Monday, December 28, 2009

Closing Distance and Not Overextending: Musashi's "Body of a Shuko"

Miyamoto Musashi’s Book of Five Rings speaks of “having the body of a shuko”, a shuko being a short-armed monkey. He writes that “… The shuko does not extend his arms… If you think o f extending your arms, your body will retract… it is easy to approach with your body in the same time it would take for your hand to reach out.”

In other words, close distance so that you do not execute any technique before you are within the proper range to do so. This is one of the largest compromisers of proper stance and posture because it causes leaning, throws off your center of balance, and prevents proper body weight transfer into the opponent. Simply put, your technique becomes incredibly weak and leaves you vulnerable. This applies to anything, whether it is a punch, block, kick, or grappling maneuver. While this seems like common sense, executing outside of proper range is extremely common and in the end ironically boils down to a fear of getting hit. This is easily observed in many fighters, regardless of their training background and experience. As such, many people are used to “stand-up fighting” well outside of the proper range and will prefer only to grapple within what we would consider to be proper striking distance. It requires extreme confidence to close distance with the body as a whole first before execution.

As Musashi would say, “study this well.”

This concept is of course tied in closely with what we call osae, the constant press forward into the opponent, which requires a post in and of itself. While Musashi does not use the term osae, he writes of the same concept in at least three separate passages. This will be discussed in another post.

As a footnote, I am currently using the William Scott Wilson translation of Musashi’s Book of Five Rings. After comparing it to the archaic Japanese used in the original work, Wilson’s translation is perhaps the best I have come across.


Monday, December 14, 2009

A Good Coach

My sensei Pat Nakata will sometimes remark that he does not teach in any of his classes, but everyone is welcome to train with him. Or, he might say something along the lines that he is not a karate teacher, but a coach. I always used to think these were odd things to say. Recently, Sensei has been emphasizing that we be proactive in correcting each other during our training, especially since we have some newer members training with us.

In a typical class, we will normally execute each kata about two or three times. If there are more than three of us, the students will usually rotate out one at a time. This isn’t meant to be a break; the student who is not performing kata is expected to make on-the-spot corrections verbally and/or physically. However, these corrections must be done succinctly and accurately so as not to disrupt the flow of the kata. Just like in a fight, there is no time to “think” and the correction must happen naturally. This requires as much engagement and concentration as performing the kata itself. There is no time for putting things gently or diplomatically, it just has to be done.

This rotation happens regardless of how long people have been training. At the bare minimum, it provides an opportunity to see how it is supposed to be done for those who are still learning the kata. Of course, if some of us are doing kata incorrectly, it can also show how NOT to do it.

I sometimes find myself seeing someone requiring correction, yet have difficulty making the correction quickly or adequately. This usually means I do not understand the technique or concept well enough myself. Then there are other times when I explain something and then Sensei will have to interject and correct some (or all) of what I just got done saying. Either way, it aids in identifying my own weaknesses as well.

With this class setup, not only must I constantly work on improving my own karate, but also the karate of others, which then theoretically should improve my own… and so on. If I “go easy” on others and just let their bad habits slide, I will not be doing anyone any favors. Correcting, watching the corrections of others, receiving corrections and correcting oneself are all necessary to become a good coach. Maybe it’s not that odd after all.


Sunday, July 19, 2009

Robert "Snaggy" Naoto Inouye

Today we celebrated the life of Robert "Snaggy" Naoto Inouye, one of Sensei's real old-timers who passed away on the 3rd of July, 2009.

Alan Yokota would always speak of his constant coaching, mentoring, and vocal corrections. When Snaggy came back to the dojo to train with us, I finally got to understand what Yokota meant. Like others who have been coached by Snaggy, I still hear his voice while I do my kata, telling me not to go blank, to get my chin up or relax my shoulders or... and the list goes on. His guidance during class and mentoring afterwards had a profound effect on me, so although I am a slow learner, I continue to understand more of his words the more I train.

Last November, he was diagnosed with aggressive kidney cancer. I was still in Iraq at the time so I would occasionally give him a call to see how he was doing. After we filled each other in on what we had been up to, Snaggy would start mentoring and coaching me long-distance, asking me how my training was going and what corrections I had been working on. Even as he battled cancer, his willingness to help others grow in karate was unchanged.

After I got back, we went out to eat at Utage's and were talking story. He told me what he missed the most due to his condition was karate. He said he would literally dream of training and would have given up anything to be able to train once more.

The power of his statement struck me hard. What an important lesson! When you start to lose everything, you gain sight of what is truly important. There are many common variations of that phrase, but Snaggy made me understand its true depth.

While in ICU, Snaggy still never ceased his mentoring. When I visited him, he started off by scolding me, saying he wasn't "make" yet (for you non-Hawaiians, "make" is pidgin for "dead"). And sure enough, even though I was supposed to be there to encourage him and despite his difficulty speaking at the time, he still gave me a pep-talk on my training. That is the kind of fighter, coach, and mentor Snaggy was.

During the funeral reception, we did several kata with a "missing man formation", leaving a space open for him. So in the end, Snaggy's wish was granted and he was training with us once more. Upon returning back to my apartment, I couldn't sit still. I finally had to go down to the dojo and train. Sure enough, Snaggy was there, shouting out his corrections like usual.

You may be gone from this life, Snaggy, but you will always be here training with us. Thank you for everything. Thank you.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Chibana Chosin's Kata Curriculum

Chibana Sensei consulted with Itosu Sensei about which kata he should use for his teaching curriculum. Chibana Sensei was concerned that a limited amount of kata would limit one's versatility, while a large amount of kata would not allow one to work on refinement. Itosu Sensei told him to use the core Shorin kata, listed below. After watching Chibana Sensei perform the Matsumura Patsai, Itosu Sensei instructed him to retain this kata as "Patsai Dai", while the Itosu Patsai would be taught as "Patsai Sho". In addition to the three kihon kata developed later by Chibana Sensei, the Chibana core curriculum became as follows:

Kihon Shodan, Kihon Nidan, Kihon Sandan
Naihanchi Shodan, Naihanchi Nidan, Naihanchi Sandan
Pinan Shodan, Pinan Nidan, Pinan Sandan, Pinan Yondan, Pinan Godan
Patsai Sho, Patsai Dai
Kusanku Sho, Kusanku Dai

When discussing Chibana Shorin Ryu karate, questions about the Gojushiho kata sometimes arise. If a student wished to learn Gojushiho, Chibana Sensei would normally refer them to Nakazato Sensei, although Nakata Sensei was able to learn the Itosu Gojushiho from Chibana Sensei. However, this was not considered a core Shorin kata and thus not part of the standard curriculum.

The Patsai Gwa kata (gwa being the Okinawan equivalent of sho, the "lesser" kata), is said to have been created by Itosu Sensei and popularized by Tokuda Anbun Sensei. Chibana Sensei did maintain that there were no Sho and Dai versions of the Patsai until Itosu Sensei instructed him to retain the Matsumura Patsai as Patsai Dai and the Itosu Patsai as Patsai Sho. Patsai Gwa was left out.

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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Present State of Training

Well, I'm still alive. I returned to Hawaii a week ago after an extended stay away from the island. With far more free time now, I find myself contemplating the state of my training over the past 8 months while I was gone. While I did train fairly consistently (I like to think I kept my priorities in order), the level of concentration and focus on refining was not what it should have been for various reasons, some of which have merit, but I suppose they ultimately become just excuses when viewed objectively.

Sensei and I were talking story after practice when he made the comment that I had "gone off on a few tangents", referring to several bad habits I picked up since he last saw me. Then he made a fairly insightful comment for me, remarking that at this stage of development, most of us tend to execute the kata using kimochi, or feeling, so if our execution is wrong, then our feeling of how the technique is executed must also be wrong.

Some of this incorrect execution probably stems from "getting away with it" in the past; in other words, I might have been performing those movements somewhat correctly on the surface, but bad habits emerged because I did not truly internalize proper execution and feeling. This calls to mind the ever apt phrase, "You must consciously develop good habits or you will unconsciously develop bad ones" I hear so often in the dojo. Getting locked in a comfort zone will make it all too easy to turn what used to be an occasional mistake into a bad habit. At this stage, you start to actively try and achieve a certain feeling when executing a movement, but that feeling is your body telling you NOT to do it like that...

While unfortunate they happened in the first place, these tangents provide context for me as I concentrate on my corrections and more importantly, what I should be doing rather than merely trying to avoid mistakes. If anything, I am far more conscious of those movements on which I have had corrections made. At this time, I can't help but recall Snaggy's warnings in the past against relying solely on feeling without understanding the technical side. He has always told me that there must be absolute concentration on proper execution before one can rely on feeling. As always, the fine balance between "learning karate with your body" and staying cognizant of what you're actually doing by staying in the moment is essential. Gravitate to one extreme with a slack mind and your techniques will be sloppy and ineffective; gravitate to the other with a constricted mind and you become far too rigid and can't apply techniques in a practical manner.

As usual in the end, whether you can execute correctly from the beginning or have to make mistakes first and have them corrected, you have to train first.