Thursday, 25 February 2010

Black Belt testing will be tough!

When I started karate I don’t think I realised just how physically demanding it can be! Since the New Year my instructor has been racking up the pace, pushing us harder and being generally more demanding.

There is a black belt grading coming up in May and we have several 1st kyu’s preparing for it. I am not in this cohort – I have over a year before I am ready for black belt. However, we are all included in these vigorous preparations!

The black belt grading is going to be tough. Of course, one would expect it to be tough – it wouldn’t be worth having if it wasn’t. Let me give you an idea of exactly how tough it will be:

There are 15 sections to be tested on. The first two sections alone involve demonstrating 6 punching combinations and 6 kicking combinations. Each combination will be demonstrated many times and you have to demonstrate correct technique as well as power and focus. This is exhausting! We have been doing this in class recently to build up our stamina and your arms and legs feel like lumps of lead by the end of it.

Sections 3 and 4 involve demonstrating longer, more complicated combinations, one of which is set on the day (so no prior practice). These will no doubt be repeated several times.

Sections 5 -7 are demonstrations of 3 kata along with 3 bunkai applications for each. Two of the kata are black belt katas and the third can be any previous kata the student has learnt.

Section 8 is gobon kumite, section 9 is demonstration of 8 different makiwara waza techniques (against a pad – not a makiwara post).

Sections 10 and 11 are ippon kumite with 3 defences against each of 3 attacks, followed by goshin waza, again 3 attacks with 3 different defences against each.

Sections 12 and 13 are drills – a ground fighting drill followed by a break falling drill.

Finally sections 14 and 15 are sparring – a few rounds of jiyu and shiai kumite!

That all sounds like a lot of hard work – and no allowances are made for age!

The classes recently have been exhausting but enjoyable. I’m not sure my fitness is yet at the level it needs to be to sustain a grading like this but I have over a year to prepare. It is very useful for us to get a taste of what black belt testing is all about – at least we know what we are aiming for.

What was your black belt grading like – was it really tough? Did you feel ready for it?

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Friday, 19 February 2010


Last Autumn my karate instructor helped to found a new karate organisation called Seishin-do shukokai karate (SSK). Since then I haven’t really thought too much about what the word Seishin-do actually means. According to the SSK’s website it is defined as ‘The way of positive spirit’ but there is no explanation of what is meant by this. So, I’ve had a search round to see if I can find out a bit more:

It seems that ‘seishindo’ is a widely used term in martial arts and has several slightly different interpretations of its meaning. It seems a popular term to use in aikido circles where it is interpreted as the ‘Way of water’ or the ‘Way of the mountain stream’.

According to (an aikido website) :
“Seishin conveys the image of pure, clear water running down a mountain. Seishindo Aikido implies that in our practice of Aikido we follow the movement of the mountain stream, The Water Way. In our joining with this stream, we come to know the nature of water and learn from it the art of Aikido.
It is the nature of water that it will assume the shape of whatever form it encounters while remaining forever formless in itself. Water is the epitome of non-resistance. In its coursing flow it will bend and adapt to whatever it encounters. Thus by following the natural order, water overcomes that which would oppose its natural flow. “
Several martial arts have incorporated the term seishin-do into their titles including seishindo kenpo, a comprehensive American martial art based on Chinese kenpo, grappling and empty hand techniques. It was developed by Frank Landers in the late 1970’s. The definition of seishindo used in this system is:
“(Seishin: 精神 せいしん mind; soul; heart; spirit; intention), (Do: 道 どう The Way) together translate into "Way of the Mind" which is the understanding of the conscious thought that goes into formulating an action as well as the subconscious understanding of how action can deceive us in battle. To achieve Seishindo you must find harmony between physical action, and compassion for those you face in battle. Physical fighting skill is only half of a student’s total development. Complete understanding of Concepts, Principles and Ideas of motion is the other half of a martial artist training. Without Seishindo, a student physical abilities, may become strong and powerful, but will always lack that completion needed to achieve harmony in their live.”
Another system calling itself simply Seishin-do, describes itself as a ‘modern system of self-defence’ where it encourages a ‘citizen’ mentality rather than a ‘combat’ mentality with the aim of developing “Peaceful, productive and self reliant individuals whose first responsibility is to survive.” This system defines seishindo as the ‘spiritual energy way’. They state that:
 “Rather than over emphasizing the technical, as in most modern budo, Seishindo emphasizes the “spirit” of the technique, that is the doing of the technique. The“way” of Seishindo is not mystical or esoteric. It is simply recognizing aggression and reacting appropriately on an ongoing day to day basis. Spirit comes from a Latin word meaning to breathe implying oneneeds to be alive. Seishindo, the Spiritual Energy Way refers to the natural energy we all posses and that we can cultivate that energy by increasing our mental and physical acuity through martial arts training.”

So to summarise: Seishin-do can mean “The way of positive spirit”; “The way of water” or “The way of the mountain stream” to incorporate concepts of harmony and non-resistance; “The way of the mind” uniting the conscious and subconscious mind or “The spiritual energy way” referring to the ‘natural energy’ we all posses and can cultivate through martial arts training.

Each of these martial arts systems and their definitions of seishindo emphasise the mind-body-spirit connection encompassed in all budo arts. It seems to me that seishindo is about developing and mastering our minds and bodies, maximising our energy, and showing a positive but peaceful spirit in our pursuit of self-protection in order to lead healthy, safe and productive lives.

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Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Kata and ground fighting

In a karate context the words kata and ground fighting don’t sound as if they should go together. All single person kata are performed standing up after all. But many of these kata are very old, particularly the ones of Okinawan origin, derived at a time when karate was more comprehensive than just a striking art – so techniques for dealing with an opponent on the ground are probably in there somewhere! Of course, many techniques that are done standing up can also be applied on the ground, for example elbow strikes, locks, chokes, escapes from strangles etc. As sensei said, it’s just a case of thinking outside the box!

With this in mind, we set too on a bit of ground fighting last night in the karate class. Though ground fighting is not part of many karate systems, it was introduced to our system last autumn when we switched from the SKU to the SSK. It is tested for at 1st dan level but practised right from the early kyu grades.

As well as learning the basic jujitsu ground fighting techniques using the ‘mount’ and ‘guard’ positions we are encouraged to think of kata applications that can be applied on the ground. A fairly obvious one is the matsukaze choke, which is found in the kata (you guessed it!) – Matsukaze. There is a fairly clear cut move in the kata where the arms are crossed out in front of you at neck level with open hands, the hands made into fists to simulate a grab (of the collar) and then pulled back quickly to simulate the choke. Mounted over the opponent on the ground, this choke was frighteningly easy to apply!

Other techniques where we could see a kata application included applying a cross body arm bar ( the hand is held and restrained using a technique seen in Jiin) and practising a defence against a kick to the head on the ground the opponent is taken down using a classic technique from the kata Niseishi.

However, we didn’t spend the whole time thinking about karate kata whilst practising what is essentially jujitsu! We were mainly thinking about how to shift your weight in order to roll your opponent off you, how to use your feet and legs to turn the opponent over, how to apply locks and chokes – it was all fairly pragmatic stuff. As a karateka though, it is important to be constantly thinking about the relationship between kata and self-defence techniques, otherwise the kata are meaningless.

It is difficult to see the bunkai in the kata when you are a student and though relating self-defence techniques back to the kata may seem the wrong way round to do things, it is through this ‘pattern matching’ process that the student starts to see relationships between kata and technique. Eventually, through experience, it is hoped that the student will learn to see the technique in the kata rather than merely the kata in the technique.

Overall I enjoy the ground fighting we are learning. What I realised is that you need to have a reasonable amount of flexibility in the hips and legs as you need to be able to swing your leg over the opponents head to get it behind them and you need to be able to use momentum to shift your weight or shift your opponents weight. This is not so easy when you are little and your opponent is bigger!

Ground fighting reminds me of grappling with my brother on the lounge carpet when we were kids - perhaps that's why I like it, I'm still a big kid at heart!

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Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Martial Arts - Enjoy it because you can!

This post is inspired by Michele's latest post: Tuesay Tip: Repost: Enjoy at 'Just a Thought'. In this post Michele implores us to enjoy our martial arts.

I replied to Michele that I enjoy the physicality of doing martial arts - I appreciate the fact that I can actually do it! I will confess something to you: I am 47; I took up martial arts at the relatively late age of 45. I feel lucky that I am healthy, fit and flexible enough to participate in such a physical and vigorous pursuit and I do not take it for granted. There is great pleasure in being able to move your body about freely, without pain or discomfort; to explore the limits of what you can do and stretch yourself beyond those limits.

You know what? I hate being called middle-aged. I would never refer to myself as middle-aged. Middle-age is a concept not a number; it’s a state of mind. Middle-age is for people who think it is time to take things a bit easy, to plateau, to coast into old age, to stop setting goals, to stop learning new things – to just sit back and let life pass you by. ‘Middle-age’ can strike you at any age and you should guard against it. I’ve met people in their twenty’s who are ‘middle-aged’ and I’ve met people in their senior years who have still yet to reach ‘middle-age’!

When my husband was younger he worked for a few months in Newfoundland in Canada. He was walking past a lake one day where people were sailing and windsurfing. When he looked a little closer he realised that all the people on the lake were senior citizens – some very senior! He was astounded – it was the first time he realised that older people could still participate in vigorous physical activity and he was impressed.

We have all recently heard the news about the 72 year old judoka from Edinburgh receiving his 10th dan. This is an amazing achievement and what is most amazing is that he still runs his club. He is still active, still involved and still enthusiastic. He has not yet reached ‘middle-age’! Stories like this inspire me; they make all things still seem possible, regardless of age. I once read a comment from a martial arts blogger in which he felt too old to become an instructor – he took up martial arts in his thirties and got his black belt round about 40. He was now 42. Too old! I would have thought this was the perfect age – old enough to be wise and mature, young enough to have the required physical fitness.

‘Youth is wasted on the young!’ is a well known saying. It’s true – at least for many young people. They just don’t realise what advantages their youth brings them – fitness, flexibility, energy. We have several teenagers in our karate club who just don’t realise what they have! They pay lip service to the warm up and stretching exercises; give about 50% to their karate training and complain if they feel tired! They are not all like this, some do show more dedication and work hard every lesson, but the lazy ones frustrate me! I sometimes feel like shaking them and saying ‘wake up, you won’t always be young you know – try harder while you can!’ Of course I don’t actually say anything but they do make me feel quite mad sometimes.

The most frustrating thing about the ‘lazy’ teenagers is that they can pull it off when it matters, i.e. for a grading or competition – this is another advantage of youth! If I did not work hard all the time I would not be able to ‘pull it off’ for my grading. In my last karate grading one of our young 2nd kyu’s graded for 1st kyu and really pulled it off – she was amazing, it was like watching a different person! If only she worked like that all the time, who knows what she could achieve.

Whatever age we are we should appreciate our physicality and enjoy the freedom it brings us. Who knows what is around the corner. When I worked as a nurse I saw many people cut down in their prime by chronic illness or accident – their physicality or sometimes their lives taken away from them. We currently know some family friends whose 21 year old son is battling cancer – he is not responding to chemotherapy and his future balances on a knife edge. He may not get the chance to fulfil his dreams, experience the joy of life or rejoice in his physicality until old age takes him.

So forget what age you are, resist the decline of ‘middle-age’ and ENJOY your martial arts simply BECAUSE YOU CAN. Continue to push your own boundaries, continue to learn new things and continue to make every minute of it count.

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Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Niseishi : A Chinese 'Dragon' kata

I am currently learning a kata called Niseishi. This kata is practised in several different karate systems including Shukokai, Shito ryu, Wado ryu, Shorin ryu, Okinawa Hakutsuru Kenpo and Shotokan karate. In Shotokan the kata is called Nijushiho. The kata varies slightly between these systems but is almost certainly from the same lineage.

The kata’s origin is thought to be Chinese. It was most likely brought to Okinawa by Seisho Arakaki (1840-1918). He also went by the name Arakaki Kamadeunchu. Arakaki was an official of the royal court in Okinawa and travelled to China to act as an interpreter in 1870. He learnt the katas Niseishi, Seisan and Sanseiru from his teacher, the warrior, Wai Shinzan. These kata were all practiced at the Southern Shaolin Temple. He later added the ‘harder’ karate aspects to these Chinese kata and taught them in Okinawa in the Naha district.

Arakaki was considered to be a rather reclusive character and did not develop his own style of karate. However he taught many of the great masters including: Kenwa Mabuni, the founder of Shito Ryu; Tsuyoshi Chitose, the founder of Chito-Ryu; Gichin Funakoshi of Shotokan, and Kanken Toyama of the Shudokan school. This probably explains why the kata Niseishi is practiced so widely.

When Funakoshi bought Niseishi kata to Japan, to make it more acceptable to the Japanese, he renamed it Nijushiho. The words Nijushiho and Niseishi both translate as “24 Techniques”. Nijushiho contains the Japanese Kanji, ni (2), ju (10), shi (4) and ho (techniques). Together these characters can be pronounced, Nijushiho or Niseishi.

This rather uninspiring name for a kata has some intriguing Buddhist symbolism. It is said that it is not simply an interpretation of the number of movements or techniques extant in the kata. Twenty-four is related to 108, which is an auspicious number in Buddhist scriptures. Both 2 and 4 are divisors of the larger number (though 24 isn’t). One hundred and eight refers to the 108 'afflictions' of the soul, which are to be symbolically stricken down in events like Kagamai Baraki (Japanese New Year). However, the kata itself is not a Buddhist exercise - the Buddhist symbolism is only an artifact of its originators, who were most likely Buddhists of one school or another.

So, what of the kata itself? It is thought to originate from one of the Chinese "Dragon" styles. This kata requires you to move and defend from many angles. It contains both circular and linear techniques and requires good balance and coordination. This kata contains sudden contrasts between very slow movements, and explosions of power, giving the kata a distinctive rhythm. It has been likened to the ‘ebb and flow of the ocean crashing on a beach’. Alternating fast and slow movements teaches the karateka to develop his ability to shift from relaxation to tension, which requires great control of the body and its muscles.

Here are three videos of the kata: Shukokai version, Wado ryu version and Shotokan version:


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Thursday, 4 February 2010

Thank you snow - the perfect karate lesson!

The snow poured down yesterday afternoon and evening leaving about 2 inches of snow covering the roads and pavements. With the gritting trucks not yet out and the roads already slippery, this led to the dilemma of do we go to karate or not?

Summoning up a bit of martial arts dedication and determination we decided the best way to get there was to walk. It takes about half an hour so it’s not too bad. The first few minutes of the walk are through woodland. The woods were lit up by a combination of white snow, a full moon and the street lighting from the valley below and so were easy to navigate – they looked beautiful and magical with the trees glistening white and the snow was crisp and crunchy under foot. We soon entered the valley, crossed the main road and made our way up the side street on the opposite side, towards the school where the class is held. We passed two cars that had gently slid into each other on the ice, crushing headlights and denting wings. We were glad we hadn’t tried to come in the car!

We arrived in plenty of time to find that there were only five of us plus two instructors! I like classes like this – you know the instructor is going to have plenty of time to give us each lots of attention and we usually do some really interesting stuff.

We weren’t disappointed. After going through some punching and kicking combinations to get us limbered up, we partnered up and we did some kumite style punches and kicks focusing on speed and accuracy at hitting the target (i.e. making touch contact). I find the punches and front kick reasonably easy to make touch contact with speed, but the spinning back kick very difficult to do – I can do contact but I can’t do speed! With the roundhouse kick and hook kick we were expected to target the chin or side of face. Well it’s probably that ‘girly’ fear of hurting someone, but I couldn’t bring myself to make contact with my partners head and kept pulling my kicks far too early. If she put her hand up to protect her face I was fine but as soon as she took it away I couldn’t do it! However, it was a brilliant exercise, done at speed, alternating the technique with your partner.

We then spent about half an hour on kata. The advantage of the small class is that we had a lot of opportunity to ask questions about the kata techniques and have tricky bits demonstrated to us – several times if necessary. The atmosphere is always a bit less formal when the class is small and there is a greater sense of camaraderie which makes it enjoyable.

Finally Sensei took us onto the mats to show us something new – balance points. I found this quite amazing. We mainly concentrated just on the elbow as a balance point i.e. pulling on your partner’s elbow to make them lose balance. By tugging the elbow in the direction it is pointing in it is easy to pull them off balance. A relatively small pull seems to produce a dramatic loss of balance! We also did unbalancing using a rotational pull on the hip and opposite shoulder. Your partner throws a leading hand punch, you slip it and grab their hip on the same side and their shoulder on the other side (from behind) and pull the shoulder round towards you whilst pushing their hip away – down they go! I love the simplicity of these techniques and would like to do more of this.

We were saved from the long walk home when one of the instructors gave us a lift back down into the valley. We just had to walk back up through the woods, which were still beautiful and lit up (no torch needed). The end of a perfect karate session.

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Tuesday, 2 February 2010

The joy of bo!

Isn't the bo great! I've had 3 lessons with it so far and I'm loving it. I steered away from training with the bo initially because it didn't seem a very interesting or inspiring weapon - it's just a long stick. It also seemed rather unwieldy and difficult to handle.

Then during my recent kobudo grading session, I had to partner my husband in his jo grading (he partnered me for my tonfa grading) and I was asked by the grading officer to fetch a bo! I had never held a bo in my life before. Not owning a bo, and not knowing what to do with it anyway, I was despatched to find my instructor and ask to borrow one. Anyway the grading officer was very patient and showed me how to hold it and strike with it. I was hooked! I found the bo reasonably intuitive to use and move with and decided during my husband's grading that it was going to be my next weapon. By the way, my husband passed his jo grading with honours in spite of me!

So my training with the bo has begun. So far, I have learnt to 'bo walk', demonstrating elbow, head, overhead and groin strikes as I move forward. Then we've done something that resembles 'sanbon kumite' in karate where one partner steps forwards doing a particular strike as the other partner steps backwards, blocking the strike. After 4 strikes you swap roles to arrive back at your original starting point. Then you repeat the process with each type of strike/block. Great fun!

I thought I was going to get a lot less bruises with the bo than I did with the tonfa with it being a long range weapon, then last night I was learning to manipulate the bo (spin it). Watching someone spin the bo looks very impressive and difficult so I was surprised that I picked it up so readily. However, like most people learning the bo for the first time, I managed to hit my own head with it a couple of times and my shin - so perhaps I will get as many bruises as I did with the tonfa, just in different places!

Now that I'm getting used to handling the bo I've come to realise that it is in fact a very versatile weapon and not just an uninspiring stick. The basic premise of the bo is to increase the force delivered in a strike through leverage. It can be used to strike an opponent's eyes, throat, solar plexus or groin. You can use it to block an attack, apply joint locks and to sweep an opponent off their feet - all without having to get in too close.

I had always thought of the bo as being an Okinawan/Japanese weapon used in some styles of karate training. I hadn't appreciated that it is also used extensively in a range of other martial arts, including jujitsu and virtually every civilisation in the world has used a long stick as a self-defence weapon. Historically in Okinawa during the feudal period when all weapons were banned, the bo is thought to have originated from a farm implement used to carry two containers of rice or water on either side of the shoulders or from a pole used to 'punt' boats across the paddy fields.

There is something very tactile about the bo. Its thickness makes it easy and comfortable to grip and its smoothness allows it to glide effortlessly through the hands. It feels perfectly balanced when held in the middle and its weight is light enough to manipulate and swing easily but heavy enough to generate some power. The only downside is that I'm acutely aware that I have triceps muscles today and my neck and shoulders ache!

Here's a short tutorial of how to spin the bo:

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