Monday, 26 October 2009

Why do we.........wear a gi?

The word gi literally means 'dress' or 'clothes' but is often used to mean 'uniform'. Using the word gi to describe a martial arts uniform is common in English but is an incorrect use of the term in Japanese where the full name of keikogi is used. However, it is common to replace the word keiko with the name of the martial art being practised, such as karategi, judogi or aikidogi.

The gi consists of uwagi or jacket, zubon or pants, and an obi or belt.

So where did this almost universal style of martial arts uniform come from? Some sources suggest that the karategi originated in Okinawa as a functional garment that resembled the clothes that peasants and farmers were already wearing. It is suggested that the garment was designed to be light, with short sleeves and legs to make training easier in the hot sun, whilst still being suitable for both night training and sleeping in. However there is much photographic evidence that Okinawans actually trained in shorts and t-shirts or even just in their underwear! Sensei Funakoshi (founder of Shotokan karate) himself trained in shorts and t-shirt right up until he went to Japan. (You can view a photo of typical early Okinawan fighters in training

It is unlikely therefore that the gi originated in Okinawa. It's introduction as a martial arts uniform is generally attributed to Jigoro Kano who developed judo from jujitsu in the early years of the 20th century. Sensei Kano's first students wore their everyday kimonos to practice, so he had them wear black sashes to keep the kimonos closed while they grappled.

However, the light weight materials used in kimonos were not suitable for grappling arts and Sensei Kano restored to use a uniform based on an ancient one used in old jujitsu made of linen, in coffee colour and covered with cotton fabric. The ancient stories say that due to the effect of the sweat and the intense rubbing of the practices plus routine washing, they would turn white naturally. Due to this, when Sensei Kano decided to restore the official outfit for Judo, he took into account the above, and decided that the most suitable colour would be white.

Senseis Kano and Funakoshi were good friends and when Funakoshi came to Japan for the second time in 1922 to demonstrate karate at Sensei Kano's Kodakan (the central dojo for judo in Japan), Kano was alarmed that Funakoshi was going to do the demonstration in shorts and t-shirt. Kano persuaded him to borrow a judogi so that he would look more professional in front of the dignitaries he was trying to impress. Funakoshi agreed and later took back the gi to Okinawa as a gift from Kano. The wearing of the gi then spread throughout Okinawa as well as Japan in karate dojos.

In judo there are exacting standards for the weight, size, style and colour of the gi - particularly for competitions. The gis are thick and heavy for durability. In karate the gi was modified to be thinner and lighter with shorter sleeves and legs to aid kicking and striking. However, many karate practitioners prefer a heavier weight gi for kata work (particularly in competition) as it gives a characteristic 'snapping' sound when movements are performed quickly and sharply.

Is it still relevant to wear a gi in martial arts today? Many modern martial arts such as kickboxing and mixed martial arts have dropped the gi as a uniform and tend to wear more modern clothes such as shorts or t-shirts and track pants. However, most traditional styles of martial arts have retained its use or wear a modified version, often in a colour other than white.

There are five reasons put forward as to why a traditional gi should be worn:

1. A different place. The wearing of a gi reminds the practitioner that the place where he trains is different to the place where he lives and works. When he enters the dojo, he enters a place where the realities and worries of the world can be set aside and he can focus entirely on the physical, mental and spiritual aspects of his training.

2. Uniformity and organisation. The wearing of a gi helps us to see at a glance who is of which rank, who is sensei and who is a student. This organisation of rank and hierarchy enables one to have organisation of thought and a sensible progression of training. It enables individuals to know their position and what must be achieved to raise their position in the dojo.

3.Commitment. When an individual values a uniform that individual becomes more committed to the art in which they belong for a greater length of time.

4. Practicality. A gi is comfortable, practical and hard wearing. It is fit for purpose. Remaining comfortable allows one to continue training for longer periods of time which should result in achieving greater ability.

5. Retaining the integrity of the art. The gi helps to retain the integrity of the art. Wearing the gi shows knowledge and respect for the history, culture and origin of the art. Ignoring the usefulness of a uniform ignores the roots of the art from which it comes. It 'mocks' the very source in which the art hails.

(Adapted from Heritage Martial Arts - Student manual )

It seems the gi is more than just a uniform but is a symbol of all that it means to be a martial artist. Keep it neat, keep it clean, wear it with pride.

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Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Forrest Morgan Interview - women in martial arts.

Many of you will no doubt have already read the interview with Forrest Morgan over on Ikigai's blog. This was a real coup for Matt and he certainly didn't waste the opportunity to bring us an excellent interview that revealed the life and thoughts of Mr Morgan on a range of martial arts topics.

Matt was also gracious enough to offer to put some of his reader's questions to Mr Morgan and I was very delighted that he put the question that I submitted to him. Matt sensibly condensed my rather long-winded question to this:

Reader: Should female traditional artists be concerned about changing
techniques to fit their body and capabilities (it seems as if traditional arts
were developed and designed for men)?

Forrest Morgan's response:

FM: That is an excellent question, one that speaks to a warrior’s
tactical mindset. The answer is yes. Most traditional arts were indeed
developed by men, for men (and right-handed men, at that). That said, a few women warriors have developed their own martial arts. For instance, according to legend, Wing Chun Gung Fu was developed by a Buddhist nun with a woman’s body in mind.
Samurai women also developed certain arts to defend their households
(naginata-jutsu, for example). But the overwhelming majority of martial arts are designed for men fighting other men of approximately equal size. So yes, women need to assess the kinds of threats they are most likely to face, objectively appraise their own physical capabilities, and tailor their techniques and tactics accordingly. Instructors should help their female students do this. If they don’t, women should seek training elsewhere.
By the way, this answer also applies to men of small stature. But women face additional threats that most men do not.

As regular readers of this blog will know I have a bee in my bonnet about identifying and acknowledging the differences between men and women in martial arts training and so I was elated to get this very positive response from Forrest Morgan, it made me feel vindicated in what I have been trying to say. I have made references to male/female differences in several of my posts now, including: women's self-defence - is it just an illusion, Should women train differently to men in martial arts and Block or Flinch in Martial arts (the discussion takes place more in the comments section on this post)

The part of Mr Morgan's answer that particularly excites me is: "So yes, women need to assess the kinds of threats they are most likely to face, objectively appraise their own physical capabilities, and tailor their techniques and tactics accordingly. Instructors should help their female students do this."

Before I go any further I would just like to point out that I only think women should train differently to men in respect of the self-defence aspect of martial arts. If you train in a bugei art such as jujitsu then clearly the whole thing is about self-defence but if you train in a budo art such as karate-do then self-defence training is just one element of that art form. In which case, kihon, kata and kumite training does not need to differ between men and women.

In self-defence training, as Mr Morgan points out, instructors should help women to identify the ways in which they should train differently, help them to understand the strengths and weaknesses in their own bodies and to help them adapt techniques accordingly. This requires instructors to understand women - physically, mentally and emotionally. If a woman has a female instructor then she probably has an advantage. However most instructors are male and so they should make the effort to understand martial arts from a female perspective.

So what things should be taken into consideration?

Aggression. Women have less testosterone than men and so are not as naturally aggressive. When a man starts martial arts training he will bring his aggression with him and you may find you spend a lot of time training him to calm down and control it. When a woman starts training she may be timid, afraid of hurting and getting hurt. It will take time for her to gain confidence and build up her levels of aggression as she progresses. She may feel embarrassed or too self-conscious to show aggression but eventually embarrassment and fear will be overcome. Women need instructors to show a lot of patience with them during this phase. Do not expect women to cope well with reality based training until they have developed their confidence and 'toughened up' a little.

Physique. I am not talking about the obvious differences between men and women here but more skeletal and muscular differences. Men have thicker bones, including thicker ribs and a thicker layer of muscle covering them. This makes them more resistant to damage and pain when being struck or thrown. Men's generally thicker 'covering' enables them to absorb shock better than women's bodies and so they have a higher tolerance to striking. (I admit women have a higher percentage body fat but it is distributed in the wrong places to give any real protection). This means that men have a comparatively high tolerance to pain and shock right from the start of training. Women take time to gradually build up this tolerance through training. Instructors need to think about how they can help women to develop this tolerance.

Motivation. Men seem to be much more single-minded and clearer about the reasons why they want to learn a martial art. The main motivation for a man seems to be to learn to fight and to defend themselves, either for the purposes of sport or self-protection. This seems to be particularly true for younger men. Fitness and self-improvement may also be on the agenda but only seem to move up the list as he enters his maturer years. For most women learning martial arts is not about learning to fight. They will probably say that they are doing it for fitness and self-defence training but really fitness and social contact is probably nearer the mark for many women (even if they don't admit it). Women like the idea that they will be learning some self-defence - but often their actions speak louder than their words and their training does not progress in an effective or useful way.

How seriously a woman takes her self-defence training is probably proportional to how seriously she perceives the threat of violence against her to be. For the vast majority of women the risk of violence is very low, thus motivation to learn to defend ones-self in any meaningful way is also low. When this is coupled with low aggression levels, fear of getting hurt and feelings of self-consciousness it is not surprising that may women do not like the realities of effective self-defence training and often just go through the motions of practicing the techniques.

Motivation will be much higher in women who's perception of threat is higher. So women who have experienced violence first hand or know someone who has, live in an environment where violence is a regular occurrence or work in a job where there is a risk of confrontation with the public will be much more motivated to learn self-defence. This will show in the way they are prepared to train.

Everyone will know of an amazing female martial artist who is a high ranking dan grade, has won xyz competitions and can kick ass with the best of men. There are always exceptions to the rule. I am referring to the average woman in the average dojo. When it comes to learning a fighting art men have all the physical and mental advantages that allow them to hit the ground running when they first start training. Women generally have higher physical and mental barriers to overcome and may seem to be stuck in the starting blocks for quite a long time. They need patience, help, support, encouragement to gain confidence, endurance and tolerance - this takes time and only when this has been acquired can any meaningful, realistic self-defence training take place. This applies whether they are big, small, fat or thin - it is their femaleness that makes them different to men, not their size and strength.

Some women may never acquire the motivation to learn effective self-defence and may never get further than 'going through the motions'. However, this does not mean their martial arts training is a waste of time, it just means their focus is in a slightly different direction to the average mans. If you are involved in the budo arts then there is much to be gained apart from fighting skills. Health, fitness, flexibility, agility, confidence, tolerance, patience, respect, self-discipline.... the list is endless and all worthy objectives to achieve.

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Wednesday, 14 October 2009

A book review: Street Smart - a practical guide to dealing with street violence.

I have finally got around to reading Neil Martin's (Urban Samurai) new e-book called Street Smart - a practical guide to dealing with street violence. I would recommend anyone who would like to equip themselves with a complete strategy for dealing with a potential or actual street attack to read this guide.

The things I particularly liked about this book were:

  • It was straight forward and simple to read, it didn't try to do too much or use complicated terminology. At 34 pages long it took me about 35 minutes to read the entire book.
  • It wasn't about fighting. Okay, there was a section that described some principles of good self defense but the majority of the book dealt with preventative issues such as avoidance; coping with fear; the law on self defense - including the difference between fighting and self defense, I thought that was an important distinction; not looking or behaving like a victim; how to avoid escalating situations.
  • I liked the introduction of the concept of the 3 A's : Attitude, Awareness and Action as graded responses to the situation you find yourself in.
  • There is emphasis on staying calm, not escalating a situation, putting away ego and looking for a means of escape as the primary strategies.
  • In the section on Confrontation it deals with principles of action rather than detailed techniques, which cannot be learned satisfactorily from a book. The concept of the 'Fence' is discussed as a way of subtly controlling the situation. Attention to things like balance, distance and timing are discussed rather than details of how to punch, kick or throw for example.
  • It also covers anticipating weapon use, how to utilise your surroundings and use improvised weapons to defend yourself.
  • It is the only book I've read that tells you what to expect in the aftermath of a confrontation - it discusses the syndrome of adrenal-induced Tachypsychia and how this may affect you for some time after the fight.
  • Importantly this book cautions against over-dependence on relying on traditional martial arts techniques whilst acknowledging the benefits that this type of training can still bring - a position I whole heartedly support.

This book will not turn you into a master of street defense overnight - it doesn't try to. The need for physical training is emphasised over and over again. However it will provided you with an overall strategy, raise your awareness of how to prevent or deal with an attack and teaches you some basic principles that you need to know to defend yourself effectively.

I could find no real negative aspects or glaring omissions for a basic guide to self-defense and would thoroughly recommend adding it to your e-library.

To download the book go to Urban Samurai's website and click on the book icon.

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Monday, 12 October 2009

Blocking: I'm all inside out!

I have been doing karate for nearly two and a half years now so you would expect me to know what the basic blocks were. Indeed if you ask me to do an age uke, gedan barai, uchi uke or soto uke (and one or two others) I would know exactly what you were asking for and be able to show you. However, if you asked me to do an inside block or an outside block I would be confused!

There seem to be different interpretations of what an inside or outside block means. Is the block an inside block if you make contact with the inside of the attackers forearm as you move your arm in the direction away from your body (such as using an uchi uke)? Or is it an inside block if your arm is moving in an inwards direction and thus making contact with the outside of the attackers forearm (as in a soto uke)? This assumes that you are blocking with the opposite arm to which the attacker is striking with, i.e he punches with his right arm and you block with your left arm.

If you block with the same arm that the attacker strikes with then does the uchi uke block now become an outside block because you make contact with the outside of the attackers forearm? Likewise does the soto uke become an inside block because you would make contact with the inside of the attackers forearm? Or am I now describing a cross block (as opposed to an X-block - another source of confusion!)? Can a cross block be described as inside or outside?

Are you still with me or have I confused you as well?

I have now discovered that some people use the terms inward and outward block rather than inside and outside block. By inwards block they mean moving towards the inside of your own body so to block the outside edge of the attackers forearm (?outside block) and by outwards block they mean moving away from your body to strike the inside of the attackers forearm (?inside block).

So is an inward block the same as an outside block and is an outward block the same as an inside block? Then again if you're cross-blocking an inward block is also an inside block (and vice-versa) isn't it?

I would really like some clarification about this if anyone can help........

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Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Should women train differently to men in martial arts?

Over on Ikigai's blog a few day's ago I got into a dialogue with the commentator wenhsiu in response to a question I wanted Matt to put to the martial artist Forrest Morgan when he does his interview with him (see: Ask Forrest Morgan).

My question was this:

"I would want to ask him a question about women in martial arts. I base my question on the premise that traditional fighting arts were developed by men for men to fight other men and are thus best suited for the male physique. As a consequence of this I tend to think that women are slightly square pegs in round holes when it comes to learning a traditional martial art and we have to make it 'fit' to our physiques as best we can. With this in mind does Mr Morgan think
that traditional martial arts training techniques should be adapted to help women learn techniques that play to their physiological strengths i.e techniques that utilise their proportionately greater core strength, adapting kicks to take account of a women's different shaped pelvis (which affects the angle of articulation of the hip), learning techniques that compensate for a woman's lack of upper body strength etc. Or does he think women should just get on with it and train the same as men?"

In wenhsiu's replies to my question he mentioned that the Ancient Chinese did indeed recognise the differences between men and women and that in the Chinese arts of Qigong and Taiji men and women were trained in separate techniques. Wenhsiu also mentioned that Wing Chun was developed by a Shaolin Nun called Ng Mui. She noticed the plight of a young girl called Wing Chun (Her name means "Beautiful Spring") and taught her this new art to defend her self against an unscrupulous landlord (warlord in some texts) who wanted to force her into marriage. The art was subsequently named after her. This is the first example I've seen of a fighting art being developed by a woman for a woman (albeit to fight a man!).

This got my interest up and I attempted to find out what I could about these arts, or any others that seem tailored to a woman's physique.

Wing Chun (Wing Choon) kung fu continues to be a relevant martial art that is well suited to women. It is a Southern Shaolin style (external style) that is characterised by solid stances, powerful arms, fast movements and elaborate hand techniques. According to the website Uk Wing Chun :

"If we were to look at the percentages alone, we would have to say that women reach a far higher standard than the men. Women make particularly good progress in the early training as they tend to be less competitive in the way they use their strength"

According to this website women particularly excel in the following techniques:

  • They are more able to 'feel' the intention in 'sticky hands' sessions and are still able to generate tremendous force behind their strikes.

  • women are as dangerous as the men in applying a finger strike to the eyes.

  • Women can make good use of the lift kick. In its simplest form this kick goes directly upward into the groin. The use of the lift kick and knees make for more respect from opponents when entering into the ladies 'personal space', the range where potential danger becomes imminent danger.

  • The use of elbow techniques is of great use to women as it is hard to make the elbow soft, one has to hit softer to cause less damage. After getting over the habit of over rotating the palm when using the elbow, the women consistently strike hard and accurately with this weapon as most men will attempt to grab and hold or wrestle a woman down and not throw a clean punch.

They go on to say:

"We have found that women certainly do not lack strength but they do tend to use their strength differently. If a man were to 'arm wrestle' a lady he would find that she can be very strong at holding her ground, but not as likely to be able to exert more power to beat him. The 'frame can be very strong indeed, and as Wing Chun relies on a powerful framework, women do tend to do equally well. Therefore, when a woman is in chi sau (sticking hands) range she can prevent being easily overpowered and can feel the moment to change direction and release the power (fa ging). It does not require great strength to nullify an opponents power when in contact, and with consistent skill training drills she can also deal with breaks too."

A commentator on a martial arts forum said about Wing Chun: "...but in Wing Chun they knew that a woman could not compete with any man blow for blow. Hence the system continually puts pressure on its opponent once contact is made… in Wing Chun you continue to throw combinations of blows, relentlessly (many instances blocking and punching simultaneously). It makes up in quantity what women lack in strength. There is a saying in Wing Chun "As It Comes Retain It, As It Leaves Follow It (Pursue)"."

Both Qigong (Ch'i Kung) and Taiji (Taijiquan or Tai Chi Chuan) are internal styles (nèijiā). These internal arts are linked with Taoism, whereas the external styles (Shaolin styles) are linked with Buddhism. Internal styles focus on awareness of the spirit, mind, chi (breath) and the use of relaxed leverage rather than unrefined muscular tension. Pushing hands is a training method commonly used in neijia arts to develop sensitivity and softness.

There is room for confusion with this classification of internal and external styles. Most Chinese arts have elements of both internal and external techniques but external styles tend to teach the external elements first (the fighting techniques) and move onto the internal ones at an advanced stage. The internal styles on the other hand start with the internal techniques and move onto the external ones later.

Of the two internal styles that wenhsiu mentioned to me, Qigong is not technically a martial art. It is considered to be an internal Chinese meditative practice which often uses slow graceful movements and controlled breathing techniques to promote the circulation of qi within the human body, and enhance a practitioner's overall health. It is often confused with other martial arts because other internal styles, including Taiji often include qigong techniques within them.

Though I couldn't find any reference to women being taught differently to men in Taiji, most Taiji websites promote the considerable health benefits to women of practising internal styles. These health benefits range from improvements in the cardiovascular system, reduction in glycosolated haemoglobin in diabetes, boosting the immune system, maintaining bone density in post menopausal women, to reduction in stress, increased mobility and balance in people with Parkinson's disease and a reduction in cognitive decline in Alzheimer's disease. The list seems endless. I may look at this in more detail in a future post.

But I do karate, not Wing Chun or an internal style such as Taiji, so can this knowledge on 'female friendly' techniques still help me? Well wenhsiu suggests that there are elements of qigong and taiji in karate. He described them as '...those bits in your katas that don't make any sense'. Mmmmm- I'll have to look out for those! We also do kicks, elbow strikes and finger strikes, so maybe we're not too different from those Wing Chun girls after all.

Here's some Wing Chun video:

So in conclusion, should women train differently to men? I suppose the choices are to learn a martial art that is particularly suitable for women, such as Wing Chun or to be aware of techniques that particularly play to a woman's strengths (kicks, elbows, finger strikes, utilisation of core strength) and focus on them in the style you already do. I think this is possible in karate - it's just a matter of thinking about what you are doing and being aware of what suits your physique

Thanks wenhsiu for your comments.

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Monday, 5 October 2009

BlogWritingCourse: commences 12th October

Blog Writing Course

Just a quick post to let you know that a new session of the BlogWritingCourse is due to commence on the 12th October. This 8 week on-line course is essentially aimed at people who are novices at blog writing - either they wish to start a blog but are unsure of how to do it successfully or they have started a blog and need help to develop it further.

I am a past alumni of this course having completed the February 09 session. I had already set up my blog about 2 weeks before the course started but found it invaluable in helping me to design my blog more aesthetically, know how to promote it, monetize it and most importantly learn how to keep safe on the Internet.

The most enjoyable part of the course is communicating with the other students via forums and via each others blogs. After all, blogging is about communicating so this course is an ideal place to hone those skills.

The main themes of the course are:

What Makes A Good Blog
Developing Your Blog Identity
Creating Your Blog
“About Me” Pages
Getting Started Writing
Building Quality Content
Hooking Your Readers
Blogging Etiquette and Safety
Promoting Your Blog

The BlogWritingCourse teacher, Topsy Techie, conducted an interview with me a few months ago to find out how I was getting along with blogging. You can read that interview by clicking

The course costs $59.00 and is money well spent for beginner bloggers. To find out more about the course click :
learn more To register for the course click: register

NB: I have promoted this course because I am a past alumni and believe it is a good course. I have received no inducement to do so.

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