Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Break falling - a key to overcoming fear

I was inspired to write this post by Felicia after reading her latest post Epiphany: distance karate . In this post she talks about a problem she has getting in close and throwing or locking her partner during ippon kumite practice. She states:

"I know it makes no sense, but I think the idea of stepping into a
technique to grab someone and take them down intimidates the snot out of me. Like every other little girl on the planet, I grew up on fairy tales like Cinderella and Snow White where the heroine was kind, gentle, giving and nurturing. Sure their gentle nature almost did them in, but in the end, it all worked out, right? I think that's my hope as far as self-defense goes. Perhaps I may even be a little afraid of hurting my adversary, which absolutely makes no
sense at all"

Fear of getting hurt or of hurting someone else can be a big barrier to overcome when learning martial arts. I have experienced this barrier myself and it has impeded my progress in karate training for about two years! I now feel that I am finally able to break that barrier down (or rather I am in the process of breaking it down) and as a result my confidence is growing.

I think this fear is fairly common amongst women karateka. We want to learn self-defense but at the same time we are afraid to do it with any conviction. I know there are other women in my club who feel the same. We end up going through the motions of practising our self-defence moves but, like Felicia, we stop short of putting the lock fully on or doing the throw with conviction.

Perhaps it is our upbringing that makes it particularly difficult for us to display the necessary aggression or assertion. It's part of the same social code that tells us to 'always think the best of people' or to trust people until we are absolutely sure they are about to hurt us (in which case it might already be too late to execute an effective defense).

So why does it take female karateka so long to overcome their fears? I'm talking about senior brown belts still having this reticence -people who have been training for 3-4 years. I think some of the blame has to lie with karate training itself. In many styles of karate pretty well all throwing techniques have been removed from the syllabus, yet traditionally throwing was a core part of karate.

I mentioned earlier that I was now breaking down the barrier of fear that I once experienced. This has really started to happen in the last 3 months since I started to learn kobudo at a jujitsu club. Though I am not learning jujitsu I am expected to join in the break fall practice and hip throws or locking techniques at the beginning of the session with the jujitsukas. I now know how to fall safely and what it feels like to be thrown and guess what- it doesn't hurt!

Here's a video of an impressive break fall drill (this is advanced stuff, I can't do it like that!)

My confidence has grown enormously. Other martial artists I know have actually told me how much they enjoy being thrown! When they are throwing themselves into break falls they are clearly enjoying it, they are like kids throwing themselves around in a ball pool. I didn't used to understand this mentality but now I share it! There is a child like pleasure in throwing yourself around without getting hurt.

It doesn't stop there though. Being liberated from a fear of being hurt gives you greater confidence in executing other karate techniques. It makes you more assertive (rather than aggressive) in the way you practice all aspects of karate - whether with a partner or solo. However, I have developed a bit of a golden rule for myself: I won't do anything to my partner that I wouldn't tolerate having done to me. If I want to practice a technique assertively on someone then I encourage them to 'lock me tighter' or 'throw me harder', that way I know what it feels like and can better judge if I am doing a technique appropriately.

So for me the key to overcoming fear has been to learn how to fall properly and to learn how to throw and be thrown. I am pleased that in our new SSK syllabus break falling and throwing have been re-introduced to the syllabus so other members of my club will now have the opportunity to learn these skills and hopefully overcome their fears too.

How do you overcome your fear of hurting or being hurt?

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Monday, 28 September 2009

SSK karate seminar - my first experience of a karate course.

( Photo: SSK course instructors)
I attended my first ever karate 'course' on Saturday. This was also the first course organised by our newly established karate association - Seishin-do Shukokai Karate. I didn't really know what to expect, I saw it as a chance to meet members from the other clubs in the association and receive instruction from other instructors.

Though it was an open grade event it attracted mainly black and brown belt students. There were 45 of us, which is the largest class I've ever been part of, with 6 instructors. I thought we'd be divided up into groups, each with an instructor, and then rotate between the groups but instead we did whole class teaching throughout the afternoon. This actually worked really well. One instructor would lead the teaching on the particular technique being worked on and whilst we were practicing it (with/without partner depending on what it was) the other instructors would wander around and advise us on our execution of the technique. This way we got quite a lot of personal attention from each of the instructors.

We covered a lot of the elements on the new syllabus including all the punching and kicking combinations, a detailed look at pinan nidan kata (not bunkai), some sparring, a locking kata and sanbon kumite with age uke blocks.

I was impressed by the standard of the students - it was very high. I suppose one should expect it to be high - about half the students there were black belts including 2nd dans, it would have been disappointing if it wasn't high! There is always something motivating about working with more senior people - it made me try hard, I didn't want to be the person that might let my club down. It was interesting partnering people from other clubs, everybody was extremely friendly and willing to mix - this led to a great atmosphere.

The standard of instruction was high too. I hadn't met any of the other instructors before (except my own) and I was impressed with how good and approachable they were. They took it in turns to lead different elements of the teaching, each teaching to their own strengths. It was also nice to receive instruction from some female instructors for a change - I haven't had that before!

Female instructors make good role models for female students, they show you what's possible for a woman to achieve. In fact one instructor was able to demonstrate that it is possible to do karate when you are 9 months pregnant! Though I did keep thinking we should have hot towels on standby - just in case. Her mother (another instructor) put us all to shame with the degree of flexibility she had - it's reassuring to know that that level of flexibility is still achievable as you mature through your middle years. To be honest if I'd had half that amount of flexibility when I was 20 I would have thought I was doing well!

Overall I thought the course was a great success. We all worked consistently hard for 3 hours, were pushed to our limits, had fun, got to know each other and came home thoroughly exhausted.

And the icing on the cake? That staple of British fast food on the way, chips and mushy peas, mmmm........

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Jiin - 'Temple Ground'

During class last night I was introduced to the next kata I need to learn - Jiin, which means 'Temple ground'.

Jiin is part of a trio of katas that can be traced back to the Tomari-te style, possibly from Matsumura. However, it was then perpetuated through the Shuri-te system by Itosu. Funakoshi brought it to Japan and tried to change its name to Shokyo but it remained more commonly known as Jiin. The other two in the series are Jitte and Jion but these are not included in our syllabus. Shorin karate styles generally practice these kata and versions of them are done predominantly in Shotokan, Wadoryu and Shito-ryu. The version of Jiin that I am learning is the Shito-ryu one.

The main techniques that characterise this trio of kata are the starting kamae in which the left hand is placed around the right fist at the level of the throat. I couldn't find out the significance of this move other than it has its roots in the ancient art of Chinese kempo.

Jiin is also characterised by the repeated use of manji uke. This is a double block in which one arm performs an uchi uke whilst the other simultaneously performs a gedan barai. This block is also known as the lamda block because of its resemblance to the shape of the Greek letter λ. Manji uke has also been associated with the Buddhist swastika symbol which was seen as a symbol of plurality, eternity, abundance, prosperity and long life. This double block is quite difficult for the inexperienced karateka to grasp (well me anyway) and is first met in the kata Pinan Sandan as well as Jurokono.

Jiin can be pretty heavy on the legs as well! There is a lot of use of the shiko dachi stance accompanied by quick changes of direction so it is a good kata for building leg strength as well as balance and coordination.

Though Jiin is still a widely practised kata it has been dropped from the Japan Karate Association teaching and grading syllabus. It is also one of only two kata to not be included in the‘Best Karate’ series by M. Nakayama, the series widely recognised as the definitive kata reference. It was also omitted from Shojiro Sugiyama's book Shoto-kan kata (Shotokan's standard reference book). The reason for these omissions is not known.

Here is a video of the Shito-ryu version of Jiin:

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Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Helping in class - teaching conundrums

I helped out in the junior class last night. I didn't do a great deal of teaching but as I suspected I was mainly required to help with kata. For most of the class I just joined in.

One of the reasons for me being there is to partner any adult who would otherwise have to partner a child. However, last night there were four other adults (yellow and orange belts) so I wasn't needed as a partner. That gave me a chance to partner one of the young yellow belt girls and get to know her a bit better. It also meant I could give her a bit of one-one help with the pad work.

Later in the class I took a group of 3 yellow belts (one adult and two children) and taught them the beginning of pinan shodan. The first combination in this kata is quite tricky to learn for a beginner (which is generally why we teach pinan nidan before pinan shodan despite shodan being the first kata in the series). I found that tricky things to learn are also tricky things to teach!

I demonstrated it first facing the front of the class, but from behind they couldn't see what my hands were doing properly. So I demonstrated it facing them but I know that can be confusing because I'm then going in the opposite direction to them. What I really needed to do was face them but perform it as a mirror image so they could just copy - but that's easier said than done!

A few weeks ago Sensei had the senior class performing all the pinan katas as a mirror image. What a laugh! We were all over the place, it was really disorientating and confusing. After several attempts we were starting to do it but it was very difficult. If you've never tried doing a whole kata as a mirror image give it a go - it's a good exercise in coordination and concentration.

Anyway I did manage to teach my little group the beginning part of pinan shodan by demonstrating, watching them individually and correcting hand and arm positions.

The other problem I have is knowing what is an acceptable standard for a young child to perform at? Should a 7 year old yellow belt perform to the same level as a 12 year old yellow belt, or should you expect more from a 12 year old? Should all yellow belts, whether adult or child be performing to the same standard? Clearly one would expect a brown belt to perform pinan shodan with a greater degree of technical accuracy/timing/pace etc than a yellow belt - but how much more? How much technical inaccuracy is acceptable in a yellow belt? I don't really know the answers to these questions - presumably you get a feel for this with experience.

A young child has a shorter attention span, less ability to understand what is required of them and less developed balance and motor skills that an older child or adult so it seems unfair to continually correct every fault that you observe in their technique. Yet if technique is not corrected early bad habits can set in which can be harder to correct later.

Knowing what standard to expect for children of different ages and grading level is going to be a bit of a quandary for me for a while. If you have some insights into how to deal with this then I would be very grateful to receive them........

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Monday, 21 September 2009

First Teaching Session

This evening I am doing my first class as an assistant instructor. This is in the junior class, not the class I actually attend myself. Sensei asked me last week if I would be prepared to do this, partly because he could do with some help with all the children and partly because the class is top heavy with boys. He feels that a female instructor may help to attract more girls into the class.

I thought about it for a couple of days before agreeing. I was being asked to make a regular commitment to help in this class so I needed to think about whether I was prepared to to this.

I decided I would do it for the following reasons:

1. I like the children and I'm happy to work with them.

2. Teaching someone else will help to test and reinforce my own understanding and learning.

3. It will enable me to get to grips with the new syllabus for the junior grades-which has changed very radically since we joined the new organisation (Seishin-do Shukokai karate). Much of the syllabus for the higher grades builds very directly on the junior one so teaching it will help me to learn and understand my own syllabus.

4. I think teaching others is part of a good preparation for black belt grading.

5. It's a way to give something back to my instructor for all the help and guidance I receive from him.

So I have spent a lot of time over the last few days reading and digesting the new syllabus. I suspect for the first session Sensei will mainly want me to help with kata practice. Since the juniors still learn the pinan katas first I will at least be familiar with those!

I will let you know how it goes.

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Thursday, 17 September 2009

Rohai - a kata of grace and power

In both Monday and Wednesday's class Sensei has been teaching us the Rohai kata. This kata has been re-introduced to our syllabus since we became part of the new SSK organisation. Though it is part of the 1st kyu grade syllabus sensei has decided to teach it as a whole class kata (senior class) regardless of which grade we are.

This is an interesting kata and quite different to other katas I have learnt. Rohai means 'white heron', 'vision of a crane/heron', 'emblem of a heron' or 'birdlike' which is a very apt description of its characteristic stance: sagiashi dachi (one-legged crane stance). It is a very aesthetically pleasing kata to watch with its variation in pace, fast hand movements and the 'heron' or 'white crane' stance done in conjunction with the 'viewing the sky' hand movement. It is a kata that demonstrates both grace and power.

In fact it has not been too difficult to pick up the basic steps for this kata - though I am far from performing it with any style or technical accuracy. The spinning crescent kick at the end will take me a long time to master!

I didn't realise until I started researching this post that there are several versions of this kata. The version we are learning is the Matsumura Rohai version. It is claimed that Sokon Matsumura learned it in Tomari, and then created his own personal version. He then passed it down to a few selected students who were members of his extended family including Nabe Matsumura, a grandson. Nabe Matsumura taught his sister's son, Hohan Sokon, Sokon Matsumura's great-grandson. Apparently Hohan Sokon taught three versions of rohai but creation of these forms is accredited to Itosu who was a student of Matsumura. These three forms are called rohai shodan, rohai nidan and rohai sandan and are taught in the shito ryu style of karate.

In Shotokan the kata Meikyo is practised which is based on Itosu Rohai. The Korean style Tang Soo Do also have a version of Rohai, based on Matsumura Rohai. Finally in Shoalin Kempo they practise a kata called Stature of the crane also based on Matsumura Rohai.

Here is a video of Matsumura Rohai:

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Monday, 14 September 2009

Why do we..........practice karate barefoot?

When I started reading and thinking about this question I expected to find a definitive answer: We practice karate barefoot because......... However, there doesn’t seem to be a definitive answer. Different sources give different reasons and generally these are offered as suggestions rather than real reasons.

The reasons offered seem to fall into three categories:

1.Tradition. This refers to the Japanese tradition of separating 'indoors' from 'outdoors', which involves taking your shoes off when entering someone’s home. This evolved as a practical courtesy to prevent you from treading dirt into someone’s home or damaging the tatami mats, that covered the floors, with shoes. However, the custom didn’t necessarily stretch to taking off your shoes in public buildings. Shoes were allowed to be worn in museums or libraries or other buildings that acted as meeting places.

This traditional argument is quite quaint but it doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny very well. To start with isn’t a dojo a public place in the sense that it is not a residential place but a meeting place for people following a martial art? Also, originally karate was practised outside in courtyards or gardens in bare feet – so karate was already a barefoot martial art before it was practiced indoors.

Others suggest that karate is practised barefoot because it was developed by peasants who had no shoes but karate wasn’t developed by peasants it was developed by the Okinawan nobility – the Keimochi. These people would have worn geta, thonged wooden clogs when walking outdoors. So a lack of shoes does not explain why karate developed as a barefoot martial art.

2. Health and safety.
This refers to health and safety in a dojo setting. It is suggested that shoes bring dirt into the dojo and may damage mats. This is true if you are talking about normal outdoor footwear but people practising kung fu, for example, always train in soft martial arts shoes, which presumably don’t damage mats or dirty the floor.

Most ‘health’ arguments I have read seem to refer to keeping the dojo floor clean rather than a concern for the practitioner’s feet. The downside of practising barefoot from a health point of view is the risk of spreading fungal infections, such as Athlete’s foot, or viral infections, such as verrucas. Obviously it is the student’s responsibility to treat such infections promptly and abstain from training barefoot until the situation is resolved – but the idea that barefoot is healthier than wearing shoes? I’m not convinced.

I’m not sure the safety argument holds up to well either. Okay, being kicked by a shoed foot will hurt more than a barefoot one – but only if you’re wearing outdoor or hard shoes. Perhaps it doesn’t if you wear soft martial arts shoes.

3.Bio-mechanics in karate. This relates to the delivery of power when punching and kicking and being able to grip the floor in order to make strong stances and maintain balance. Every karate student learns that power starts at the feet and is transmitted up through the body to its target. It’s what we all strive to achieve through our constant practice. If we don’t grip the floor well, maintain strong stances and introduce torque (twist) into our kicks and punches, they won’t be very powerful.

This argument for barefoot training appeals to me most and makes the most sense. It would explain why karate developed as a barefoot art in the first place – before it was ever practised indoors. The strong, muscular feet needed to practice karate well (I call them karate feet – see my earlier post) don’t develop if cushioned by shoes so for this reason I think karate is best practiced barefoot.

Though I favour the bio-mechanics reason for barefoot training it is not necessarily the definitive one. I don’t know what the definitive answer is – maybe we continue to train barefoot simply because ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it’. What do you think?

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Friday, 11 September 2009

Post holiday fatigue - getting back into martial arts shape!

Wow! Isn't it hard to get back into gear after having a holiday? I only had 5 out of a possible 12 martial arts classes in August and boy do I notice it. I also notice the extra few pounds I seem to have mysteriously gained over the summer! My brain always seems to turn to mush after a holiday and I've found it really hard to remember anything new in the karate classes.

(Photo: Carbis Bay, where I think I may have left my brain!)

I could really have done with hitting the ground running at karate since we got back but instead I've hit the ground and crawled! We've got a lot of new stuff to get to grips with now that we have a new syllabus with the SSK - and that's just for my grade. I also need to get to grips with the syllabus of the grades junior to me because my junior grades were done under the old SKU syllabus. So I have to admit I feel a bit overwhelmed with it all at the moment.

I decided the only way to get to grips with all the new stuff was to practice at home - a lot! So I have been very good this week, I have been in the gym by 7.00am four times this week. Don't be too impressed by this admission - we have a small gym at home so I only had to walk bleary eyed downstairs and wake myself up on the cross trainer!

Monday I just did a fitness workout. Tuesday I went through all my sword katas and tonfa techniques. Thursday I went through the 6 new punching combinations for karate. Thursday evening (I forgot about this one) I went in the gym again with my husband and we went through some defences against oi zuki and mawashi geri which we had learnt in Wednesday's class. These had completely bamboozled me in the class but I think I'm pretty clear on them now. And this morning I went through the 6 kicking combinations I need to know - still not sure on some of these but at least I've made some progress!

I feel a bit happier with myself again now that I've put some personal effort in this week - hopefully now, in next Monday's class I will be able to hit the ground running, or at least walking!

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Tuesday, 8 September 2009

When it's time to move forward: Seishin-do Shukokai Karate

A time may come in a sensei's martial arts journey when he/she needs to take a different path to the one set by his/her own sensei. A need to break away, find a new path, their own path that enables them to continue developing and maturing as a martial artist.

Dave Lowry, in his book The Karate Way - discovering the spirit of practice, likens a healthy sensei-student relationship to that of a parent and child. He says that "the sensei must be like a parent, one with a healthy and realistic sense of who he is, who his children are, and what he wishes them to become.......Good parents not only accept that they will be surpassed by their children in many areas, they welcome it.......The healthy parent does not view the success of his or her child as a threat but rather as a testament to his or her good parenting."

In his book, Budo Mind and Body, Nicklaus Suino, also uses the parent-child analogy. He states that "...just as children nearing adulthood must challenge their parents and seek their own role in the world, so must students of the martial arts eventually become complete individuals by seeking independence."

Many of the great past karate masters had to take this step to move away from the sensei that trained them, sometimes to spread their karate style more widely but often to create a new style themselves. Gichin Funakoshi himself developed Shotokan karate after training with two different masters. From Yasutsune Azato he learned Shuri-te. From Yasutsune Itosu, he learned Naha-te. Likewise Kenwa Mabuni went on to develop Shito-ryu karate after training with Kanryo Higaonna and Yasutsune Itosu.

However, most 'students' who wish to flee the nest of the system they trained in don't actually wish to develop an entirely new system - they just want the space and freedom to add their mark to the style they know and respect. To develop it further, expand it, improve it.

This is the place my own sensei has reached on his martial arts journey. Opportunities for him to continue developing within the parent organisation (SKU) of our club, which is run by his own sensei, have reached an end-point. A professional colleague of his within the SKU has reached the same end-point. So together they have taken the decision to leave and set up their own organisation.

This must have been a very difficult decision to make, requiring much soul searching. Both these instructors have trained for over 20 years in the SKU shukokai karate style. Initially both trained directly under it's chief instructor and have remained loyal to him and the SKU's aims and syllabus since developing their own clubs.

Ties of loyalty are strong, it must have been difficult to tell him they were leaving. In Budo Mind and Body, Nicklaus Suino says " While this separation might seem like a severing of the ties of loyalty, and in some cases it may end up actually doing so, it is a necessary step in the maturation of students.....As long as the students remember that nothing in their martial arts careers would have been possible without the guidance of their teachers, they will understand their proper place in the continuing succession of martial artists."

The new organisation is called Seishin-do Shukokai Karate and took effect on the 17th August when insurance and licences were transferred to the new organisation. It is not a rival organisation to the SKU it is merely another link in the shukokai karate lineage with a chance to develop shukokai karate in new ways.

So how do I feel about this change? Well, it's a test of my loyalty too. Do I stay loyal to my instructor and move with him to the new organisation or do I stay loyal to the SKU and move to another SKU club? It wouldn't be difficult to move, there are plenty of SKU clubs in my area. In fact a new one is being set up in the same venue that my current club operates in now.

As far as I'm concerned though it's a no-brainer, of course my loyalty is to my sensei. He is an excellent instructor and I trust him to continue to train and grade me to a high standard. The new syllabus is exciting - it offers an expansion rather than a contraction of the shukokai style. There are some jujitsu and aikido influences being added as well as a return to more traditional training methods and etiquette. The sport and fitness side of our style also remains important and courses and competitions are already in the planning. There is much to look forward too - and much to get to grips with!

I think my sensei and his colleague were courageous to take this step and it deserves our backing. Clearly other club members feel the same way. Only 3 people have left (same family)our club to join another SKU club. Seishin-do Shukokai karate (SSK) already has 13 clubs and approximately 600 members - it should go from strength to strength. Here's to a new beginning.

If you want to find out more about this new karate organisation then visit it's new website by clicking:


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