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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A long time ago (seriously – like 1612) a young Ronin named Musashi Miyamoto was in the midst of a journey to prove his worth. As a Ronin, or masterless Samurai, Musashi chose to engage in Musha Shugyo – an austere journey designed to perfect a warrior’s fighting prowess. Musashi had achieved unheard of success during his travels and his reputation soon preceded him. One day, Musashi decided to arrange a duel with the master swordsman Kojiro Sasaki. Kojiro was famed for his use of the long nodachi sword, aptly nicknamed ‘the drying pole’ due to its length over normal katana.
Using tactics such as tardiness and uncouthness, Musashi enraged Kojiro before the duel began. Filled with disgust for his opponent, Kojiro struck down at Musashi as fiercely as he could. Musashi deftly dodged out of the way, and cracked Kojiro’s skull with the wooden sword he had in hand.
Shortly after his victory, Musashi reached up and felt the headband he had been wearing – the band had been cleanly sliced, but his skin was still intact.
The Thickness of One Sheet of Rice Paper
We often hear about Musashi’s great feats of skill, and the 60-odd duels he won. Of course, we can attribute some of those tales to mythological embellishment…but not all of it. Through his written works and multiple eye witness accounts, it is fairly well documented that Musashi was a truly amazing swordsman.
In the story above, Musashi demonstrated an astounding mastery of a very basic concept – distance. Musashi knew his opponent would rely on the superior length of his trademark weapon, so Musashi mentally computed the PRECISE distance he needed to evade. He was then able to slay his skillful opponent with a very average, very mundane bokken (some accounts even attribute his weapon as being a carved down oar!)
There is a saying in swordsmanship stating that all attacks should be avoided by the thickness of one sheet of rice paper; and in case you’ve never handled rice paper, it’s about this thick -
The Benefits of Minute Evasions
By cutting your evasion so close, your opponent is naturally open. Having committed to their attack, their body is in a state of movement. By placing yourself as close to them as possible without getting struck, it becomes a fairly easy matter to counterattack.
Another benefit is conservation of motion. The further out you make your block, or body movement, the further back you have to return in order to strike. By keep everything virtually natural, you are already placed in a position for striking. This allows you to counterattack a fraction of a moment later than the actual attack.
Training For Evasion
The best way I’ve personally found to train this nuanced movement is through swordsmanship. There really is no substitute for the lightning strikes of a shinai blitzing toward your head; your block deflecting it so narrowly that it still scrapes your hair.
But, as I’ve continued my training, I’ve integrated this practice into my other arts, like karate and kobudo. This leads me to confidently state that a practitioner of any art can cut down on their movement and improve their distancing.
Here is one fun little drill if you feel like working on this concept: stand arm-length away from a partner. Have your partner strap on some gloves, and throw straight punches toward your chest. At first, keep your arms at your side. As the punch comes in, allow yourself to pivot at the waist, making the punch bounce off at an angle. It should feel like the punch just barely glances you.
As you get more comfortable, make your pivot occur a bit quicker, so that the glove barely touches you.
As you get even more comfortable, make it so the punch just scrapes your gi, and nothing more.
Be careful, if you pivot too fast and the punch touches nothing at all, you’ve lost the concept – you’ve lost one sheet of rice paper. Your opponent may pick up on your early intentions and compensate.
Best of luck in your training!
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