How do you go about exploring an art fully without getting lost in it?
One of the most important elements of any martial art is being able to use it effectively at a moment’s notice. The techniques and methods of the art must be simple enough to ingrain in muscle memory for use when adrenaline pumps and mental decision making could be costly and difficult.
With that being the case it might seem like a mistake to dig deeply into an art or to allow for creative exploration. After all, you’re probably just obfuscating a technique that did what it needed to do in the first place. However, I have found that there is an important difference between simple techniques and techniques with deep simplicity.
Starting with Simplicity
Properly programming the body to maximum efficiency is a process that takes a lifetime. However, when a student first joins a school they really need to focus on the basics of how to move. It’s almost like learning how to walk again. The hands move in such a way, the legs in another way, the body weight shifts here and there…half the time the end goal for each class is to not trip over yourself.
Launching into the full complexity of an art right away is neither effective nor productive.
Drills like yakusoku kumite are often valuable to teach a person what it’s like to get “attacked” (even if it’s under strict controls) and how to program the body to respond.
Kata, sparring, and base level bunkai all help introduce the student to the ways in which they might defend themselves should trouble arrive.
The Fog of Complexity
As the years go by and students get exposed to the arts, they realize there might be more going on than previously suspected. Real altercations are rarely so organized as dojo drills, nor do they end as neatly as we might hope. Grappling, joint locking, pressure points, internal blending, dynamic striking, etc etc start to blip onto the radar as ways to improve overall skillset.
With so much out there it’s easy to get lost completely in the fog of technique collection and creative brainstorming.
Moving from simplicity to complexity is something that often inspires trepidation and hesitation (with very legitimate cause). Nobody wants to become the armchair Sensei who can spout off 20 different vital point techniques but couldn’t actually defend him/herself against Glass Joe from Punchout.
Furthermore, simple techniques with no particularly enhanced explanations still work. A kick to the groin and jab to the eyes requires very little tweaking. Why muck things up?
For me personally, deciding to jump into complexity came when I saw the depth of knowledge possessed by my instructors and how they translated it into their art. Instead of blocking an arm just to keep it from hitting me, I realized I could be activating a vital point for a devastating follow-up technique. Or I could be applying kuzushi at the same moment to off balance my attacker. Or perhaps I could be moving his centerline to make his next attack more predictable and therefore manageable, reducing (albeit never eliminating) the chaos of real combat.
Complexity invites you to explore the possibilities of human interaction.
The Depth of Simplicity
I wish I could tell you I’ve got everything figured out and the fog is gone, but that is woefully untrue. I keep my many limitations close in mind to make sure I don’t get lazy.
However, there are certain things I have been able to bring back to simplicity through depth of study. The amazing thing is that my muscle memory has not gone away, nor has my ability utilize mushin (no mind) in unpredictable situations. Instead I have been able to better understand how to improve the simplicity of my techniques and utilize complex ideas like pressure points, tuite, etc within the same movement that would have been a simple block or punch previously.
The point of breaking down bunkai (kata applications) into minute pieces is not to impress others with your 10,000 ideas, but to get a little taste of why all those possibilities work or don’t work. I have found many situations where I’ve said to myself “I better not do that again”, which is extremely valuable to discover in the safety of a dojo environment.
With deep simplicity the body learns how to improve height, distance, angle, stance, and timing in conjunction with a continuum of strikes, grabs, and manipulations. All of that sounds complex unless you’ve thoroughly explored it and reapplied it to habitual acts of physical violence, such as common pushes, punches, and grabs.
All of this amounts to not needing the construction of yakusoku kumite or kata or even padded sparring when you arrive in a moment of conflict, but being able to effectively handle live situations at any range and with little warning.
The following is a short clip taken from our IKKF Annual Training (2000) featuring Bill Hayes Sensei discussing a technique that starts out simple, but can be enhanced with depth of study and training. The technique is simple throughout but hardly the same from the beginning of the clip to the end.
(available here – http://fileserver.uechi-ryu.com/videos/hayes.wmv)
Without bunkai (applications), kata is little more than pre-arranged dancing. The hands can be flowing in exciting and vibrant ways but if we never discover the meaning of the motion then our time would be much better spent hitting a heavy bag or sparring.
Bunkai is the key to developing useful and effective techniques preserved for us by those individuals who developed and tested them in fierce, life protection situations. Over the course of time much of the true meaning of these movements has either been lost or purposefully disguised. If your desire is to unlock some of the skills of our predecessors, you’ll need to know the right questions in order to find the best answers.
The following are seven things to ask yourself that might illuminate your kata in a different (and hopefully productive) way. These are in no particular order and are not prescriptive. Use some when you can and invent others.
1. Can I change the angle in which I address my opponent?
Many times during bunkai we assume that an opponent is coming straight from the front or from the sides, and that we must stay directly in front of them and try to defend. What happens if you cut a 45 degree angle during your technique? What if turning from left to right allowed you to arc around the same opponent instead of addressing a new one?
2. What came just before and what is coming right after?
When we learn kata, it generally occurs in a set cadence. Step1 – block up. Step2 – block down. Step3 – punch kiai! That being the case, our mind generally sections itself off in those little boxes. It is our job to look at what is occurring right before our current technique and right after and how the body moves from one to the next. Stringing techniques together makes for a more devastating outcome to your opponent.
3. Am I utilizing all of the technique or just the end piece?
Techniques are often more dynamic than we give them credit for. Take for example the knife hand block. When we perform a knife hand block we generally step somewhere, prep the block, and then shoot the block out. The block itself is what we use to defend against an attack, but what about all the stuff that came before it? Can’t we use that too? Can’t the body shift be used to off-balance or attack our opponent, and can’t the prep be used to either defend or attack?
4. Can I condense the number of opponents I have to face to get through my applications?
If you find yourself going through a dozen bad guys for your bunkai you may be too segmented. In order to mentally escape from a tricky technique we often dismiss the current bad guy and invite a new one in from a different direction. Worse yet, if we are using two hands at once and don’t really know what’s going on we might invite two bad guys to attack us at once from different directions. Multiple opponent training is valuable, but kata is not suggesting that GuyA is likely to kick low while GuyB punches from behind. Those scenarios are too unlikely and miss the real intent of what’s happening. Condense the number of opponents as much as possible.
5. Are my opponents behaving naturally and with likely techniques, or am I forcing them into increasingly unlikely scenarios?
Patrick McCarthy Sensei developed the acronym HAPV, or habitual acts of physical violence. The point of HAPV is to keep focused on the techniques you are most likely to encounter. Furthermore, the longer you make the string of actions done by your uke the more unlikely an actual attacker will follow that pattern. Therefore, when performing bunkai, we want our opponents acting as naturally as possible. If the opponent has to punch, step back punch, step back punch, step back block up and receive your strike, you’ve asked your uke to behave in a way they never would in real life.
6. Have I affected my opponent in a way that makes more technique work?
Let’s say you manage to block your opponent (so far so good). You then put them in a wrist lock or arm bar in order to control them. That progression seems very effective, especially after years of training, and generally works in the dojo. However, if you’ve ever come across a live opponent who is experiencing adrenaline dump you’ll know that manipulating that arm is extremely difficult. Your attempts to bar or lock it will be met with iron resistance and counter punches to your face. Always be sure to negatively affect your opponent as soon as possible, then go into more technique.
7. What is the emotional content of my encounter?
What kind of scenario is your kata taking place in? Is it a school yard pushing match? Is it a life or death home invasion? The emotional environment you place yourself in is going to alter your bunkai dramatically. Your technique may need to restrain or it may need to kill.
With all of these questions/problems/complications we have to address the concept of simplicity. In a real life altercation, your simplest and most effective techniques will be the ones that help you. Thinking about responses in the heat of the moment will keep you one step behind your opponent.
Why then bother with all of this business about bunkai? Shouldn’t we simply practice a series of basic, effective techniques and avoid the mental gymnastics?
The short term answer is yes. For the first 5-6 years of your training you need to become “brilliant at the basics”, as Bill Hayes Sensei would say. Without a rock solid foundation and instinctual integration of your style’s stances, punches, and basic techniques nothing else can be built firmly. However, once you do achieve that level of proficiency, you acquire the privilege of exploring your art even deeper and improving the way you go about your business.
Simple techniques practiced a certain way seem like the best option until you learn how to improve them. That doesn’t necessarily mean complicate them. Instead the goal is to find ways to improve your angle, distance, timing, striking locations, and technique progression in order to enhance what’s already been built. This style of study leads to an understanding of tichiki, or “what the hand is doing”, which can be used extemporaneously with great percentage of success.
I’d like to share a story given by Bill Hayes Sensei. Pardon any paraphrasing.
One time Hayes Sensei was training with his instructor Eizo Shimabukuro on the kata Passai. This kata is known for its power generation and its sweeping motions that feel for the opponent and almost reach out to him/her.
After training, Shimabukuro mentioned that this kata was like fighting at night.
The statement caught Hayes Sensei’s attention who thought he had gained some valuable insight into the original impetus for the form. Brave Okinawans, he decided, must have crept along during the night and dispatched their opponents using the passai kata! Certainly that explains the ‘feeling’ and ‘scanning’ hand and foot work.
Some time later the topic of Passai came up again, and Hayes Sensei engaged in discussion about how the kata came from night time fighting.
At that point Shimabukuro peered into Hayes Sensei’s eyes as if to see if there were any lights on.
“No, no”, he said. “Not at night. Like at night.”
Many times things can be lost in translation, especially when it comes to the mysteries of kata. In this case Shimabukuro Sensei was never suggesting that Passai kata was specifically for night time fighting, or that it was born from it. Instead he was trying to express that the same sensations and abilities you would rely upon at night are summoned and utilized via training in the Passai system.
Consider this: at night, you would not be able to see well. Therefore, when you make contact with an opponent, you must maintain Muchimi, or stickiness. Once that contact is made you can instinctively know where each part of your opponent’s body is. Essentially, should it be necessary, you could fight blindly.
This is an important concept to remember when considering the adrenaline dump that occurs during combat. Humans acquire tunnel vision when under extreme stress, which means you will have much less visibility (even during broad daylight) than you are used to. Therefore you have to rely on proprioception and touch response to first acquire your target and then properly eliminate him/her.
It’s important to remember that kata were not created for one specific environment or circumstance. That would be far too limiting a form of practice. Instead the concepts that are contained within each kata are omni-useful and work in harmony with the concepts of other kata.
The translation for the term Passai, which is frequently stated to be “penetrating the fortress” or “extracting from the fortress”, is not to be taken literally. The name may have a poetic connection to breaking down the barriers of an opponent, but it was never necessary to have an actual castle involved.