Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Do martial arts influence life or vice-versa?

Do our life experiences influence our attitudes to martial arts? Or, does our martial arts training influence the way we react to life experiences? What comes first – chicken or egg? This question was raised in my mind recently by FredInChina’s comment to my last post in which he said he was looking forward to seeing how my recent experiences in Cyprus would influence my martial arts.

I have just written a post for my Student’s Eye blog in Martial News (this will appear in the May edition) in which I looked at how Funakoshi’s guiding principles could help people cope better in a crisis such as the one I experienced recently in Cyprus due to the volcanic ash cloud. I was certainly thinking in that post about how some of the Ways of martial arts can be applied to general life experiences.

When we read about martial arts, particularly books that focus on the Do aspects of martial arts we are encouraged to take the ‘self-improvement’ lessons out of the dojo and into our general lives. There is definitely a feeling that our martial arts studies should influence the way we cope with all that life throws at us and hopefully to some extent that is what happens.

However, I can’t help thinking that life experiences also influence our attitude to martial arts. For example, if you have been on the receiving end of some extreme violence and want to know how to deal with it if it happens again you may decide to learn a martial art. The martial art you choose may be heavily influenced by the need to learn self-defence quickly. This may motivate you to choose a reality based system and to have no real interest in the Do aspects of martial arts.

On the other hand, if you are like me and have never been in a fight or even witnessed one close up and don’t feel the risk of experiencing street violence is very high on the agenda then the Do aspects of martial arts may assume a greater level of importance. Life experiences do influence our choice of martial arts.

I have no doubt that martial arts can help us to develop positive character traits and challenge us to examine our motivations, desires and behaviours but it would be naïve to suggest that this is the only medium through which we can develop ourselves. The Japanese knew this only too well. They have developed many Ways to self-improvement, martial arts just being one path.

I came to martial arts at the age of 45. My character was already pretty well developed through other means – my upbringing, experiences of nursing and teaching, working at a marriage, having children etc. I think martial arts just taps into what was already there. I feel a strong affinity for the lessons being taught in martial arts. They reflect the person I already am and so provide me with a medium through which to express and explore my character further. I’m not sure it will change me in any drastic way just fine tune me a bit more.

But what about a young person? To what extent can martial arts influence the character of a maturing mind? Martial Arts clubs often offer ‘salvation’ for the undisciplined, shy or bullied child. Can a child’s character really be ‘rescued’ in one hour a week? There seems to be many a boxing club that claims to have taken a boy off the street and given his life structure, order and purpose. I’m sure this is true but I’m also sure that it has as much to do with an instructor becoming a substitute parent and role model as it has the boxing skills. I think for most young people though it is the characteristics that they bring to martial arts in the first place that determine whether they will be a good martial artist or not. Good character development in a child is something that needs to be addressed at home – day in, day out. I think martial arts training will have a minor influence for most children. Or am I being overly cynical?

Do you have any stories of children or young people being ‘turned around’ by their experiences in martial arts? Or any stories of how your life experiences have influenced your martial arts (or vice-versa)? I’d love to hear your comments, or better still, why not write your own post on this subject?

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Friday, 23 April 2010

Home Sweet Home!

I am finally writing a post from UK soil! We were successfully repatriated last night and touched down at Manchester airport about 12.45 am. We finally got home at 3am this morning to find my lovely neighbour, Sarah, had left a carton of milk and two loaves of bread (one white, one wholemeal because she didn't know which we preferred - she's so thoughtful) on our doorstep. It was a welcome sight because we were starving and thirsty so we indulged ourselves with hot chocolate and toast at 3.30am!
On reflection, I don't quite know what to make of this volcanic ash crisis that has crippled air traffic for over a week. It seems that many people are criticising the British and other European governments for a complete overreaction to the situation by imposing a blanket ban on flights over European airspace. This obviously had knock on effects around the whole world. I don't know whether it was an overreaction or not - this type of situation has never arisen before but all I can say is that I'm glad I wasn't on the first plane to fly through the ash! I'm glad that mine and other people's safety was put before the needs of commerce and industry. No doubt over the coming days the 'ash crisis' will be debated vehemently by politicians and others and lessons will be learnt for when the second volcano on Iceland erupts!
The people who have been caught up in this event will no doubt reflect on their own experience of it and whether they handled themselves in the best way. I certainly met people who had a knee jerk reaction to the situation, who panicked a bit or got caught up with their own importance and thought their need to get home more urgent than others. We all had valid reasons for needing to get home - jobs, school, exams, family or social responsibilities but I'm not sure any of us was any more 'urgent' than anybody else.
This became apparent when we were told there were 6 standby tickets on the 5 flights that had been arranged for yesterday which the people who were not due to be repatriated until today could take (at a cost of 200 euros per seat). Only people with pressing medical needs (i.e people due to have life saving operations in the next few days) were allowed to apply. Being an important 'big wig' didn't cut the mustard!
However important we think we are, we are all just cogs in a wheel and the wheel will keep turning without us for a few days. There was no real need for people to book 2 or 3 flights at a time to increase their chances of getting home quicker (yes that happened), or to charter a private boat at a cost of £8000 (yes that happened too!). Some people went to extraordinary lengths to travel by land and sea at great personal expense - for what? It wasn't as if people didn't have access to phones or the internet to communicate with people, to re-arrange things, ask colleagues to cover, let people know what was happening, or just to work from where they were stranded if their job permitted it. In exceptional circumstances people are generally very tolerant of your absence for a few days and compensate for it. None of us is indispensible!
Perhaps if more people took up martial arts they would develop the mental strength that would enable them to cope well with a crisis like this and have a greater sense of self and less ego which clearly drove them to behave a little irrationally? It was clear from about Monday that the crisis was probably only going to last days rather than weeks.
My life and the lives of my family will no doubt get back to normal pretty quickly now, so next week I will return to my usual style of martial arts blogging. I'd like to thank everyone who had followed by blog over the last few days and left me such supportive comments. I'm sorry I didn't reply individually to most of them but I really did appreciate the things you have said.
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Thursday, 22 April 2010

Stranded in Cyprus - Coming home!

Usually when you have completed your holiday you 'come home' or 'return home'. However when your return is delayed because of a crisis you don't just 'come home', oh no, you get 'repatriated'. Sounds rather melodramatic doesn't it?

We are being repatriated this evening. Our repatriation flight is at 9.30pm local time (7.30pm UK time). Which means we will arrive back at Manchester airport around midnight (UK time). It's quite a relief to have a time-scale to work to. It means we can just relax the rest of the day and enjoy the hotel facilities. However, we are confined to barracks - not allowed to leave the hotel premises in case things change at short notice and our flight is brought forward. We have been told to check the notice board every couple of hours for updates so it does feel a bit like being on probabtion and having to report in regularly. At least they don't want to electronically tag us so they know where we all are!

Although we are a bit sad to be leaving, we've settled in pretty well now, it will be nice to get home for the weekend and have a couple of days to get back to normal before a new working week. My eldest son is clearly getting a bit bored because his Maths teacher e-mailed him some advanced maths questions (integration apparently) this morning and he's done them already!

It may now be possible for us to attend a karate seminar on Saturday that we thought we would be missing (although we would have to travel all the way back to Manchester to do it!) so we will have to see how we feel about that on Saturday morning. I'll also be able to go to my kobudo class on Sunday evening - my instructor was supposed to be on a jujitsu course in Norway this weekend but he's e-mailed me to say that's cancelled because of the volcano so the class will be on.

Hopefully I will next be updating you from the comfort of my own home!

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Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Stranded in Cyprus - Now on 'semi-standby'

Lots to tell you today! It has been a bit of a rollercoaster ride yesterday and this morning with hopes raised and then dashed and then raised again.

Yesterday we made the decision to buy a small netbook computer since getting access to the hotel's computers was getting almost impossible unless you were prepared to queue for ages or get up at 6am. Our rep. recommended a small computer shop to us that was a bus ride away and we set off to find it. The guy in the shop was really helpful and so now I am writing this post on a new MSi U100 netbook computer in the privacy of my hotel room! My husband has been talking about getting a new netbook computer for a while now and I've been subtley putting him off since he already has one. Walking back to the bus stop he said 'I knew it would take something like a volcano before you'd let me buy one'. So my husband might be to blame for the volcano errupting - the lengths some men will go to get their own way!

Yesterday was a day of meetings and updates. We started the day with high hopes of good news about flying home since British airspace had re-opened only to find out that it had closed again due to more ash. The worst thing about the day though was that a holidaymaker's 'aparteid' developed in the hotel. People on a 'flight only' basis from the travel company's point of view were all downgraded and moved out to low grade self-catering accommodation whilst the 'package holiday' people were told to stay in the hotel on full-board arrangements. The flight only people weren't too happy about moving out with 1 hrs notice, especially as couples were being expected to share accommodation with other couples! Many of these people were refusing to leave the hotel, preferring to be sent to a higher class of self-catering accommodation across the road from the hotel. So a stand-off began between the reps and the 'protesters' which lasted about an hour.

The atmosphere was a bit ugly in the hotel at this point so we decided to go off into Paphos for lunch. It seemed to be all over by the time we got back and a sense of calm had come back over the hotel again.

A happier thing that happened yesterday was that it was my wedding anniversary - 19 years! I didn't expect to be spending it in a luxury hotel in Cyprus so that was an added bonus. Had we been at home my husband would have been in London all day and I would have been at my drama club in the evening so we wouldn't have seen each other all day!

There have been all sorts of knock on effects for people as this situation continues. Many people's single trip travel insurance has expired so whether that will affect insurance claims I'm not sure. Fortunately we have annual multi-trip insurance. Some people have run out of medication. One chap I spoke to yesterday had run out of some rather specialised medication and had been sent to the local private hospital. They were able to assess him but unable to dispense the medication so they sent him to the local state hospital which he said was bit 'third world'. They had the medication but said it would cost him 1000 euros! He came back without
it and spoke to the rep. She clearly has a magic wand because later in the day he told me he had received the medication free of charge under the European reciprocal health arrangement. Another woman is quite heavily pregnant and is being made an emergency by the airline so she may get home today!

The meeting this morning was very positive. Apparently the 'Wednesday' people i.e people who should have flown last Wednesday, flew home last night at short notice and arrived safely at Newcastle airport (should have been Gatwick but at least it's the Uk). The 'Saturday' people have been told to pack immediately as there are 5 flights leaving paphos for the Uk this evening. We are 'Sunday' people and have been told to check for updates every 2 hours and to stay around the hotel.

It's not likely we will fly today but the situation is changing by the hour so we have to be on 'semi-standby' just in case spare seats are available on any of the planes.

Actually we'd quite like to go home on Friday now (finish the week off here, get back to school and work next Monday) but I suppose beggars can't be choosers!

I might be able to give a further update later today - if I'm not on a plane!

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Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Stranded in Cyprus - hope on the horizon!

Okay I've got to be quick today - even at 6.15am there is a queue for the computer!

Things are looking a bit more hopeful for getting home. Britain is opening it's airspace today and so some planes may take off today. However, I think we are in a queue - there are at least 2 plane loads of people before us just in this hotel so it could still be a few days. Hopefully we may get some idea of timescale today at our morning meeting.

The atmosphere was a lot more chilled yesterday in the hotel. Most of the moving around of people seemed to be finished so people were slipping back into holiday mode again - including us, well, after we'd done all the laundry anyway! (running out of undies!).

We have been so well looked after by our tour company First Choice who I can't praise enough. A lack of information is usually the most frustating thing in these circumstances but we have had twice daily bulletins and it makes the world of difference to know what is going on. So well done First Choice. Other people have not been so lucky and have had a much worse time of it with their travel companies. I heard of one family who were given 1 hour to check out of their hotel with no-where to go! How can they treat people like that? People who are having to re-book their own flights are complaining that the costs are doubling in front of their eyes as they try to book online! I believe that during the war it was illegal to profiteer during a crisis - what happened to society's morals? I know they will argue it's market forces - supply and demand and all that but people are really struggling financially.

Some good news on the exam front for my son - his French teacher has e-mailed to say she will postpone his oral French exam for a week and she has sent him some revision materials - he will be pleased with that when he wakes up in about 2 hours time!

I'm going to get ready for breakfast now - hopefully I will have news about getting home to share later (if I can get on the computer!)

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Monday, 19 April 2010

Still stranded!

Hi! Bagged the computer early this morning (6am) - some holiday eh! There's a greater sense of calm at this time and nobody breathing down your neck wanting to use the computer. Things were pretty hectic in the hotel yesterday evening, lots of people have been sent here by their tour company to wait for flights. It seems that our hotel is the central hub around here. The restaurant was much busier last night and the staff seemed a bit 'stressy'. I suppose they've never had a hotel full of 'refugees' before!

I feel a bit happier now I've managed to contact all the people I need to contact - even my son got up at 6am this morning to e-mail his teachers at school about his exams! It's just a matter of sitting back and playing the waiting game now.

I have not been ignoring my martial arts whilst here. I have been practising various things in the hotel room in little 10-15 minute slots - kata, combinations, bo and sword stuff (with a hairbrush!). Sometimes you just have to improvise! I've also been doing quite a lot of reading and making notes - I'm reading 'The Way of kata' by Kane and Wilder. It's really helping me to understand how to 'read' a kata. My husband and I have even been practising some bunkai together.

I wonder what news today will bring. I see some test flights have been sent up to fly through the ash and returned without incident or any damage to the planes - that must be a good sign? I'm just hoping that the other volcano on Iceland doesn't go off as well. Apparently the government had an emergency meeting last night and are considering various options such as flying people to Spain and then getting them home overland and by ferry - should think that will take about 3 days to get home but that might be better than staying here for weeks. They're even considering bringing in the Navy to rescue us!

Oh well! I'll keep one eye on Sky news and the other on the hotel pool! Looks like it's going to be a nice day again. I'll try and update again later or tomorrow.

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Sunday, 18 April 2010

Stranded in Cyprus 2

Today is the day we should have been going home! However our flight has been cancelled indefinitely. At the meeting last night we were told that we can stay in the hotel and have been upgraded to full board so we're not exactly slumming it. We have been told to report for updates at 10am and 6pm each day to make sure we are in a position to move quickly if a flying opportunity occurs, though thee are not necessarily any planes or flight crews here to take us home anyway!

There is definitely a growing feeling of cameraderie amongst the people stuck here. Our hotel is mainly English, German and French people so we are all affected. In fact more and more people are being sent to our hotel from other hotels so it's getting pretty busy around here! People who had generally kept themselves to themselves are now chatting and swapping stories. There's a general feeling of 'all being in this together'.

However, despite the fact we are in receipt of a 'free' extended holiday there are various stressors and practical things to sort out. My husband is worrying about work commitments - he should be at an important meeting in London on Tuesday, he has deadlines to meet and lots of other commitments he cannot fullfil from here. The boys will not be able to return to school tomorrow. My eldest son has a GCSE Art exam to complete on Monday and Tuesday and a French oral exam a week on Tuesday - he has no revision materials with him as he was fully expecting to have 10 days to revise when we got home! So tomorrow I have to e-mail the school and ask if they will give him an extension for his art exam and e-mail some French revision materials to us here. Thank goodness for the internet and e-mail!

We have obviously phoned family to reassure them we are okay but I keep thinking of numerous other people I need to notify of things. I realised that our milk delivery was due to recommence tomorrow so I've had to text my neighbour and ask her to put a note out for the milkman. Then my sons reminded me that they won't be able to do their paper rounds next week so I've had to text a friend  and ask her to pop into the paper shop and notify them about that. I've also had to e-mail another friend to tell him I can't give him his usual lift on Wednesday.

It's a strange feeling - my holiday is extended but I'm having to arrange to put my normal life on hold!

I'll try and update you again tomorrow. However, there are only 2 computers available in the hotel and a lot of people wanting to use them so I can't hog one for too long. This is the reason I may not be able to respond to individual comments at the moment - computer time is precious here!

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Saturday, 17 April 2010

Stranded in Cyprus 1.

Sorry I've not been blogging but I have been on holiday to Cyprus. We have had a great time! The weather has been beautiful, the hotel is fantastic and the food is great.

We are due to come home tomorrow (Sunday) but guess what? I'm sure you already know - VOLCANO!
We cannot get home. We have no idea when we will be able to get a flight.

Fortunately we are protected because we booked a package holiday so the tour company have to look after us and sort everything out. We have been preliminarily informed that we will be able to stay at the hotel until we can fly home (will this be days? weeks? who knows?). There is a meeting at 6pm tonight to let us know exactly what will happen to us!

Other people in the hotel are not so lucky - they booked their holiday as independent travellers rather than a package tour and so they have no protection and no one to sort it out for them. There was a sense of panic this morning as people were trying to book flights and accommodation over the internet. The earliest Easy Jet flight that is bookable is apparently for Thursday! But even then they can't guarantee it will take off. Unfortunately the hotel won't negotiate a discount on the room rates for these people (it's a 4 star+ hotel) so it is going to be very expensive for them.

One woman I spoke to this morning said that she booked her holiday via a tour company (as a package tour, she thought) only to discover that the company had booked their flight via a different tour company. Now neither company will take responsibilty for them and she is frantically making phone calls to sort out a flight and accommodation - I think that really sucks!

This situation is unprecedented - who would ever anticipate that their holiday would be interrupted by a volcano errupting thousands of miles away! I will keep you posted on our situation.

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Monday, 5 April 2010

Karate: hard not tense

Karate is often described as a hard style. It is generally characterised by fast linear movements where power is generated through speed and attention to biomechanical principles. However, ‘hard’ does not mean stiff or tense. In fact it is essential for good power generation to be relaxed as possible only tensing the muscles at the last second. This is one of the hardest things for the student karateka to understand and to learn to do.

We’ve all been there! Shoulders raised, biceps contracted hard to try and force through the punch, teeth clenched, movements clunky and stiff. So much energy is expended, so much effort made and yet your punches and kicks still seem slow and weak. Sensei shouts ‘relax, you’re too tense’. You know this but seem powerless to change. It is hard to turn muscle contractions on and off like a light switch.

When you look around the dojo at your seniors – the ones that move well, hit hard and are quick and light on their feet, you realise it’s generally the ones without the big hulking muscles  The leaner, lighter people often move better and pack the hardest punches. Good technique will always conquer physical strength in karate, well at least in the shurite styles. One of the key features of good technique is being relaxed.

So how do you become more relaxed when your natural propensity is be stiff and tense? Well one suggestion that is working for me involves looking at how they do it in the softer martial arts. Like I have mentioned before, my kobudo training is done in a jujitsu club and much of it is based on the principles of jujitsu, which is a soft martial art. Movements are generally slower and circular rather than fast and linear. To move in a more circular way requires you to be more relaxed and to understand how push/pull and rotational movements affect uke’s responses.

However, for me, the biggest aid to learning to be more relaxed is through my sword training. When one has a three foot extension on the end of your arm that you are trying to control with fluidity and precision then it must almost become part of your arm. To move it swiftly and precisely you need to be relaxed more than with any other weapon. By repeatedly practising the various drawing, cutting and stance katas my movements are gradually becoming more relaxed and fluid.

I am discovering that I can move my body around much more quickly when I stay relaxed. I’m starting to understand what it feels like to not have my muscles in a state of tension when it is not necessary for them to be like that. Though the sword seems to lack that requirement for a sudden tensing of muscles at the last second it is never the less teaching me some skills that are valuable for karate.

My kobudo sensei often says ‘let the sword to the cutting, not your arm’. I think the same principle can be applied to karate – ‘let your fist do the punching, not your arm’.

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Thursday, 1 April 2010

Pinan katas and Itosu's legacy to karate

The Pinan kata series (Pinan means ‘peaceful mind’ or ‘peaceful spirit’) are widely taught to students in a variety of shurite karate styles, generally as beginner’s katas. They are attributed to Itosu Yasutsune (1830-1915) who is said to have adapted them from older kata. However from which kata is less than certain.

Itosu introduced karate into Okinawan schools, systematised it and simplified older kata to make them easier for children to learn. Some sources suggest that Itosu developed the pinan katas from the katas kusanku dai and Gojushiho. Other sources suggest that Itosu learnt a kata called Channan (Chiang Nan) from a Chinese man living in Okinawa and developed the pinan katas from this.

The Channan kata no longer exists although I did manage to find this YouTube video of a kata called Channan which is a combination of pinan nidan and pinan shodan:

Since the kata in this clip does not contain all the pinan katas it is hard to say whether it preceeds the pinan katas or has been invented as a way of linking two pinan kata together.

The Kusanku dai kata seems a more likely precursor to the pinan series. If you watch this video you can pick out several combinations found in the pinan katas:

Itosu simplified the katas by changing many of the more lethal strikes into straight forward punches. He felt it too dangerous to teach the applications of the kata to school children and so taught karate as a form of physical exercise and means of self-discipline. He also re-labelled many movements to disguise their true meaning and dissociate them from their applications. So the use of the word ‘block’ was used to disguise the more lethal strikes, grabs and locks that these movements in the kata really represent.

Without Itosu’s modifications to the katas, and later, Funakoshi’s continuation of the process in Japan, such that karate gained wide acceptance in the Okinawan and Japanese schools programme, karate may not have found its way to the rest of the world. Indeed it may even have died out altogether. However the downside of this watering down of the kata is that the understanding and appreciation of what kata are really about has been lost amongst many karate clubs and systems.

Many of the pinan kata’s movements are often misinterpreted in the study of bunkai with many applications wrongly interpreted as ‘block and punch’ combinations. A skilled bunkai practitioner will see that the pinan katas are in fact a rich source of strikes, locks, grabs, sweeps, throws and ground techniques.

When Funakoshi took karate to Japan in the early 20th century he renamed the pinan katas to Heian katas. They are still known by this name in Shotokan karate. Funakoshi also inverted the names of two of the katas so pinan nidan became heian shodan and pinan shodan became heian nidan.

In Shukokai karate we teach pinan nidan first as it is considered easier for beginners to learn. Here are the five katas:

Pinan nidan:

Pinan shodan:

Pinan sandan:

Pinan yondan:

Pinan godan:

My favourite pinan kata is pinan shodan, followed by pinan yondan. Do you have a favourite pinan?

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