Sunday, 29 August 2010

Karate provides ambidextrous training

Over on Dan Prager's blog, Martial Arts and Modern Life, he has just written a post called Left handed training.

This has made me think about the usefulness (or not) of training to do techniques left handed. It always strikes me as very unfortunate to be a left hander in the martial arts, particularly those arts that are predominantly right handed such as jujitsu or totally right handed such as iaido. According to Dan the solution in jujitsu when faced with a 'left handed' situation is to choose a different technique that can be applied right handed rather than do a 'right handed' technique in reverse.

In my karate club we have a slightly more ambidextrous view of martial arts. All kihon techniques are learned both left handed and right handed. So all blocks, punches, kicks and stances are performed an equal number of times with left and right side. With sparring we are trained and expected to show a range of techniques both left and right handed. In fact, suddenly switching stance and punching your opponent with a left gyaku zuki instead of a right is a good way of catching them out to score a point!

Even techniques like locks and take downs are practiced both right and left handed. Symmetry seems to be important in karate. But is it necessary to train both sides of the body equally?

Most of us have a 'stronger'side and a 'weaker' side - our partners will attest to that when they are holding the pad for us! Also our initial response is to say, '...well in a real fight I would never do this left handed...' However, since I have been training in this ambidextrous manner (I am naturally right handed), my left side has evened up a lot and I find it increasingly easier to adapt new techniques to a left handed version. It no longer feels so awkward and clunky to do things left-handed. I'm sure with further practice I will be able to do left handed techniques with even greater ease. Occasionally I even do the technique left handed by mistake - I notice I've turned in the opposite direction to everyone else because I've done it the left-handed way!

It is possible to train your non-dominant side to perform almost as well as your dominant side (as left handers will attest to)  if you start with ambidextrous training right from the start. Karate clearly has the edge over other martial arts in this respect.

I don't see why ambidextrous training can't be done right from the start in jujitsu - only tradition stands in the way. In my jujitsu club left handed throws are not introduced until second dan training commences. I'm sure it must be easier to do it if learnt earlier on before 'right handed' muscle memory becomes too ingrained!

Just think of all the advantages you would have if you could tackle a real attacker with both left and right techniques with equal ease......

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Friday, 27 August 2010

Karate 'blocks' are much more than blocks

Blocks are often a very misunderstood technique in karate and often come in for a great deal of criticism from non-karateka. These techniques are often criticised for being to hard, stiff or slow to be effective. Your average non-karateka may say that it is better to evade, parry or re-direct an incoming strike than do a hard block. I would agree with them.
However, this is to misinterpret the many applications of the so called karate 'blocks'. To start with the word is misleading. The classic 'blocks' in karate belong to a family of techniques with the suffix uke. For example, age uke, uchi uke and soto uke. The word uke, as you know, actually means 'to receive', it doesn't mean 'block'. The other common technique often taught along with the uke techniques is gedan barai. The approximate English translation of this term is low level sweep and not even your average karateka would interpret this move as a useful 'block'. So none of these techniques should necessarily be thought of as blocks. Thinking of them as 'receiving techniques' or, as Iain Abernethy calls them, 'response techniques' opens up many more possibilities for their use.
So what are the applications of these 'blocks'? In my karate class on Wednesday we looked at several applications of 'blocks'. We focused mainly on gedan barai and uchi uke. With the gedan barai we used the sweeping arm movement to grab the opponents arm and pull them down and forward, completely unbalancing them. Keeping a grip on their wrist, this was followed through with a second gedan barai (with the other arm) in which you then used the sweeping motion to apply pressure above their elbow and push them down into an arm lock. This is actually bunkai out of the pinan nidan kata.
With the uchi uke, we applied this to defending against a single lapel grab: the opponent grabs your lapel, you trap their hand with yours (same side) and with the other arm perform a classic uchi uke move by bringing your arm across your body so that your forearm crashes onto the opponents outstretched arm that you've trapped, causing them to become unbalanced and bringing their head down slightly, then you pivot your arm up from the elbow (in classic uchi uke style), hitting them in the jaw with your fist on the way up. We also did something similar with a shuto uchi uke in which the first 'block' was used to strike the opponent's grabbing arm to unbalance them and the second 'block' used to strike into the neck (bunkai out of pinan shodan).
With all these techniques what started to emerge was a general principle : the first movement was used to unbalance the opponent and the second movement used to strike or lock them. This is what I like about karate, it is taught at the level of principles rather than just specific, unconnected techniques. When we are practising 'blocks' as part of kihon training, we are not learning a specific technique but we are learning a principle of movement that can be applied in many ways - as both offensive and defensive techniques.
So next time your instructor has you standing in rows, practising your 'blocks' time after time to his/her count, and scrutinises and criticises every little part of the movement until you get it right, remember he/she is trying to instill into you a pattern of movement that you will later be able to call upon in the application of a range of self-defence techniques. Nothing is wasted in karate, everything we do is connected to each other. Kihon and kata train us to move and control our bodies in particular ways based on sound principles of combat, which in turn feed into the specific techniques we learn in our self-defence training.
And karate, a 'block' is more, much more, than just a block.
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Monday, 23 August 2010

I can't believe it!

I was reminded this week that I am merely human. Read that as tendency to weakness and poor discipline. Neither am I above the laws of cause and effect!
Let me explain....I have been on holiday for a week with my family to the south coast of England. We had a lovely time. We stayed in a converted barn on an ex-dairy farm and spent our days reading, walking, visiting various places of interest and errr.....eating!
I had made the conscious decision that I would give my body a rest from training whilst on holiday to let all those little tweaks, sprains and bruises heal. I had been suffering from some lower back pain for about 3 weeks before going away and my back is much better and most of my bruises have disappeared.
Unfortunately my lack of training was also accompanied by a relaxation in the control of eating department and I have discovered on my return, during a Sunday morning post holiday weigh-in, that I have gained 5 pounds. Let me repeat that..... 5 pounds. In one week!
I cannot believe it. When I was young I was the sort of person that could eat anything I liked and not put a pound on. Clearly that is not true now! Like I said earlier, I am not above the laws of cause and effect - eat a lot = get fat. FIVE POUNDS!!! I am sooo ashamed. Even when we went to Cyprus in April for 2 weeks on full-board with food laid out in an endless buffet I only gained half a pound. So how the hell did I gain 5 whole pounds in a week?
I have been walking around the house ever since muttering that the scales must be wrong but I know they are not. I have the kind of weighing scales that not only weigh you but tell you your body fat percentage, the weight of your body fat, your BMI and your body water percentage. My body fat percentage has gone up by 4.4%. My BMI is still in the normal range at 22.8 but I have an additional 5 pounds of lard invading my body, yuk! -  I hate it.
I have now been well and truly shocked out of my complacency and have already commenced dieting. In fact, I decided to get on the scales again this morning (just to check this wasn't all a bad dream, which it wasn't) and I have already lost 1 pound. I am hopeful that by the end of next week I will be back to normal!
Training has already re-commenced, I returned to kodudo last night, and I have a karate class in 1 hours time. My husband and I also did some two-man stuff this morning and then we spent about 2 hours digging in the garden. I intend to return to normal diet and exercise routines with immediate effect!
Five pounds! I still cannot believe it.......
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Friday, 13 August 2010

SSK 1st Anniversary - a review of our first year

On August 17th 2009 a new professional karate association was set up, called Seishin-do Shukokai Karate (SSK). My club was immediately affiliated to this association, my instructor was one of the founding members, and we are now approaching the SSK’s first anniversary.

It has been quite a year for both instructors and students. The aim of the association was to move away from the modern ‘block-punch’ style of karate and return karate to its more traditional Okinawan roots. This has involved a massive expansion of the syllabus to include more in depth analysis of kata and bunkai and the development of a broader range of self-defence techniques, including throws, pressure points and ground fighting skills.

As well as expanding on traditional karate training, the SSK is also developing its competition focus by developing both kata and kumite squads. It has already achieved several champions and medallists, including a junior kata world champion.

This last year has been a steep learning curve for all of us. We have had to learn to break fall, this was not something we needed to do before as we never hit the deck. Now we’re throwing ourselves all over the place! We also do a lot more partner work with a lot of close in stuff – this has taken a bit of getting used to for many people but let’s just say we know each other a lot better now!

We’ve also had the opportunity to attend several courses, some internal and some external. This year, several of us attended a seminar with Patrick McCarthy and also one with Iain Abernethy. I found this exciting – these are people whose books I have read, whose reputation I am aware of, now I’ve had the chance to train with them in person.

We have been on this new journey together. I won’t pretend I wasn’t a little apprehensive to start with. My club was moved out of an organisation I knew and trusted to one that was an unknown quantity, one that was yet to establish its reputation.

The leadership that the SSK has shown has been amazing. In such a short time it has achieved so much. Seishin-do means ‘the Way of positive spirit’. There has definitely been a lot of positive spirit shown by the SSK’s leaders. Several local clubs have joined us since the launch and others are showing interest, it seems to be going from strength to strength.

Standards have been set very high. It is very noticeable that people are training harder and achieving more because of it. They are more motivated and have higher expectations of themselves. Everybody seems to be enjoying this ‘new’ karate.

The first dan gradings were held in May. Our club had three 1st kyus testing for 1st dan. Boy, were they made to train hard to earn the right to test! It was quite inspiring to watch them really raise their game in the preceding few months before testing. My husband was able to get a ‘sneaky peek’ at what the grading was like because he acted as a partner for one of the men who was grading. He came back exhausted after a 5 hour marathon and I know the grading candidates felt they had really earned their black belts.

I have no regrets about my club affiliating with the SSK. We have gone from strength to strength and feel that we are learning some real karate now. One of the best things about the SSK is that it has brought all its affiliated clubs closer together. Through the internal courses we benefit from instruction from all the SSKs instructors and we are getting to know students from other clubs much better.

For me personally, I was asked to be the SSK’s publicity officer and now manage a blog for them on the SSK’s website. This feels like quite a responsibility and has brought me closer to the heart of the SSK – a position for which I feel deeply honoured.

There is no looking back now – the journey can only move us forward. If the SSK makes as much progress during its second year as it has its first then its future as leading karate association must be assured.

Happy anniversary SSK.
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Monday, 9 August 2010

The Karate Kid - a review...

I went to see the new Karate Kid film a few days ago. I was looking forward to this, partly because it was a karate club outing and thus very social; and partly because I'm a big Jackie Chan fan. I generally like his films because of the combination of comedy and action. The fight scenes are generally well choreographed and exciting but without taking itself too seriously. That's generally what I like about Jackie Chan films.

The Karate Kid is different. The Karate Kid is a disappointment. The Karate Kid made for uncomfortable viewing at times - especially for a parent.

Okay, young Jaden Smith has shown himself to be a very promising actor; the cinematography was impressive, the fight scenes were well choreographed, it had some humour in it, but....

The script writing was lazy and cliched. Small, vulnerable boy from single parent family moves to a strange land and is bullied at school. He is saved from a severe (kung fu) beating from his bullies and their big mates by a maintenance man who also happens to be a kung fu expert. He feels sorry for the kid and agrees to train him in kung fu so that he can avenge his bullies in a kung fu tournament. He trains the kid in about 4 weeks (wow! is kung fu that easy?) by spending most of that time making the kid pick his jacket up and throw it down again (teaches discipline and respect!). He then takes the kid up a mountain to witness acts of Eastern mysticism. The kid is now a kung fu prodigy, attends the bad tempered tournament for his grudge match and guess what? He gets his butt kicked in but bravely makes it back into the arena (with possible broken leg) and wins! Oh, forgot the little side story love interest between the boy and a (proverbial)Chinese girl music prodigy, with pushy, high achieving parents.

Pleeaasseee! I know it's a re-make and all that but there is not an original thought in this film (or any karate).

However, my real dislike of this film is not to do with the poor script and all the cliches - it's to do with the violence. It made very uncomfortable viewing to watch children venting such hatred towards each other and participating in full contact violent kung fu fighting. The little kid (Dre) would have been dead within about 2 minutes if this was real but no, his broken ribs and bruising were healed miraculously and instantly by the maintenance man using 'fire cups' and his black eye was completely healed after about 2 days. The kung fu bullies didn't seem to get a scratch on them despite the maintenance man's best efforts to virtually kill them!

The last straw for me though was the tournament at the end. Think bear baiting, think baying crowds, think gladiatorial fights to the death - this was the tone of a martial arts tournament for kids! It made me think of cage fighting - but at least that is between consenting adults and obeys fairly strict rules. Young Dre had not consented to this fight - he was entered into it by the maintenance man who seemed to have a grudge against the kung fu bullies evil instructor. The crowd (of mainly adults) were cheering every time a kid severely hit another kid or did a spinning kick into their head. It was brutal, it was gratuitous, it was shameful behaviour by both contestants and the audience at a martial arts tournament for kids. Dre's mum was the worst. She jumped up and down cheering every time her son landed some pretty serious 'death strikes' on his opponent and was disappointed when Dre got thrown right out of the fighting area landing heavily on his back (she didn't seem concerned that he might be dead!).

In my opinion, this film glorified violence between children. Children who were basically porns in a feud between adults. They tried to redeem this slightly by the team of kung fu bullies bowing to Dre at the end to show 'respect' but unfortunately this was the type of 'respect' culture one sees in street gangs!

I did not like this film (as you can probably tell). In the UK it has a PG certificate (Parental Guidance) which means any kid can go and see it if their parents let them. Several younger children in the cinema watched the fight scenes through their fingers and were clearly unhappy when they came out. This film should have had a minimum 12 certificate.

I am hard pressed to find any positive values that children would take home after watching this film. Have you watched it? What did you think?

29th August 2010: since writing this post I have visited Sensei Matt Klein's blog where he has several posts about the Karate Kid film, painting it in a much more positive light than me. So for a sense of balance please visit his blog at:

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Thursday, 5 August 2010

Wave form striking - is it really better?

In my karate class last night we were introduced to the waveform strike. This was an off syllabus thing just to show us a different way of striking. Unfortunately, I found this way of striking very unsettling....

I have spent the last three years learning how to punch in a traditional karate way believing that it is a method of striking that has been worked out and tested by old masters of karate and that it is an effective, hard hitting way of striking. It requires a lot of detail to body, foot and arm positioning; correct hip rotation, correct relaxing and tensing of muscles and a final wrist rotation at the point of impact. I am of the understanding that if I do not give proper attention to these details then my punches will not be effective.

With the introduction of the waveform punch everything I'd previously learnt had to go out of the window! The back heel is lifted, the arm is not chambered, the fist is held more loosely, the whole body twists prior to delivering the blow, the punch is not retracted, the fist is vertical, the non punching arm holds onto the target. To hit harder I am told to do everything opposite to the way I have been taught!

Can both ways of punching be right? Is there any point in trying to understand the bio mechanics of punching if the complete opposite is just as effective anyway?

I tried to find out more about this waveform striking......

The person who is an authority on the waveform is Russell Stutely , who is also well known for his pressure point fighting system. My instructor has recently been on a course with Russell Stutely and this is where he has learnt about waveform striking.

Here is Russell Stutely demonstrating waveform striking techniques:

It looks casual, it looks relaxed, it looks fairly naturalistic, it looks effective - it doesn't look like karate though!

I was unable to find any clear explanations of how this waveform method of striking generates greater power. It's presumably something to do with sine waves. I found some rather pseudo-scientific sounding theories involving quantum physics and the uncertainty principle but it didn't really make any sense. If you can explain it to me in straight forward way I'll be glad to hear from you.

On Stutely's own website a review article just says that it is important to strike using a downward motion because this downward force greatly affects the body's physiology, weakening the opponent both physically and psychologically.  Apparently it causes an 'internal disruption'.  It also says that,  "this method uses a wave-like motion through the body that starts at the feet and rises upwards, almost throwing the user off balance as they project their energy into the strike."

In my humble opinion this description of the effects of a waveform strike do not fit with what I see in the above video. In the video the opponent is clearly being knocked off his feet by the strikes. My understanding is that this dissipates the energy of the blow and therefore reduces the chances of internal injuries. In a classical gyaku zuki the opponent will literally drop straight down to the floor (rather than be pushed back) because the punch is retracted quickly, allowing all the energy of the punch to enter the opponent and cause internal damage. Is my understanding wrong here?

This experience has turned my understanding of punching a bit upsidedown at the moment. Can anyone unravel it for me?
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Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Training with Nunchaku, not a rice flail...

Since my last kobudo grading in July I have been working with my latest choice of weapon - Nunchaku. I have had only three lessons so far and I have to admit, I'm finding them rather tricky!

Nunchucks are an intriguing weapon with a distinctly unclear heritage. The story of Okinawan peasant farmers secretly training to use 'rice flails' as weapons in order to defend themselves against their many foes during the occupation of their island by the Japanese Satsuma clan in the 17th century is probably just that - a story!

A more likely scenario is that the weapon was 'purpose built' by the Okinawans, based on a similar Chinese weapon that may have been imported to Okinawa by Chinese immigrants. Apparently nunchaku is a Japanese pronunciation of a Chinese term meaning 'two section staff'. Alternatively, nun means 'twin' and shaku (a traditional unit of measure used throughout Asia with a length of approximately 1 foot), is the length of each arm of the nunchucks.

Traditionally the nunchuck is made from hardwood such as oak, which would have been hardened by soaking it in mud for several years, where the optimal acidity and lack of oxygen prevented it from rotting. The wood was then sanded and oiled to preserve it. Horse hair was traditionally used to secure the two arms of the nunchuck together.

Though my husband owns a pair of wooden nunchucks, I was advised by my sensei to use foam practice ones. I am glad that he advised this (as is my husband, who is my training partner) because otherwise we would both be covered in more bruises than we already are. Like I said before - nunchucks are tricky!

Is there any point in training with nunchucks? After all, they are illegal to carry around with you in the street in most countries. In the UK, they can legally be used in martial arts training and carried to and from the dojo but would be considered an offensive weapon in virtually every other situation. And lets face it, I'm not likely to suddenly spot a discarded rice flail in the street if I get attacked!

Despite legality issues there is value in training with the nunchucks and this value is two-fold. Firstly, it preserves a traditional martial art form and so it has cultural and historical value. The same is obviously true for many other martial arts weapons. Secondly, it has value in improving eye-hand coordination; quickening reflexes; increasing hand strength, control,speed and accuracy; and can help teach and improve correct posture. These are valuable training aims for many martial artists.

In Okinawan based martial arts the nunchucks are primarily used to grip and lock an opponent with striking used to subdue or finish off the opponent. This is the way that I am learning to use the nunchucks. So far I have learnt various blocks, a wrist lock, a wrist throw, an arm lock, a head and hip throw and a couple of strangles. One of the advantages I am finding is that the bio-mechanics of locks and throws are more apparent when I have to apply the weapon to make them work. If I don't position the nunchuck at the correct angle over the back of my opponents hand so that it bends AND rotates the wrist correctly the wrist throw will not work and the opponent can slip his hand out. This also makes me think more carefully about how I apply a wrist lock without a weapon.

There are disadvantages, of course, to using foam nunchucks. They are very light, are probably not balanced as well as wooden ones, they require your opponent to simulate the effects of some techniques and they are liable to break. I have been warned that I may get through several pairs of foam nunchucks! When I have gained some proficiency with this weapon then I would like to progress to wooden ones but for the time being I am happy (and safer) with my foam ones! Not to mention my son bought them for me for my birthday - what else do you buy the woman who has everything?

Here's a video of an elementary nunchuck lesson:

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