Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Why do Shikko?

Shikko, or knee walking (also known as samurai walking) is not something that we do in karate but it is an important element in aikido and in Japanese sword training. However, my karate instructor is also a keen student of aikido and so decided to introduce us to a bit of knee walking. This rather strange way of moving across the floor intrigued me so I decided to find out a bit more about its history and why it is still done today.

First let's have a look at some knee walking:

Historically, knee walking has been done in Japan for centuries in both civilian and military life. In civilian life in old Japan most of the activities done inside the home or a building were done on the knees such as cooking, eating or even discussing business. In addition to this, most typical Japanese buildings were never very tall because natural resources such as wood were very scarce and costly, so standing up to perform tasks was not an option. Knee-walking became a common practice in family life.

During Feudal times, the Samurai would be expected to sit and walk around on their knees while in the presence of a daimyo (feudal lord). This was also a position in which one received guests, not all of whom were always trustworthy, so in theory, keeping everyone low to the ground made it more difficult for anyone to attack the daimyo. However, samurai still had to function as warriors and bodyguards and so trained to fight, if necessary, from the iaigoshi position. Iaigoshi is similar to the seiza (kneeling) position but the balls of the feet remain on the ground so that you are always in a position to move quickly, either by walking on the knees or by leaping to the feet.

It is fairly easy to see why, in the art of the Japanese sword, shikko is still practised along with learning sword techniques from the iaigoshi position. These traditional samurai techniques are integral to the art. However, why is shikko practised so widely in aikido, which is a modern budo art?

Aikido is a blend of (mainly) grappling arts (
Daitō-ryū aiki-jūjutsu, Tenjin Shin'yō-ryū Gotōha Yagyū Shingan-ryū and judo) Though Daitō-ryū is the primary technical influence on aikido, it also derives much of its technical structure from the art of swordsmanship (kenjutsu). Many of the strikes of aikido are often said to resemble cuts from a sword or other grasped object, which indicates its origins in techniques intended for armed combat. Other techniques, which appear to explicitly be punches are also practiced as thrusts with a knife or sword.

This influence of the sword in aikido extends to learning techniques from the iaigoshi or seiza position (suwari waza - both uke and nage seated; hanmi handachi - uke standing, nage seated) in much the same way as it is practised in kenjutsu and thus the need to learn shikko becomes more apparent.

Training to do shikko has many positive physical benefits. It increases strength and flexibility in the legs and hips. The rotational movement required to walk in shikko is particularly good for getting one used to engaging the hips properly when moving and is very important for developing a strong awareness of one's center of gravity (hara or lower dantian).

So how do you do it?

1. From iaigoshi position: drop the right knee to the floor
2. without raising the hips, step forward to assume a left-leg leading iaigoshi.
3. repeat the movement to continue moving forward in a straight line.
While moving in shikko, keep the balls of the feet in a straight line and avoid raising and lowering the body. Ref: Bokken - art of the Japanese Sword, p.58, by David Lowry.

Here's another description of how to knee walk from David Harvey:
"Imagine your ankles are tied together with a set of elastic bungee
You are kneeling. Then you lift up your right knee and place the right
foot flat to the floor.
The imaginary ‘elastic’ pulls both your heels together, so your left heel swivels across to touch your right heel. The heels are together again.
Using your hip, and leaving your feet where they are, allow your right knee to kneel down again. You have just moved forward about 19 inches (50 cms).
Now raise the left knee and bring the left leg forward so the foot is flat on the ground and the left knee is raised. (Your ankles are apart again, so imagine that elastic pulling them together again.)
Swivel your right ankle now so it meets the left ankle again.
This is basic Shikko knee walking, the Samurai Walk."

To finish - a look at the application of shikko in suwari waza (the overhead filming of suwari waza randori is particularly impressive at the beginning of this video)

Bokken - Art of the Japanese Sword (1986). David Lowry. Black Belt Books.

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Monday, 21 December 2009

Black Belts and teaching - another perspective

Following on from all the recent posts on the subject I just thought I'd throw my two penny's worth in about whether new black belts should be expected to teach or not.

I'm not yet a black belt so you may or may not value my opinion on this but I have worked as a teacher in the past and so I know from experience that you really start to learn your subject once you start to teach it to others.

I have just been reading David Lowry's book - Moving Toward Stillness - and there is a chapter called 'Climbing the circular ladder'. In this chapter he recounts an occasion when he was a junior ranked judoka and was witnessing some fellow students receiving their black belts at a tournament that they had earned by virtue of demonstrating skill in competition (batsugun). The belts were awarded by the panel of tournament judges who each imparted words of encouragment to the five recipients of the black belts. The most revered judge was Nishimoto sensei, a Buddhist priest and 5th dan in judo. They all waited for his words of wisdom. He stood up and, addressing the new black belt students, said,"You have taken a bit step forward. Now I hope you will take a big step back." Then he sat down.

The point David Lowry was trying to make with this anecdote was that learning in martial arts is circular, not linear, and we all have to keep taking a step back and revisiting basic skills again, each time gaining new insights and improving our own proficiency.

Becoming a shodan is an ideal time to step back and revisit some skills learned long ago in earlier grades and the best way to do that is to teach them to someone else. I think this is an ideal way to consolidate on learning that has already taken place over the previous few years, check your own understanding of it and complete another loop in the spiral of learning. As long as students still receive instruction from the senior instructor and assistant instructors are properly supervised then everyone can benefit.

Ref: David Lowry - Moving towards stillness (2000). Tuttle publishing

Other posts on this subject:

Do Black Belts have to teach (Just a thought)

Black belts and teaching (State of My Arts)

Do Black Belts have to start their own class? (Martial Arts and Modern Life)

A Delicate Balance (Bushido Road)

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Thursday, 17 December 2009

My 100th post - a review

This is my 100th post! I'm amazed I have found 100 different things to write about but then that's the thing about martial arts - it has unlimited potential to provide us with interesting things to research, analyse, discuss and share with each other.
I have decided to use this post to review both my blogging and martial arts experience since I started this blog back in February 09. My initial reason for starting a blog was that I wanted an outlet for my creative writing efforts - poems and stories that I have written over the years but never attempted to publish. However, I was worried that I wouldn't have enough material to keep a blog running for very long so I decided to test out the waters with a martial arts blog.

I love writing this blog! I had no idea what kind of things I would end up writing about but books, your blogs, training experiences and talking to other martial artists provides constant sources of inspiration, ideas and questions to answer through blogging. I now consider this blog to be part of my martial arts training. It is the place where I think about my training, analyse what I am learning and look outside of my own small martial arts world to put things into a bigger, broader context. One thing you start to realise is that there are more similarities than differences between different martial arts and people often just take different paths to achieve common goals.

I decided quite early on that this blog would be more than just a training log. Documenting your training schedule is fine but I think people's training schedules don't differ too much from each other so I think there is limited mileage in blogging about it over a period of time. How your training
affects/enhances/damages/changes you is much more interesting than a list of what you actually did. It reveals more about your art and more about you as a person/martial artist. I also like to explore broader themes such as cultural and historical influences in martial arts. Here is a brief review of the subjects I have posted on in the last 10 months:

Japanese culture: I have looked at several different Japanese Ways, including Chado (tea ceremony); Shado (calligraphy); Kodo (Way of fragrance) and Ikebana (Japanese flower arranging). What I learnt from this is that in Japan budo is just another Way of life - no more or less important than the others. Each Way offers a path of focused and progressive training in the respective art and is about self-improvement and seeking perfection. In Japan you would be no more revered as a master of martial arts than you would as a master of flower arranging or calligraphy. I think this puts things into perspective!

History: I have researched and written about the history of the style of karate that I do, which is Shukokai and I have traced its lineage and the main senseis responsible for its evolution and development. This has helped me to see how my art fits into the broader context of martial arts. I have also started to write about the history of the katas that are practiced in shukokai karate. This has proved to be a very difficult process and has involved piecing together snippets of information found from a wide variety of sources. It has also surprised me that there are so many variations of some katas, so ensuring that I have put the correct history with the appropriate version of the kata for me has also been problematic.

Budo culture: I have been quite intrigued by some of the 'traditions' that are observed in traditional dojos, some of which we just take for granted and don't really question why we do it! This is why I started my little series on Why do we......... So far I have looked at sitting in seiza, practising barefoot and the wearing of gis. I also wrote an article about the power of the kiai. These little articles have covered the history and purpose of the tradition. I appreciate these traditions much more for learning about their purpose. I have a couple more ideas for my Why do we...... series for next year so you will have to wait for them!

Training aspects: I find it difficult to write too much about specific martial art techniques and self-defence strategies. This is because I am still a student in the kyu grades and so don't have the knowledge or experience to tell others how to do it - that would be patronising in the extreme and I have no desire to take that approach. Instead, I have tried to discuss technical aspects of martial arts from a learners point of view, sharing with you my observations, personal difficulties, research and personal opinions. I have been particularly interested in problems that women face in martial arts training and have written several posts on the subject. These views have come about as a result of reflecting on my own training and observing the training efforts of other women in my dojo or on courses I have attended. Of course my views may change as my training progresses or as a result of comments you make to me so my views only represent me as I am now.

I haven't actually written much about my own personal progress in karate or kobudo since I started blogging, so here's an update: In karate I have graded twice since I started blogging, moving from 4th kyu (purple belt) to 2nd Kyu (brown belt with 2 white tabs). All being well I expect to grade for 1st Kyu (brown belt with 3 white tabs) around June/July next year and for black belt about 9 months after that. I have also seen my club transfer from one organisation (SKU) to another (SSK). This has meant we have all had to get to grips with a much more comprehensive syllabus. I have also attended a few courses and participated in both kata and kumite competitions. I took up kobudo with a jutitsu/kobudo club about 6 months ago and have just graded in level 1 tonfa. I intend to study the bo as my second level 1 weapon after Christmas and also continue my study of the bokken. It has been quite a busy year!

However, none of this tells you what I am good or bad at so here are my personal reflections of my karate ability. My upper body techniques are better than my lower body techniques - I punch better than I kick! For a woman my punching and blocking is quite hard though I still sometimes punch the pad with the wrong knuckles suggesting that my wrist is not always straight. My stances are generally accurate and strong as are most of my movements, however, I don't yet have the speed needed to execute moves powerfully. Kicks are my weakest thing; my mae geri doesn't snap back enough; my mawashi geri is okay against the pad but useless in sparring; my yoko geri is laboured and has the wrong foot position and my urisho geri would only be useful if I was aiming for your knee - I cannot get height on it at all! As for anything spinning? That brings me to my other weakness - balance. If I turn too quickly I lose balance and I'm not too hot at standing on one leg either. However, I'm good at break falling and can do many self-defence techniques quite strongly. We all have different strengths and weaknesses. I think identifying and acknowledging them is a step towards making progress.

Well I hope you have enjoyed this review of my blogging and martial arts experiences over the last 10 months. Of course there would be little point in writing a public blog if no-one was interested in reading it so I would like to thank all my readers for their comments. Receiving comments is one of the best parts of blogging for me - I love the interaction with other people and welcome all styles of comments, whether you are agreeing with my post or not! I will always endeavour to reflect on your comment and reply to it so please keep them coming.

In the new year I am hoping to give my blog a face lift, possibly even a slight name change, not sure yet. Well, whatever happens I'm looking forward to writing my next 100 blog posts!

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Holiday times reflect commitment to training

You can tell it's getting close to the holiday season by how many people turn up for training. Last night I turned up at 6pm to help out with the junior class as usual and apart from me and the instructor there was 1 student! He was a little 9 year old red belt, so I think it was a little bit intimidating for him with just two grown ups for company. So to make it seem less scary I just joined in next to him in the line so that he had someone to copy whilst the instructor talked him through things and corrected his stances/ hand positions etc. He coped really well with it and picked things up quickly, so all credit to him.

Actually it was probably doubly difficult for him since our usual instructor is on holiday (a month in New Zealand, the lucky thing) and one of our black belts, Bruce, is covering the sessions. Bruce has just started up his own club as well so he has a lot going on at the moment!

Interestingly the senior class had a good turnout (about 14) and with Bruce in charge it was always going to be a very energetic session! But what does it say about commitment when 1 out of about 16 turn up for the junior class and 14 out of about 16 turn up for the senior class? I know it is well documented that the peak times for giving up martial arts training are in the lower kyu grades (around orange/green belt) and then again at senior brown belt (just before black belt testing). Clearly all our brown belts are still very committed. Many have notably increased their commitment as they become 1st kyu grade and start preparing for black belt. The quality of their karate skill has increased significantly as they have upped their training - which just goes to show that achievement is proportional to effort.

Is our junior class typical of lower kyu grade behaviour? This is not the first time that the junior class has been depleted to just 1 student in recent months. During the October half-term I came in to help and there was just one student, the instructor and me. But the senior class was well attended as usual. The same pattern is seen in the long summer holidays as well - the junior class depletes whilst the senior class remains well attended.

I suppose I shouldn't be too surprised by this. I think the junior class acts as a filter. Most students will be lost through the filter's pores, only about a quarter to one-third will be retained and make it to the senior class. In fact, I think the student's in the junior class fall into one of four groups. 1. The karate-philes who love the art and are committed to training. 2. The karate-phobes who quickly discover it's not for them and drop out before grading. 3. The 'doing it for someone else' group, i.e. mums/dads who join in order to persuade their children to join and kids who join because their parents make them. 4.The 'keen but no time' group, who would love to continue but don't have the time.

I suspect the people who make it into the senior class are group 1 and some of group 3 who discover that they like it for themselves as well. I expect that groups 2,4 and most of group 3 are the ones that skip training every time there's a school holiday and the routine is broken.

Have you noticed a similar pattern of behaviour in your classes?

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

It's Christmas day, "All is secure"!

A friend sent me this poem in an e-mail today. It was written by a British Peace Keeping soldier stationed overseas. The following is the soldier's request -

"Please would you do me the kind favour of sending this to as many people as you can. Christmas will be coming soon and much credit
is due to our British Service men and women for our being able to celebrate these festivities."
(Of course the same is true for soldiers serving from all over the world)

It's Christmas day, "All is secure"!

T'was the night before christmas, he lived all alone
in a one bedroom house made of plaster and stone.
I had come down the chimney with presents to give
and to see just who, in this small home did live.

I looked all about, a strange sight I did see -
no tinsel no presents, not even a tree.
No stocking by the mantle just boots filled with sand
on the wall hung pictures of a far distant land.

With medals and badges, awards of all kinds.
then a sober thought came into my mind.
For this house was different, it was dark and dreary,
t'was the home of a soldier, once I could see clearly.

The soldier lay sleeping, silent, alone
curled up on the floor in this one bedroom home.
The face was so gentle, the room in disorder
not how I pictured a lone soldier...

Was this the hero of whom i'd just read,
curled up on a poncho, the floor for a bed?
I realised the families that I saw this night
owed their lives to these soldiers, who were willing to fight.

And soon round the world the children would play
and grown ups would celebrate a bright christmas day.
They all enjoy freedom each month of the year
because of the soldiers, like the one lying here.

I couldn't help but wonder, how many alone,
on a cold christmas eve in a land far from home?
The very thought brought a tear to my eye
I dropped to my knees and started to cry

The soldier awakened, I heard a rough voice
"Santa don't cry, this life is my choice.
I fight for freedom, I don't ask for more
my life is my God, my country, my corps"

The soldier rolled over and drifted to sleep.
I couldn't control it, I continued to weep.
I kept watch for hours, so silent and still
and we both sat and shivered from the cold nights chill.

I didn't want to leave, on that cold dark night,
the guardian of honour, so willing to fight...
then the soldier rolled over with a voice soft and pure
whispered "Carry on santa, Christmas day is secure"

One look at my watch and I knew he was right
"Merry Christmas my friend - and to all a good night!"

Please feel free to cut and paste this poem and pass onto others.

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Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Grading Weekend Over!

At last my stressful grading weekend is over! As I mentioned in a previous post I was grading for karate (2nd kyu) on Saturday and Kobudo (level 1 tonfa) on Sunday.

Karate grading: This turned into a long and tiring 5 hour marathon grading session. Not that we were grading literally for the whole 5 hours but there were so many of us grading at once, over 5 different grading levels, that it just took that long for all of us to get through our syllabus, bit by bit. The most difficult part of grading in this way was keeping warm in between being graded and maintaining concentration and enthusiasm for the grading. However, the positive thing about it was that there was plenty of time to practice the next element whilst standing at the back of the hall!

I managed to put in my usual level of performance - nothing went catastrophically wrong and nothing was exceptionally brilliant. I generally score between 66 and 70/100 which is respectable (pass mark is 55). This time I got 69, so no surprises! I was pleased with this score but for some strange reason I felt extremely flat and despondent after the grading. I don't know if this was just a reaction to the stress and tiredness of it all or what? but I couldn't shake off the feeling of negativity that I felt for the rest of the evening and much of Sunday as well. Not like me at all to be like that so I don't quite understand it.

Anyway by Sunday afternoon I had to put all thoughts of karate out of my mind and start focusing on my kobudo grading which started at 5pm:

Kobudo grading: There were lots of unknowns for me in this grading. I'd never been to the hall where the grading took part before. I'd never met the grading officer before and I didn't quite know how the grading would be run - so I was a little nervous! When we arrived we were told that the kobudo gradings would be done last after the jujitsu gradings. I looked around the hall to see at least 25 children and half a dozen adults preparing to grade in jujitsu and realised there was going to be lots of waiting around again! There were only 3 adults and 2 children taking kobudo gradings and I was the only one doing tonfa.

Finally I was called to grade along with my husband who was grading in level 1 Jo. We partnered each other. The grading officer first asked me to demonstrate a series of blocks which I had practised against a series of empty handed strikes. However, the grading officer wanted me to demonstrate them against a series of jo strikes. This foxed me a bit and I got a little confused about what was an inside/outside block against a jo strike! He saw my confusion, explained it to me and let me demonstrate them again. Not a good start then!

Next I was asked to demonstrate 4 locking techniques - these went well until one of the tonfa flew out of my hand, across the mat and landed at the grading officers feet! I'd never dropped the tonfa at that point in the technique before. I apologised to him and he handed the tonfa back.

The two enbos and separate hand techniques went well and defenses against bo and jo strikes were okay. Then I had to demonstrate defenses against 4 different attacks (front kick, side kick, roundhouse kick and back fist strike). These went well (apart from a slight error on one which I think I hid well) then he asked me to do some with a single tonfa. My face must have dropped when I said I hadn't learnt any single tonfa techniques for this part. He looked at me, smiled and said just do the same techniques but with one tonfa in your right hand. I thought ' in for a penny, in for a pound', just get on with it and see what happens! Anyway, it clearly went quite well - I seemed to impress him with my ability to adapt the techniques slightly on the spur of the moment - perhaps this grading wasn't going so badly after all?

I finished the grading by demonstrating my kata which I had to do twice, "bit faster this time...", what did he want, blood? Anyway, he called us to a bow at the end, looked at us and said, "You two do karate don't you?" I don't think this was intended as any kind of compliment! He pointed out that our stances gave us away as well as the fast, hard way we did the techniques. Apparently our stances need to be a bit more natural and our movements a bit softer and more flowing.

Everybody lined up for the presentation ceremony. I was called out first: "S.Wharton, tonfa level 1, pass with.....(despite cocking up the blocks, throwing a tonfa at the grading officer, not knowing any single hand techniques, doing the kata too slowly and committing the 'crime' of also being a karateka)... pass with HONOURS!

What can I say? My weekend ended on a high!

P.S My husband also passed is level 1 Jo with honours - well done! And his 2nd kyu karate with a mark of 74 (I'll catch ya next time).

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Ikebana and Martial Arts - a shared philosophy

Ikebana is the Japanese art of flower arranging. Ikebana means arranged flower but is also known as Kado - the Way of flowers. Ikebana is a very ancient Japanese art that has its roots in Zen Buddhism.

It started around the 6th century in Japan as a religious offering at Buddhist temples and then slowly increased in popularity among the aristocracy and the samurai class. To reach a state of peace of mind and a state of concentration before going to battle, the samurai would perform both Ikebana and Chado Tea ceremony to 'purify the heart and mind'. (1)

The blogger
Nadia (Cylamen)(2) describes the performance of an Ikebana practitioner doing a demonstration:

“A very slight young man but with a lot of force in his dramatic movements
during his ikebana performance which can be compared to an exercise in sword
fighting. I can imagine young samurais after battle trying to relax by
bending flowering branches of cherry blossoms. One slightly slashing a
branch closing his eyes and raising the branch above his eyes close to his
forehead and with a determine gesture bends a branch. This is what I was
actually seeing, but the samurai was a modern young man with a diamond stud
in one ear and a fashionable belt with his sharp ikebana scissors in lieu of
a samurai sword.”

Like many of the traditional Japanese arts, Ikebana is a system of aesthetics, philosophy and practice with a focus on personal development as well as artistic achievement. In this respect it has much in common with traditional martial arts.
The goal of Ikebana is not just the creation of beautiful arrangements; the journey is as important as the result. This idea of spiritual enlightenment through concentration and practice is central to the Zen Buddhist philosophy. For many of its practitioners, Ikebana is a lifelong lesson, a way to achieve a little inner stillness in which to work towards a richer spiritual understanding of the world (3). Again, the traditional martial artist will recognise the similarities between their philosophies.

Ikebana differs from Western styles of flower arranging in which the emphasis is often on displaying a colourful array of flowers. Ikebana, on the other hand, includes working with all areas of the plant, and draws emphasis towards shape, line and form. It often employs minimalistic principles, using only a minimal number of blooms interspersed among stalk and leaves.Though Ikebana is a creative expression, it has certain rules governing its form. One rule is that all the elements used in construction must be organic, be they branches, leaves, grasses, or flowers. The artist's intention behind each arrangement is shown through a piece's colour combinations, natural shapes, graceful lines, and the usually implied meaning of the arrangement.

The structure of a Japanese flower arrangement is based on a scalene triangle delineated by three main points, usually twigs, considered in some schools to symbolize heaven, earth and man and in others sun, moon, love & earth. The container is also a key element of the composition, and various styles of pottery may be used in their construction (4).

The spiritual aspect of Ikebana is considered very important to its practitioners. Silence is a must during practices of Ikebana. It is a time to appreciate things in nature that people often overlook because of their busy lives. The idea is that one becomes more patient and tolerant of differences, not only in nature, but also in general.

In the classic Ikebana text, Rikka-Imayo-Sugata (1688), it lists ten virtues of the Ikebana master. Several of these virtues may also be considered the virtues of the traditional martial arts master (3):

  • No discrimination.
    'Nature does not discriminate; neither should the Ikebana practitioner. Through contemplating the capacity of nature to just exist, we learn to interact with all people and all things equally.'

  • Selfless mind.
    'When we face flowers, we are free from any concerns and we can clear our minds.' This is similar to the concept of mushin - empty mind

  • Making friends without words.
    'Facing flowers, we feel a joy beyond words. When we share this joy with other people, we can form a bond that transcends language. Through our arrangements we can communicate on a deeper level with people no matter what language they speak'. Martial arts is a language in itself - understood and appreciated around the world, bringing people together with a common purpose.
  • Gain respect.
    'Through meditation, no discrimination and working towards the selfless mind, Ikebana helps us develop our best character. As a result, many people respect Ikebana artists. If you visit Japan, you will find how well respected Ikebana teachers are in their communities'. The martial artist strives to achieve the same aims.

  • Peaceful mind.
    ''As we acquire peaceful mind through Ikebana, we can nourish ourselves and live longer.' 'Obviously the author of this text in the 17th century was intending to promote Ikebana and he knew how to sell his product: this makes you live longer! In actual fact, statistics show that even today Ikebana teachers are one of the occupation groups that live longest in Japan, a country with some of the oldest people in the world''. In Japan martial artists have also been one of the longest lived groups of people.
The practice of Ikebana is still very important in many traditional dojos, particularly in Japan but also in many Western dojos that stay very close to their Japanese roots. In Dave Lowry's book Traditions, he recounts how it was often his job to do the flower arrangement for his dojo. These arrangements were displayed in the tokonoma (alcove) at the front of the training hall and served as both a memorial to the founder of the budo being studied and a reminder for the martial artist of the fragility of life (5).






5. Traditions - moving towards stillness. Dave Lowry.

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Friday, 27 November 2009

Martial Arts requires Application AND Beauty

I have just read a blog post by Mario McKenna (Okinawa Karatedo and Kobudo) which was both inspiring and refreshing to read. It was titled Yo-no-Bi which, as Mario explained, means 'application' and 'beauty'. When applied to martial arts it means practicality should be balanced by aesthetics. In other words martial arts is not just about fighting and learning in the fastest, most practical way but must also give regard to the efficacy, fluency and beauty of the techniques.

For some martial art practitioners the point of training is purely to get better at fighting and the more pragmatic the chosen art the better. Some of these people think that kata is a waste of time and is just flowery nonsense. The problem with reducing a martial art to its 'practical bones' is that in the end what ultimately counts is brute strength. The big, strong guy is likely to win whatever his technique is like. Purely practical fighting arts may offer a fast-track way to learn some self-defence but the practitioner will ultimately lack the higher skills and understanding that will make techniques dependent on skill rather than brute strength.

In his post Mario describes 'aesthetics' as those things that perfect distance, timing, composure, balance and other similar concepts. These things can be learnt through kata and then, when they are applied to self-defence, enable techniques to be executed exactly, fluently and effortlessly - no brute strength required!

Of course to transfer skills learnt through kata to self-defense takes time, experience and patience. It is not the fast track route. However, it is ultimately the best route to highly skilled (and beautiful) technique.

Thank you Mario for your excellent post.

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Thursday, 26 November 2009

When is a hip not a hip? - When it's a koshi!

Every martial artist comes to understand the importance of 'hips' in the execution of punches, kicks and throws. It is drilled into us virtually every training session: 'rotate the hips!', or 'make your belt swing!'.

However, when I 'rotate' my 'hips' I do not experience the required effects. I do not 'transmit' the power from my legs to my upper body. In fact 'rotating' my 'hips' seems to have a negative effect on my technique - it seems to cut my body in two, severing the connection between my legs and my upper body? It often unbalances me, particularly when I turn direction during a kata. I have been told that my torso sometimes looks 'wobbly' and that I sometimes 'over rotate' the hips.

This may just be a coordination problem - but on the whole I am well coordinated so I'm not sure that's the problem. It may be that I lack strength in the hip region - that's a possibility. The other possibility is that I have misinterpreted what is meant by a 'hip twist'.

When I watch others execute techniques with 'hip twist' I am sometimes a little puzzled by what exactly it is they are twisting - they may be turning or thrusting the lower torso region, but 'twisting' or 'rotating' the hips? Not in my interpretation of 'twisting the hips'. However, they are doing it correctly and I am doing it wrong - so my interpretation must be wrong. Watch this video of Kagawa sensei executing a gyaku zuki:

The movement he generates in his torso involves a unified rotation of his body from just below the chest to the middle of his thighs - this was not what I interpret as hips!

Then I read something in a book called Traditions by David Lowry. In this book there is a short chapter called 'Move from the hips'. He recounts an incident in his class one day when he was encouraging his students to 'move from your hips'. After the class a group of female students approached and told him that his concept of 'hips' was not only a Japanese-influenced one but also a male one!

Women generally consider the hips to specifically be the area right around the widest part of the buttocks. Whereas for men the hips include all the buttocks and the waist as well. However, for the Japanese hips (koshi) means a wider area still, one that includes every part of the trunk from the bottom of the buttocks right up into the abdomen.

After I read this a light turned on! I have been considering my hips from a female perspective, rather than a male or Japanese perspective. I've been twisting my hips like I'm dancing to Chubby Checker! No wonder I am unstable and not transmitting power correctly. I might have guessed I'd need to think like a man on this one.

David Lowry puts forwards 2 maxims for how the koshi should be used in martial arts:

1. All movement must originate with the hips, i.e the hips must precede all action. The koshi must be kept firm and tight whereas the limbs can be left relaxed. Maintaining a firm koshi takes the 'slack' out of the stance and permits movement without a wasted 'wind up' first. Moving the hips first unifies the body allowing all other muscles to work in harmony.

2. Power must be delivered through the hips directly to the target. For example, when doing an oi-zuki (stepping through punch), from the starting stance, right through the step to the punch, the koshi should be exactly the same height from the floor. The hips move in a straight, horizontal line so that no power is lost or misdirected.

Now that I know that my hips is not just my hips and that this whole koshi region should be kept tense; that movement should precede all action and deliver power directly to the target, the above video of Kagawa sensei makes a lot more sense to me now.

I think I now have enough understanding of this hip twist thing to start training in a different way , then, may be I will stop wobbling and unbalancing myself!

If you are an instructor and you are teaching your students about hip rotation please make sure they know exactly what you mean by 'hips' - it could save a lot of confusion!

Reference: Traditions, Essays on the Japanese Martial Arts and Ways, Dave Lowry 2002. Tuttle publishing.

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Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Karate Party

My karate club held an early Xmas party on Saturday in a small, local brewery. Yes, that's right, we had a p---up in a brewery! Adults only of course.

This is the second year running we've held our xmas party at this venue. Lucky for us the brewery (The Sheffield Brewery Co. Ltd) is part owned by one of our club members so we are always made to feel welcome. The bash included a pie and pea supper, beer on tap (wine for non-beer drinkers - not sure what tee-totallers had!) as well as a tour of the brewery, which is quite fascinating when you've no idea how beer is brewed - it's quite a scientific process really. Of course an evening like this is not complete without the proverbial pub quiz, with prizes - packets of crisps and pork scratchings of course!

The above picture shows my instructor Steve Hegarty pulling a pint with the owners of the brewery - he doesn't do all that training just to throw punches! The guy in the middle at the back is Pete - one of our karate members.

This is the karate girls! Katrine, Lucy and me


As you can see the brewery is an interesting building - that's a beer cask in the background.

More guests

Instructor Steve with our assistant instructor Paul Seamer

The Sheffield Brewery Company brews 10 beers currently and supplies both local and national pubs. It can be booked out for private parties, see it's website for more details: The Sheffield Brewery Company.

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Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Does the Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition apply to Martial Arts?

As a former Nurse Tutor I am interested in the ways in which people learn, particularly the way they learn skills. As an educationalist I was particularly impressed by the work of an American nurse researcher who studied skill acquisition amongst nurses for a phD thesis and culminated in an important book called From novice to expert: Excellence and power in clinical nursing practice.[Benner, P. (1984). Menlo Park: Addison-Wesley, pp. 13-34.].

This work was based on the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition [Dreyfus, S.E & Dreyfus, H.L (1980)]. In their model they state:

"In acquiring a skill by means of instruction and experience, the student
normally passes through five developmental stages which we designate novice,
competence, proficiency, expertise and mastery. We argue, based on analysis
of careful descriptions of skill acquisition, that as the student becomes
skilled, he depends less on abstract principles and more on concrete
Benner renamed these 5 stages as: Novice, advanced beginner, competent, proficient and expert. As I am more familiar with Benner's work I will use her stages. The criteria for each stage remain the same as in Dreyfus's work.

I no longer work in Nurse Education but have started thinking about the model in relation to training in martial arts. Is it applicable to learning a martial art? The model has been applied to many different areas of training including nursing, flying, engineering, playing chess and learning languages. The model is applicable to any skill that ultimately requires the use of tacit knowledge and intuition. Tacit knowledge is that knowledge that can only be transmitted through training and personal experience. It cannot be told or written down. You just 'know it' or 'feel it' but can't explain how or why. The concepts of mushin, zanshin and kime come to mind here.

I think the model is entirely applicable to martial arts. Here is the model and how I think it applies to martial arts. The martial arts descriptors (in red) are my own analysis and opinion and have in no way been properly researched or tested. You may not agree with my analysis so please feel free to comment and give me your analysis.

The 5 stages:
1. Novice:
A novice has no previous experience of the situations in which they are expected to perform and relies on taught rules to help them perform. Rules are not prioritised and apply equally so a novice's response to a situation is limited and inflexible. No discretionary judgement is applied.

Martial arts application: The novice will learn the basic techniques of their art - various kicks, punches, stances, locks throws etc according to the 'rules' - correct arm, hand, foot positions; correct weight distribution etc. They will have no sense of how these techniques could be applied to a self-defence or 'sport' situation. They could not select an appropriate technique to a given attack unless directed what to do. (Probably applicable to white - orange belts depending on natural ability and speed of learning)

2. Advanced beginner: Advanced beginners are those who can demonstrate marginally acceptable performance, those who have coped with enough real situations to note, or to have pointed out to them by a mentor, the recurring meaningful situational components. These components require prior experience in actual situations for recognition. Principles to guide actions begin to be formulated. The principles are based on experience.

Martial arts application: The advanced beginner demonstrates acceptable performance of basic techniques and can start to apply them, with support and supervision, in pre-arranged sparring situations. He/she will have experience of a range of simulated attack techniques (strikes, strangles, wrist grabs, head locks etc) and be able to analyse the situation and select and perform an appropriate defence technique. Will be able to perform some kata in an acceptable way and be starting to analyse kata for applications. Will be starting to recognise principles of techniques. (Probably applicable from Green - purple belt)

3.Competent: Competence, typified by two or three years experience, develops when one begins to see his or her actions in terms of long-range goals or plans of which he or she is consciously aware. For the competent performer, a plan establishes a perspective, and the plan is based on considerable conscious, abstract, analytic contemplation of the problem. The conscious, deliberate planning that is characteristic of this skill level helps achieve efficiency and organization. The competent performer lacks the speed and flexibility of the proficient one but does have a feeling of mastery and the ability to cope with and manage many contingencies The competent performer does not yet have enough experience to recognize a situation in terms of an overall picture or in terms of which aspects are most salient, most important.

Martial arts application: The competent person is starting to become aware of the length of the 'journey' they have embarked on and starts to set themselves achievable goals and start taking more responsibility for their own learning in terms of working out what is is they want to get out of their training. Performs techniques with greater accuracy, strength and spirit. Can string techniques together in a reasonably fluid manner. Can analyse more complex attack situations and identify appropriate defence techniques without help. Starting to see bunkai applications in kata independently. Can 'free spar' competently using a range of techniques but has to think and plan every technique. Still uses rules to guide performance. (Probably applicable for brown/1st dan black belts.)

4. Proficient: The proficient performer perceives situations as wholes rather than in terms of chopped up parts or aspects, and performance is guided by maxims. Proficient performers understand a situation as a whole because they perceive its meaning in terms of long-term goals. The proficient performer learns from experience what typical events to expect in a given situation and how plans need to be modified in response to these events. The proficient performer can now recognize when the expected normal picture does not materialize. This holistic understanding improves the proficient performer's decision making - able to recognize the important aspects in a situation. He/she uses maxims as guides which reflect what would appear to the competent or novice performer as unintelligible nuances of the situation; they can mean one thing at one time and quite another thing later. Once one has a deep understanding of the situation overall, however, the maxim provides direction as to what must be taken into account.

Martial arts applications: The proficient person is able to 'read' a situation accurately (whether it be a real or simulated attack), decide what the priorities are and plan quickly how to deal with it. Techniques are performed fluidly, accurately and speedily. He/she feels greater 'ownership' of kata and is developing a greater understanding of the meanings within them. He/she has a more intuitive feel for distance and timing and is starting to understand and apply broader concepts such as kime (focus), mushin('empty mind') and zanchin (total awareness). (Probably applicable to mid dan grades)

5. Expert: The expert performer no longer relies on an analytic principle (rules, guidelines, maxims) to connect her or his understanding of the situation to an appropriate action. He/she now has an enormous background of experience and an intuitive grasp of each situation and zeroes in on the accurate region of the problem without wasteful consideration of a large range of unfruitful alternatives. The expert operates from a deep understanding of the total situation. They know what to do because "it feels right". The performer is no longer aware of features and rules and his/her performance becomes fluid and flexible and highly proficient. Intuition underpinned by tacit knowledge replaces direct analysis, though analysis continues to be used in novel situations or when events do not turn out as expected.

Martial arts application: The expert martial artist has truly internalised the physical, mental and spiritual aspects of their art so that they are completely in tune, allowing effortless and free-flowing movements together with a tacit understanding of the higher ideals of martial arts and how to achieve them. He/she has an intuitive grasp of every attack/defence situation and knows instinctively how to deal with them. He/she has moved to a position of calmness, truth and peace. (Probably applies to: only true masters)

As far as I know the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition has not been applied to martial arts before but has been applied to other sports, notably skiing and American football. My intention has only been to explore how this model may fit martial arts training and does not represent actual research into appropriate descriptors for each stage.

Where would I put myself in this model? For karate I think I am just entering the 'Competent' stage and expect to be there for a while. In kobudo I am definitely still a 'Novice'. Where do you think you are?

One thing to remember with any skill acquisition is that 'time expired' does not equate with 'experience'. Learning from experience is an active not passive process. One maxim we used to share with nurses was: 'You can have ten years experience (active learner) or one years experience repeated ten times (passive learner). Make your experience count.


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Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Feeling the Pressure

I have two separate gradings coming up on the weekend of the 5th and 6th December. On the Saturday I am grading for 2nd kyu in karate and on the Sunday I am taking my level 1 grading at tonfa at my kobudo club.

This will be my first karate grading with the new syllabus since we joined the SSK in August. It is quite different to the previous style of syllabus with a lot more partner work, including a locking drill, escapes from headlocks and defences from kicks on the ground. I feel I am only just getting to grips with these new aikido and jujitsu techniques that have been added to our karate syllabus. However I do like doing them and find them more useful additions to our self-defence applications.

These extra things are of course in addition to the usual karate kicking and punching combinations, kata, pad work and kumite that I will also be tested on.

Though the karate grading will be quite tough and comprehensive I at least know what to expect and how it will be conducted. I also have a one day course coming up which will focus on the syllabus. I am much more worried about the tonfa grading - this is much more a black box to me. Obviously I know what is on the syllabus but I have no idea how the grading will be conducted or who will be testing me. This is making me much more nervous than I'll be for the karate grading.

My kobudo sensei insists that I am ready for grading and is trying to be reassuring about it but there have been so many different techniques to learn (who would have thought two sticks could be so complicated!) I'm convinced I'll get them mixed up! I'm also concerned that my nerves will mean I don't have full control of the tonfas and my partner will get a bit bashed up. Fortunately my partner will be my husband - so I know he'll forgive me!

I have decided to squeeze an extra training session in tonight. I don't usually go to the Tuesday class because I go to an 'Am Dram' group but I decided to reassess my priorities - I need my tonfa training more than I need my play rehearsal (play's not until April)!

I'm definitely starting to feel the pressure......

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Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Kime Confusion

When I set out to write this post I was planning to explore the concept of kime. This was a word I have heard banded around a lot but only vaguely understood its meaning. Kime means focus, right? Other definitions of kime I have met during my research include "decisive" and "finish" -as in finishing the technique.

However, focus is the most common definition of kime I have met and here lies the confusion. What do we mean by focus? Paradoxically the meaning of focus appears to be rather nebulous! I have read around the subject quite a lot and some martial artists refer to 'focus' as being the 'target' you are aiming for with a punch i.e. the 'kime point'. If you focus all your energy onto the kime point then you will hit your target hard. Others use the word focus to mean a mental attitude, i.e. you need to 'focus' or concentrate fully on executing the punch. Yet others are using the word focus to mean tensing and then relaxing the muscles in rapid succession just at the precise moment you make contact with the target. However some of these people are referring to the muscles in the punching arm and fist whereas others are referring to the muscles in the 'dantian' region in the lower abdomen. No wonder I'm not quite getting it!

What people seem to agree on though is that kime is necessary to produce maximum power in a strike or kick. However there seems to be some disagreement in how this is achieved. People seem to divide into one of two groups. Those that believe you can describe and analyse a punch using principles of physics such as mass, force and acceleration and those that believe you cannot apply such principles to the execution of the 'perfect' punch. I have read forums in which physicists have declared that you cannot apply equations such as force = mass x acceleration to a human punch because these equations were designed to explain what happens when one inanimate object hits another one, e.g. when a ball of one mass hits a ball of a different mass. Apparently humans don't behave like balls! I am no physicist so I have no idea who to believe.

However, which ever group people fall into I have extracted two principles that everybody seems to agree on to hit the 'perfect' punch:

1. Speed is essential. The faster the punch the harder it will be.

2. The target aimed for should be about 4 or 5 inches behind the actual target. i.e you aim 'through' the target not for the surface of the target. This is related to the first principle because maximum speed is achieved at around 70 - 80% of arm extension (according to physics). This means you need to hit the target before your arm is fully extended otherwise your arm will be decelerating.

Is a boxing punch harder than a karate punch? This is a question often asked and debated about. It seems that the answer lies in what you mean by harder, or rather, what your punch is aiming to achieve. In boxing you may be aiming to knock your opponent clean off their feet or even knock them unconscious. If that is what you mean by harder then clearly a boxing punch is harder than a karate punch. However, in karate you may be aiming for your punch to exert maximum pain and damage to your opponent by sending a shock wave through them or breaking a bone. In this case it is important that they are not knocked off their feet since that dissipates the energy of the punch. In this context a karate punch is 'harder' than a boxing punch.

This boxing versus karate punch debate is relevant because a point of contention in deciding what makes a perfect punch is how long a punch should be in contact with the target. In karate it is taught that the punch should be withdrawn as soon as it makes contact with the target, i.e the muscles must be immediately relaxed. This prevents you from 'pushing' the opponent and dissipating the energy. However in boxing the aim is not to cause maximum damage to the opponent (its a sport after all) so a punch usually has a follow through which necessitates the fist to make contact with the target for longer, dissipating the energy and pushing the opponent backwards. The perfect punch is different depending on whether you are boxing or doing karate. It is like comparing apples with pears.

Many exponents of karate argue that new karateka should not practice punching against a heavy bag but should practice against a strike pad or makiwara post. This is because striking a heavy bag encourages you to 'push' your punches to make the bag move (it looks more impressive). An experienced karateka will know that his punches are more effective if the bag does not move so could probably safely practice against a heavy bag.

Other areas of contention I have found are whether or not one should tighten the fist at the moment of impact. A karateka is taught that the muscles of the arm and shoulder should be relaxed right up until the moment of impact and then the fist twisted and clenched, and the arm muscles tensed on impact before quickly being relaxed and withdrawn. This is what I try to do but I have read some commentators that say clenching the fist adds no extra power to the punch as long as the punch is fast. In fact some say that clenching the fist acts to slow down the punch because it tenses up antagonist muscles that essentially apply the 'brakes' to the punch.

A final area of contention is whether the arm should be straight when delivering the punch. In karate we are encouraged to punch straight with the arm fully extended when hitting the target (but not hyper extended). In boxing the arm will often be bent as a cross punch is delivered. Does it affect the power of the punch? Many karateka argue that a slightly bent arm can deliver the same power as a straight arm. In fact as I said before the maximum speed of the punch is achieved at 70 -80% extension, so perhaps it is preferable for the arm not to be straight?

In this post I have not tried to tell you how to do a perfect punch. How could I, I'm just a student? I have just tried to point out the issues that everybody agrees on and discuss those that people don't agree on - and let's face it, everybody is convinced they are right! You are undoubtedly more an expert on punching that me, so what is your advice - what factors do you believe make the best punch? Help me find my kime.


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