Thursday, 30 April 2009

Karate Changes You.

Photo from Stock-Vault

Isn't it strange how what you like and dislike about your martial art changes as you make progress. When I was a junior coloured belt I liked practising the basic kihon moves, pad work and kata but I really disliked the kumite, kata bunkai and self-defence techniques. Now I actually prefer the things I disliked before! I still think it is important to regularly go through all the basic moves and I still have a long way to go in improving my technique with many of them - particularly spinning kicks! And it is never a chore to find a space in the dojo to practise my kata.

However, now I really like sparring and learning defences against different attacks. So what has changed? I think the change is clearly in me. kata and basic kihon appealed more initially because you don't actually have to touch anybody so it's like learning karate without all the unpleasant or painful bits. Now though, I have the confidence to be thrown and to assertively apply techniques, including throws, to others. In other words I've got over the not wanting to be physically close with other students and the fear of being hurt or hurting someone.

So now I am able to enjoy learning all the elements that karate has to offer me and not shy away from the less pleasant ones. I feel my 'journey to black belt' is moving forward, slowly but surely and hopefully I will be ready for my grading to brown belt in June.

Did you have an awareness of something changing in you as you learnt your martial art

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Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Escape from Front Strangulation

In last nights class one of the things we looked at was escape from a front strangulation. I don't know about you but I think that apart from being attacked with a knife or shot at, strangulation is the scariest way of being attacked. I think it's that feeling of imminent death. You know you have only got a few seconds before you become unconscious and so you have to be able to react immediately - no leeway for freezing or panicking.

In fact for a manual strangulation where the attacker just uses their own hands you have between 7 and 14 seconds, depending on how hard the attacker can compress your trachea. With a blood choke hold in which the emphasis is on compressing the carotid arteries that run up the side of the neck, you only have 3 to 5 seconds! This is scary stuff. Since the majority of strangulations are performed on women by men (it's extremely unlikely that a woman can manually strangle a man) it's important that us women know how to respond quickly and effectively.

So what should we do? One of the things that Sensei has taught us is to turn the head to the side and put the chin down. The effect of this is to move your trachea from under this thumbs to the palm of his hand and thus release some of the pressure - this may buy you a few more seconds. You can actually demonstrate this on yourself: if you put the fingers of your right hand around the back of your neck with the palm on the left side of your neck so that your right thumb is over your trachea and press slightly, then turn your head to the left, you will feel your trachea move from under your thumb. Now, how easy it would be to move your head if someone is squeezing your neck very tightly I don't know but it's got to be worth a try.

Having bought yourself a few extra seconds, I would argue that you now need to apply the K.I.S.S. No I don't mean kiss him, I mean Keep It Simple Stupid! I do not think this is the time to try applying fancy, fiddly locks or doing other overcomplicated moves - especially not at my stage of training. I would favour moves that cause him to loosen his grip and unbalance him. Lifting your arm up and smashing your elbow down on his arm works quite well for loosening a stranglehold as does stepping backwards and downwards with one leg and turning sideways - this will unbalance him at the same time. If you still can't run away at this point then I would choose techniques that are powerful and quick to execute like elbow strikes to the head, palm heel strikes to the jaw, kicks to the groin or pushing thumbs into the eyes. Make a lot of noise while you are doing this - this is not the time to be shy about kiaiing - you may attract attention, startle him a little, protect yourself from further blows from him and increase the power in your own strikes.

here are some videos of women's self defense against strangles:

I think the important thing is to discover what is effective against the attacker and is easy and memorable for you to execute, we're all different, find what works for you, you've only got seconds.....

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Saturday, 25 April 2009

Power of the kiai

Like many students when they first start learning a martial art I felt rather self-conscious about performing a kiai. It sounds pretty odd when you first hear it and almost feels a bit pretentious. I was just glad we weren't expected to shout 'Ah So' which was the shout I associated with karate as a kid! But of course I didn't understand what the kiai was about then and with time I got used to it and it didn't sound so strange.

What are you supposed to shout when you kiai? Again most beginners (me included, initially) just shout the word 'kiai'. If you think about it, that's like shouting the word 'SHOUT' if someone asks you to shout. You don't do you? You're more likely to shout 'AAARRRGGGGHHH'. So obviously we are not intended to shout the word 'kiai'. I started to realise that this was a bit ridiculous when I was in the junior colour belts. So I listened to what other people in the class were shouting and it ranged from short barely audible grunts to short sharp 'AA' or 'EE' sounds to long loud 'YAAA' or 'AARRGG' sounds!

So what makes a good kiai? Well, according to what I have read an effective kiai should come from deep down in the chest and should involve the use of the diaphragm and abdominal muscles. It should not be merely a yell which arises only from the throat. It should involve a sharp exhalation of air and can be accompanied with or without sound. The kiai can be silent, it depends whether you decide to pass all that air through your vocal cords or not. I do not think silent kiais would be acceptable in my class, we are generally encouraged to shout them out. Apparently, if you are making an audible kiai it should consist only of one syllable and should be short and loud. 'I', 'Hi', and 'EE' are considered appropriate. So what do I shout now? I decided to just drop the 'Ki' and shout 'Ai'. It works for me!

Why do we kiai anyway? I already had some idea of what a kiai was for before I started karate because my sons were attending a childrens' jujitsu class and I occasionally used to stop and watch. The sensei would have the children stand in rows and shout kiais in unison as loud as they could, then he would do a competition to see who could kiai the loudest. They loved it! He also told them that it would make their parents very proud if they were to go into their bedroom at 6.00 in the morning and wake them up with a loud kiai! Fortunately my sons had the sense not to try that one. But more importantly he told them the kiai was to 'frighten the enemy and tense the stomach muscles'.

That's a reasonable explanation but not a complete one. Those two facts are true but also by exhaling and emptying the lungs you render yourself less vulnerable to being winded by an attack to the abdomen and tensing the abdominal muscles provides you with greater core stability that enables you to add greater power to your own strikes. I think this last point is definitely true, my punches against the pad are much harder if I kiai when delivering them.

Then there are people who take the kiai to a whole new level. The Kiai-jutsukas regard the kiai as a weapon in its own right. They believe the kiai is the release of ki (chi, qi) or energy and a well executed kiai can knock a man clean off his feet. Well the 'ki' in kiai is referring to energy and the 'ai' means to meet, join, harmonise or fuse. For some, this translates as 'a projection of sound fused with energy or spirit'. Well, in the following video there is a very impressive kiai master demonstrating the power of the kiai. I'm particularly impressed with his ability to make the temple bell ring just with his kiai!

So what do you shout when you kiai? Do you believe in the power of the kiai?

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Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Royal Armouries in Leeds

We visited the Royal Armouries in Leeds last week. This is such a fantastic museum, how on earth they manage to keep admission free when they have such high quality, valuable exhibits and put on several 'shows' a day, I do not know!

Over Easter they had a medieval theme with lots of armour, sword fighting demonstrations and jousting. Though we didn't get to see the live jousting event, we did go to an interesting slide seminar about jousting and medieval armour. Did you know that though a full suit of armour weighed about 70lb, its design, with the weight distributed over the whole body from the shoulders meant that it was relatively easy to wear and a Knight could easily jump onto his horse without assistance. Also, medieval knights had very undeveloped calf muscles (because they rode everywhere and rarely walked anywhere) so the suits of armour in the museum today do not fit a modern man on the leg - they were designed to fit a very flat calf muscle! You can see this on this first picture:

Here's a bit of full armoured sword fighting:

About three years ago they had a Japanese exhibition celebrating the 300 year anniversary of the death of Ieyasu Tokugawa Shogun (the last shogun). In that exhibition they had loads of Samurai exhibits. As that was a visiting exhibition I didn't really expect there to be a lot of Japanese stuff there this time, so I was pleasantly surprised to find there was a fairly substantial permanent Oriental exhibition. The suits of Samurai armour were absolutely fantastic, such craftsmanship and attention to detail - pity to go off fighting in them really.

I particularly liked the horse armour - especially the mask:

There was also an impressive range of Japanese archery equipment:

If you ever get the chance to visit the Leeds Royal Armouries I would recommend you go along. They have a Wild West Weekend coming up in May.

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Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Excuse me! Could you attack me correctly please.

We have been spending quite a lot of time on Ippon kumite and kata bunkai recently. Basically we have been learning a lot of 'set pieces' to defend against a range of different strikes and kicks. I find many of these difficult to learn (or remember) but I am gradually acquiring a few favourites; these are generally ones that are not too fiddly or technical to apply.

I prefer techniques that involve evading the strike, grabbing the attacker, unbalancing them and pulling them down with a sweep of some kind. These techniques are quick to apply, don't require too much precision in where or how you grab and get the attacker down quickly so you can run away. I don't like defences that involve putting locks on, have lots of separate moves to execute and require a great deal of precision in where and how you put your hands and feet. I find that a lot of these moves require you to have a compliant and patient attacker!

But that's the other problem isn't it? In order to deliver the set defense you need the set attack. A defense against an oi zuki won't work as well if the attacker throws you a gyaku zuki - he'll have the wrong foot forward and you won't be able to sweep his leg the way you'd rehearsed. But that doesn't mean that these set defences have no value. I figured that they must have value or we wouldn't be taught them! I suppose after lots of practice they become internalised and you can execute them without thinking too much - this must make you quicker and more responsive in an attack. If you have a sufficient range of techniques in your repetoire, hopefully your brain will instinctively select the appropriate one to deal with the type of attack you are facing.

Sensei has two strategies for helping us to deal with attacks using these set defenses. Sometimes he gets us to deal with defending against a range of attackers who attack with the same type of strike/kick/grab and we respond with the same defense technique. We do this by lining up in pairs, executing the attack/defense and then moving one partner to the right. So we do the same thing on multiple partners. This is great for working out how to apply a technique to people of different sizes and strengths (and for working out who you like to work with and who you don't).

The other strategy is to learn maybe three defenses against three different attacks and then get the attacker to randomly deliver the attacks so that you have to respond with the appropriate defense. This quickens up your reaction time - in theory! In practice I often stand there thinking, now how did this one go again? But I am sure that, like with all things, practice will make perfect. In the mean time please remember to attack me correctly!

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Thursday, 16 April 2009

Going To Ground

Last night in training we did something a little different. We had a visiting black belt Shotokan karateka from Denmark who had asked to train with us whilst he was here on a conference. He joined in with us for the first half of the class, learning one of our katas and some combinations, then sensei asked him to teach us something.

In his club they have introduced some Brazilian Jujitsu techniques to help karateka deal with being thrown to the ground. He decided to teach us some basic ground fighting techniques. This was a novel experience for me as I've only just really learnt how to be thrown let alone deal with an attack down on the ground. The first thing we learnt was the basic guard position when you are lying on your back with the attacker lying on top of you with your legs around his/her hips. This seemed a rather vulnerable position to be in initially. I couldn't help feeling that this was exactly the position a male attacker may want to get you in if you were a woman. However, it is actually a good defensive position to be in for the following reasons: You have all four limbs available to defend yourself with and you can control the attackers hips with your legs - if you control his hips, you control him.

However even though I could get control of the attackers hips I found it very difficult to turn him over so that I could escape. The shear weight of a man is very difficult for a petite thing like me to shift! Help was at hand though, I was shown how to use a twist of the hips (very karate) to get my hip and thigh under the attacker's abdomen which made it a lot easier for me push and roll him over. We also learnt how to push someone off from the 'mount' position where the attacker straddles over your abdomen.

Overall I enjoyed this introduction to ground fighting (at least on the comfort of a padded mat). Clearly someone like me could not rely on strength to defend myself and I would need to learn some more diversionary techniques as well as these basic techniques. I think slapping, pinching and biting were mentioned - in other words, fight like a girl!

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Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Karate - Bugei or Budo?

I'm a little obsessed with classifications in martial arts at the moment. I'm not sure why this is obsessing me, I think I'm just trying to put karate into context with other martial arts. Anyway, I learnt a new word today - bugei. This is probably a very familiar word to you more experienced martial artists but I hadn't heard of it before. If you haven't heard of it before either then it simply means traditional martial arts, i.e. those of the samurai as opposed to the more modern budo, or martial Ways. I have to say that the revelation that martial Ways are a relatively modern concept was a surprise to me. The definition of 'modern' in respect to Japanese martial arts means after the start of the Meiji Restoration in1866, i.e. post samurai era.
Of course that doesn't mean that the concept of a Japanese Way is this modern, just its application to the fighting arts. Indeed the idea of seeking self improvement through the pursuit of mind, body and spiritual harmony is an ancient Japanese and Chinese tradition based on Zen principles going back to about the 7th century. I suppose that once the samurai were disbanded after the Meiji Restoration, applying these self-improvement principles to their fighting arts was a way to retain a purpose to continue to study them now they weren't needed on the battlefield.

Of course many of these bugei have been kept alive and passed down from generation to generation and are still widely practiced today, though not on a battlefield! These included Sumo (Japanese wrestling), Jujutsu (art of indirect force), kenjutsu (swordsmanship training, specifically with a partner), Iaijutsu (art of drawing the sword) and Naginatajutsu (art of wielding the naginata). What you notice about these arts is that they are generally rather 'niche', apart from perhaps jujutsu. This is another feature that distinguishes the bugei from the budo. Budo on the whole have a much wider range of techniques and applications.

The most interesting bugei though are probably those that are not practiced anymore. For example (and my personal favourite) : Fukumijutsu! This is the art of spitting needles into an opponents eye. I think the health and safety fascists would have something to say about that one today! Also: Hojutsu - the art of binding an enemy with a short cord; Sueijutsu - the art of swimming and treading water while clad in light wooden armour. I suppose we just do this one in pyjamas these days! Yadomeutsu - the art of deflecting flying arrows from a bow and Saiminjutsu - the art of hypnotising the enemy into defeat.

But where does karate fit into all this? Is it bugei or budo or both? I think this question is more complex than it sounds, I think it is probably both but I think I'll investigate that for another post....

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Thursday, 9 April 2009

karate Feet

After doing karate for about a year I started to get problems with cramp in my feet. This doesn't generally happen whilst I am actually in a karate class, though I sometimes get problems when we are doing a full bow, sitting back on the heels with the tops of the feet flat on the hard floor. I usually have to position my feet perpendicular to the floor with the toes bent forward at right angles to the foot and pressing down onto the ground so that the stretch is on the palms of my feet rather than the tops of my feet. Most of the cramp I get though occurs between classes, often whilst sitting with my feet up or when I am in bed.

I wondered why I should suddenly start suffering foot cramps. Presumably it has something to do with exercising barefoot. I have read that foot cramp can occur if you consume insufficient potassium or calcium in the diet. Well, I eat bananas every day as well as apples, oranges and vegetables so I'm not convinced my diet is lacking in vitamins and minerals. Dehydration has also been implicated in cramps but if that was the case I would expect to experience the cramp during a karate class when I've been sweating and have increased evaporation of water in my breath. However, on the other hand, during exercise the muscles in my feet and legs are warmed up - so perhaps this ameliorates the effects of dehydration?

I read somewhere that cramp can actually increase the tone in muscles and tendons and people who have had surgery on their feet, resulting in a loss of muscle tone, are told to bend their toes to deliberately induce cramp because it helps to increase the strength and tone of their feet. Though this sounds a little incredible it might go some way to explaining why I am now getting foot cramps. I have spent years wearing comfortable, well supporting footwear - particularly when exercising. It would not surprise me then if the muscles and tendons in my feet were a little weak from lack of exercise. Lets face it, even when you are hard at it in the gym exercising your body, most of us generally keep our feet nicely cocooned in expensive, cushioned trainers. It has never occurred to me to actually exercise my feet!

Then I started karate and suddenly I'm doing hard physical exercise in bare feet on a hard floor. I'm learning techniques that require me to 'grip' the floor, tensing the muscles in my feet. Or they require me to be up on the balls of my feet, transferring my weight quickly from foot to foot. All this requires strong muscles my feet. It is no wonder I'm getting cramp - my feet just aren't up to the job. I don't experience the cramp during class because my feet are warmed up, but at home, resting, they are stone cold and are reacting to the unaccustomed demands that have been made of them!

I think I need to exercise my feet like I exercise the rest of my body. I have noticed when watching my sensei demonstrating techniques that his feet and ankles are much more flexible than mine, they grip the floor more firmly and the edges of his feet make greater contact with the ground than mine. After more than 20 years of barefoot exercise he has developed 'karate feet'.

Do you have 'karate feet' or do you have problems with cramp like me? Have you any tips for strengthening the feet or dealing with cramp? I would welcome your comments.

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Friday, 3 April 2009

More Japanese Ways

Following on from my article on Chado (Japanese tea ceremony) and its similarities in philosophy and guiding principles to karate-do, I have found a couple more Japanese Ways that also have a strong spiritual or philosophical component as well as technical skill:

Shado. The way of the brush.
This is traditional Japanese calligraphy involving the writing of Japanese Kanji characters. However it is more than merely writing. It has strong connections with Zen buddhism. It is said that to write Zen calligraphy with mastery, one must clear one's mind and let the letters flow out of themselves, not practice to hard or make a tremendous effort. This state of mind was called the "mu-shin", or "no mind state", by the Japanese philosopher Nishida Kitaro. I've heard the same said about letting kata flow through you rather than thinking too much about it and trying too hard.

From the website Crimson Bamboo. they quote the following : "On instructing the student painter and calligrapher the Old Ones would have taught ‘ … when viewing a perfect painting, I see it is the Tao, not only a picture, this painter has left behind all cunning skill. … See things in your spirit, not in your eye; do not take outward beauty for reality. One’s brush strokes in writing should have strength, directness, and truth, yet be round and gentle, just as your dealings with other people ought be as virtuous. Of the six essentials to painting and calligraphy, such as brush, ink, motive, etc, the first essential is ‘spirit’. … ’ ." Strength, directness, truth -it's all sounding familiar! Here's a video of some Japanese Calligraphy...

Kodo. The way of fragrance.
This involves the gentle burning of incense or fragrant wood. The wood is not burnt directly as this would give off an acrid smell but instead its fragrance is released in a gentle way by placing the wood on a mica plate and heating it over smoldering coals.

In the sense that smells can evoke memories that transport you back to another time such as your childhood, in kodo the art is to get participants to 'listen' to the smells rather than 'smell' them. The idea is to open up the heart and spirit with fragrance rather than just stimulating the nasal passages. In Japan, the burning of incense and prizing of rare scented wood has been transporting people to a different spiritual plane for many centuries (though I have a sneaky suspicion that that there may be certain pharmacological reasons for this rather than entirely spiritual- depending on what's being burned!).

The modern equivalent of kodo is probably aromatherapy. For more information on kodo visit this link: kodo .
Here's a video of an incense burning ceremony...

I think a common link between all these Japanese Ways, whether it be chado, kodo, shado or budo, is that they all require this concept of mushin in order for a practitioner to become truly a master of their art.

Kanji clipart at top provided by fundraw

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Learning to Spar

Last night in class we did a lot of sparring practice. When I first started karate I didn't like sparring at all, I just didn't really get what it was all about. The moves that we were being taught in sparring were very different from the moves we were learning in the traditional karate. They seemed to contradict each other. With the traditional stuff it was all about planting your feet firmly on the ground, staying low in a stance and making big arm movements with the blocks. Shukokai is a very linear form of karate so all the basic combinations are performed in straight lines. It's only in kata like Sanchin and Tensho where we learn some more circular movements.

Then we move onto sparring training and suddenly its 'up on your toes' and 'get off line'. The punches become more like quick sharp jabs and the blocks are more like parrys. This sudden change of technique is very confusing to the beginner. It's a bit like training to play tennis and then entering a badminton competition. There are similarities, yes, but the techniques are completely different. It took quite a long time to realise that in Shukokai we are basically learning two different types of karate side by side. We are learning traditional karate and we are also learning sports karate. Now that I realise that these are separate things I have learnt to switch more easily between them.

Now that I know to put my sparring 'hat' on when doing kumite training I am making more progress and actually starting to enjoy it. However that doesn't mean I find it easy - I don't. My main problems are: I find it hard to see openings - the opponents arms always seem to be in the way! I telegraph too much what I am about to do - my shoulders go up, my arm pulls back to punch and my face is the proverbial 'picture that paints a thousand words'. I'm not conscious of doing these things, I only know because both sensei and my husband give me feedback on my technique. My other problem is that I don't have enough variety of techniques to use. We have covered a lot of techniques in the hokei kumite but I find some of these too complicated to remember in a free sparring match, so I end up using the same couple of techniques all the time.

Anyway, I decided to do a bit of reading to try and find some useful sparring tips to help me overcome these problems. A book I find useful is 'Ultimate Sparring - Principles and Practices' by Shihan Jonathan Maberry (I have added this to my Shelfari bookcase in the side bar). This is what I found out:

Finding openings: Be ready to counter-attack as soon as your opponent attacks - he will have to use his defensive arm to make the attack and thus create an opening. Getting the opponent off balance will also cause him to open up, so use sweeps or charge in on a kick.

Avoiding telegraphing: Don't look at the target you are planning to hit, flick your eyes at a more obvious target to fool the opponent into covering or blocking in the wrong place, then strike at a different target. Strike quickly and straight before the opponent can register the inevitable rise in the shoulders that give the game away. Put on a 'game' face which means keeping a mainly neutral expression that shows no fear or sign of injury and uses facial expressions to intimidate or lure the opponent into a trap.

Variety of techniques: Well I already know there are many different combinations of feints, strikes, kicks and blocks. It's just a case of selecting maybe four that suit me and then drill, drill, drill until I they feel like second nature to me. Once I've got that sorted I can start adding more to my repertoire.

I think that is enough for me to be thinking about and working on for now. I can see I will be revisiting this book many times for more tips and advise as I progress in sparring techniques. The only other issue which seems contentious is whether to bounce or not bounce when sparring. Ultimate sparring advices you to stay on the balls of your feet and move around constantly. However, John Vesia posted on this subject a few weeks ago (Take a Stance) and the comments he received seemed to be firmly on the side of not bouncing! What's your opinion or experience of staying on your toes - are you for it or against it?

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