Continuing from Part 1 of the George Alexander interview:
MA: One of the things you are best known for is your experience in Hakutsuru White Crane Kenpo. Could you discuss a little bit about what this is, and why you’ve dug so hard to uncover and preserve the principles of hakutsuru?
GA: Well it actually became a sort of quest! You may recall the karate kid movie with the crane kick and all that – those techniques were perpetuated by Hohan Soken and Yuichi Kuda, which is ultimately where I came to do a lot of my training. Due to those instructors and the movies, my interest was peaked as to what the hakutsuru techniques were all about, especially after I had studied Nai Hanchi, Pinan, Passai, Kusanku, etc. for so long.
Ultimately I came to ask myself…hmm – what else is there? Well the Matsumura lineage has its own hakutsuru…but you go past that and start to wonder where THAT came from. Eventually it leads to the fact that there were certain instructors who were teaching this white crane stuff in Okinawa…and historical curiousity develops about who was teaching who what. and I started pursuing that. I’ve been doing that for probably 25 years, trying to get to the bottom of white crane.
The paths of all this study continously led me back to China. The evidence was so powerful, in fact, that I decided to visit China myself two years ago and pursue the study even further, experiencing the area myself.
MA: Wow that must have been an amazing trip. What did you unearth there?
GA: Through that trip I was better able to trace the white crane lineage, even as it jumped from China to Okinawa. What it amounts to is that the white crane style (or southern white crane style more specifically) is what influenced Okinawan karate the most. Southern white crane mythology suggests that a woman started it about 350 years ago in Yong Chun village in the Fujian Province. I happened to go there and had the chance to talk and train with the masters still practicing the style in one form or another.
MA: What an experience!
GA: Yea it was pretty cool, haha. It was all part of a larger search. So as I began putting these connections together I noticed a strong influence of white crane on naha-te, more so than shuri-te and tomari-te, the other two major styles of the time.
OF course, there were exceptions. Hohan Soken, of my own lineage (Matsumura Shorin Ryu, which is strongly connected to Shuri-te), was known to have studied with a Chinese man named Gokenki. Gokenki was known as an herbalist and tea merchant, but was also a traveler who visited Okinawa around 1910. He influenced many Okinawans with white crane including Matayoshi, Chojun Miyagi, Kenwa Mabuni (founder of Shito-Ryu), and perhaps Uechi as well.
Kanryo Higashionna, one of Miyagi’s sensei, traveled to china in the late 1800s and studied under two masters named Ryu Ru Ko and Waishinzan. He was rumored to have acquired great skill under these men and even acquaint himself with other chinese styles during his days there.
There are a few other lineages of this nature, but you can see how the connections started to develop and how white crane could have assimilated and mixed with Okinawan technique as these experts continued to train and seek out new approaches to their art.
One important thing to note is that hakutsuru karate doesn’t exist as a separate style on Okinawa. It was always integrated into the arts. But as I saw it fading out more and more, I decided to put extra effort into preserving it. That is why you see me offering it separately from karate like Shorin Ryu in the form of Hakutsuru Kenpo. It helps the preservation efforts, and really, anybody can benefit as the old masters did.
Recently, the Okinawan government took note of what I was doing and actually sent me a Menkyo (teacher’s license) in recognition of their approval.
MA: That’s significant. Did you have to apply for something like that?
GA: Actually no I didn’t. They just sort of heard about me. It wasn’t my original intention to develop anything official. I’m just like a green belt running around out there trying to learn more stuff and I think I’m always going to have that mentality. But over the years it just kinda happened.
MA: I’d like to switch gears and ask you a couple of concept questions. During my time teaching and writing online there seem to be some recurring themes that people like to discuss or try to learn more about. I think it would great if we could get your take on some of these topics.
GA: Sure, fire away.
MA: How important do you think Hojo Undo (body hardening and strengething) is in traditional training? Some people swear by it, while others find it a bit antiquated for modern society.
GA: There are a few ways you can look at it. What hojo undo originally did was make you stronger. If you were stronger you could be a better fighter and would therefore be better at self defense.
There’s a counter argument from the modern perspective – when was the last time you actually defended yourself? Sure if you hang out in dark alleys and shady bars you may have to, but in normal day to day life, is it applicable? Why are we doing all this?
The whole point of hojo undo, I think, is preserving tradition and enhancing other aspects of your martial arts. Two prime examples: the first is developing a stronger martial spirit, which helps you with every day trials and tribulations. The other is improving your health. Kata and sparring help with cardio, but hojo undo fills in the gap with resistance training (which develops muscle tissue and bone density).
For more with Alexander Sensei check out the project “Tales From the Western Generation”! This is a collection of extensive interviews with senior karate practitioners.
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I recently had the opportunity to chat with George Alexander Sensei. I’ve trained with Alexander Sensei just a few times in the past, but his enthusiasm for the martial arts is something that has always stuck with me. He is a true investigator and teacher, and thanks to his efforts, much has been revealed and preserved regarding classical martial arts that might have been lost otherwise.
Alexander Sensei’s main style is Matsumura Shorin Ryu Karate and Kobudo (Okinawan weapons art), in which he is ranked 10th Dan, Hanshi. He also holds 10th Dan in Shorinji Ryu Jujitsu and 7th Dan in Kendo.
Alexander Sensei is responsible for some of the most important books in publication regarding Okinawa, including Okinawa: Island of Karate, and Bubishi: Martial Art Spirit. These books are often found in ‘must read’ lists for karate practitioners.
Along with his written work, Alexander Sensei has spearheaded Yamazato Videos. Realizing that learning martial arts is done mostly through watching, Alexander Sensei was one of the earliest instructors to embrace this new technology and provide both enlightening and rare knowledge in his video tapes. Since its inception, Yamazato has grown to cover a myriad of styles and concepts, competing with ‘big boys’ like Panther Productions and Asian World of Martial Arts.
Alexander Sensei is a whirlwind of martial arts accomplishment, and I was fortunate enough to steal some of his time in order to ask questions both about his background, and his take on some commonly debated martial arts concepts. Enjoy!
MA: Alexander Sensei, thank you for sitting down with me! I’d like to start off at the beginning – how did you get your start in the martial arts and what was the whole “scene” like at that time?
GA: Well I started when I was a kid. My dad had been in the army airforce and was teaching something they called combat judo. And at that time (late 50s, early 60s or so) there was no karate around. I was intrigued by judo initially, and ultimately, I joined the military myself [united states marine corp 1964].
Shortly into my military career, I started studying Shorin Ryu at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. I did that until 1967 when I was transferred to Okinawa.
MA: Is that when you started studying with Yuichi Kuda, who you cite as your primary Sensei in Shorin Ryu?
GA: Actually No. I didn’t study with Kuda Sensei until later. I spent a good many years studying with different Sensei on the island. Two you may have heard of are Eizo Shimabukuro and Fusei Kise.
MA: It must have been neat on the island where so many outstanding instructors were accessible. When did you ultimately decide to “settle in” with Kuda Sensei?
GA: I spent a good 20 years in training before that. I think up until 1984…or 85. So before that I was learning a lot about Shorin Ryu, Shotokan, Goju Ryu, and Kyokushinkai.
MA: I was hoping you could give me a flavor of what training was like at that point. Do you find that the older training style is reflected in the modern U.S., or were things a bit different?
GA: I think the 70’s were kind of a “macho” era. There were no kids in karate…or very few. It was a lot of young men with a lot of testosterone, so it was kind of a knock-em-around environment. Then the 80s were more like the decade of Karate Kid with Mr. Miyagi and wax-on-wax-off. Much more contemplative. Then the 90s were more about sport karate, and we saw the emergence of a lot of federations. Now it seems we have come full circle, in a sense, where we have MMA. These are individuals who are interested in combining all kinds of styles together, which I think is a bit more like what the original instructors had intended. Of course, MMA is still very heavy sport oriented, as was the influence of the 90s.
MA: Do you think the development of mixed martial arts is healthy for martial arts as a whole?
GA: I don’t know if I would qualify it as healthy or not. It’s the way of the world. You can’t stop change. The world, and the things in it, are dynamic and they’re bound to change. So I always like to use the old Matsumura saying: “change with the times.” Sokon Matsumura, a fountainhead of Okinawa Karate wisdom, said that to one of his students when he was in his 80s. He wrote him a letter containing that message.
Of course, that doesn’t mean give up whatever martial art you’re doing and do MMA. And actually, too much of going with trends has resulted in some of the factionalizing that we see today. Every decade seems to have a trend (like ninja in the 80s), and clearly MMA is this decades hot trend. It’s important to decide whether you want to pursue a martial art or martial sport.
MA: The previous head of Okinawa Kenpo, Seikichi Odo, was known to be a collector when it came to Kobudo. Did you receive all of your Kobudo training with Kuda Sensei, or did you have to do some collecting of your own?
GA: It’s true, a lot of the early Kobudo practitioners were collectors. Kenwa Mabuni, he was certainly a collector. Shinken Taira – he went around the island collecting and codifying 40 or so different weapons kata into a system. Certainly Odo Sensei as well.
It was no different for me. I learned some here and some there, but then established myself in Kuda Sensei’s kobudo program. And really, I think you learn that way because no one person has it all. You have to interact with different sensei to get different knowledge. This is also one area where I learned from master Kise.
MA: Switching gears just a bit, could you explain what Shorinji Ryu Jujitsu is?
GA: Ohh sure. Shorinji Ryu Jujitsu traces its roots to Japan, but I trained under Hanshi Ken Penland. The style, more or less, came from Albert C. Church. There are 20 two-man kata, which are training drills in jujitsu technique. But ultimately, it shares the same principles as most jujitsu styles (a wrist lock is a wrist lock, an armbar is an armbar).
MA: So you trained with Penland Sensei in Jujitsu, but you also were both students of Yuichi Kuda?
GA: That’s right. We tapped into each others experience very often.
MA: One of the things you are best known for is your experience in Hakatsuru White Crane Kenpo. Could you discuss a little bit about what this is, and why you’ve dug so hard to uncover and preserve the principles of hakatsuru?
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Kata programming can be a double edged sword. On one hand, kata shows us techniques that we would otherwise be unable to perform. Furthermore, kata (much like an onion) contains layers of discovery that are vital to improving in traditional martial arts.
On the other hand, it is extraordinarily difficult to unlock those deeper layers, and very easy to get caught in the routine of base level kata. Ultimately, staying stuck in base level for too long can produce negative effects and even counter-intuitive habits.
Base Level Kata…1,2,3!
Base level kata is what we do when we are first learning a kata. Sensei will stand in front of class and carefully break down every technique for the students to see. This is often accompanied by a calling out of movement or number. For example:
“Step in, block left. Punch right. Punch left.”
“1. 2. 3.”
All in all, it ends up looking something like this (and please enjoy my stunning artwork):
All the students in class dutifully follow along, checking every minute tidbit of their stance and technique. This is a fantastic training tool. The students are learning how to properly form a punch (be it corkscrewing, vertical Isshin style, or any other), checking their knees for proper bend, and making sure they aren’t off-balance. The more advanced students can toy with koshi, hip movement, to employ more power into their technique.
Years of training in this fashion can produce very solid kihon, or basics…and as most instructors (including myself) will harp – KIHON is KEY to GOOD KARATE!
But, as years progress, it gets easier and easier to slip into an unexpected malaise; in other words, you quietly slip into “a box.” Once inside that box, it’s very difficult to see outside it, and takes a great mental and physical leap to adjust habits that are so tightly ingrained. That is why it is up to each us to eventually stare into that great void of kata exploration.
One concept that can help shine a little light on those cavernous expanses of kata is condensed timing.
Recall the picture I showed you earlier – the kata dictated block, punch, punch. 1,2,3. Why should we wait so long to act? If our opponent is throwing a punch toward our chest, must we block it before counterattacking? Of course not. That sounds silly when considering a live, highly agitated opponent. So why do we allow our kata to stay slow?
Instead, the block and initial strike should be done simultaneously. Blockpunch, punch. 12,3. As such:
As the opponent closes in with his/her attack, we are blocking and striking in one movement. The momentum of the opponent meets our accelerating fist and the damage is multiplied. Furthermore, the snap of our koshi helps drive our body weight into the attacker, instead of just helping us produce a nice *crack* with our gi.
RIght now, can you think of a few places in your kata that demand these kinds of block-strike-strike, block-block-block, block-strike-block series? I bet you can. And I bet if you think about it for awhile, you’ll uncover A LOT of these series. Next time you get a chance to train alone, try condensing your timing (but remember, when in the dojo, stay with your Sensei as he/she leads a class. Getting ahead can be misleading for beginner students and is a bit disrepectful to the instructor).
You’ll also notice that the figure in the second picture punches at two different locations. This introduces another one of those elusive kata concepts (wo mid-level punches in kata doesn’t necessarily mean two mid-level punches in kata). But more on that later!
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