One of the great things about bunkai (kata application) is how variable it can be. A single series of movements can be transformed a hundred times depending on scenario, opponents, tactics, and strategy. Unfortunately, despite all of this creative fruit for the picking, it is extremely easy to get stuck in a rut.
Base level bunkai is very useful and shouldn’t be over looked. By base level I mean: a block is a block and a punch is a punch. If kata tells you to block down three times in a row, that’s exactly what you do. You block a left kick, a right kick, then a left kick. After that you finish up with a punch, or whatever else kata tells you to do.
Deciphering base level bunkai for kata can take a very long time as many of the moves will seem cryptic and unwieldy. There’s no reason to be concerned by that, and no reason to rush it (as I explained in a previous post).
But sooner or later, you’ll probably find yourself scratching your chin and saying ‘yea…but what else can I do!?’
This is the rut I speak of, and just like with writer’s block, it can be tough to pull yourself out without an external nudge. I figured I might present a nudge here that tends to help me think outside the box when I need to.
Opponents: One or One Hundred
How many opponents are you fighting when you practice your kata? One? Two? A handful? More than you can count? This is a very important question as it will change the entire dynamic of how you perform your kata.
Imagine that you are facing just a single opponent. While keeping alert for other dangers around you, you are free to orient yourself entirely on that opponent. That means you can afford to be a little more stationary, and make small moves with your body to adjust for the maai (distance from your opponent). You can then use your techniques to slip slight angles as your aggressor attacks and counterattack with ease.
For example, let’s say you have a kata that blocks on the left 45 degree angle, then the right 45 degree angle, like so:
(Yea the guy in the picture has a giant head. so what.)
With a single opponent, you can use those techniques to intercept and retaliate:
You’ll notice our brave combatant in the black intercepts the red attack and cuts the angle inward, reorienting himself/herself for a vital point strike to the temple, eyes, throat, or anything else he pleases. This small shift in angle clears him from the oncoming second punch of his opponent.
With a single opponent, this “block, block” becomes an invasive disruption. Since it’s just one attacker, the next step in your kata, whatever that may be, should be used to take this opponent out, or at least to the ground.
One opponent was nice, but now you’ve started trouble with two guys. What did you do??
Well, whatever you did…they are looking for trouble. Let’s look at the same technique with two individuals coming at you in quick succession (or even at the same time)…
This time our hero in black has to move his body around a bit quicker. The subtle angles he used with one opponent aren’t as applicable because he can’t afford to get tied up with in-close fighting while the other opponent rushes in toward him. Instead, he uses a simultaneous block-strike motion as he shifts into each fighter. Many times in kata we find ourselves blocking or striking. Really, why have one hand in motion while the other remains stagnant? Many movements in kata have inherent counterstrikes built in; we just have to allow ourselves to use them in quick time.
The last situation is that of multiple opponents. The exact number of opponents isn’t really important, but it’s obvious that there are a whole bunch. Let’s say they are pretty smart too, and manage to partially surround their target (our hero). Using this same technique, it would look something like this…
Our fighter is using a very wise strategy – get out of Dodge. The first thing he does is analyze as quickly as possible the largest hole in the encirclement. He recognizes that the right side, where the brown attacker is, is very cluttered. Instead, he breaks for the red opponent. Using the same kind of technique as before, he blocks and strikes to the face violently at the same moment. This time, he uses his angling to shift to the outside of his opponent and pushes the red attacker into the blue attacker. Bundling up the two closest individuals, he escapes as quickly as possible.
Final Thoughts on Opponents
When doing bunkai, it’s important to think about your opponents, especially regarding how many there could be. If you train in-tight against single opponents all the time, you might leave yourself tangled up with them too long for multiple opponent use. However, if you are constantly floating around to different attackers, you might miss the more intricate uses of technique and how they can result in takedowns and groundfighting.
Be wary of leaving opponents too soon. If you’ve successfully blocked an opponent, but haven’t dealt them a severe strike or takedown, it is probably unwise to move on to a new attacker.
Be careful not to get stuck in the habit of using 8,9,10 attackers in a kata. You may be moving around and facing different directions, but that doesn’t necessarily mean every technique is intended for a new person.
I hope this was helpful. It’s just a method I use to expand the parameters of bunkai, but it can be a great way to add realism to your kata.
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Here is something I say with confidence – martial arts can be unnerving! It’s not all butt kicking and black belts, after all. While I’m no master, I HAVE experienced (and seen others experience) a few common concerns that seem to crop up during martial arts training. Have a read through these top 10 stressors, and hopefully, I can help you shrug a little weight off your shoulders.
Don’t Stress About…
10. Learning Super Quickly
This first one is more common than you might think. There are always a few individuals who can pick up kata or technique very quickly. While that’s fortunate for them, it can leave a residue of anxiety in other students. People who have an ingrained self consciousness about their own progress will pay special attention to students who pick things up quickly, allowing themselves to feel discouraged when they can’t do the same.
I think we all suffer from this at one point or another. It’s just like in Karate Kid:
“Daniel: Hey – you ever get into fights when you were a kid?
Miyagi: Huh – plenty.
Daniel: Yeah, but it wasn’t like the problem I have, right?
Miyagi: Why? Fighting fighting. Same same.
Daniel: Yeah, but you knew karate.
Miyagi: Someone always know more.”
What a great movie. And it also helps prove my point – no matter how awesome you are, there is always someone better. So, with that inevitability in mind, just focus on your own personal progress and forget the comparisons!
Final thought about #10: karate is a lifelong endeavor. If you stay in the martial arts while others come and go, I guarantee you’ll make it to the head of the class.
9. Keeping Up With the Joneses
This is connected to #10. In keeping up with the Joneses, which of course means trying to outdo your “neighbor”, trying to learn a lot quickly can cause even more stress. You’ll see kids do this a lot:
Kid A (the jerk): “Hey, do you know kata ____ yet?
Kid B: “No. Why?”
Kid A: “Ohh, cause I do. Snicker.”
Annoying when kids do it, but forgivable. Extremely annoying when adults do it. And they do do it. If this happens to you, try to let it roll off your shoulders and remember the long term benefits of training.
If you’re the one prodding at your classmates…knock it off.
This same concept applies to physical possessions as well. Weapons, uniforms, books, dvds…that whole business gets rapped into the martial arts very easily. Don’t feel compelled to spend money because everyone else does.
8. Looking Stupid
You’re gonna look and feel stupid from time to time. Keep asking questions and participating. Seriously. This is the best way to learn, hands down.
7. Gi Flair
As far as I am concerned, there is no good reason for your uniform to look like the flair guy’s getup from OfficeSpace.
Patches…buttons…it’s all flair.
I understand some patches, but things can get a little out of hand. If you find yourself creating a patchwork out of you or your child’s gi, just take a step back. Remember, all of these external distractions can take away from the internal goals of the martial arts. Let your personality and ability make you stand out, not eye catching gi accessories.
Have you seen Kill Bill? Do you remember the five point palm exploding heart technique? That was pretty cool. Unfortunately, some people can get overly caught up in that razzle dazzle when pursuing the martial arts.
Kyusho, or vital point striking, is experiencing a bit of a boom in popularity. When done correctly, the results can be very deadly indeed. This has led a lot of people to worry about the deadliness of whatever technique they are practicing. So much so, in fact, that some students try to learn vital point strikes off of video tapes or from snake-oil instructors who claim to have mastered them.
Don’t get too caught up in this hype. The truth is, most karate styles have kyusho integrated into them already. The trick to unlocking the techniques is a matter of becoming an expert at fundamentals. As Sensei Bill Hayes says, become “brilliant at the basics.” After that is achieved, kyusho can slowly start to seep its way into your training. Don’t rush this one.
5. Trophy Count
This Can Be Yours if The Price is Right!
Time + money = a ton of trophies. Yes, it helps if you’re good, but its not a mandatory prerequisite. There are so many tournaments with so many divisions that sometimes you’ll be lucky to get three people in your division.
If you want to, acquire a couple of trophies to prove to yourself that you can do it. After that, put that money and mental focus to better use.
4. Kata Portfolio
This is one that yours-truly had to work on. For awhile, I was very concerned about my kata portfolio. I wanted to learn a whole lot of kata and I wanted to learn them all very well. Unfortunately, what I REALLY wanted was to have my cake and eat it to.
Take it from me, don’t worry about slowing yourself down to learn fewer kata. Much like #10, learning quickly, pacing your kata intake shouldn’t be perceived as a bad thing. This is especially true after black belt.
In many martial arts, there are certain requirements as you progress through kyu ranks. Once you hit black belt, you are “ready to begin learning”, and that means taking charge of your martial destiny. It’s easy to ride the kata train, going for higher and higher material. But, ultimately, it might leave all of your material a little soft.
3. Kata Flash-and-Dash
Can’t kick the ceiling? Can’t do a triple blackflip into a split with kiai? Don’t stress.
A lot of the acrobatics and physically impressive maneuvers you see today are not really part of traditional martial arts. In fact, it was extremely rare for the old Okinawan Karate Sensei to kick above their waist!
Listen to what your body can and can’t do, then try to make small improvements from there. Listening to the natural rhythym of your body will result in much better technique than trying to force Van Damme style kicks.
…maybe next year…
2. Ass-Kicking Ability
Martial arts tend to have self defense at their core. Some styles are for aggressive fighting, while others are for flowing defense. But, ultimately, you should learn how to fight.
Where people tend to get tense is when they don’t see dramatic results immediately. This is especially true for traditional arts. Styles like boxing and MMA can show initial progress pretty quickly, which is nice. Unfortunately, old styles were designed for the long haul.
Traditional martial art basics can actually hinder your fighting ability for awhile. They make you mechanical, and force movements into your body that you aren’t used to. It isn’t until years of practice sink in that you can begin to feel those movements naturally. Once they start to become natural though, it’s a real treat.
This probably isn’t a huge surprise. “Rank” being at the top of this list is like Stairway to Heaven being at the top of “The Greatest Rock Songs” list (which it should be, because it is great).
Rank is very valuable, and very dangerous. It helps motivate us to achieve, and symbolizes skill and experience. Unfortunately, rank can also be a business. Stripes, colors, and titles are abound these days.
No matter how your school addresses rank, don’t feel driven by it, in and of itself. If you are a green belt, but have focused on improving your basics, your self defense, and your mindset, you’ll be on your way to achieving real results.
Navigating through these troubles, and a forest of others, is essential when pursuing the martial way.
I’ll meet you somewhere in the woods, and maybe we can give each other a hand 😉
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Here is a classic problem that every martial artist will run into sooner or later. If you’ve experienced it already, you probably cringed just reading the title of this post. If you haven’t…well let’s say you have something to look forward to.
There is a strange biological occurrence that happens in people when they initially find out that you do a martial art. First, they will give you a quick look up and down. This is a flash of assessment that basically leads them to think one of two things:
1. Ohh great, this crazy is gonna punch a hole in my wall or something.
2. THAT guy/girl does karate? Haha yea right.
Of course this occurs very quickly and is promptly covered up with a pleasantry, such as: “ohh wow, cool.” or “ohh like Jackie Chan. Sure, sure.”
You, the martial artist, will find this moment awkward. Luckily these brief exchanges are usually filled with a nervous, complimentary energy. The person is trying to get on your good side just in case you’re a death touch ninja.
Unfortunately, it is unlikely to end there. If the ‘friend’ who has just found out about your training is a bold, forthcoming individual, they will meet you with skepticism very shortly after the pleasantries have subsided. People with average temperament will wait until the evening has worn on, or even until you’ve hung out a couple of times. Sooner or later, they will remark:
“Hey! Show me something karate!”
And they will demand it with this look on their face:
They’ve seen plenty of kung fu movies after all, and they are pretty sure you can’t do the stuff they’ve seen. Now you’re put into a bad spot. You’ve probably been taught over and over again that you should never use your abilities unless it is absolutely necessary. Chauvinistic displays only serve to stroke egos and intimidate innocent people.
But then, on the other hand, you don’t want to be prodded and snickered at every time you see this person. And in a lot of cases (close friends, family members, coworkers, etc.), you are GOING to be seeing this person again.
What to do?
I’ll give you the three escape routes that I have developed that coincide with martial arts theory, and leave your assailant satisfied (at least to a degree).
Option 1: Excuse Yourself From the Situation
This is the most temporary solution, but still works for the short term. You can excuse yourself from demonstrating your abilities with a legitimate concern. For example, if you are in the workplace, you can very easily suggest that such activity would be inappropriate for the office and you fear repercussions from the boss.
If you are in your home, or someone else’s home, you can use the excuse of tight quarters for fear of breaking something. Most people will begrudgingly accept this, although if it’s a nice day, you’ll have to be ready for the ‘let’s just go outside’ suggestion.
A good catch-all excuse is injury. Cite sore shoulders or a tweaked knee. If you’ve got a real injury story, launch right into it. This will probably take the conversation away from karate and into different topics thereafter.
Option 2: Make It A Lesson
This is a pretty good option. If you’ve got the time, take your questioner’s challenge as a chance to enlighten him/her. This works especially well if there are a few people around. Start off by using your questioner as uke for a few self defense techniques. Do it at a fairly speedy pace at first otherwise you’ll just get more skepticism about “that fancy stuff not actually working.” After you’ve shown it work for real, gather everyone in a little closer and begin to explain WHY it works. Most people will be really interested and entertained.
Once you’ve hooked everyone’s attention, let them try the technique on you. People have a natural comfort zone that they don’t like crossed, which is why going around and doing your technique on people is a bad idea. Instead, put them in the driver’s seat. Reassure them that you won’t be hitting them or fighting back, and that they can simply try the technique on you. Make sure you don’t resist too hard as it will shatter their trust.
Once everyone is interested, laughing, and feeling surprised by their new found technique, let them pair up with each other and try it out some more, very slowly. By the end of this impromptu class, people will be happy to know that you know karate and will begin to ask you earnest questions with little sense of incredulity.
Option 3: Everything I Do Is Karate
This is the hardest one to pull off actually, but for veterans of getting asked to do awkward demos, it can be the most fun. What you do is explain the reality of what karate is all about (sounds simple, right?)
Karate, when practiced with your full heart, seeps into every movement you make. The way you walk, the way you breath, the way you think, all becomes extensions of your martial art. Furthermore, your martial art becomes an extension of you. In the dojo, you’re no longer doing kata by the textbook. You are doing your kata, even though an impartial observer wouldn’t recognize the significant difference.
When someone asks you to do something karate, you simply respond that everything you do is karate. Standing in front of them. Talking to them. The distance you are standing away from them and the angle your body has adopted in regards to their centerline. The timing in the sway of their stance. The look in their eye.
You’ve assessed it all and needn’t even think about how to respond because the outcome has been predetermined, like surrounding your opponent’s king in chess.
If your questioner is brazen and continues to push the issue, you can prompt him/her to throw any technique they like, and you simply respond with a controlled counter (hint: heads up for a right punch). This small example of effectiveness + technique will likely quiet any further concerns they might have.
Once again, only use option three if one and two seem out of the question…or if you feel like hearing yourself wax poetic about martial arts philosophy.
Not that I do, of course.
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