Saturday, February 19, 2005

Stances in Kumite

Someone on asked why many different kinds of stances weren't seen in kumite (basically means free sparring in this context). Here was my short response. Since I didn't feel like spelling everything out for him, it isn't too detailed. Maybe I'll expound upon this later and create a full-fledged article. But for now, just this:

The perceived lack of utility derived from stances in kumite can be boiled down to one main thing: the limited nature of kumite.

By that, I mean that the reason behind many of the more "esoteric" stances (a term I use rather facetiously here) does not exist because there are so many principles, techniques, attacks and defenses that you will not do in kumite, mainly because they are against the rules or will not be given an opportunity because they usually are in response to things that are also against the rules. For the record, we don't use ridiculously long, deep front stances in our kata either, let alone our kumite because I don't see too much of a need for them.

But back to answering your question. What did I mean? Well, in the first place, if your kumite does not incoporate grappling or are even allows you to hold an opponent, then that eliminates the need and opportunity for whole sectors of the fighting paradigm, let alone stances. Much of the weight shifting (done to your center of gravity or your opponent's) is not needed simply because you're not manipulating his balance to take him down, you might just be doing it to hit him. If you're not going to throw the opponent or take him down and he isn't going to do the same to you, then there isn't necessarily a need for many of the deep stances that you see. Many of the stances are responses to situations that simply are off-limits in kumite. No, not built-in automatic, carved-in-stone responses to specific, narrow techniques, but conceptual responses to certain circumstances regardless of the actual technique.

Also, if you are not allowed to attack below the belt, than another important function of specific stances is also eliminated (tying along with the first point) which is to attack specifically your opponent's base (read: the legs). Many stances are actually manipulations or outright attacks against your opponent's legs, which are against the rules, are also things you will not see. This goes beyond simple sweeps or things like that.

As a combination of points one and two, another function of these stances you won't see in kumite is after you've taken the opponent down, the legs are applying a lock or otherwise attacking/controlling the opponent when he is on the ground as well. Once again, you won't see this if you aren't going that far.

Lastly (for now), I use various stances in kumite. Even in straight out punching/kick/block only kumite (which I do with very little frequency due to what I perceive to be its limited training utility), there are various stances you can employ to aid your movement and positioning and manipulate that of your opponent's. This holds true even if you are only kicking, punching and blocking without grabbing and only above the belt.

If you really do need me to cite a laundry list of things you can do with regards to stances both in more "complete" kumite and rather "limited" kumite, then perhaps you need to talk to your instructor or senior students in your dojo. They should be able to tell you.

You will have to forgive me if I sound a bit critical here. If your interpretation of the utility of stances is limited basically to "If he and I squared off a couple feet from one another, what stance would be practical now in this kumite match?", then you are woefully undeveloped in your analysis of what stances actually are. Saying the utility of stances is limited because they aren't found in kumite is looking at it completely backwards. It is because kumite is limited in and of itself that you won't find as many of the stances in it.

Friday, February 11, 2005

So for the past year or so I've been working on making my kata less of a "metronome" pace. I've been trying to link together the different moves with some sort of phrasing to show I understand the bunkai (application), or at least my interpretation of the bunkai behind it. This causes the tempo to change and not be merely "1, 2, 3, 4, 5...." But recently, I've also been making some of it a lot softer and really trying to experiment with the "flow" of it.

So there I was, doing kata in front of my instructor who gives me a dubious look. After an explanation, he basically said my kata was too much of a set rhythm. I suggested "metronome?" and he agreed. Darn. I was half-pleased with myself for trying to feel a certain flow and continual movement, but looks like I've been really over-emphasizing that too much. Granted, there's many ways I practice my kata and many ways to practice kata (hard, soft, rhythm, breathing, bunkai timing, etc.). I guess I really need to work more on the timing a little bit more, at least when I'm doing in front of my instructor. In other words, I've been adopting a certain pace and tempo for my kata practice that "took over" all of it, rather than being just one of the many ways to do it.

So some of you are wondering (perhaps all one or two of you gentle readers) why I ramble about this stuff and not my daily life? The answer is really simple. My life is pretty uneventful so there's not much else to talk about...

On the lighter side, I'm starting to learn Hamahiga no Tonfa kata. I started learning Monday and have just got to the point where I can at least go through the whole kata with the rough movements down (emphasis on the "rough"). Due to my somewhat stunted weapons development earlier in my brief karate career, that makes it the 9th weapons kata I've learned in the past 7 months (and 4 of those were in the period of a week last June). Fortunately, I have my entire life ahead of me to get better. Although looking back at the kata I "know" and still practice, that makes 20 empty hand kata and 14 weapons kata, not including basic kata like the kihon or fukyuu, or the yakusoku kumite and the few other kata (empty and weapons) that I've learned and let fall by the wayside. That's a lot to work on...but that's a topic for another day...

Monday, February 07, 2005

February 7, 2005 - Learning outside of class

While my friend Onimitsu2004 agonizes over asking a girl out, I am racked by far more important decisions, like should I use Italian spices on my fish tonight or make it teriyaki? Either way, I'll be eating it alone...woe is me and darkness covers the pit of my soul. NOT! This isn't one of those stupid goth blogs where people compete how often they can use dark and dreary words in a pitiful imitation of something that may resemble poetry. Or just crap. Hah!

And back to more important stuff, like my rambling thoughts on martial arts.

One thing I've noticed about people is how much many of them brag about how they go to martial arts class X days a week. I think it is great to be able to attend class as much as possible. However, unless you have the time to practice by yourself, you're not really getting the necessary free space for your own development. Don't get me wrong. I love going to class and having the opportunity to discuss concepts and techniques as well as train with my instructor and other students.

I think there is a certain danger in that going to class as many times as some of these people because it makes it less likely that they will train on their own. Not training on your own is disadvantageous. For one, the "class" environment has a tendency to change the dynamics of your training. When there are other people doing kata with you, you have to change your pace to match a consensual tempo. The presence of other people when you are doing sparring or what have you adds that extra layer of analysis to all your sensory inputs. That isn't a bad thing, but sometimes you really need to focus on yourself, especially in regards to biomechanics. When an instructor is there pointing out your faults or explaining things to you, it relieves some of the burden of self-discovery. These are all good things in their context. However, I think it is much more difficult to grow as a martial artist if you are almost always only in the class setting.

I acknowledge the existence of those that train 4-5 days a week and workout much on their own. On the other hand, there are a lot of people that don't fit this model. Most people practice only when they go to "practice". My opinion is that class is only for the learning of new material, the correction of mistakes and the discussion of ideas and concepts. Many people short-change their learning by using class time to go through the necessary repetitions of kata, drills, or whatever they train in. Again, my gripe is with emphasis here. Repetitions and drills aren't a bad thing in class. It's for the sake of correction, discussion and letting the instructor know where you stand. But never, never should it be used primarily for the purpose of getting the material down-pat. That's just a bonus. The building up of repetitions for training in whatever you do should be done outside of class, in my opinion. You may do some things incorrectly, but that's what class is for: to correct those mistakes. Class time is often too short to go through every single thing with corrections as it is, let alone struggling to do something that could've saved precious time (yours, your instructor's, your fellow students').

Getting as much done outside of class ensures the most gets done during class. It's very simple and quite obvious, but many don't do this? Why not? The answer to that lies in busy schedules, conflicting obligations, etc. I understand that. But to those people that go to class 5-6 days a week, I dare suggest it would be better to skip class one night and work out on your own. An added benefit to this is that it really forces you to think about what you're doing. Well, ideally anyway. Once you do that, you'd be surprised what you can learn and come up with on your own. Having an instructor tell you everything and correct everything is nice. But it doesn't mean you're learning. It just means you're copying. At some point or another, you have to start taking those conceptual leaps on your own. It's something most people acknowledge and espouse, but actually don't do rather often. You probably won't discover anything that hasn't ever been discovered before. There's very little that's new under the sun when it comes to martial arts by now. However, most masters didn't become great by simply getting everything from an instructor. There really isn't that much time. They had to figure stuff out on their own. I was once told by Kyoshi Doug Perry, the head of my system for North America that out of all the martial arts knowledge he has, only 10 % of it was shown directly to him. The rest he had to figure out himself. Now math isn't necessarily my strongest suit, but I figure that's 90% he had to figure out on his own. That's quite a bit. I for one am very envious of just 10% of what he knows.

So what does this all mean? It means you got to start thinking for yourself. I don't care what rank you are, but if you're just a carbon-copy martial artist, you really have to turn yourself around. Sure, it's awfully hard to drive down a street without any lights to show the way. But if you're just in the passenger seat, you're not really driving, are you?

Sunday, February 06, 2005

February 6, 2005 - What is "Traditional" Karate?

[Originally posted on]

I always have mixed feelings when I hear the word traditional in conjunction with karate.

There is the respect I have for many traditional training methods, such as kata. There is also just the sense of, well, tradition, that evokes certain notions in the mind. I don't mean the tradition of hanging up stockings over the fireplace during the Christmas season, or hiding eggs so that your children have to earn their breakfast for a change by finding them on Easter morning, but you all know what I do mean. Traditional values like respect, humility and self-control.

Further still, I still use the word "traditional" to describe what I do, mainly because of the perspective and the general idea that it purveys to who my audience is. It certainly denotes to the reader that I do not do more "reality-based martial arts" or "forge myself in the furnace of the ring." Depending on your viewpoint, it may also suggest I don't "waste my time with sport karate." Whatever you view it as, the word "traditional" is convenient in discussion.

And then, there's the part of me that wants to jump up and down with a bullhorn and a banner, announcing that as it relates to karate, very little of what most people see as "traditional" is, in fact, traditional at all.

Now, now, put away the ropes and the torches (and you with the pitchfork, let's just say it was meant to stick into hay, not bored writers on internet forums).

There have been countless posts, both by me and others, pointing out how relatively new the dan/kyu and belt system is in traditional martial arts. About how in the oft-quoted "old days", people trained in what basically amounted in a loin cloth and belts were made to hold your gi closed (no, not hold your pants up, do you ever think of the physics of that? If people used obi to hold their pants up, there'd be a lot more hanging in the breeze than grandma's freshly washed laundry). There have also been a few posts, quite a bit of them mine, that address the extremely recent nature of the solidification of styles (the ryu system) on Okinawa.

I haven't seen too many posts on what strikes at the issue here. I've hinted, cajoled and directly stated it from time to time. I have also seen others post something along those lines as well, but not very often.

Unfortunately, what I do see is a rather large misconception on what "traditional karate" actually is and what it is we do. I think the largest part of this is confusing what is "traditional karate" and what is "traditional behavior patterns of Confucian-influenced societies."

The bowing and the respect paid to the sensei and superiors, the sense of group unity, the notion of the transmission of certain practices, these are obviously not exclusive to karate. Nor are the values of being a "team player", humility and self-control. You can find as much in Japan on the Hanshin Tigers baseball team or the Thursday Evening Ladies' Ikebana (flower arranging) Club. These are people that have (although with much less emphasis nowadays) a ceremony dedicated to drinking tea, for heavens sake. My perhaps flippant treatment of this is simply to help put things in perspective.

The Japanese response to Okinawan karate's introduction to the mainstream (first half of the 20th century) was quite condescending. They viewed it as incomplete. Whatever its combative capabilities, there was no established curriculum, no concerted effort towards the indoctrination of spiritual and self well-being. They probably didn't know which they thought was worse, the lack of an established ryu system or the archaic teaching methods that didn't necessarily lend itself to being taught to large masses. This ushered in a large host of changes into karate. The wearing of gi. The dan/kyu system. The creation of established ryu that taught one person's method of doing things. The perception that training in more than one ryu as being disloyal, undedicated and unscrupulous. Kata became more rigid, more formalized, more symmetrical in orientation, whether that meant in pattern or body structure. Many people did go about merely copying the many moves perfectly, without knowing the deeper meaning behind them. Rigid adherence to a "count" totally disrupted the timing of the kata, and was more of a tool for teaching the kata than for learning it.

But that wasn't always the case. If anything, in traditional Okinawan karate, at least, and I'm sure the same goes for true traditional Chinese boxing, combative training was always tailored towards the individual. Sure, they were given certain drills and things to do, but everyone had their own way of doing them. You look at all the karate masters on Okinawa and what did they do? They didn't obstinately learn just one thing. They traveled all over Okinawa, learning different ways of doing things. Maybe one person was famous for his bo techniques. They went to his place and trained. Another was perhaps famous for kicking, and one for punching. Odds are, they're probably friends and maybe traded students with each other. They traveled to "mainland" Japan, China, and Taiwan. They took things they liked and discarded things they didn't like.

So as far as counting in Japanese and using Japanese terms (that's only because they spoke Japanese...of course, the Okinawans spoke Okinawan), bowing, wearing gi, the belt system, the ryu "style" system, all of that isn't exactly what truly makes up traditional karate. So, what is?

Kata. In my mind, that is one of the few things truly traditional in "traditional karate" in terms of what has been part of the training for over 105 years.

I could perhaps continue my discursive dissent with the widely held views of many people. However, I will limit it to a more pertinent topic, which to put it elegantly, really gets my goat.

I have said this before, and so have others, to their credit. Most of the disparaging of traditional karate is in my mind, the product of Bruce Lee's denigration of what he viewed as uncritical copying of technique to create mindless automotons that had nary a free thought of their own, let alone the ability to win a fight.

But I'll let you in on a deep secret. Bruce Lee and I, we really think alike. Me, the defender of "traditional karate" and one who, to say the least, did not hold it in high regard, have the same view.

Unfortunately, what I think Bruce Lee missed is the generalizations he made only apply if you are guilty of what he said never to do: Be obssessed with techniques. But, I'll stop picking on Bruce Lee. He was a good fighter. In my opinion, not great and certainly not the greatest, but he did a lot for the martial arts community in terms of popularity. He definitely had a work ethic that could probably somehow fuel the electricity of a small rural town during winter. And like I said, he and I think alike. We like the idea that the only limit you have is what you place on yourself. Not quite what Nietzche was saying, but more like what Immanuel Kant was saying. Don't sell humanity short, because we have unlimited potential. Now, before I take this on a more philosophical bent, let me get to the whole reason I bothered to bring Bruce Lee up at all.

We also both agree you need to have an open mind, and you shouldn't be hung up on techniques and learn principles instead. If anything, that's the principle of JKD.

My beef with him is that concept isn't anything new. And this is where I actually tie everything together.

Let me start by rebutting this statement:

"Lots of people who are great at kata cannot translate it in real

I answer this statement in two ways. The first is that what many people's
idea of being "great at kata" is usually wrong. There are many people who are excellent athletes who can kick high, fast, and move real quick. Often times, however, they learn kata that only teaches them to be in great physical shape, rather than being a great fighter. This is a drawback on many people blindly accepting kata that has poor mechanics and thinking it is useful.

The other way is that many people who are "great" at kata are just "great
mirrors." You can teach a monkey to mimic a pattern. A person can mimic the looks of even a practical kata, but unless they actually concentrate on learning the "why" instead of the "what", they will never become good fighters. Most people I've trained with or discussed with divide their training into "traditional kata" and "the useful stuff." With that mindset (and if they're taught to divide it, the kata probably is crap anyway), they'd never be able to gain anything from the kata, even if it was worth knowing. I've met many "kata" collectors who can show me the Shotokan version of one form followed by the Wado Ryu version. I ask them why they do a certain movement, and I rarely get any response better than "I'm punching" or "I'm blocking" or "It's just tradition." For these people, the critics are right.Kata was a waste of their time...but it should not have been.

The focal point is that kata is a training method, a tool. Just like many things in life, "you get out of it what you put in". Unfortunately, if you don't put effort in it properly, you won't get much out of it either.

Kata and drills, the staple of traditional karate, are meant to teach you some techniques, but more importantly, they are supposed to teach you PRINCIPLES. My caps-lock key is actually not stuck, but I harp on that for a reason. There is too much of an emphasis on techniques by many people, some traditionalists (none very experienced traditional martial artists that I've encountered) and many non-traditionalists. As the non-traditionalists argue, a technique may not work in a "real fight" (ironic in and of itself as it often is meant to mean the sports arena, whether that is Taekwondo, the wrestling mat, or UFC). However, you train to gain the understanding of the "why" behind it. Any real fight is often dirty, sloppy and fast. Techniques often don't work out quite the way they do in kata or partner drills. Unless you know the principles firm enough, through a combination of kata (pure theory combined with complete execution) and drills (technique compromised by real world limitations), you're right. The defender does not have to "play by the rules". If you've trained correctly and learned principles, you will make him regret he ever came to the table because you can adapt.

So what does this have to do with the inability of traditional karate practitioners to adapt? Oh, nothing much, except that the notion of nonadapting, unchanging traditional karate practitioners is not the heart of what traditional karate is.

Granted, there are some things that are established as "the way" to do things, but even that changes from year to year, and is only for the purposes of preservation for future transmission (kata being the most obvious example). Nowadays we put karate masters on the spot by asking "what is the official way to do the kata?" We have them make videos or ask how they "count" a certain kata. But in the old days, they weren't necessarily always as precise in their hand placement or demanding that everyone look exactly the same. Because everyone's body is different, the kata will look different. Maybe the emphasis isn't on placing one hand with the fingers of one hand touching the wrist, maybe the emphasis was placed on crossing your hands in whatever manner you can without having to rotate the body, which means the hands will be in a slightly different position for every body type.

But still, you learn the "official" way of doing kata. But as you progress, you develop your own way of doing it, the way that suits you the best. You might argue that the act of learning kata in and of itself is a sort of limitation, but that is an underestimation of the act of learning kata itself (not to mention the myriad of other training methods that karateka do in addition to kata).

In short, the only thing really traditional with karate is the kata. Most everything else, from teaching en masse to wearing a belt and gi, to rigid adherence to form, is new.

The purpose of the kata was self-defence and/or training for self-defence, as was the purpose of traditional karate. Kata isn't necessarily always set in stone (maybe jello, perhaps), but getting rid of kata would get rid of that which defines traditional karate.

And this is why I believe changing with the times isn't exactly necessary. And the reason for that, is because the training method of kata itself, despite the commonly held view to the contrary, is not a rigid, locked, unadapting method of training. It is only that way if you, as the individual who is training, is rigid, locked, and unadapting. So maybe when people that go on about the metaphysical and spiritual glories of the kata are right. In this sense, the kata truly is the representation of your self.