GUEST AUTHOR: Syed Asad Hussain has trained in Shotokan for one year and has also become a Goju Ryu student. Syed’s dojo website is karatestcatharines.com and his Sensei is Bob Toth.
Karate, literally meaning open hand, is one of the most popular martial arts in the world. Developed in the Ryukyu kingdom prior to the Japanese invasion of the 19th century, Karate has its origins in India through Bodhidharma who was a Buddhist saint that brought Martial Arts to China. Although Karate has many styles and different philosophies, they all teach the same thing: self-expression, confidence, courage to stand up for yourself, and the most important of all how to become a better person.
The most important thing I have learned through Karate is how to take everything in academically and to open myself to new ideas and not limit myself. As Bruce Lee said, “to have no limit as limit”. My Sensei has taught this to me and this is one lesson I will keep with me always. I have also learned that cross training is very important and that each Martial Artist should know what to expect from a different style. I will remember one thing my Sensei said to me when I was training, it’s not just about punching and kicking. How true this statement was. Learning to control yourself while learning this violent thing, finding the harmony between the inner peace and the violent being we all have inside us, to be able to express ourselves and feel like we belong to something much bigger and greater than ourselves. There is a point in your training when you realize that this thing has grown beyond physical and is trying to reach for the spiritual plane and that is where your true training begins. You start following these warrior ethics and codes you never knew existed and you become an artist of life, as quoted by Dr. Richard Kim, master of Goju Ryu.
I hope each Martial Artist shares this dream with me, to become as strong as you can both physically and mentally and being able to control ourselves in the toughest of situations and be role models for society.
GUEST AUTHOR: David Light is a third dan in Shotokan karate and a member of the International Shotokan Karate Federation (www.iskf.com) and is the instructor at the Two Rivers Shotokan Karate Club in Glenwood Springs, Co. (www.trskc.com). David trains under Sensei Yutaka Yaguchi in Denver, Co. and is a member of the ISKF instructor Trainee Institute.
The student/ teacher relationship in a dojo, or what ever your style calls the training hall, is not the same as a typical classroom. The differences between eastern and western cultures are clearest for those who train martial arts when we learn about dojo etiquette. As I watched my students take a grading exam I was anxious not only for them but for myself as their teacher. Have I prepared them properly? Will they be able to do what the examiner asks if the drills are not ones I have used in class? Do they have the confidence to go on with intensity if they make a mistake? All this questioning made me think about not only my abilities as a teacher but also the differences I would have with my Japanese counterparts.
I tell new students that once in the dojo, they are in Japan. The rules of etiquette are very clear for beginners. No talking, No questions until I ask for questions, do what I say and nothing else until commanded. Commanded is the proper word, for a martial arts instructor must be in command of the class. What we do is potentially lethal and the training atmosphere must be focused and safe. As we progress and training gets more advanced, the rules are pretty much the same with a little more wiggle room for higher ranks. Now this may be a result of some westernization here in the U.S. Western education encourages questioning as a way to develop critical thinking, especially with young adults and older. One Japanese instructor once told the story about coming to the U.S. to teach at a University and was so frustrated with student’s questions, the first phrase he learned in English was, “Shut up and do it!” He has since adapted to western method of education without sacrificing true dojo spirit.
Karate is strongly influenced by Zen Buddhism. Self discovery is the core of Zen learning. Students in a traditional Japanese dojo in the past would not be told that their rising block is too low; they would instead get a whack on the head with a shinai and find out for themselves what was wrong with the technique. Zen style training taught by the first Japanese instructors in the U.S. didn’t go over very well and dojos didn’t grow beyond the few who were willing to subject themselves to this type of training. Repetitive kata training exposes the idea of self discovery. As you train your favorite kata over a period of years, your teacher may correct technique without much explanation. The kata will reveal itself to you as you continue on with practice. My first Sensei spoke of “little epiphanies” in training as one progressed. Now we get some explanation of the whys and wherefores of waza (technique). Constant repetition and self discovery are still necessary to fully understand your art and to the attainment mushin. Just knowing theory will not enable you to react without thinking. Robin Rielly, 8th dan ISKF, states in his book, ” The Secrets of Shotokan Karate”, …todays training is not better or worse, just different.
Giving too much verbal explanation is something with which I struggle. I didn’t start karate training until I was 40 years old and was perfectly willing to accept the discipline of the dojo. But as an instructor I found myself explaining too much about a technique, especially to kids. They “zone out” and lose concentration, which is hard enough to maintain. At times I still fall into that pattern but have become more conscious of my ramblings. As class size grows it becomes more necessary to keep the energy level up and not have students suffer for lack doing.
Self discovery puts more responsibility on the students for their growth in their art. I have discussions with martial arts students who complain about not receiving good “real world” application of what they are learning. Is it the teacher who isn’t giving them a way to figure this out or is the student expecting too much verbal explanation? A student must use his/her mind as well as body when training. In the dojo we do repetition to make good technique without thought. We build muscle memory, groove the nuero-muscular pathways, and become accurate and controlled. Often bunkai is demonstrated so we know why we do these things. Now we come back to my concerns about being a good teacher and serving my students well. Can I show them the waza, call out drills, and try to correct any errors or bad technique? I can’t do it for them. When I train and don’t put my best effort into it unless my Sensei is watching, I’m the one who is cheated, not the teacher. Training should be a daily endeavor that increases in importance as we progress. Self training is a good time to focus on the questions of why; what’s the point of this technique; why does Sensei tell us to do it this way. Try the waza out with a training partner, work with a senpai before or after class. As an instructor, I can give you the tools, you must use them.
There is a concept in zen related arts; shu, ha, ri. Shu is obedience, to the tradition. At this stage we follow exactly what is taught. Ha is divergence, from the tradition. Now we begin to make the waza our own, we adapt it to better fit our own body. Ri is transcendence, beyond the tradition. At very high rank, we go beyond waza to the spirit and philosophy. Without self discovery Shu, ha, ri is not possible. In the training hall we are faithful to our Sensei’s teaching and make the necessary effort to find out for ourselves what the teaching really means, not just in general but for ourselves. When a student can make that art their own, spiritual growth continues beyond the physical.
As students we get out there and sweat. We must also engage our brains. Do the waza over and over and feel what works and be alert enough to recognize when those little epiphanies come. As teachers we must give our students the tools to make good technique and let them make it their own. Sometimes we find a little explanation goes a long way and we more often need to shut up and do it.
Of the many formalities that come along with traditional martial arts, shouting kata names has to be one of the most noticeable.
The actual execution of the kata announcement varies wildly, from calm utterances to screams that cause nearby glass to shatter. Interestingly, the act of yelling a kata name is extremely old and almost universally practiced among traditionalists.
Lately I’ve been doing it less and less. I’d like to share some thoughts on when I think it’s appropriate, and when you might be able to forego it.
When To Shout It Out
There are a few realities in modern training that make kata announcement necessary. The first, and most obvious, is tournament play.
Judges can’t possibly know what form competitors will be attempting, so it’s prudent to give them a heads up. Of course, judges of different styles many never have heard of the form anyway, and even if they have their style might perform it differently. Nevertheless, it seems like fair courtesy to inform them.
But if you walk up to the judges and tell them the name of the kata, do you need to yell it again right before you start? By informing them of your name/style/kata, didn’t you negate the need for the big name-scream-dramatics?
I’ve always found the polite, informative introduction to be more prudent.
Another time kata yelling seems appropriate is in a big group setting. A teacher has to keep all pupils on the same page. When a student is first learning a kata, it is quite helpful to repeat the name in context over and over again. This repetition helps learn proper pronunciation as well as mental association of the name with the movements.
When I’m teaching, I’ll generally announce the kata and wait a moment for the students to repeat. We’ll all then begin together.
Declaring the kata name puts everyone’s focus on the kata. I can use the tone of my voice to indicate what level of intensity students should be expending. If I say the kata softly and calmly, they can infer that our intent is to go slowly and discuss things. If I say the kata forcefully, they will know that a high level of power is expected.
By saying the name of the kata, I can also transition from one form to the next without an extended explanation. In a dojo environment where there are multiple students, this seems like a reasonable practice.
Foregoing the Shout
When I train alone or via the older Okinawan methods of ‘independent togetherness’ I rarely announce kata because the intent and focus is much different.
When training a kata for depth, a severe amount of visualization must occur. The mind becomes like a taut string. Intensity has to be carefully balanced with control and purpose. This mixture of emotional content and physical expression is directed at the imaginary yet vivid opponent in front of you.
Shouting the name of kata in that environment is awkward and rips you from the moment, reminding you that you are practicing a form. If there were an opponent in front of you, you certainly would not begin your life protection by yelling kata at him/her.
You might argue that yelling the kata gets you amped up or puts you in the right frame of mind for combat, but I don’t think that is a good habit to rely upon. “Flipping the switch” into a mental state of readiness should occur quickly and silently; a subtle shift that causes the hair on the back of your opponent’s neck to stand on end.
There is also a bit of ego and showmanship that can slip in with kata yelling. It’s a moment that can be used to draw attention to oneself, even in a group setting. Therefore a student may become obsessed with yelling louder than anyone else. During individual performance, they could be worried about how tough and intimidating they want their shout to sound.
It’s all distracting, peripheral stuff that doesn’t relate to good performance of kata.
How to Shout
To me, the best kata announcement is serious but not obnoxious. Whenever I have someone screaming kata at me it makes me doubt their focus. Screaming is a result of uncontrolled anger and intensity. These aren’t the makings of a skilled martial artist.
On the other hand, meekness or lackadaisical tone gives me a clue that the practitioner is not yet in the right state of mind. What are they waiting for? I feel like the focus should be activated well before the kata name is spoken.
You won’t catch me lecturing people away from saying kata names before performance if they want to do it. In fact, I do it myself in certain situations. But at times it feels like it goes against the true nature and culture of Okinawan karate (my personal background). As such, I’ll be voicing my kata less and less….