Thursday, 29 December 2011

My Martial Art Aims for 2012...

I am a planner. I like to write down my plans; it works for me to do this. I’m much more likely to achieve my aims when I have written them down. Here’s what I’ve come up with for 2012…


1.To improve personal fitness and overcome repetitive shoulder injury
2.To continue to develop and improve martial arts skills
3.To improve teaching and leadership skills and gain further teaching experience.

How to achieve it….

1a. Develop a new personal fitness plan. When I was preparing for my black belt test earlier this year I developed a very detailed fitness plan which I followed very diligently (In fact I wrote a whole blog about it – Countdown to Shodan – some of you may remember!) I found that having a plan helped to motivate me to exercise and train regularly at home as well as at the dojo. Since taking my shodan test last June I have let my personal fitness training slip quite a lot and so I think a new plan is needed to get me going again.

1b. Get some physio for my shoulder. The one problem with exercising when you are older is that you don’t heal very quickly after injuries. This is a pain! I injured my right shoulder about 3 months ago during training and it still isn’t completely healed. It gets a bit better with rest but as soon as I train it gets set off again. Everyday activities can set it off as well such as housework, particularly activities that involve pushing or rotational movements of the arm e.g. cleaning windows. I can’t effectively do push-ups and excessive punching against a pad leaves my shoulder throbbing. Sometimes my shoulder aches even when I’m not doing anything. I have decided that some physiotherapy may be the answer – what do you think?

2a. Continue to train regularly. I will certainly be attending my twice weekly karate classes and weekly kobudo class as usual. In addition my instructor is planning some additional ‘higher grade’ classes in 2012. These will be smaller classes where we can concentrate on specific topics such as bunkai, teaching skills, weapons training, self-defence techniques etc. I’m looking forward to these more targeted classes.

2b. Take advantage of other training opportunities. I like going to seminars and courses so I’ll be on the lookout for some of these in 2012. My karate organisation will be hosting several of these during the year which I will be attending but I will also look for things outside our organisation. I know Iain Abernethy is doing a seminar in my neck of the woods in the spring-time so I may see if I can get onto that. I find seminars very inspiring and motivating. I like meeting new people and being introduced to new ideas and approaches to training, it all enriches the martial arts experience.

3a. Take a sports leadership award course.  Though I have been awarded my instructor’s certificate I feel this is a role that I need to grow into. I feel that I have the technical skills and knowledge to pass onto others (at a basic level at least) but I feel that my generic teaching and leadership skills need development.  Sports leadership awards teach those generic skills such as planning and organising lessons, motivating people, maintaining safety, adapting activities, organising competitions etc.  I think that developing these skills would significantly improve my confidence with teaching and leading karate sessions.  I’m currently enquiring about such a course.

3b. Gain further teaching experience and attend instructor training courses. To maintain my instructors licence I have to attend at least 3 out of 4 instructor training courses per year run by my organisation.  I’m not exactly sure what happens on these courses or what I’ll be expected to do but I’m looking forward to attending them.  

As far as teaching experience goes, I have already had my first experience of teaching a class- all by myself!  My instructor is currently on holiday in Vietnam and needed someone to cover the last class of the year in his absence, so he asked me (actually he asked our 3rd dan instructor to do it but he couldn’t so it got delegated to me.) This was a bit of a Baptism of Fire since the Saturday morning kids class is actually a triple class: 9.00 – 10 white to orange belts, 10-11 green to brown belts and 11-12.30 brown and black belts (mainly teenagers).  But I survived! I’m also teaching the first class of the New Year on 3rd January- just a 1 hour session this time. 

Hopefully during the year I will be able to continue helping my instructor with his schools programme which is good fun and very rewarding. However, I need to make sure that not all my teaching is with beginners or children so I am considering whether to volunteer to help out in one of the senior classes at one of our other clubs to get some experience teaching adults and senior kyu grades.

Well, that’s my proposed martial arts plan for 2012. Have you thought about what you want to achieve with your martial arts in the coming year or are you a ‘take it as it comes’ sort of person?

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Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Why do we.........perform Mokuso?

Do you perform mokuso (moh-kso) during the opening and closing ceremonies of your martial arts class? Do you regard it as just a part of one of those quaint Japanese rituals that you’re expected to participate in when you practice a traditional martial art, or do you think it has real value in preparing you for training and enhancing your performance of martial arts?

If you regard mokuso as merely a traditional ritual then you are probably just going through the motions of performing it and are gaining no benefit from doing so.

So what is this mokuso thing about?
Mokuso is quiet reflection, concentration or meditation. It is generally performed whilst kneeling in seiza at the beginning and/or end of a martial arts class. The purpose of mokuso is to quieten the mind, stabilise the emotions and release tension from the body.

Quieten the mind: You can’t effectively practice a martial art if your mind is filled with the events of the day or things you’ve got to do later. Mokuso allows you to empty your mind of these extraneous thoughts and concentrate on the training you are about to embark on.

Stabilise the emotions: Perhaps you’ve had a bad day and are upset or angry with someone or perhaps you are worried about something. These negative emotions can impinge on your ability to train effectively. Mokuso enables you to let these feelings go so that you become emotionally stable and better able to concentrate on your training without distraction or excess aggression.

Release tension from the body: At the beginning of training, particularly if you have been rushing around to get there your muscles may be tense. Mokuso gives you a few minutes to relax and let the tension go through a process of slow controlled breathing. A tense body will not perform well and may lead to an increased risk of injury.

So, how do we do mokuso?
Effective mokuso requires good posture, correct breathing and focus on the task. Some will say that mokuso is performed to enable you to achieve a state of mushin (empty mind) but that is rather a tall order in the 1-2 minutes you are likely to spend doing it. To be able to put oneself into a state of mushin quickly takes years of training and prolonged periods of meditation, so don’t expect miracles after 2 minutes of mokuso!

Posture:  Mokuso is generally done kneeling in seiza when it is performed in a martial arts class but it can be done sitting on a chair or even lying down. The important thing is that the spine is properly aligned and you are comfortable, so if you are in seiza make sure you are upright and your arms rest comfortably on your lap.

Breathing: Correct breathing is important for several reasons – it fills the lungs fully with air, oxygenating the blood; it helps release tension from the muscles; it gives you a focus on which to concentrate which in turn helps you to rid your mind of extraneous thoughts and negative emotions.

You should breath in through your nose steadily, hold the breath for a couple of seconds and then breathe out slowly through the mouth. The whole cycle should take 10 – 15 seconds. The breaths should be deep, filling the abdomen. Counting the breaths is a good way of maintaining concentration on the task.

Focus on the task: You only have a minute or two in mokuso to prepare the mind and body for training so it is important to maintain focus and not let your mind wander. Remember you are not trying to empty the mind just quieten it and shed those negative emotions. Focus on your breathing and let your muscles relax. Visualise negative thoughts and emotions draining away from your body. Some people find focusing a soft gaze on the floor a couple of metres ahead of them a useful way to maintain concentration and not be distracted by other people in the dojo. Others prefer to shut their eyes completely.

To be effective mokuso takes practice. You can practice mokuso outside the dojo as well where you may have more time to spend on it. Over time you should find your practice of mokuso enables you to prepare your mind and body for training very quickly, allowing you to control the ebb and flow of your emotions and enhance your practice of your chosen martial art.

So, do you still think it’s just a quaint Japanese ritual performed at the beginning and end of class?

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Monday, 5 December 2011

My son's shodan success....

Yesterday my karate organisation, the SSK, held another black belt grading session. This time it was my son Sam's turn to grade for his black belt so how could I not go along to support him? In fact there were five people from our club grading, four for shodan and 1 for sandan. My husband partnered Bruce who was grading for sandan so three of our family trekked over the Pennines to the grading centre near Manchester.

As everyone in the UK will know, winter decided to make a sudden appearance yesterday, so it was in wind, rain and sleet that we gingerly drove over the Snake Pass to Manchester. There was snow and ice forming at the top of the pass, causing me to skid a little (I was the designated driver for the day) but once we were off the highest point it just turned back to rain.

We safely arrived at the venue at 9.20am only to be locked out for an hour. The caretaker had gone on holiday and had delegated opening up the building to his teenage son who was nowhere to be found. We decided to just sit calmly in the dry of the car and watched the organisers do the panicking as they tried to locate a key!

We finally got into the building and my son and the other grading students went to get ready and started warming up. 16 students were grading in total from a variety of clubs in the SSK.

This was the third successive dan grading session that I have attended (the first to partner someone else, the second for my own shodan grading and this one as a parent of a grading student) so I pretty well knew what to expect. I knew that I would not be allowed to sit in and watch the grading (even grading partners have to leave the room when not needed, unless they are also grading themselves) so I went prepared.

Any parent foolhardy enough to stay for the entire grading  (like me) is banished to the draughty corridor outside the grading hall with only a few plastic chairs to sit on and a small kitchenette to make tea/coffee. So I took a deckchair, my computer, a couple of books, newspaper and food. The only view I could get of the grading was through a small window in the door to the main hall. As this opened onto the grading mat rather than the training mat at the other end of the hall, I had quite a good view.

The day was organised with the usual military precision - it has to be; with 16 students grading the grading panel had to observe and mark 804 separate demonstrations in 7 hours - no easy feat. Dan gradings are a pretty formal affair for us - no talking, clapping, cheering or shouting encouragement is allowed at all so the mood tends to remain sombre and serious - like an exam!

I'm always amazed at the ability of the children to maintain focus and concentration over such a long time period; it's enough to tax most of the adults so I think the children do really well, especially as they don't have their parents with them. The youngest student grading yesterday was only 10 and she was very focused and self-reliant for one so young. In fact she attained the second highest mark of all the students, a brilliant achievement. In our organisation the children and adults follow the same syllabus so you can directly compare them.

Sam receiving his belt and certificate
 Obviously my main attention was on Sam, and our other club members. My son did me proud, just like he always does, and put on a great demonstration of karate. He is such a cool cucumber, no sign of nerves - just quietly getting on with it. He and his grading partner, Dave, have trained really hard these past few months and it really paid off for both of them yesterday.

We also had two other teenagers grading for shodan, Max and Ben, both of whom managed to pull some magic out of the hat and put on some of their best performances to date. Then their was Bruce, grading for 3rd dan. Poor Bruce's syllabus seemed to be twice as long as everyone else's and much of it was given to him on the day, so he really needed to know ALL of his karate techniques as he didn't know exactly what would be thrown at him on the day - he sailed through it with exemplary grace and style and has become the first 3rd dan student in our club.

Our successful club members: Bruce,
Ben, Steve (instructor), Max, Dave and Sam.
Basically it was a clean sweep - all 16 students achieved their respective dan grades which were all well deserved.

By now we had heard that the weather had deteriorated and the Snake Pass had been closed to traffic because of the snow; so tired but happy I drove my cluck of dan graders home - the long way!

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Thursday, 1 December 2011

Kenwa Mabuni books - now translated into English...

Just when I thought it was impossible to get hold of any books written by Kenwa Mabuni, founder of shito ryu, that were translated into English I came across - a self-publishing website. Here I discovered two books written by Mabuni and translated into English by karate sensei - Mario McKenna.

The first is Karate Kempo: The art of self-defense. Mabuni wrote this in 1934. Interestingly this book is about the art of 'goju-ryu kenpo'. It is one of Mabuni's early written works (he was a very prolific writer, writing several books and articles during the 1930s and 1940s, but none were ever translated into English). It is a work about the then fledgling art of karate-do and was intended as a general introduction to the art.

As McKenna says in the blurb: Karate Kenpo provides a rare glimpse of Mabuni's ideas about the history and development of karate-do on Okinawa. It also introduces the fundamentals of his art including warm-up, basic techniques, stances, training equipment and the fundamental kata san chin and the advanced kata seiunchin.

In the book Mabuni outlines the steps for sanchin kata and seiunchin using line drawings. He also covers bunkai for seiunchin. I'm always amazed at how well conserved many kata are. I could only identify one small difference between Mabuni's description of seiunchin and the way I have been taught it today - remarkable!

The second Mabuni book that was available was: The study of Seipai: the secrets of self-defence karate kenpo. In this book Mabuni chose to use photos (mainly of himself) to illustrate the steps of the kata seipai rather than line drawings. Again the bunkai is described and illustrated clearly.

The second half of this book reveals the (then) secret text and diagrams called the Bubishi. Kenwa Mabuni was the first person to publish this text which is now known as the 'karate bible'. In McKenna's translation of Mabuni's book he has left the Bubishi untranslated stating that there are now many English translations of this book available.

Mabuni writes this foreword to the Bubishi section of his book:

"On the recommendation of my friend, I made a copy of a Chinese book on kenpo called Bubishi that my venerated teacher, Anko Itosu, had duplocated himself. I have used the Bubishi in my research and have secretly treasured it, however in this current age of growth and popularity of karate kenpo, I am hesitant to keep this book to myself for even one more day. If this benefits even a little those researchers' passionate about karate, then I will be very pleased. Kenwa Mabuni"

What I particularly like about owning these books is that not only is it like hearing it straight from the horses mouth but I feel like I own a little bit of karate history myself. The book is obviously written in the present tense but it is about the practice of karate in the 1930's in Okinawa and Japan. Thus you get statements like:

"...The founder of our style, Goju-Ryu kenpo, Kanryo higaonna Sensei travelled to China to study Kenpo (mastering Chinese Fujian style Kenpo). Furthermore, my senior Chojun Miyagi travelled to China to conduct study into Kenpo and is presently still there."

and: "Presently on Okinawa young people freely practice in various systems such as Higaonna-ha, Itosu-ha, Maezato-ha, Shimabuku-ha, Ishimine-ha, Azato-ha etc."

Reading books like these very much makes karate history come alive to me, so thank you Sensei McKenna for bringing these translations to us.

I also have to praise the service: all their books are printed and bound after you order them and then shipped out. Both these books could only be shipped to the UK from the US but from initial order to receiving the books took less than a week, so well done Lulu!

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