Monday, 28 June 2010

Bo grading......

I had my second kobudo grading yesterday! This was another level one grading but this time with the bo. I have enjoyed training with this weapon and wish to continue with it at the higher levels. I think I partly like bo because it is a long range weapon, which makes me feel more secure, and partly because it feels like a 'karate' weapon. The bo just seems to complement karate better than jujitsu,with its strikes, blocks and sweeps. This may explain why it's my instructors least favourite weapon, he prefers the shorter sticks like the tanbo with which one can do jujitsu style throws! However, despite his preference for shorter sticks he is very skilled with a bo and an excellent instructor.

The grading session just had to be on the hottest day of the year so far, so I was glad it was just a short (15 min) kobudo grading rather than a long, intense (2-3 hrs) karate one! The grading officer was Sensei Steve Elliot (7th dan) who is a senior grading officer within the World Jujitsu/kobudo Federation - no pressure then!
Unfortunately, the day before grading I decided to do some gardening - without wearing any gardening gloves. Why did I do that? I always wear gardening gloves. Guess what? I developed a huge, painful blister on the palm of my right hand. Just what you need before a bo grading!!! Anyway, I smeared it with Germolene ointment (which contains local anaesthetic) - this stung like hell, then I sprayed some 'plastic skin' over it - this stung even more than hell!

One thing I learnt was that when I handle and manipulate the bo I tend to keep the bo towards the finger end of my palm so it hardly touched the blister, which was more towards my thumb, so the blister didn't really get in the way and I managed okay - lucky, hey!

Back to the grading! I had to demonstrate the following: bo walking, a short stance kata, two-man striking and blocking kata, bo manipulation and then two leg sweeps against a partner. Sensei Elliot was a fantastic grading officer, he was professional and authoritative but also encouraging and positive. He pointed out that I was slightly over swinging the bo during the bo walking (as if I was trying to chop my imaginary partner in half!) and my single hand, figure of eight, bo manipulation was a bit tense - pretend you're swaying with a boat Susan! Apart from that I was alright.

And the result...... passed with honours!

Nunchucks next.
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Friday, 25 June 2010

Is extreme physical training necessary for martial arts?

How much physical training is enough to become a proficient martial artist? I am always astounded by the amount and intensity of physical training that some people do. Is it necessary to do several hours of week of intense physical training such as push ups, abs training, bag punching, weight lifting, running etc? I ask the question because I don't do a fraction of what others appear to be doing!

The majority of my training is directly related to martial arts and most of this is done during actual classes. I have 5.5 hours of classes a week and probably do around 1 to 2 further hours a week at home - but this is mainly kihon or kata practice or working through some ippons or practising with my bo or sword. I only do a few minutes on the cross-trainer, some stretching, a few weights and sit ups as part of a warm up.

I find the warm ups we do in class can be quite vigorous. Half an hour of kihon or kata practice in class gets me in a sweat and makes me feel I've had a good work out. But is this enough? I consider myself to be fit, though not maximally fit. I think my muscles are reasonably well toned and strong but, again, not maximally so. Do I need to be maximally fit and strong to be a good martial artist? I'm not looking to be a champion in competition.

I think fitness is important in martial arts and it is tested through the gradings - particularly the higher kyu and dan gradings. But is extreme fitness important? It strikes me that the more intensively and frequently that one trains in physical fitness the more likely one is to acquire chronic and disabling injuries. How does that help you to be a better martial artist?

Funakoshi did not think that extreme exercise was necessary and that just through the practice of karate one would gradually improve fitness and strength. He advocated practising karate in small chunks, little and often seemed to be his desired target. For Funakoshi karate was the ultimate form of self defence. He thought the main advantages of karate as a means of self-defence were: "no weapons are necessary, the old or sick, or women, are able to apply it; and one can protect himself effectively even with little natural strength" (quote from Karate-Do Kyohan p.13).

So why is there now a tendency towards more extreme physical training? Is it that people who indulge in this type of training are just passionate about achieving extreme physical fitness and that this is independent (though related) to their passion for martial arts? Or is this level of fitness really desirable for martial arts?

What do you think? Is 'optimal' fitness sufficient or should we all be striving for extreme fitness?
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Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Martial Arts: One size does not fit all!

As a small person (5ft 3in) I am constantly made aware that the world is designed for bigger people. Trouser lengths are generally too long, supermarket shelves are often too high and in martial arts - weapons are often too big!

My bo is a standard 6ft long - that's nine inches longer than me. This makes a difference when manipulating it compared to a 6ft man manipulating a bo the same height as himself. When I spin the bo in front of me I have to hold my arms slightly higher than a taller person else the bo will keep hitting the ground!

Then there is my bokken. A standard bokken is 40 inches long, this is 8 inches too long for me and much too heavy. It is probably equivalent to a 6 foot person wielding a bokken of 50 inches and 1.5 times the weight of a standard bokken. I have overcome the problem by buying a child's bokken - it is 32 inches long and is half the weight of a standard bokken. It is a beautiful bokken to use in sword kata but useless when practising self-defence techniques because it is too fragile to be hit by another bokken! So I have to use the standard bokken for self-defence.

Tonfa are not such a huge problem because they do come in different lengths - mine are a mere 16 inches which is about right for the length of my forearms. However, the length of the side arm is not proportionally shorter compared to a longer tonfa. My hands are quite small and narrow so when I grip the tonfa there is still a lot of side arm protruding from my hand. This means that when I twirl the tonfas my hand gradually slides down  the sidearm and I lose control of it! Why don't the manufacturers make the side arms proportionately smaller on a shorter tonfa?

I am often told that size doesn't matter in martial arts. I would really like to challenge the 6ft 2in, 18 stone guys who say these things to find themselves a 7ft 6in, 25 stone opponent and then come back and tell me size doesn't matter! Size and weight = power, and technique cannot always overcome a large size/weight differential. Even Darrell Craig, in his book Japan's Ultimate Martial Art, recognised the problem when he said: "I find that many jujitsu techniques work only if you are stronger than your opponent".

Anyway, I will moan no more about this because on Sunday night during my jujitsu class, my instructor showed that he was an enlightened man! Even though he is a 6ft 2in, 18 stone guy he recognised that I could not and should not attempt to do a body drop using a standard technique. The risk of a knee injury if a big, heavy opponent was swung across my outstretched leg was too high. Instead he taught me to do it with my foot turned inward so that my knee would just bend if too much weight was on it (rather than dislocate or get an ACL tear). He also taught me a reclining leg throw in which the standard technique was varied so that I effectively wrapped my leg around the opponent's leg and then sat on  their thigh, using my body weight to help push them over!

My sensei recognized that one size does not fit all. He did not patronise me or make me feel inadequate for not being able to manage the standard technique. He just acknowledged that I am not a 'standard' size and thus a 'standard' technique may not work - so there was no point in teaching it to me. He treated me as an individual, assessed my needs and taught me appropriately. I am very grateful for that.

Have you had problems with training due to not being 'standard' in some way? How is it overcome?
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Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Is cross training a good thing?

Dan Prager over on his blog Martial Arts and Modern Life recently wrote a post about cross-training - 'Cross training in multiple martial arts?'   This got me thinking about whether I am doing the right thing by training in jujitsu/kobudo as well as my main martial art of karate.

When you have been training in a martial art for a few years and you are starting to understand its principles; and then you look at what other martial arts are offering you start to realise that there is a lot of overlap between them, or at least between some of them.

In my karate club the attention to detail in teaching us how to punch and kick is intense - the bio-mechanics of striking is explored in detail and we practice strikes repeatedly to get them right. However, with throws and take downs the attention to technical detail is a lot less. As expected, the result of this is that we are better strikers than throwers. On the other hand in my jujitsu club the attention to technical detail for teaching throwing techniques is intense whereas there is very little instruction on how to punch correctly. The result - the students are good throwers but only mediocre strikers.

On the surface it makes sense to learn to strike from a striking art and to learn to throw with a throwing art. However, there are problems. Karate is essentially a 'hard' art whereas jujitsu is a 'soft' art. This difference shows most in the way you move. In karate movements are generally sharper and crisper with stances quite deeply rooted, whereas in jujitsu movements are more flowing and stances much lighter. In both arts, striking requires a little distance between partners whereas locks and throws require you to be close together. Both arts use blocking and tai sabaki.

So, if I cross train in jujitsu will it adversely affect my karate or enhance it? I am aware that these different art forms have a different fighting strategy so it would be foolish to try and pursue the strategies of both arts. I think it is important that I remember that karate is my main art and that, for me, jujitsu (and kobudo) are adjuncts providing me with specialised training in a component of fighting skills (throwing) that is not a main component of karate. This is not to take away from jujitsu which, after a years experience of being a member of a jujitsu club, I have come to respect and acknowledge its strengths as a complete fighting system. It's just that I am more physically and mentally suited to karate.

So in what ways is the jujitsu and kobudo training enhancing my karate? Firstly, I am more confident at falling than some of my fellow karate students. We do break fall practice in both my karate and jujitsu clubs but I am doing more of it so I have got more confident more quickly. Secondly, though karate is generally a hard art, when you are coming in to throw someone it requires you to soften up and flow into the technique just as much as you do in jujitsu. Hopefully the jujitsu training will help me to learn to flow better into these techniques. Thirdly, both art forms include a range of locking techniques, some are the same and some different but I am getting extra training in locking techniques.

I find the kobudo interesting in that it enhances both jujitsu and karate training. It's main advantage is that it teaches greater precision. Precision in how you block - if you don't put your hand/tonfa in the right place you risk getting it bashed with a bo/sword or whatever. Locking someones arm/wrist with a tonfa or bokken enhances your understanding of the principles of the lock. Weapons training also enhances your understanding of distance and timing - if you're distance is wrong you might get hit with the bo/jo, but if you're not close enough you may not block a bo/sword swing at its slowest point.

What about disadvantages? Some of the break falls are performed slightly differently in karate compared to jujitsu so I have to alter which way I do it depending on which club I am in, but that is not a major problem. Altering stances is a little more problematic. In karate the stances seem to be an integral part of the technique, often used to unbalance your partner and to shift your weight quickly and dramatically from one foot to the other or from front to back. In jujitsu the higher, lighter stances enable you to move around more quickly but most of the technique is performed using the arms, upper body and hips. There are exceptions to this I know such as body drops and inside hock ( but then these techniques are not dissimilar to some take downs in karate!). Sometimes I find that my stances are too deep and rooted for some of the jujitsu techniques to work well and occasionally in karate I have started to forget to bend my front leg enough when in zenkutsu dachi!

However, overall I think the advantages of doing some cross training in jujitsu/kobudo outweigh the disadvantages, at least for now. I can envisage a time will come when the jujitsu training (though not necessarily the kobudo) will start to have a negative effect on my karate and I will need to recognise when it is time to stop.

Do you cross train? Do you have a particular rationale for doing so?
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Friday, 11 June 2010

Are we suffering from comment fatigue?

Is it just me or is there a bit of comment fatigue going on at the moment? I have noticed that several of the blogs that I read, as well as my own, are receiving fewer and fewer comments.

I am guilty of a bit of comment fatigue myself. I read all the blogs in my blog roll every time they post but I've noticed that I'm not getting around to leaving as many comments as I used to. A slap on the wrist for me!

The hit rate on my posts has climbed steadily over the last few months yet I receive fewer comments. Of course I may not be writing about things that you want to comment on - or even read!

However, I know that comments are important feedback for bloggers and we look forward to reading them. It's the interactive nature of blogs that sets them aside from static websites. Comments often challenge our preconceptions, gives us ideas for new posts, give us feedback on what kind of posts people like to read and just generally motivate us to continue blogging. Comments are the only way we know that people are reading our blogs.

If you are a lurker (read blogs but never comment) then why not come out and leave a comment on your favourite blogs - just so we know you exist!

I really appreciate the blogs I read and know how much time and effort they take to maintain. Therefore next week, to show my appreciation, I am going to comment on every post that I read - so if you are on my blog roll and you post next week, I will leave you a comment.
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Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Why do we......need to breathe in martial arts?

How often has your sensei told you ‘to breathe’ whilst performing a kata, a combination or some other technique? My sensei is always shouting ‘remember to breathe’ as have other instructors who’ve taught me on various courses I have attended.

Breathing is not only fundamental to our existence; hence we normally do it without conscious thought, it is also fundamental to our martial arts training (and to any other physical training). You would expect breathing whilst exercising to come naturally to us but clearly, to many of us, it doesn’t!

Many people, particularly in the early kyu grades tend to hold their breath when performing kata or any other technique requiring physical exertion. Holding the breath whilst exerting oneself not only leads to a bad performance it can actually be physiologically dangerous.

A bad performance results from the fact that you don’t have enough oxygen in the blood to supply those hard working muscles. This means you tire easily and pant like mad once you do breathe. A failure to coordinate the breath patterns with physical movements also leads to techniques that are executed with a lack of rhythm or intent.

However, incorrect breathing techniques can cause more than merely a bad performance. Holding the breath whilst contracting the diaphragm and abdominal muscles or exhaling sharply whilst constricting the glottis can induce the Valsalva’s manoeuvre. The rise in intra-thoracic pressure that results from this manoeuvre causes a trapping of blood in the great veins, preventing it from entering the chest and right atrium. On release of the breath the intra-thoracic pressure drops and the trapped blood is propelled through the heart, producing an increase in heart rate and blood pressure. In susceptible people the damage done to the cardiovascular system by repeated induction of Valsalva’s manoeuvre can lead to heart disease, aneurisms, strokes, haemorrhoids and blackouts.

When we talk about breathing during martial arts training, we obviously mean intentional breathing – something we are consciously controlling and regulating. So why do we need to do this?

Martial arts are often underpinned with the belief that correct breathing helps us to unify the body and mind. Controlled breathing helps us to focus and control the mind, indeed it is an important part of meditation. By focussing on breathing during meditation the practitioner can often reach a state of mushin (empty mind). Once the mind is clear of extraneous thoughts and focussed to the point of ‘no thoughts’ the body is free to move fluidly and instinctively to execute techniques without the hindrance of conscious intervention. This is what we try to achieve in our martial arts. Kata is an excellent method for training to achieve mushin and is often referred to as ‘moving meditation’.

In addition to these meditational aspects of breathing the physiological consequences of breathing prepare us for action by stimulating the cardio vascular system, filling us with oxygen, removing carbon dioxide and pumping blood to the muscles and brain. By controlling the way we breathe we can coordinate loading up our systems with oxygen (inhalation) with ‘turbo charging’ our techniques as we perform them by exhalation – a strong and powerful exhalation can promote a strong and powerful technique.

Inhalation should be through the nose whilst exhalation should be via the mouth. Rapid exhalation, which involves contraction of the diaphragm and abdominal muscles, is called ibuki breathing. Ibuki breathing often gets a bad press but this is usually only warranted if it is accompanied by a Valsalva’s manoeuvre. Sanchin kata is often criticised for encouraging breathing with a Valsalva’s manoeuvre but really this is the fault of the performer, not the kata. Sanchin requires good controlled breathing, not constant repetitions of the Valsalva’s manoeuvre! When performing ibuki breathing you should always make sure that your glottis is fully open when exhaling – do not breathe against resistance.

So next time your sensei tells you to breathe remember he/she is trying to teach you a very fundamental aspect of martial arts training. Breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth. Inhale in preparation and exhale on the execution of technique. Simple, eh? I wonder why we need reminding so much……

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Thursday, 3 June 2010

A seminar with Patrick McCarthy Hanshi

What a week! It's been so busy I haven't had time to blog. However, the highlight of the week has been attending a seminar by Patrick McCarthy Hanshi. The seminar was hosted by Sensei John Burke at his dojo in Newton Abbot, Devon.

Patrick McCarthy is a highly experienced martial artist who has made it his life work to study the real applications of karate kata and develop a method of training that allows all karate-ka to take their karate back to its original intention as a fighting art by looking not just at realistic defence but also realistic attack. He has travelled widely throughout Japan and East Asia, studying with many eminent senseis and training across a variety of  martial arts styles. From his extensive field research he has developed the theory of Habitual Acts of Physical Violence (HAPV) and developed his two man kata application drills, which focus on pragmatic defensive practices. Sensei McCarthy is the founder of the International Ryukyu Karate-jutsu Research Society (IRKRS)  Click here for more information about Patrick McCarthy.

Nine of us from the SSK set off early on Tuesday morning to travel the 250 miles to Devon. The seminar didn't start until 6pm but being a bunch of keenies we arrived at lunch time! At least this gave us plenty of time to check into our Guest House and relax a bit after the journey.

We still managed to arrive at the dojo an hour early but were allowed to register and get changed. Sensei McCarthy arrived in the dojo about 5.30pm and before changing into his gi made a point of introducing himself to the various groups of people who were now congregating in the dojo, shaking every ones hand and asking our names. He chatted very informally with us all and we were all impressed with his friendliness and approachability. This informality generally set the tone for the rest of the seminar.

Once Sensei McCarthy was changed we lined up for a bow and then sat around him whilst he introduced the purpose of the seminar and provided a bit of background about the 2 man flow drill we were about to learn and just generally provided some context for the practical aspect of the seminar.

Next we got on with a fairly unusual warm up which involved working with a partner to stretch each other in ways you didn't know you could be stretched! It turned out to be a rather fun but effective way to warm up and left your body feeling ready to get on with some work.

We then got on to the real business of the day - the 2 man flow drills known as Tegumi (Te = hands, gumi = unite, cooperate and grapple). The principle behind this method of training is that it incorporates the reenactment of realistic attacks, i.e. chokes, grabs, bear hugs, etc., and a corresponding defense from both a standing position, called tachi-waza, and from the ground, called ne-waza with partners alternating roles between active and passive, attacker and defender ( we only did the standing techniques). By learning these drills, the meanings and principles of the movements and postures found within kata are revealed.

The drill that we did was taught to us technique by technique. It started simply with some soft blocking, gentle pushing and trapping and then flowed into striking, grappling, bear hugs, locks, slaps - you name it, we had it. The whole point though was that the drill was performed in a continuous flowing motion within a realistic fighting distance - i.e. close up. The attacks were meant to represent the range of realistic attacks that have been documented in real fights and the defences were applications from a range of kata. I certainly recognised many of the defensive moves as being techniques I have seen in kata.

In the 2 hours we had to practice the drill we probably strung together about 30 moves but clearly these drills can be much longer than that. I have to admit that learning the drill became very mentally taxing towards the end - requiring a lot of concentration. I started to get a bit befuddled by the last couple of techniques added to the drill, partly because they were quite complicated and partly because by 9pm I was pretty tired after such a long day. Fortunately we managed to video a couple of our instructors performing the drill as a reference for when we got back to our dojo so hopefully I'll get the chance to do it again!

At the end of the seminar Sensei McCarthy very graciously stayed behind to be photographed, sign autographs and generally chat to people and answer questions - what a nice guy! Here's me getting my copy of the Bubishi signed by Sensei McCarthy:

If you get the chance to go to one of Patrick McCarthy's seminars - take it! You won't regret it.

Some useful websites:
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