Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Japanese 'Way' with words.

I don't speak Japanese, except for the words and phrases that I have learnt as part of my martial arts training. However, I am struck by the richness of some of these words. It seems that in Japanese, a single word or phrase can encapsulate a profound meaning that is conceptual, abstract, metaphorical, descriptive and emotional all at the same time. It's as if a single Japanese word can speak a thousand English ones.

Many of these conceptual words are used in the martial arts. Words like mushin, zanshin, kime and ma-ai. Often we add simple descriptive labels to these words such as mushin = empty mind, zanshin = awareness, kime = focus and ma-ai = space and distance. These simple descriptors do not do justice to the real meanings of these words. These words are concepts that need to be felt and experienced first hand to be truly understood.

I once tried to write a post about kime. I researched the word on the Internet quite extensively but it became clear that most people who had written about it did not understand it either. Peoples understanding of the word focus varied enormously! For some people focus was about mental concentration, for others it was about focusing power on an imaginary target. I never did write the post because I couldn't be sure in my own mind exactly what was meant by 'focus' let alone 'kime'! I think this is because I haven't truly experienced kime yet. I'm hoping that when I do, I'll recognize and understand it, but I expect by then it will have become tacit knowledge - something you intuitively know but can't explain to others. So I still won't be able to write the post!

However, despite my lack of direct experience with some of these Japanese concepts, I seem to instinctively know that they are important to the martial artist. They are not just important for the development of technical proficiency but for the development of the mind and mind-set. They are part of the Way.

To clearly understand these concepts one needs to think about them, particularly whilst training, but outside of training too. To think about them you need the vocabulary to do so (we can't think without words!) So, at least knowing of the existence of these Japanese words and their simple English descriptors is something to work with. Hopefully, through training, reading, thinking and self-exploration these terms will become clearer and their deeper meanings revealed. Maybe then, they will inform my practice of marital arts more profoundly.

It is indeed a long and difficult journey that we have embarked on.......

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Monday, 26 July 2010

Bassai Dai: to extract and block

Since becoming a 1st kyu student I have started to learn the first of the black belt katas – Bassai Dai. This is an important kata for many systems and is often chosen as the kata to test students for their black belt. It therefore resembles a ‘rite of passage’ for many karate students and so becomes a much coveted kata.

There are many variations of the Bassai kata (Passai in Okinawa) and it is found in Okinawan, Japanese and Korean styles of karate. It is likely that its origins are Chinese as it is thought to resemble Chinese Leopard and Lion boxing forms.

The origins of the kata are thought to be about 400 years old. The evidence for this is the existence of a carbon tested silk drawing of the form. It is said that the form was created as a left-handed one and if you bear that in mind when performing it then several hidden techniques are revealed!

However, this early history of the kata is a little vague and confused. What is clearer is that there were two versions of the kata practiced on Okinawa. First, there is the Matsumura version, which he allegedly brought to Okinawa following a stay in China. Matsumura learned Chinese boxing when he visited Fuchou and the Matsumura version is said to have a ‘Chinese flavour’ to it. Matsumura’s style of Passai was light and flowing with fast attacks and counters, but little power. It was circular and light.

The second version is accredited to the karate master kokan Oyadomari who lived in the Tomari district and practiced the Tomari-te style of karate. It is said that he was taught the kata from a visiting Chinese man. This version was more ‘Okinawanised’, showing a more linear style and a greater emphasis on muscle power over light speed and more direct force over whipping techniques.

Itosu was a student of Matsumura and a contemporary of Oyadomari (they all worked as bodyguards at the Shuri castle) and would probably have learnt both versions. However, instead of working with the Matsumura version as one would expect, he developed the Oyadomari version, making it even more linear and passing it onto his students, including Funakoshi who then took it to Japan.

There is much confusion over the meaning of the name Bassai. It is commonly thought to mean, ‘The storming of a fortress’, but this is more likely to be a misinterpretation and is certainly not a direct translation of the kanji characters for Bassai. A more literal translation of Bassai is, ‘To extract or remove (an obstruction) and to block (a corridor or passageway)’. It was Funakoshi who changed the name from Passai to Bassai when he took the kata to Japan.

The Bassai kata is characterised by the idea of changing a disadvantage into an advantage by the switching of strikes to blocks and blocks to strikes. It uses a lot of hip rotation to generate power and its execution requires a lot of spirit, with fast moves and proper attention given to an appropriate balance between speed and power.

The version of Bassai Dai that I am learning is the Itosu version as practiced by Shito Ryu stylists. Here is a video of it:

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Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Some awfully nice gals show us how it's done!

I know some of these videos have done the rounds before but I just love them!
Some awfully nice gals show us how it's done.......

Not sure about the outfit this girl's wearing, no wonder she falls so elegantly.......

Such spiffing villains.....

Hope you enjoyed!

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Monday, 19 July 2010

1st Kyu Sue!

Before I tell you how my grading went on Saturday, I just want to make clear that I was grading for 1st kyu NOT 1st dan! My black belt grading is another 9 months away yet. 1st kyu is the highest kyu grade and in our system this means my brown belt now has 3 white tabs on it (we have 3 separate brown belt gradings spread over about 18 months - with each one you get an extra tab).
With that cleared up I'll tell you how it went!
The grading was well organised and started on time at 3.30pm. There were nine of us to grade, 4 people grading for 3rd kyu, one grading for 2nd kyu and 4 of us grading for 1st kyu. As is usual in our grading model we alternated sections between the different kyu grades, standing at the back when it wasn't our turn. This worked very efficiently as we only waited at the back for a few minutes at the time. The 1st kyu syllabus was by far longer than the other grades so unfortunately they did wait around a little longer than us.
After a brief warm up, we started off with punching and kicking combinations (6 of each) which we repeated several times each - we were definitely warmed up after that! These seemed to go okay, well I remembered them all anyway! This was followed by demonstrations of our 2 kata and a bunkai application for each. We performed the kata individually.
Kata is my weak point! Though I performed all the steps correctly, tried hard to get the timing right and remembered to look and prep my arms/feet before turning, I am still not sharp enough, repeatedly forget to snap back my kicks properly and I'm still a little wobbly sometimes. Though I have not had the full feed back or the individual marks for each section from my instructor, he did tell me that my kata performances let me down and is the area that needs most work.
The standard is set very high for kata performance in our organisation. It is an organisation that has produced or is preparing people for World and European level competition. Though we are not all expected to reach this high competition standard, by setting the bar high, we more average karateka will at least be pushed to reach the highest standard possible for us as individuals - and I still have 9 months to get this right!
We then moved onto pad work and demonstrated 3 different punches and 3 different kicks against the pad. This went well, I'm fairly strong on pad work, I like beating the living daylights out of a pad, so I'm hopeful of a reasonable mark on this section.
Next we moved onto the partner work - the ippon kumite, goshin waza and ne waza techniques. I was able to partner my husband for this and I think we both gave a pretty strong performance in these sections, particularly my husband. My son was also very strong in the partner work. He's only 16 and very slim and light but he has lightening speed and whipped his partner around like a rag doll! Glad I wasn't on the receiving end of that!
The final section was the sparring - we each did 2 rounds of shiai kumite (competition sparring). I did my first round with a young lad of about 12 who was grading for 3rd kyu. Though he wasn't much smaller than me, he was still a lad (and not very confident with himself) so I didn't feel I could go too heavily with him. Having said that, he did show a reasonable range of techniques - just not assertively enough to score. My second round was with my son, and he showed his mum no mercy! In fact, our instructor had to remind us it was light sparring only. I think we scored 1 point each, and gained a few bruises!
Then it was time to line up to receive our marks. Usually we get the breakdown of each section as well as the overall mark but there was only time to get the overall mark ( the grading had taken 2 hours). Prior to giving the marks he warned us that the 1st kyu's had been graded to black belt standard (which is tough) and to expect that our marks would be lower than we are accustomed to. I scored 60/100, my husband 63 and my son 62. We generally score in the region of 68 - 75 so I'm glad Sensei warned us!
I averaged 6 marks per section. If I do this in the black belt grading I would score 90 marks (there are 15 sections). The pass mark at black belt is 90! I would scrape a pass. Obviously I don't want to scrape a pass, I want to pass well so I will need to use these next 9 months to train really hard and make sure I improve my standard.
I think the 3rd kyu's were slightly in awe watching us 1st kyus perform some of our ippon kumite and goshin waza techniques. The differential in standard between 1st kyu and 3rd kyu is quite high, in the same way that the differential in standard between 1st kyu and 1st dan is quite high. I think we all finished the grading satisfied that we'd given it our best on the day, but with no doubts that improvements are needed for our black belt grading next May!
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Friday, 16 July 2010

Preparing for grading.....

I'm grading for 1st kyu tomorrow, along with my husband, son and another guy. On Wednesday our instructor lets us work on our syllabus at the back of the class. We didn't even bother with the individual kihon stuff because there is so much partner work to get through.
We have to demonstrate 9 different ippon kumite techniques (to 3 different attacks), 3 escapes to grabs from behind, 2 separate bunkai applications (one for each kata we have to perform) and escapes from mount and guard positions on the ground. We've each had to work out our own techniques (with some help from Sensei), so we are all doing different things. It took over half the lesson just for us to train these partner techniques.
We then got the chance to do each of our katas once each and then did a bit of kumite practice with the rest of the class. I know the kihon will take about 1/2 hour for us all to compete so I'm reckoning that the whole grading experience is going to last 2 hours at least - just for us. Taking into account that some 4th and 3rd kyus are grading in the same session, then I think we will be there at least 3 hours......
Another marathon grading session coming up! At least the hot weather has abated at the moment. I'll let you know how it goes.....
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Monday, 12 July 2010

Fantastic seminar by Iain Abernethy

I attended an Iain Abernethy  seminar yesterday - what a treat! He's an excellent teacher and an amazing karateka to watch. The course was held at the SKK Judo Centre in Newton -le-Willows, near Manchester.
This is a brilliant place to hold a seminar because the mats are so soft (it's like walking on the moon!)

Holding the rank of 5th dan, Iain Abernethy is a leading exponent on applied karate in the UK and gives seminars all around the world. He has also written several books,  produced several DVDs and produces the online 'Jissen' martial arts magazine. He's also a really nice, approachable guy.

During the seminar we were looking at several different bunkai applications from the pinan katas. This included the proper use of shuto uchi, the need to use the correct stances as they appear in the kata, the application of arm locks and counters to those arm locks, take downs, escapes from grabs and various other locks. We also did some interesting exercises with our eyes shut to demonstrate how proprioception works.

We then finished off with some grappling and ground work skills, though this was more for fun than for serious self-defence.

He interspersed each drill with a discussion on the principles held within the kata as well as some useful historical context and some amusing anecdotes about the old masters in karate. The historical context was particularly interesting as he explained the reason why pinan shodan should precede pinan nidan (in most systems pinan shodan is generally taught as the second kata rather than the first as its name suggests). Though pinan nidan is technically easier to perform than pinan shodan, the bunkai applications are more complex than those for pinan shodan - that is why Itosu put it second. The pinan katas are ordered according the difficulty of their applications rather than their performance.

The things I most remember Sensei Abernethy saying are (slightly paraphrased):

"In a real fight, instead of rising to the level of your expectations you will fall to the level of your training, you will fight like you train".

I think he was actually quoting someone else as having said this but I can't remember who! Because of this he said you must train in the way you would want to respond in a real fight, so, never help your partner up in training after you have thrown them - you may find yourself helping up your attacker instead of running away! Always assume there is more than one attacker around so don't spend time holding people in locks - the second guy may get you if you do. Once you've thrown someone down or struck them down, back away looking to your left and right (you'll have tunnel vision as a response to the adrenaline dump). You should do this in your training because it won't come naturally when you are in a real fight and you may not notice the second guy next to you. Also, he said attack the head repeatedly and try and control their head by grabbing the hair or holding them behind the head. He also talked about the effectiveness of the pre-emptive strike - if a threat looks imminent then don't wait to be attacked first or you will lose.

Overall the course was very beneficial, enjoyable and relevant to our syllabus. Hopefully our organisation will be booking Sensei Abernethy again next year. If you get the chance to go to one of his seminars don't miss it.

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Friday, 9 July 2010

Females, fear and training partners

I have just read Michele's thoughtful and insightful post: What women want - karate version, which in itself was a response to a post by Steve (BJJ blog) . Michele poses the question:

Do women want to be treated like training partners or treated like female training partners?

The basic gist of this question is: does a female karate practitioner want their (male) training partner to treat them as a woman first and a training partner second or just treat them as a training partner and forget about gender differences?

Judging by Steve's blog post this is a question that puzzles men, they appear to find it hard to interpret women's responses to training with them and therefore find it difficult to pitch how firmly they can apply techniques.

It seems that women's experiences of training with men varies greatly between clubs. Both Michele and fellow blogger Felicia have trained regularly with male partners. In my club the women rarely ever train with men (for ippon kumite or goshin waza), despite there being very few of us. Does this put me at a disadvantage? Yes and No! Yes, because I rarely get to train with the gender that is more likely to attack me so I don't know if I can make techniques work against them. No, because women understand each others psychology better and can often work sensitively and intelligently together. However, most women I have trained with are just not robust enough for me to train hard with and so I have to hold back a lot.

There are only 3 adult women in my class (plus a few teenage girls). Out of the other two women  I prefer to train with the black belt. Though she is much bigger than me (this size differential creates its own problems regardless of gender), she is fairly robust and strong. She also acts as my own personal 'sensei', guiding me through techniques and thus I learn a lot from her. The other woman, though she is the same kyu grade as me, is a lot less confident and robust so I can basically only 'walk through' techniques with her. I am not able to demonstrate what I am capable of when I train with her.

On Wednesday I had the opportunity to discuss this issue of training partners with my instructor. I am coming up to my 1st kyu grading very soon would obviously like to put on a good 'display' of ippon kumite and goshin waza. To do this I need a suitable partner - one that will let me apply techniques fully and is able to be thrown. I requested having my husband as my partner in the grading (even if he has a man as his partner when he demonstrates his ippon techniques). My instructor was fine with this idea and allowed us to train together in last nights session. We then demonstrated the full range of our techniques to him in a 'no holds barred' sort of way to show that I am robust enough to handle the throws, locks, strikes and take downs.

My husband makes an excellent training partner for me. He definitely treats me as a training partner first and female second. He knows that I need to be able to show that I can do this stuff in an assertive, confident way but also that I can 'take it' from him in an equally uncompromising way. I think we put on a reasonably impressive display. I certainly enjoyed it and felt very energised by the experience.

I do not have a problem training with other women. I enjoy training with my black belt partner and learn a lot from her. I don't mind training with my less confident brown belt colleague as it is an opportunity to try and build her confidence by encouraging her to do the techniques on me a little more firmly. However, I would like some more robust partners occassionally and for me that would mean training with the men. In this situation I would like male partners to treat me as a training partner first, taking into consideration age, size, strength and grade differences - gender would not be important if they did that.

But why are some women more fragile and lacking confidence that others? How can we help them? I have discussed in previous posts some of the gender differences that may affect training: Women in martial arts and Women's self defence - is it just an illusion.

I think that many women suffer from the 'fear factor' when they start learning a martial art:  Fear of getting hurt or fear hurting someone. I was no exception when I started but it all started to change for me about a year ago. Two things happened that helped me overcome my fear and toughen up a little.  Learning to breakfall properly had an enormous influence on me - my confidence soared once I realised it didn't have to hurt when I fell over! The second thing happened at my kobudo club. I was lined up with the jujitsukas to participate in a round of hip throws. I was still wearing a white belt at this club so Sensei warned the others not to throw me too hard. When it was my turn to be thrown by a 2nd dan (male) he seemed to forget my white belt status and threw me so hard I nearly bounced! I managed to breakfall, so I wasn't hurt but it winded me and shook me up a little - I wasn't expecting it! The guy involved got reprimanded by the Sensei.

Reflecting on the experience later I realised that he had actually done me a favour. If I could tolerate being slammed down that hard and not get hurt then what was I worrying about? It was a bit like being thrown into the deep end to learn to swim - you either sink or swim. I decided to swim. I've never really looked back since then and my confidence with throwing and being thrown has just grown and grown.

I'm not advocating that other women should submit to a sink or swim policy but I think every woman needs to think about what it is they are fearful of and look for solutions within themselves as to how they may overcome training fears and thus be able to thrive in their martial art and be a good training partner for others. Once they have achieved that it shouldn't matter whether they train with a male or female partner - their ability to be a good training partner will take precedence over any gender issues.
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Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Teaching karate to young children.

I had quite an interesting time helping out with the junior class last night. I don't usually know what I am going to be asked to do until I get there and the class has done the warm up. My instructor then tells me who he wants me to work with. This is fine when the task involves taking a couple of students through a particular kata, or if I am given a very specific task to do with clear instructions on how to do it.
However, the last couple of weeks I have been asked to take the new white belts to the back of the class and 'go through the syllabus' or 'teach them some basic blocking and punching'. I have then had them for the majority of the class. The problem for me with this is that I have had nothing prepared, no lesson plan and I've made it up on the hop! But six year olds get easily bored with just going through the syllabus and then they start moaning and fidgeting - then they start wandering away or messing about with each other.
So last night I went prepared! I had no idea until I got there whether I would be teaching the white belts again but just in case, I had some drills and tasks prepared that might make it a little more interesting and fun for my little charges.
In fact I had 5 white belt students - one new woman and four children aged between about 6 and 9 years. I had planned just to teach them the stances and techniques that they would need to know for their first kata, shihozuki. These are yoi, zenkutsu dachi, mawate, gedan barai and oi zuki.
I have noticed in previous weeks that a lot of white belt students have problems coordinating their arms properly for a gedan barai so I devised a drill using a belt to help them get the feel of the movement. Basically, I dangled a belt above their shoulder, clasping it in a way that would let it slide through my hands without falling when it was pulled. Their task was to reach up to their shoulder with the opposite hand, grab the belt and pull it down across the body to hip level - this hopefully emulated the movement of a downward block. The kids seemed to pick up on this quite well and were able to tug the belt quite sharply. We did this with both arms. We then repeated the task using only an 'imaginary' belt. On the whole they did pretty well, though there was still some confusion over pulling the non-blocking arm back into chamber so I might need to think a bit more about this.
We also tried doing the same drill but with a quarter turn to the left as the belt is pulled - this is the first step in the kata (turn left into zenkutsu dachi and perform a gedan barai). This was when I was reminded that young children don't have the same level of vocabulary as adults. I asked them to make a 90 degree turn to the left. One boy was extremely puzzled by this because degrees was something to do with oven temperature! I also came into a problem with the use of the word drill because that's something dad uses to put shelves up!
To get them to make a strong zenkutsu dachi I tried a pushing game. I got them to pair up and face each other standing in a left footed zenkutsu dachi. They then touched with their left palms together and on my count tried to push each other backwards. They soon found that success depended on getting a good bend on the front leg to push their weight forward and that if they had their feet in a line they were more wobbly and easier to push over. Well, it was fun and I think they understood what was being learned.
I found belts to be a very useful tool last night. We also used belts to learn the push/pull movement of a basic punch. Standing opposite a partner they had two belts and held one end of each in each hand. They then pull back with their left hand (causing their right arm to be pulled straight out in front of them). They then pulled back with their right arm and so on. I then got them to turn their hand over as it came back into chamber. We started in yoi and then progressed to standing in zenkutsu dachi. I was then going to progress to one partner stepping forwards in zenkutsu dachi as they pulled the belts to resemble an oi zuki punch but we were running out of time.
Overall, I think it went okay - I seemed to keep their interest for most of the time. We had to stop half way because they were desperate to learn how to tie a belt on and I realised we wouldn't be able to move on until they've had a go at this. Still, belt tying is on the white belt syllabus so it was useful even if it wasn't on my lesson plan!
Things I learn't about teaching young children:
1. They take a long time to get organised to start an activity - especially if it involves a partner
2. They are chatterboxes and like to tell you things, even if it is nothing to do with karate, so you have to keep bringing them back on task.
3. To get their attention you need to use their name - learning all the kids names is important.
4. They can get a little over boisterous when playing a push/pull games and you have to calm them down.
5. You never have time to complete the whole lesson plan - everything takes longer than you expect
6. You have to use language they understand but they have an amazing propensity to learn Japanese words!
7. They make you feel proud when they manage to do something well and are incredibly rewarding to teach (and occasionally frustrating).
Do you like teaching young children? Have you got any tips/ideas to share?
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Thursday, 1 July 2010

Hot weather and wicked humour!

Britain has been in the middle of a heat wave these last few weeks - well a heatwave by British standards anyway! It has been consistently around 25 degrees C (that's hot for us) and there has been very little rainfall for weeks (that's dry for us). We moan when it's cold and wet and now we are complaining that its too hot and dry - really, there's just no pleasing us!

Anyway, training has been a hot sticky affair recently. I have taken to wearing my old, thin, cheap gi that I started with and others are training in t-shirts instead of gi jackets. We have the fire doors open and are taking more frequent water breaks to prevent dehydration. Heat exhaustion is a potential problem and Chris Littlefair has addressed this issue in his most recent post.

Something about training in the heat seems to bring the class together a bit more - it must be the sense of suffering together. It also seems to bring out the slightly wicked side of us girls - well there's not many of us so we have to stick together! Sensei was demonstrating a 2-man locking drill ( he's pretty keen on drills since we attended the Patrick McCarthy course) and was demonstrating on one of our senior black belts, Bruce. The locks were going on pretty hard - wrist locks, arm locks, head locks, standing up and on the ground. Poor old Bruce was being twisted around, locked up and thrown to the ground like a rag doll!

For some reason this struck us girls as being quite amusing (I'm blaming it on the heat) and so we 'innocently' asked sensei to demonstrate it again...and again...and again....It was about the fourth time before Bruce cottoned on to what we were doing (we're so cruel!). He took it with good humour though .... so, if you're reading this Bruce, we're very sorry - hope you're not too sore today!

On a more serious note though, training in hot weather does have its inherent dangers. Dehydration and heat exhaustion do need to be watched out for. Do you have any tips for training safely in hot weather? Does the heat bring out your wicked side........?

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