This is a story. Once upon a time there was a karate student. The student trained hard and ultimately passed his Shodan black belt examination. Upon returning home from the dojo he threw a large party and invited all his friends, family, and neighbors.
Some years later the same student passed his Nidan black belt examination. Upon returning home from the dojo he hugged his family, called a few close friends, and had a drink in celebration.
Years after that the student passed his Sandan black belt examination. Upon leaving the dojo he quietly slipped his belt and certificates into his bag and walked home, making no effort to draw attention to himself.
Here’s another story. William Dometrich was the first non-asian student to study under the renowned karate expert Tsuyoshi Chitose of the Chito-Ryu. Dometrich Sensei flourished as a karateka and after his tour of military duty was over he returned to America as a Sandan. While Dometrich Sensei was trying to establish the first United States Chito-Ryu Karate Federation, Chitose Sensei sent him his Yondan rank, which Dometrich Sensei reluctantly accepted with great humility and gratitude.
After a few more years of teaching and building his federation, Dometrich Sensei received word from Chitose Sensei that he was to be promoted to Godan. A week later his certificates arrived in the mail. So aghast by this and overcome by his feelings of inadequacy for such a rank, Dometrich Sensei attempted to hide the certificates in his sock drawer. If it weren’t for the subtle unveiling of the rank by his wife Barbara a few months later, no one would have known about the promotion.
The Difference Between Sharing and Gloating
At one point or another we’ve all felt that rush of enthusiasm regarding martial arts. We want to talk people’s heads off, show them crazy new techniques, and discuss the intricacies of what makes our art so great. This is completely normal and is actually a good sign that martial arts are becoming a valued part of daily life.
As time goes by, this enthusiasm can transform into two different things – quiet determination or loud ego stroking.
In the first story above, the karateka initially wishes to share his success and hard work with everyone around him (which is only natural). As his training continues, he begins to learn about the core concepts that make martial arts what they are – humility, dignity, justice, courage. He starts to realize that flamboyant displays stand in stark contrast with these qualities. Furthermore, he becomes better acquainted with the higher ranking members of his school and federation, which in turn shows him how far he has to go. Ultimately, the black belt runs into the stark realization that he is not a master, and that if he wants to excel, he needs to quiet down and get to work.
On the other hand – martial arts rank and achievement can give practitioners a taste of success and power that feels so good they wish to reproduce it whenever possible. This kind of person finds excuses to talk about their success. They wear karate t-shirts, talk about fighting or ufc or some such, and quietly hope they can find a way to turn any conversation toward something they’ve accomplished.
Keep it Low Key For Self Defense Purposes
Martial arts arrogance isn’t just annoying – it can actually be dangerous! One of the primary goals of martial arts is to improve your ability to defend yourself, and part of that is the art of deception and posturing. Body language is a huge part of social interaction, and one of the key principles for self defense is not appearing like a victim. To do that, you have to exude a sense of confidence and self assuredness. But, if you go too far and start appearing arrogant and puffy chested, you’ll be just as certain to attract problems.
Troublemakers of the world are looking for two kinds of people – weaklings they can harass, and people they can hammer down because ‘they think they’re so great’. By being very conscious of your demeanor you can avoid both of these stigmas.
Keep it Low Key For Dignity Purposes
There is one thing I’ve come to learn – real martial artists can size each other up within minutes. Body language, movement, eye contact, demeanor, conversation topics…it’s all so subtle and yet so telling. Think of it this way – when you first started learning how to spar, you probably used big movements and techniques right? But, as you progress, you learn how to control center line and conserve motion, thus allowing you to counter attack with speed and fluidity. Character is the same way.
People who’s personalities seem to entail large strokes are like the white belt beginners and are generally mildly tolerated by martial artists who have learned better. The Japanese as a culture (and in the business realm) are famous for this kind of subtlety and it is just as important within martial arts. An expert martial artist will let you reveal your flaws to him, just as if you were over extending a punch.
Literally – Don’t Wear Martial Arts on Your Sleeve
Analysis and philosophy aside, you shouldn’t wear obnoxious martial arts attire because it can make you look stupid.
Seriously – this stuff is lame sauce. If you’re promoting something like Livestrong that has a purpose, then I understand. But no one cares about your MMA or black belt status. The best possible scenario here is if someone punches you in the face and says “why didn’t you block it mr. black belt?”
There is a Time and a Place
Blogging…teaching at the dojo…a dinner with fellow students…these are all healthy ways to get martial arts energies out. They are appropriate because you aren’t forcing yourself on anyone – it’s understood that martial arts will be discussed. Even still, in those situations we have to be careful how much we talk about ourselves and not the art itself. It’s a fine line. If you aren’t sure if you’re an offender, just take note of other people that clearly cross the line and make sure you aren’t doing the same thing. In the long run, you’ll find martial arts conversation much more meaningful when nothing is forced or based on bravado.
Read More / Comment
The bo is one of the most used (and abused) weapons in Okinawan kobudo. It’s an immensely useful weapon with practicality both in the realm of martial arts training and real world self defense. But, when you come right down to it, the bo is just a stick. What’s to talk about?
A bo should be straight (relatively), hard, long…that’s pretty much all there is to say about this ancient device. But behind that essence of simplicity lays a whole culture built around the tiniest minutiae that makes this “stick” a deadly weapon. Today I’d like to talk about just one of the pieces of that puzzle: methods of holding.
What’s In a Name
First a quick note: the term “bo” is short for rokushaku bo (in most instances). Roku means six, and shaku is a unit of measurement somewhere around a foot. So rokushaku means ‘six foot’ bo. There are other lengths and variations including the shorter jo, but normally when you hear someone talking about bo it’s the six foot variety. Please don’t call it a bo staff. That’s some weird name we westerners came up with and it doesn’t really make sense. It’s like saying staff staff, but just switching languages. If you wanna hang with the cool kobudo kids, learn the long name.
The Two Main Methods
Ok, on to the main event. When it comes to holding the bo, there are two main methods. The first is what you see most frequently, and it entails holding the bo in thirds. Like this:
This style is strong because it allows for quick use of both sides of the weapon in rapid succession and rhythym. Unfortunately, using the bo in thirds suffers from a deficiency in length. While you happen to have a six foot weapon, you are only really expanding your reach by about two feet, if that. Also, the power of each strike is lessened by the lack momentum you could generate by swinging the weapon fully.
The next style of handling entails using the full length of the bo whenever possible. Like so:
This method capitalizes on the full reach of the weapon. It also benefits from a large momentum build as the force of the weapon expands with the arc of the swing. But, conversely, it is slower in rapid strikes than its counterpart and offers the opponent less confusion as to which end of the bo could be readily used before a hand change.
So, which way is better? Which way is the best?
If you’ve been reading my blog for awhile, you know I’m not going to give you a straight answer. So here we go:
Welcome Back to My Two Friends – Distancing and Timing
Although stylistically most systems focus on one method of holding over the other, they are both applicable depending on distancing, timing, and weapons involved.
Let’s take a look at how distancing plays its part:
Here we have two brave kobudo practitioners. On the left is an individual utilizing the full-length method, and on the right is thirds. When distancing is taken into consideration, the thirds approach is at a distinct disadvantage. Not only is the front wrist extremely vulnerable, but the blue fighter is also susceptible to very quick thrusting attacks (which puts him on the immediate defensive). As you can tell by the circles, the black fighter leaves none of his bo behind, while the blue fighter has a lot of wood still behind him.
When timing gets involved, the scenario can change. Say the blue fighter predicted the intentions of the black fighter (who wants to throw an overhead strike). The blue fighter proceeds to preempt the attack like so:
By cutting inside quickly, the blue fighter evades the long, dangerous end of the black fighter’s bo. Now that he is on the inside, he has two ends of his weapon ready and able to strike. Although those strikes might not be as devastating as the initial long overhead, they can do plenty of damage in a short amount of time.
Besides the two big issues of distancing and timing, another factor to consider is weaponry involved in the conflict. For self defense purposes, acquiring a stick of any length is helpful, but you can never be sure what your opponent will have. For example, historically, a bo practitioner would probably have to worry about swords. In that case, it would probably be wiser to use a full length grip so as to evade the brutal cutting edge of the blade. But if for some reason the kobudoka stumbles across someone using two shorter weapons, he might need the quickness of both ends of his staff.
In addition to unknown weapons is unpredictable environment. If a conflict is one-on-one outside in a field, then there needn’t be any concern for space. But if for some reason trouble starts indoors or in a crowd, one would need to consider those factors as well.
Variety is the Spice of Bo Work
Although we discussed the two main hand positions for bo, we didn’t take into account the different kamae, or postures, one can assume. Here are just a few examples:
What are the strengths of these positions? The weaknesses? Play around with them and I think you’ll find some great results (and enjoy the journey!)
* * *
Are you on facebook? Meet me there! Click here to join the Ikigai page.
Read More / Comment
My style, Okinawa Kenpo, has a hefty amount of kata. The late Seikichi Odo Sensei was a renowned collector of forms and worked hard to preserve much of Okinawa’s fighting culture. On top of that, he combined Shigeru Nakamura’s karate with a kobudo program collected from some of the great weapon practitioners on the island. All in all, there are 21 open hand kata and 30 weapon kata. 51. yikes.
The big, gaping, obvious problem with soo many kata is actually twofold:
1. Learning the kata and keeping them in your brain
2. Learning them with any amount of depth and significance
It’s all too easy in traditional, kata-oriented styles to create a mental kata checklist. In order to progress in rank or status, one could easily get swept up in squirreling away kata just for the sake of having them. Instead of focusing on the true intent of the form, it becomes: “Yep, know that one. Yep, know that one. Ohhh – I need this one for my next rank”, and so on.
A compounded problem on top of kata-gathering is never learning anything more than base-level bunkai (or no bunkai at all). Deep, introspective analysis of each kata takes years of focus on what the form is doing and how it can work for each of our specific body types (and against various body types). We then need to take those concepts and apply them in our two-man drills and sparring.
The obvious solution to these problems is simply to learn less kata, right? Not so fast. We have a giri to our instructors to pass on the knowledge they passed to us. In the specific case of Okinawa Kenpo, it would be an affront to Seikichi Odo and Shigeru Nakamura to pick and choose which of their kata we want to keep. So, how can we reconcile learning a large number of kata with learning them well?
The answer is simple to state but difficult to pull off – increase our ability to learn.
It is possible to learn better. Some people think that since kata doesn’t stick well with them that it will never stick well. That’s not true, and over the years I’ve noticed certain practices and methods that have helped me and others learn forms more effectively. The following are some steps you can try in order to increase both the speed and depth of your kata absorption (nothing here is prescriptive – just some ideas I’ve stumbled upon while teaching and learning).
Assess Your Innate Abilities
Before anything can be done, you have to accurately assess your own situation. There are internal factors involved in learning kata that a lot of people don’t realize. For example:
* What is your average level of stress? Higher stress levels can cause you to focus on your stressors instead of what is being taught. Some people have the ability to leave their day-to-day life at the dojo door. That helps them focus on the here and now. Some people have a harder time with that.
* What is your age? With age comes maturity, but also a higher degree of difficulty for memorization. Younger children have a natural ability to internalize what they see, which is why preteens and teens can sometimes pick up kata faster than mature adults. On the other hand, adults have the bonus of being able to focus themselves through self discipline.
* Has memorization been a strength or weakness for you? Different people have different levels of recall. Some people can sponge up what they see, while others feel like they have to chisel new information through a mental brick wall.
* Are you a visual or explanatory learner? When trying to learn something, do you pick up more by simply stepping back and watching, or by interacting with the instructor and discussing the details? Most people benefit from both but tend to favor one over the other.
Once you have an accurate self assessment, you can set realistic goals and decide how much effort you’ll need to put into each kata you want to learn.
Keep It Simple, Take it Slow
The first tip here is a basic one – keep things simple. Kata are filled with intricacies and subtle movements, but if you try to focus on those too early you’ll hamper your ability to see the big picture. It’s natural to want to put the same amount of power and focus into your techniques that you see the advanced students use, but that tends to be counter-productive. Instead, take it really slow and analyze what you’re doing. Make sure your basics are in good working order because that is the most important building block to any good kata.
One reason why so many instructors harp on kihon (basics) is that you can free your mind from it during kata practice. The more you have to ask yourself about stances, the more you’ll distract yourself from the basic kata performance. Take things slow, be mindful of the techniques, and relax.
Find The Patterns
Most kata are pattern oriented; It’s your job to find that pattern and create mental cliffsnotes for yourself. One of the biggest mental hurdles to overcome when performing a new kata is that timeless self question: “ohh crap, what’s next?”
One great way to keep things straight is to give yourself directional help.
For example, in kata Ananku in Okinawa Kenpo, you go straight, left, right, back, straight.
Ok, not too hard. Next is 45-degree left, 45-degree right, straight, and back.
To finish, go 45-degree right, 45-degree left.
At first glance that might seem a little tricky, but if you spent 5 minutes reading and re-reading what I just wrote, you’d have it. With that in your pocket, you would have created a mental scaffold upon which to put your techniques. And just like with mnemonic devices, a little trigger can go a long way.
Are you Piecemeal or Whole Thing?
There are two main ways kata can be taught – all at once, or piece by piece. Generally, when people experience both of these styles, they gravitate towards one or the other. Some people like to repeat the beginning of a kata over and over again until they have it cold, then move on to the next section. Others like to do the whole kata, letting pieces slide into their consciousness. Think of it this way:
With the stacking toy on the left, each ring must be inserted in order. The focus must be on the largest ring first, then the next largest, and so on until the toy is complete. The jigsaw, on the other hand, can be put together erratically. The puzzle builder doesn’t really know how it will come together, but he does know his end goal is to get all the pieces in place.
To learn kata more effectively, you have to figure out through trial-and-error which method appeals to your brain.
There always seems to be certain pieces of kata that trip us up. It’s not necessarily the same part for everyone, but we all fall victim to this phenomenon from time to time. A great way to overcome these brain fades is to ask questions about the particular series causing trouble. Ask either about the performance of the move itself, or what that move might mean. This is doubly beneficial because you are getting an early peek at bunkai while at the same time connecting the technique in your mind to a specific explanation. The next time that particular series in the kata roles around, you’ll have a very specific memory to attach to it.
Another reason to ask questions is that it will elicit further explanation and demonstration from the instructor. By being able to watch your troublesome portion again and again, you can better burn it into your mind. Furthermore, when doing the kata together, your instructor will likely watch you more intently during your rough patch, making corrections that he might have otherwise overlooked.
I think this is the most important but also the least popular piece of advise: utilize repetition. Repetition can be boring, tedious, fatiguing, and generally blah, but there is no better tool for committing kata to memory. If you do one kata for two-three hours using some of the principles I’ve described above, you could potentially walk home with a new kata in hand.
During your repetitious training, don’t forget to give yourself breaks. It can be a physical break (going and grabbing water), or mental break (training other kata that you already have). These breaks will allow your mind to reset and rest. There is such a thing as over-practice, even for kata, so pacing is important.
In The Dojo, In the Dojo, At Home
A lot of times people have two different mental realms – inside the dojo and outside. Once you leave the dojo, you’ll be very tempted to start thinking about other real-wordly things like work, kids, school, etc. That’s why there is one important thing to remember – after you’ve done your repetition in the dojo, don’t forget to try the kata once at home before you go to bed. Your brain has done a hard reset from dojo exercise, and the true test of internalization is if the kata is still in there.
If you’re feeling energetic, try your kata the next morning after sleep has taken your mind even further away from training.
Ultimately, once you study kata for long enough and if you take the time to delve deep into bunkai and application, you’ll start to understand the root concepts that make kata what they are. Once you sink that deep, you’ll be able to rely on that knowledge to augment the learning of any new kata you encounter. So, in that sense, learning kata actually gets easier as you go. Stick with it, and do your best!
* * *
Are you on facebook? Meet me there! Click here to join the Ikigai page.
Read More / Comment