This is a great question about the relationship between hard and soft styles:
“Recently I started training in Old Yang Style T’ai Chi Ch’uan in order to add to my Okinawan Kenpo Karate background. I was wondering if there is any particular relation between hard and soft styles. Do they compliment/take away from each other, is there any historical relationship between the two, etc?”
Here’s my take on it:
Diversifying training is a very natural and organic part of martial arts growth. Being exposed to a wider variety of methods and mindset can not only fill in skillset gaps but can actually provide fresh perspective on the core art of a practitioner. It’s like seeing a sculpture from one angle for years, and then being allowed to view it from the reverse angle. Certainly you’ll gain new appreciation for the artwork.
Of course, cross training comes with inherent risks. When done sloppily, lazily, or hastily it can prohibit the practitioner from learning the new art well and negatively effect the core art.
With that in mind, let’s look at the particular situation presented by this question – mixing Yang Style Taijiquan with Okinawa Kenpo Karate.
It’s generally accepted that karate is a hard art. Hard arts are characterized by a propensity for striking, solid stancework, impact blocking, hard body development, externally focused breathing, and muscular tension for power generation. Conversely, soft arts like taijiquan feature flowing movement, soft hands, internal based breathing, and energetic striking.
The key to understanding if a “hard art” like Okinawa Kenpo and “soft art” like taijiquan has historical connection and can possibly co-mingle rests on the question: which versions are you talking about?
Dual Tracks for Taijiquan and Okinawa Kenpo
When thinking of taijiquan, most people picture the modern fitness studio version that focuses almost entirely on the meditative aspects of the practice. The movements are very slow and deliberate with a body that is as relaxed as possible throughout. This version of taijiquan is certainly healthful and can teach a person about body awareness, but it is not the complete art of taijiquan as established by it’s creators. Back in “the day”, taiji was an explosive and complex method of body development, energy transmission, and fighting technique as well as meditative practice.
For a look at more complete taijiquan, please watch this video of Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming. He provides a quick encapsulation of what taiji and external kung fu are, and at the 2:20 mark demonstrates an energetic and impactful taiji form:
As you can see, what Dr. Yang is able to do is quite a bit different than typical meditative taiji forms. His older, more complete understanding of the art begins to mix fighting technique with internal concepts.
Let’s switch gears now for a moment and look at Okinawa Kenpo, a form of karate with direct lineage from Okinawa. The founder of the style, Nakamura Shigeru, followed an interesting path throughout his karate career. He began his training while in middle school. At that time innovators like Itosu Anko and Higashionna Kanryo were just starting to bring karate out of obscurity and into mainstream Okinawan and Japanese culture. One of their objectives, inspired and supported by the Japanese government, was to integrate karate training into the Okinawan school systems. The goal was to create fitter youth with a better sense of duty, military preparedness, and Japanese organization.
Karate, as it had been done in prior generations, was not well suited for young children in large groups with limited training time. So Itosu and a handful of others set out to simplify, organize, and Japanize the process. What happened as a result was a stronger focus on linear striking, group forms, hard blocks, etc (the things we now recognize as modern karate).
After coming up through that system and gaining reputation as a skilled karateka, Nakamura decided to seek out more of his roots and learn about the classical karate that existed outside of the school system. One of his primary influences for this older style learning was a gentleman named Kuniyoshi Shinkichi, an Okinawan who had spent a significant amount of time in China learning about chuanfa and the Chinese ways. As a result, Nakamura’s karate became an interesting mix of school-era and pre-school-era karate. This dichotomy still exists in the style and is visible today when analyzing Okinawa Kenpo practitioners.
The Key to Historical Connection
When observing modern styles of karate and taijiquan it’s easy to see that the two have more differences than similarities. However, when digging deeply into the past of both styles you’ll find they come closer and closer together both in terms of execution and historical interaction. Karate’s history is speckled with Chinese influence, getting more Chinese the further back you go. While karate has always been less internal focused than taijiquan and execution of the two arts has never been identical, they do have more shared focus and technical execution than most people realize.
The Key to Technical Connection
This all begs the question: is it impossible to cross-train modern styles of karate with modern styles of taijiquan?
No. In fact, I know a number of individuals who have really benefited from experiencing the drastic difference between the two. Going from extremely hard to extremely soft (or vice-versa) can generate serious aha! moments that improve the practitioner greatly. However, large hard-soft gaps can also create confusion in both body and mind and can potentially degrade a person’s overall ability to perform when it counts. It’s a similar problem to having 100 decent self defense techniques vs 10 great ones. The body/mind/spirit never get a chance to transcend in any one particular way.
Is it possible to cross-train modern hard and soft? Yes. Is it time intensive with potential problems? Yes.
By focusing on the older methods of taijiquan and karate, a practitioner can put themselves ahead of the game by working off of connections built by generations of practitioners who shared the same goals – to create a functional system that is capable of learning from new resources while not degrading the core foundation of the art. In fact, some arts considered this pursuit of Hard+Soft central to their methodology (think Goju Ryu).
Odo Seikichi, inheritor of Okinawa Kenpo from Nakamura Shigeru, was a brilliant proponent of this method of martial development.
You wouldn’t confuse Odo Sensei’s performance for taijiquan, but you wouldn’t mistake it for a tournament karate kata either. There is a patient, energetic cadence to his movements.
Sometimes my ideas on this subject can seem counter-intuitive. I believe cross-training is extremely valuable and necessary for martial growth, while at the same time I don’t believe the foundation of a classical art should be compromised. It sounds impossible or impractical on the surface, but once a practitioner studies a core art for long enough they understand what makes it tick and can use outside arts to unlock new perspectives on the same foundational material. That’s why beginning cross-training too soon can be dangerous, while never exploring new ideas can be equally dangerous.
It’s a delicate balance that requires the utmost thought and respect. The trick is to continuously keep ego out of the equation. Resist the urge to believe that studying two or three arts has let you transcend your original art, because that mindset often means you didn’t understand your core art to begin with.
We have a great question today from Nicholas regarding wellness and diet:
Most of us as martial artists practice arts that come from east Asian countries. For the sake of performance, do you think that our diet should mirror as closely as possible the diets from the region of our respective art? Obviously, eating Sheppard’s pie before a training session might not end so well, but do you think diets deemed ‘healthy’ by Western standards really lend themselves to maximum performance in a discipline that is not?
Here’s my take on it:
I’ve always believed that the wider the understanding of an art the better a practitioner can express it. There are subtle factors that go into the growth of a traditional art that are built on generations of ritual and cultural subtext. It may seem that learning an art (say karate for example) shouldn’t involve much more than punching, kicking, kata, and fighting. Yet the expressions found in those kata, and the methods of movement, have foundational cues that are informed by the rest of the surrounding culture.
In karate, you’ll often hear terms like “low block” and “augmented block” for fundamental movements. However, if you look at the Japanese term for low block it is “gedan barai”, which is better translated as “lower level sweep”. True, Gedan Barai could be a block but it could also be much more. Understanding the language in this instance hints at the bigger picture for a seemingly open-and-shut case of technique execution. “Augmented block” is even more interesting. The Okinawans had a term for it known as “meotode”, meaning “husband and wife hand”. Without getting far off topic, let’s just say that meotode as a concept has little to do with augmenting a block, and somewhere along the line the real context got lost in translation.
Diet fits into this puzzle in a similar way.
In his book “My Journey with the Grandmaster”, Bill Hayes Sensei discusses dinner at Shimabukuro Eizo’s house (his instructor on Okinawa). After an evening of training Shimabukuro Sensei and Hayes Sensei would occassionally retire to the kitchen where they were greeted by Mrs. Shimabukuro, who would ask them what kind of training they had done that day. Depending on the intensity, method, and duration of the training Mrs. Shimabukuro would concoct different meals. The intent of her meals was to directly counteract negative effects of the day’s training.
Most people don’t think of diet as a direct part of their training program. They realize that eating healthy is good and eating fast food is bad, but don’t go too far beyond that. In an art like karate the body can be intentionally (or unintentionally) degraded in certain ways using vital point striking, joint locking, percussive striking, etc. Some of the old Okinawan masters had developed an attuned eye for the effects of herbs and natural pharmacopia on the body. They then used natural resources at hand to help aid the body in withstanding the specific rigors of karate training.
As you might imagine, practitioners like Bill Hayes gained a significant advantage by paying attention to these seemingly mundane details.
Hayes Sensei did something else important – he investigated dietary science even after leaving Okinawa. When he got back to the United States it became evident that the day-to-day diet of the Okinawans was going to be extremely difficult and expensive to maintain. Instead of reverting back to a standard American diet (a trap many of the American GI’s fell into) Hayes Sensei decided to study how he might use supplements and healthly local foods to replicate the specific effects of the strategic Okinawan meals as prepared by Mrs. Shimabukuro. He attempted to find Western equivalents of things like the Okinawan Goya, which was an extremely bitter vegetable that happened to be jam packed with antioxidants.
In Hayes Sensei’s story we see both sides of the answer to this particular question.
Should practitioners adopt the diet of the home country of their art? Potentially yes. The diet may have been specifically suited to enhance the art in question. Furthermore, countries like Okinawa and Japan naturally have more foods that are known to be extremely healthy – things like fish, vegetables, green tea, etc.
That being said, Eastern diet isn’t a unique and unreplicatable necessity for understanding a traditional art and can be replaced but smart Western eating. Science is starting to unlock some of the secrets of nutrition and a healthy, balanced diet can be established using more Western means.
I think perhaps the most important takeaway here is lining up training intent with dietary action. Going to GNC and loading up on Muscle Milk and Creotine may help a person achieve a bulky, muscular body that appeals to Western eyes but such body development is hardly ideal for classical martial arts training where flexibility, fast twitch muscles, and balanced physique is desireable. Furthermore, a one-size-fits-all diet plan for general health (lots of veggies, water, low sugars, etc) is a good starting place for any martial artist but doesn’t take into consideration the specific kinds of damage the body may go through in a particular art. In that way, observing that art’s classical diet may prove informative.
Lastly, looking at global blue zones like Okinawa, Sardinia, Icaria, and Loma Linda can help provide a basis of understanding for good longevity. Studying these places can provide ideas for integrating dietary decisions from different parts of the world with indigenous diet to form a personalized and effective wellness regiment.
This is a continuation of the interview with Ronald Lindsey, Shihan. Lindsey Sensei is a senior in Matsumura Seito karate of the Hohan Soken lineage. Lindsey Sensei is a military veteran and author of Okinawa no Bushi No Te, a comprehensive examination of karate history and Matsumura Seito concepts. In Part 1 Lindsey Sensei discussed his early experiences on Okinawa, Hohan Soken’s students, Matsumura Seito history, and more. In Part 2 Lindsey Sensei continues discussing his experiences with seniors like Kuda Yuichi and Odo Seikichi, and what it was like bringing karate back to the United States.
In this video Lindsey Sensei demonstrates a series of Matsumura Seito fighting concepts:
Q: You’ve seen Matsumura Seito spread out over the course of a generation. What do you think of the developments and changes or lack thereof?
What you have to understand is that Okinawan teachers and culture did not have a longing need to preserve a style 100% as it was. Instead they follow a principle known as suhari.
Suhari (su-ha-ri)….su means that the first time period (5 years, 10 years, time varies with the individual) you emulate your teacher and try to make everything exactly like him or her. Then the “ha” is another time period. During this time it is natural for you to make some changes according to what you need and can do as long as it doesn’t violate the principles of the ryu. The “ri” is when everything becomes automatic and it just “boom” happens. Really Suhari is the natural way of doing things.
This used to really bother me. I knew my kata were drifting from what I learned in Okinawa, which was natural since I was built different than an Okinawan. Over a period of time my kata became my kata although I try to keep them like Soken Sensei did, especially in principle the kata will change some what. Anybody who says they are doing Hohan Soken’s kata are not really telling the truth. They think they are, but kata drift according to what their body can do the best. This is not to mention the age factor which also alters the kata. When Hohan Soken died, his style died. The principles and how they can be applied are still alive, but my kata became uniquely mine and so it is with all karateka.
Q: How did you come to meet Yuichi Kuda Sensei and did you train extensively with him?
I knew him in Okinawa and trained with him; but, I really started studying under him when I got directly involved with his organization (we were all Matsumura Seito). Kuda SEnsei blended Okinawa Kenpo with Shorin Ryu Matsumura Seito to found Shorin Ryu Matsumura Kenpo. I actually switched from Fusei Kise’s kata to Yuichi Kuda’s kata one afternoon; my senior student Charles Tatum and I switched once we saw how Kuda was teaching and performing his kata.
Fusei Kise is a brilliant tactician and his fighting techniques are very good. Kata-wise he does a bit of blending, and shortcuts, and his own “thing”. On the other hand Kuda Sensei was very precise and his teachings were very precise. He was not as flamboyant and flashy, but nevertheless he had really good fighting techniques too. Kuda Sensei was a bigger physical person than Sensei Kise which suited me well since I am also a big person.
It’s important to note that although there were differences between their methods, at a high level they were executing very similar concepts. When you hear these heated arguments about small details, this teacher did it such and such a way vs. the way of another teacher, it really misses the point of what the teachers were doing. They are merely executing Suhari.
One thing I think a lot of people are missing in their training is the experience of seeing the old masters train on their own. When teachers like Kuda Sensei and Kise Sensei trained on their own it was different then when they taught classes. They would ad lib and add different timings, alter techniques and other similar principles.
In the old days kata was a live thing, not meant to be set in concrete. It was a set of principles that could be tweaked and used to explore and teach and learn. In addition, using the concepts of the kata the teacher would optimize it to each individual. He would walk behind and around you and make mental drawings of your procedures and how you stand, etc. and how it could be optimized to you. Their methods would make you stronger just by correcting your kata.
Q: When you returned to the United States did you begin developing a school and association right away? If so, what were some difficulties you experienced at the time?
I noticed in the United States that there was a lot of focus on getting quick promotion. There was a big mindset (and still is) of wanting to get a one up on someone else. The problem with a lot of organizations is that they are not really organizations, they are cults. I did not do that.
We had a quality standard and I wanted people to meet that standard. Rank has a tendency to devalue over time and become worthless if there are no high standards being met. I tended to bring Okinawan Sensei over and we held a large camp to spread the cost and make it affordable for everyone involved. Not too many other people wanted to do that because they wanted extended personal time with the sensei instead of sharing that time. There was a lot of ego involved with spending time with the sensei. All of these ego trips made it difficult to teach traditional karate.
Q: Who were some of the other big players in the United States when you started your organization? Was this at the same time as men like Robert Trias and Ed Parker?
I did not know the people you mentioned. At first I only taught just a few people; I never got involved in sport karate. I did my organizational work in the late 1970’s through the mid 1980’s. My sole purpose was for education, which is why I started a newsletter at the same time based on what I learned on Okinawa (history, technique, and kata). I believe this predated a lot of the important works done by men like George Alexander and John Sells.
We did not advertise a whole lot. We tried to select people and ask if they wanted to get involved and train with us. Although all of us in the organization did Matsumura Seito, we still invited other people because they could walk away with useful principles to add to their art.
Q: When did you meet and train with Odo Seikichi Sensei? Could you talk a bit about your experiences with him and what you were able to learn from him?
I met him when I was on Okinawa and trained with him for a while there. I got to the point where I was ready to test for Sho Dan in Nago (the location of Nakamura Shigeru’s dojo), but I was already a black belt so I couldn’t see the point in getting another one.
When I trained with Odo Sensei I wasn’t so concerned about emulating his physical technique specifically, but I liked his mental attitude and the way he treated his students. He would encourage you and would always be in good spirits. He said things like “don’t try TOO hard”, or “take it easy”. One thing he really liked to say was “kill him a little bit”, and that meant to slow down, learn the technique right, and focus on quality over raw speed or power. He was a true gentleman.
Q: Odo Sensei knew Kuda and Kise and the others as a result of the Okinawa Kenpo Renmei. Is that how you came to know him?
No, I met Sensei Odo through a Military Police Sergeant name Fisher (who actually was an Okinawan named Higa whose step father was an American serviceman).
Kise, Kuda, Odo and others were all friends and contemporaries and at the same time they were rivals of one another. Of course at different times they were also all enemies depending on who was trying to woo students to make more money. If you got any one of them to yourself they would go ahead and express doubt/concern about the other guys, but then when they would get together they were the best of friends. It’s important to remember that the Okinawans were people, no different than anybody else. People want to better themselves financially and in terms of status. It’s important not to fault them too hard or hold them up too high. This attitude was more prevalent in Okinawa than some people would like to admit, and wasn’t unique to my teachers.
Q: How did training on Okinawa when you were there differ from what individuals might experience nowadays?
One very key difference is the military factor. If you were in the Army, Marine Corps and Navy in Okinawa you had to take, twice a year, a combat proficiency test. You trained continuously to get ready for that test which was of course getting ready for the act of combat. We started our work day way before dawn. We conducted the army ‘daily dozen’ and then finished that with a 4 mile run. After that we went to work for the US Military; at the end of our military work day, we repeated the Army Daily Dozen and the four mile run. Then we went to karate training for a number of hours. We did this five to six days a week. If you were in the Marine Recon you did a 20 mile run every day.
Going over to train in Okinawa now is less strenuous. Today visiting students don’t get up before dawn and undergo vigorous work outs before day light. Their training is different from what we did some 40 to 50 years ago. We lived a Spartan lifestyle.
Okinawan GIs (American Service men during the 1950’s, 1960’s and early 1970’s) were on the island at a special time. There were masters on the island who trained directly with older masters who were, in fact, Samurai (Shizoku). What was learned by them and initially passed down to us was the old art. That time is now gone. According to men like Kuda Yuichi and Nakaza Seiei there is more old karate now in the United States then there is in Okinawa, tucked away with the Okinawan GIs. Okinawa Sensei are now much more focused on business and sport karate. There are just a few teaching old karate and you’d be hard pressed to find them.
Q: In a lot of modern dojo we often hear the term “oss” or “osu” used. Did you detect a lot of that on Okinawa?
We never heard it on Okinawa. It was not said on Okinawa when I was there. I asked Kuda Sensei about it one time because we had a number of Shito Ryu people at one of our camps and they were doing a lot of oss-ing. Kuda Sensei said it was ok if they wanted to do it and that it just meant “hi”. I also asked Shimabukuro Zenpo, Tomoyose Ryuko, and several others all of whom said that it was not a term the Okinawan masters used.
Q: You recently released a book called “Okinawa no Bushi no Te”. Could you tell us a little bit about this work and what readers might gain from it?
The book started to be written shortly after I got back from Okinawa in 1970. I started gathering historic material while I was in Okinawa because I wanted to learn the history. I am somewhat of an amateur military historian. In my civilian job I was in the agricultural extension service, which meant I wrote thousands of newsletters and newspaper articles and pamphlets. I have written a lot of stuff over the years. Previously I had written a karate magazine for a while called “Maishin Shorinji” which was all educational. I tried to steer clear of politics and saying bad stuff about anybody because there is nothing to be gained by doing this. I tried to focus on history. Of course, there will be people who will disagree with my history and findings, and that’s totally fine. The thing about Okinawan history is that it greatly depends on who you get it from, depending on how they slant that history, and what they want you to know. All you can do is present the facts as best you can.
So I had all this material, boxes and boxes, some of it was no more than slips of paper or research notes. I got it all out and sorted into subject matter piles and reduced it down and organized it. Then I took that information and created something coherent. The book itself is divided into two main parts: first is history. I go into who the Bushi class were that developed karate and kobujutsu. Then I discuss the warriors themselves, including Matsumura Sokon and his lineage down to Hohan Soken.
The second half of the book is called “My Walk with Matsumura”. This involves more of my own personal history on Okinawa and in Matsumura Seito. I broke this second section down into four major strategies that in my opinion are essential to the learning of any martial art. These are:
* Kokoro no heiho – proper mental attitude and spirit.
* Minari no heiho – strategy of appearance. This is about what the kata is trying to teach us.
* Maai no heiho – strategy of combat distance.
* Chushin no heiho - strategy of the center.
I include a lot of little stories about warfare and how these strategies have been used and how they relate to kata and martial arts.
I never like to get too bogged down when I’m writing. I kept the book simple and wrote it to be what it is: an old man telling stories in a way that you can read and understand and retain. It is user friendly.
Q: Where can people go to get this book?
Generally I will autograph the book and write a little something in there. I try to get the book out the day after I receive an order.
Q: What could you tell the next generation of karateka to help them preserve the essence of Okinawan karate and kobudo as you have come to understand it?
In terms of passing the arts to the next generation…there are a lot of people who studied in Okinawa but have not contributed much after they left the island. They have not produced high quality students, or they have taken long extended breaks in training and then come back and want you to treat them with respect. Hell…they have moved back toward a beginner, not forward! Maintaining training and contributing to the next generation is key to becoming a true karate senior.
In terms of advice, I would have to say this – you cannot learn every kata invented, so don’t try. Find a school and learn the core curriculum. Knowing 25-30 kata does not mean you know 25-30 times more than a person who knows less kata. We (including myself) have made the mistake of trying to learn too many kata. Learn a few kata well instead of many halfway. Be stubborn and do not quit.
Thank you very much Lindsey Sensei for your great insights and stories!