Monday, 29 June 2009

Hooked on Haiku - Dojo Moments

You may have noticed that I have added a new addition to my side bar called 'Hooked on Haiku'. I have dabbled in creative writing for several years now, mainly short stories and poems and I have decided to have a go at writing Japanese style haiku poems.
In case you are not familiar with haiku I offer here an explanation of what a haiku poem is and how to read and interpret it.

William. J. Higginson, in his book The Haiku Handbook, describes a haiku as: ...sharing moments of our lives that moved us, pieces of experience and perception that we offer or receive as gifts.

The haiku is written as a three lined poem in which the moment to be shared is simply described, without use of simile or metaphor, in order that the reader can quickly reconstruct the event in their own mind and then hopefully experience the same emotional reaction to the image as the writer did themselves.

Traditionally haiku poems were nature or seasonal poems, for example, here is a seasonal poem by Basho, one of the four great masters of Japanese haiku:

on a barren branch
a raven has perched -
autumn dusk

It's quite easy to reconstruct that image in your mind isn't it?

More modern haiku poets have moved away from only writing seasonal or nature poems and now write haiku about all manner of subjects. Sometimes there is still an allusion to a season but this is not always present or obvious. For example, here's a poem from Takako, a modern Japanese haiku poet:

fresh washed hair
everywhere I go
making trickles

The only real requirement is to provide strong imagery and sensory information to help provide a very rich description in very few words. In Japanese, haiku poems consist of 17 sounds but most scholars now agree that this equates to 10-12 syllables if written in English because English syllables are generally longer more drawn out sounds.

I have entitled my collection of haiku poems - Dojo Moments, and I will endeavour to provide a new one each day! Feel free to comment on them or give critical feedback. I have provided a link from the side bar back to this post so that you can still leave comments once this post disappears into the archive.


Friday, 26 June 2009

The Students Guide.... a review

The Students Guide to Surviving a Traditional Dojo. By Matthew Apsokardu.

A review...

I wish this e-book had been available 2 years ago when I first signed up for karate! Aimed at potential, new and experienced students it starts by answering the most basic questions that a new student may have such as how to tell a good traditional dojo from one that's just trying to make money. The book deals matter of factly with some nitty gritty practical details that are often overlooked by experienced sensei. For example: how to tie a gi and belt properly, personal hygiene issues and the wearing of jewellery.

In an easy to read, well laid out format it informs the student of how to behave in a dojo, how to relate to the sensei and how to get the best out of training. For more experienced students there are tips of how to stay fresh with training, how to train your mind and advice on reading to discover the broader context of martial arts. Many martial art traditions are simply explained and there are several useful illustrations and diagrams.

My only gripe with this book is that though issues about sparring are dealt with in a lot of detail, there is nothing at all about the practice of kata/bunkai or the importance of continuing to practice kihon throughout your martial arts life. This may lead a new student to think that martial arts is just about fighting or that sparring is the most important part of a martial art.

However, overall I think this is a useful starting point for new-comers to the traditional martial arts and covers many issues that you won't find in other martial arts books. After reading this book the new student will have a much clearer idea of what to expect from their martial art and what their martial art expects out of them.

Link to the book here: A Students Guide......

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Fighting off the big guys...

From the InBrief section of the Daily Telegraph 25th June 2009:

"A grandfather fought off a knife-wielding robber using his martial arts skills
to throw him over his shoulder.
Alan Thomas 68, who is just 5ft 5in tall, took on the taller armed attacker
after he discovered him inside his home. Mr Thomas who has taught martial
arts for 37 years, was stabbed in the hand before he could act, then hit the
intruder in the face and hurled him over his head".

What a great story! Just shows that with training the little man can prevail. Bring on those large partners for me to train with...

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Thursday, 25 June 2009

Women training with men

We have a grading session coming up in July and several people from my class will be grading, including me. So last night Sensei decided to put us all through our paces by assigning us to our grade groups and taking each group through their entire syllabus.

My syllabus for 3rd kyu includes: a striking combination, a kicking combination, 3 katas, a striking combination against a pad, a kicking combination against a pad, demonstrate two defence techniques against a mawashi geri and finally 2 rounds of free sparring.

I would normally pair up with another woman to do partner work, irrespective of grade differences, but as we were in grade groups and the other purple belts are all men I had to partner a man. This made for quite an interesting experience.

With the pad work the men can clearly strike and kick the pad with more power than the women. A year ago I would have found it difficult holding the pad for a man because I found the shock wave you feel going through your body with each strike difficult to tolerate. Last night it wasn't a problem - I must be toughening up!

I also did the self-defence techniques with the men. Here I had to contend with making my techniques work against their greater height and weight. One technique I do involves catching the leg as the kick comes in, elbow strike into the ribs, grab them on the shoulder and sweep the standing leg from under them. I've practiced this many times with female partners and have got the technique to work. But against the taller, heavier men I found it really difficult to grab the shoulder as it seemed so high up and sweeping the leg was much harder - their extra weight seemed to root them to the ground more securely. I think I need to give them a push to unbalance them a bit more first.

But this was a great lesson in how you have to vary the technique to make it work against a variety of opponents. I think we should partner the men more often because firstly it will toughen us up (they show no mercy!), and secondly it makes us work harder to get our techniques to work.

This was a great energetic session that left us all feeling on a high. Roll on the grading...

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Kumite - it's not about fighting

I attended an extra kumite/fitness training session yesterday with my club. Sensei puts these sessions on about every 4-6 weeks and it allows us to focus just on this one aspect of karate (plus a bit of circuit training at the end). These sessions are open to anyone from his 3 clubs (approx. 160 people) and 10 of us turned up!

This is a shame because this extra session was to help us prepare for an 'in house' kumite competition next month. Alas not many people have put their names forward for this either (which contrasts with the very good turnout we had for the in-house kata competition held a couple of months ago).

So why do people shy away from kumite? Remember we do non-contact kumite (touch contact in reality) so you're not going to get hurt.

I think people misunderstand what non-contact sparring is about or what it can teach you. To me this kind of sparring is not about fighting- you have to actually hit people to have a fight and feel some aggression towards them. So if it's not about fighting what is it about and what use is it?

On the physical side it improves fitness and endurance; it speeds up your reactions and it makes you observe your opponent very carefully. It doesn't teach you any techniques that would be useful in a street attack, but it doesn't try to - it's a sport. However, it does teach you mental techniques that would help you in a self-defence situation.

In fact I think it is the mental benefits that really brings kumite training into its own. When sparring you have to find the courage to face your opponent and have a physical confrontation with them. For some people that is very difficult, some people have to dig pretty deep inside themselves to find that courage, but I do believe it's inside all of us somewhere - training will help bring it out.

It also teaches you resilience, determination, patience, self-control and awareness. These are all positive character traits that may help you in a real attack situation if you are ever unlucky enough to be in one, but they will certainly help you in other areas of your life - your work, interpersonal-relationships or just dealing with any situation or challenge that life throws at you.

So next time you have a chance to do sparring, don't shy away from it, rise to the challenge. Remember - it's not about fighting, it's about finding something deep within you.

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Thursday, 18 June 2009

Men with Big Muscles...

Good news for you men who like to weight train: apparently building up the muscles can decrease your chances of getting cancer by 40%!

From the Daily Telegraph:

...The findings, by an international team of researchers, suggest muscular strength is as important as staying slim and eating healthily when it comes to protecting the body against deadly tumours.

The scientists who came up with the findings are recommending men weight train at least twice a week, exercising muscle groups in both the upper and lower body....

For the full article
click here .

So, now you have no excuse to keep working out!

(Photo by

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Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Training with Tonfas

I have decided to start my kobudo training with the tonfas. I have chosen the tonfas partly because I have already had a little go with them and have some idea of what they are like to handle and partly because I can directly see their relationship to many karate techniques that I already know, such as blocks and strikes.

In my usual way I decided that before my next lesson I would find out a bit more about what training with tonfas involved and where this weapon originally came from. First, here's some video of a tonfa kata from YouTube:

There seems to a bit of confusion as to the origins of the tonfa. Some sources suggest that tonfas were used as weapons in China and Indonesia way before they were used in Okinawa. However the 'favoured' history, and my preferred one, is that the tonfa was a farm implement, derived from the grinding handle of a millstone, that could be quickly detached and used as a weapon. When weapons were banned in Okinawa during the 15th - 17th centuries and the Okinawans were often under siege by the the Samurai or Western travellers, the beleaguered peasants developed many farm implements into secret weapons, including the tonfa.

I love the idea that that these poor peasants, living in poverty and constant fear of attack, would suddenly jump out of the fields with various farming implements and fight off their attackers with their secretly developed weapon's techniques. I bet that took them by surprise!

Presumably the tonfa would have originally been a single weapon - I assume a millstone only needs one grinding handle! When it became a twinned weapon I don't know.

So what can you do with a tonfa? Clearly it lends itself to some formidable blocking. If I'd been holding a tonfa last week when I blocked by partner's kick I wouldn't still be nursing a big bruise on my forearm.

The tonfa's original use as a grinding handle means that its design, with a side handle, makes it ideal for performing rotating strikes. Twirling the tonfa around at great speed adds a lot of power to a strike. It can also be used to block or parry another weapon and the blunt ends used to thrust or strike.

By using the long part of the shaft in conjunction with the side handle, the tonfa can be used for arm locks or to control an opponent. We tried a technique where the tonfa was held by the long shaft, the side handle hooked around the back of the attacker's neck and the hand holding the tonfa then slid up the shaft until the neck was sandwiched between the side handle and the hand in a vice like grip. The free hand could then do a palm heel strike into the face. Nasty!

From a defensive point of view, when holding the side handle, the shaft protects the forearm and hand from blows, and the knob can protect the thumb. By holding both ends of the shaft, the tonfa can ward off blows and when holding the shaft, the side handle can function as a hook to catch blows or weapons.

Other attacks include using it like a hammer by holding the long shaft and striking with the side handle or using it as a club by holding it the other way around.

It sounds like a very versatile weapon! So what specific skills do you need to be able to use the tonfa effectively? The fundamental skills that needs to be learned is to be able to switch from different grips very quickly and to be able to rotate the tonfa at speed.

Obviously the tonfa is not a legal weapon to carry around (unless you're the police) so what advantages will tonfa training give me?

Hopefully it will improve my karate skills by:

  • speeding up reflexes and manual dexterity

  • conditioning me for the impact from other weapons

  • Develop my timing and distance

  • Strengthen and improve my blocks and stances

  • Develop my coordination and ability to defend from all angles and with both hands

Do you have any tips for tonfa training? I would be particularly interested in tips on what to look for when buying a pair of tonfas.

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Monday, 15 June 2009

First Kobudo Lesson

I had my first kobudo class last night. These classes are held in a different club to my karate classes so it was also a chance to see how a different dojo operates, meet new people and and work under a different sensei.

The club is a combined jujitsu/kobudo club but it is possible to opt for just one of those arts or both of them. I'm just doing kobudo. I thought learning three martial arts at one go would just be too much! However, I'm still joining in with the break fall practice at the beginning as I think it will be useful for karate.

The grading system works in a completely different way to that in karate. To get a full black belt you have to master 10 weapons but you can choose between 2 paths to get there. Option one is to study just 4 weapons initially and master them through 3 levels all the way to black belt. Though you can then wear a black belt you are only a black belt in those 4 weapons not a full kobudo black belt. You then study another 4 weapons up to black belt and then finally the last 2. Only when you have achieved black belt in all 10 weapons can you be regarded as a black belt in kobudo.

Option two is to study all 10 weapons at once. Taking each through levels 1,2 and 3 and then getting the full black belt in kobudo. Which ever option is chosen it still takes about 7-8 years to get the full black belt. I've decided to take option 1, I think four weapons at a time will be more than enough for me to cope with.

So what weapons am I choosing? I'm not entirely sure yet. Last night I had a little go with the nunchaku, the tonfas and the sword. For some reason I was expecting it all to be more kata based but we were straight in to learning some basic blocks, strikes, locks and strangle techniques against an attacker with the nunchaku and tonfas . I was surprised at how similar some of this was to some karate self-defence techniques except you used the weapons instead of your hands and forearms. That definitely made blocking less painful!

The sword was a little trickier! We practised drawing and re sheathing the sword. My main problem was that the sword is about 2 inches too long for me and I found it really difficult to get the tip of the sword back into the sheath.

Last night was a bit of a taster session really. I quite liked the 3 weapons i tried out so I may stick to them. What to choose for the 4th one though - that is the question. Any suggestions as to what is a good weapon to start with?

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Thursday, 11 June 2009

To Fight or not to Fight?

My karate club is holding it's first 'in house' kumite competition on July 4th. Sensei is clearly hoping for a good turn out for this. So should I enter?

I have shied away from kumite competitions so far. Why? Well, because I find it difficult to do, I'm worried I'll make a complete hash of it and I'm a bit of a wimp when I get hurt (see my last post!). But this is not the budo spirit is it? Maybe I should see it as an opportunity to face my weaknesses and overcome my reticence.

Sensei has certainly been training us up for this competition. We've been having mini kumite competitions at the end of each class. He uses this opportunity to teach us the rules, advise us on our technique and give us experience on what a competition feels like. This has helped. I do feel a bit more confident about sparring. I even quite enjoy it now.

So will I enter? Yeah, course I will........ bring it on Sensei!

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Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Shrugging off Injuries

I had a slightly weird class last night. It was me who was weird not the class. It was a perfectly normal good class. I was okay to start with, I looked forward to the class and I enjoyed the warm up.

We started with a whole class kata practice - all doing the same kata together. I enjoy doing kata but not in a big group like this, I prefer practicing on my own. The problem when we do it together is that I get the feeling we are racing each other to finish first. I find it a bit distracting when I am aware that the people next to me are one or two steps ahead. But I try and resist the temptation to speed up because I know my technique will then get sloppy.

I was then sent to the back of the dojo with the other purple belts to practice our combinations and other things off our syllabus. This is when I managed to injure myself. My partner and I decided to practice some kumite combinations. Stupidly I decided to block a kick with my forearm instead of just pushing it away. Ouch! It hurts. I now have a bump and bruise developing on my arm.

The problem was I found it difficult to get over this relatively minor injury and just get on with the karate. My arm was throbbing a bit but it wasn't broken. It made me realise I still have a lot of toughening up to do! I was a bit subdued for about the next 20 minutes. Even sensei asked me if anything was wrong because I didn't seem myself.

Anyway I decided to try and get back into things so threw myself into some break fall practice. I thought that smashing my arm down onto the mat would be good for me (not my arm, just me).

Finally we did a mini kumite competition and I finally woke up again! Sparring took my mind off of my throbbing arm and I really enjoyed it. In fact I even volunteered to do an extra round at the end!

So at least the class finished on a high for me but I do seem to have a problem dealing with injuries acquired during the session. I need to learn to shrug it off better and not let it affect my mood so much.

How do you deal with injury? Can you shrug it off and just carry on?

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Monday, 8 June 2009

Womens's self defence - is it just an illusion?

Here's a copy of the blog post I recently wrote for Martial News:

Why do women do martial arts? I’m sure they have a variety of different reasons but I expect that if you asked around in your dojo virtually all women would have the following two phrases in their answers: ‘to get fit’ and ‘to learn some self-defence’. Well I’ve no doubt that if they put the effort in they will get fitter, I know I am certainly stronger and fitter than I was two years ago before taking up karate, even though I was a regular attendee at a gym.

Unfortunately I have some doubts as to whether women actually learn a useful and effective self-defence strategy. They will learn many self-defence techniques that seem useful such as escapes from strangles and grabs; blocks and counter strikes to various kicks and punches and maybe even defences from the ground. But I have some doubts as to how useful all this really is in a real life attack situation.

I am taught exactly the same techniques as the men in our dojo are. It is my observation that the men can generally get to grips with most of the techniques and get them to work, they seem fascinated with the whole bio-mechanics of things and will spend ages getting complicated locks on.

Women on the other hand are a bit more pragmatic in their approach and are more discerning about what works and what doesn’t. There is often much chatter amongst the women along the lines of ‘I’d never try and do that – it’s too fiddly,’ or ‘ That would never work on a big bloke,’ or ‘I’m not strong enough to do that one,’ or ‘ It’s too complicated, I’ll never remember that’. I’m often the one saying these things!

I’m not actually surprised by this, after all martial arts of all styles were developed by men for men to fight other men. Traditionalists have ensured that ancient fighting techniques have been preserved and so most martial arts taught today seem more effective for the male body form than the female one. On top of that we have ‘sex equality’ issues and ‘political correctness’ to throw into the mix. It would probably take a brave instructor to treat male and female students differently because of their differences in body shape; particularly if he were male, the risk of sounding sexist or patronising could be enormous.

In the dojo that I train in men and women are treated exactly the same in all respects. On the whole this works well, after all I have two legs and two arms like a man so I can do most of the same things that a man can do, so I have no complaints about being treated the same. I will partner the men almost as often as I partner other women and I think this is a good idea as I can learn what it is like to throw or apply techniques to a much larger, heavier person.

So, what is my problem? Well, being a male orientated fighting system, karate teaches you how to deal predominantly with a male on male attack. If a man is attacked it is most likely to occur in the street by a random attacker or by a ‘rival gang’ or in a pub brawl or somewhere like that. Statistics suggest that women are rarely attacked by strangers in the street.

Eighty-five percent of women who are attacked are attacked in their own homes or in the home of someone they know by someone they know. There is often an emotional attachment between the woman and her attacker which the attacker plays on and manipulates; or her attacker may have got her drunk or drugged prior to a physical attack. A woman is often already defeated before the first blow is struck.

An effective self-defence system for women needs to help her deal with the events that go on between her and the attacker before the physical attack starts so that she can learn how to diffuse or prevent an attack from occurring. This requires quite a different approach than simply learning combative techniques.
I’m not saying that the self-defence techniques that I am learning are no good; indeed if I am one of the few unfortunate women that are attacked by a stranger in the street then I feel confident that I may be able to help myself.

However, my training does not adequately prepare me to deal with the more likely event of being attacked in my own home by someone I know or trust. A woman’s biggest mistake is to believe in will never happen to her – it may never be your husband or partner that attacks you but he could be a neighbour, family friend or colleague, or someone you just met in the pub, you just never know.

I think women’s self-defence is a specialist area. Women are different to men, both physically and psychologically, whether we acknowledge this in the dojo or not and their self-defence needs are different. Even the method of attack is likely to be different and requires a different approach.

Not every club is equipped to deal with this and there is no reason why they should be. A martial arts club teaching traditional or modern techniques has much to offer women and should be free to teach what its instructors want. After all martial arts are not just about self defence. But even courses that are specially designed and sold as ‘women’s self defence’ courses are often still based on the assumption that a woman will be attacked by a stranger in the street and don’t touch on issues of date rape or domestic violence which is much more common.

All that I am asking is that if a woman wishes to join your club and says that she wants to learn some self-defence, if you don’t offer any specialist training for women, please be honest with her about the limitations of the self-defence she will learn. Don’t let her be lulled into a false sense of security. Don’t allow the empowerment a woman may feel from learning a martial art to simply turn out to be an illusion.
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Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Latest Martial News

This months edition of Martial News is out now.

In Martial News this month…
Marfest 09 Great Success + VIDS

Robert Buzz Berry vs France's Akim Assenine - European Heavy-weight Belt
Total Combat 29 - Full Results
Dad battles for 100 minutes for sick children's hospital
Forces Knife Defence SeminarRoss Pearson - The Ultimate Warrior Exclusive

In the new International News section…
Cage Girl
Indian martial artsPlus much more…
Plus much more…

We will also be featuring…
John Agar – Wing Chun Part Two
The Art of Angling
Solo Martial Arts
Capoeira’s 20th celebrations…

We also have a new blogger.
Pete Falkous of the Northern Fight League gives us the Inside Cage perspective…
A director of the NFL, Pete also helps run a successful MMA gym in the west end of Newcastle…

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Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Flux and Change in Karate Kata

When I started karate training two years ago and started reading about it, I very much got the impression that 'tradition' and 'conservation' of technique was the name of the game. This particularly seemed to apply to kata, which have been passed down from generation to generation of martial artists relatively unchanged. In fact I thought one of the purposes of kata was to encode techniques into choreographed forms in order to preserve them for future generations. I sometimes think of kata as being a storage facility for karate knowledge, each kata being a mini 'encyclopedia' or 'manual' of how to do it.

But it isn't really like that is it? Kata do change. The two kata that I am currently learning are Annanku and Jerokono. I have seen changes made to both of these kata. I recently performed Annanku in a competition. It was an open competition and my fellow competitor was a shitoryu stylist, I am a shukokai stylist which is an offshoot of shitoryu. She also performed Annanku and did most of the kata the same way as me except for a small part in the middle which she did completely differently. Her version was more complex than mine. So in the version I do someone decided it was a good idea to simplify a part of it - have they deleted a bit of knowledge from the 'encyclopedia'?

I have also seen a change in Jurokono, this time an addition rather than a deletion. I have two DVDs which demonstrate all the kata taught in shukokai karate. One is produced by the Shukokai Karate Union (SKU) and the other is produced by my own sensei. I noticed that in the SKU version there was an additional double punch near the beginning of the kata that was absent in sensei's version even though he had taught us the kata with the extra double punch in it. Confused I asked sensei about this. He replied that when he made the DVD (which was only 2 years ago) the double punch was absent but now the SKU has added it. Why? Apparently some clubs in Manchester liked it like that so the SKU decided to unify it across the organisation!

I don't think kata should be messed with like this. These may be small examples but I've already witnessed these in my very short martial arts career so there must be other examples, perhaps more radical changes that are occurring across the martial arts community.

I do believe that a martial art should be flexible and dynamic, I'm all for progress but surely these changes and developments should be made through the bunkai not the kata themselves. Isn't the bunkai the place to experiment with technique, to make additions or deletions, to look for new interpretations? There is no need to change the kata, that just risks deleting knowledge forever.

What do you think?

Monday, 1 June 2009

Go Ape

Here's some photos and video of our Go Ape session in Grizedale Forest last week. If you ever get the chance to do it and aren't afraid of heights - DO IT! It's great fun. You are fully harnessed and receive training on how to use the equipment and stay safe so it doesn't feel as scary as it looks.

The highest platform was about 75 ft above the forest floor

The cargo nets were definitely the hardest thing to climb

Me, all harnessed up!

If only it didn't keep moving when you stepped on it!

Attaching the safety ropes to the tree.
I was chanting the mantra 'long line loves the tree, short line loves the pulley' in my sleep!

There were several zip rides - this was the shortest one at the end:

And this was the longest one, but unfortunately I was holding the camera the wrong way round!

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