developing the proper body mechanics thru the 3 Ks. The students that I’ve seen training in dojo that emphasizes Bunkai training often have fairly poor body mechanics. Najib Amin Sensei, the most senior active member of the ISKF Shihankai, doesn’t teach much application until the Yudansha ranks.
Sensei Brian Power, NL, CAN
Hey Jeff, Great article and so true. There is a point in your karate that you need to turn off the analysis of your stance, and training, and just fight. The repetition that we do during class will help you in your response, but fighting is very dynamic, including distance changes, position changes, etc., and if your mind is stuck on what it should 'look like' or 'how you should be,' you will either miss the opportunity or get caught. In kumite, you need to keep it simple and fight. When you get to that point in your karate, your kumite also turns more into an art. Fun stuff!
Power Karate Academy