Kata programming can be a double edged sword. On one hand, kata shows us techniques that we would otherwise be unable to perform. Furthermore, kata (much like an onion) contains layers of discovery that are vital to improving in traditional martial arts.
On the other hand, it is extraordinarily difficult to unlock those deeper layers, and very easy to get caught in the routine of base level kata. Ultimately, staying stuck in base level for too long can produce negative effects and even counter-intuitive habits.
Base Level Kata…1,2,3!
Base level kata is what we do when we are first learning a kata. Sensei will stand in front of class and carefully break down every technique for the students to see. This is often accompanied by a calling out of movement or number. For example:
“Step in, block left. Punch right. Punch left.”
“1. 2. 3.”
All in all, it ends up looking something like this (and please enjoy my stunning artwork):
All the students in class dutifully follow along, checking every minute tidbit of their stance and technique. This is a fantastic training tool. The students are learning how to properly form a punch (be it corkscrewing, vertical Isshin style, or any other), checking their knees for proper bend, and making sure they aren’t off-balance. The more advanced students can toy with koshi, hip movement, to employ more power into their technique.
Years of training in this fashion can produce very solid kihon, or basics…and as most instructors (including myself) will harp – KIHON is KEY to GOOD KARATE!
But, as years progress, it gets easier and easier to slip into an unexpected malaise; in other words, you quietly slip into “a box.” Once inside that box, it’s very difficult to see outside it, and takes a great mental and physical leap to adjust habits that are so tightly ingrained. That is why it is up to each us to eventually stare into that great void of kata exploration.
One concept that can help shine a little light on those cavernous expanses of kata is condensed timing.
Recall the picture I showed you earlier – the kata dictated block, punch, punch. 1,2,3. Why should we wait so long to act? If our opponent is throwing a punch toward our chest, must we block it before counterattacking? Of course not. That sounds silly when considering a live, highly agitated opponent. So why do we allow our kata to stay slow?
Instead, the block and initial strike should be done simultaneously. Blockpunch, punch. 12,3. As such:
As the opponent closes in with his/her attack, we are blocking and striking in one movement. The momentum of the opponent meets our accelerating fist and the damage is multiplied. Furthermore, the snap of our koshi helps drive our body weight into the attacker, instead of just helping us produce a nice *crack* with our gi.
RIght now, can you think of a few places in your kata that demand these kinds of block-strike-strike, block-block-block, block-strike-block series? I bet you can. And I bet if you think about it for awhile, you’ll uncover A LOT of these series. Next time you get a chance to train alone, try condensing your timing (but remember, when in the dojo, stay with your Sensei as he/she leads a class. Getting ahead can be misleading for beginner students and is a bit disrepectful to the instructor).
You’ll also notice that the figure in the second picture punches at two different locations. This introduces another one of those elusive kata concepts (wo mid-level punches in kata doesn’t necessarily mean two mid-level punches in kata). But more on that later!
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A long time ago (seriously – like 1612) a young Ronin named Musashi Miyamoto was in the midst of a journey to prove his worth. As a Ronin, or masterless Samurai, Musashi chose to engage in Musha Shugyo – an austere journey designed to perfect a warrior’s fighting prowess. Musashi had achieved unheard of success during his travels and his reputation soon preceded him. One day, Musashi decided to arrange a duel with the master swordsman Kojiro Sasaki. Kojiro was famed for his use of the long nodachi sword, aptly nicknamed ‘the drying pole’ due to its length over normal katana.
Using tactics such as tardiness and uncouthness, Musashi enraged Kojiro before the duel began. Filled with disgust for his opponent, Kojiro struck down at Musashi as fiercely as he could. Musashi deftly dodged out of the way, and cracked Kojiro’s skull with the wooden sword he had in hand.
Shortly after his victory, Musashi reached up and felt the headband he had been wearing – the band had been cleanly sliced, but his skin was still intact.
The Thickness of One Sheet of Rice Paper
We often hear about Musashi’s great feats of skill, and the 60-odd duels he won. Of course, we can attribute some of those tales to mythological embellishment…but not all of it. Through his written works and multiple eye witness accounts, it is fairly well documented that Musashi was a truly amazing swordsman.
In the story above, Musashi demonstrated an astounding mastery of a very basic concept – distance. Musashi knew his opponent would rely on the superior length of his trademark weapon, so Musashi mentally computed the PRECISE distance he needed to evade. He was then able to slay his skillful opponent with a very average, very mundane bokken (some accounts even attribute his weapon as being a carved down oar!)
There is a saying in swordsmanship stating that all attacks should be avoided by the thickness of one sheet of rice paper; and in case you’ve never handled rice paper, it’s about this thick –
The Benefits of Minute Evasions
By cutting your evasion so close, your opponent is naturally open. Having committed to their attack, their body is in a state of movement. By placing yourself as close to them as possible without getting struck, it becomes a fairly easy matter to counterattack.
Another benefit is conservation of motion. The further out you make your block, or body movement, the further back you have to return in order to strike. By keep everything virtually natural, you are already placed in a position for striking. This allows you to counterattack a fraction of a moment later than the actual attack.
Training For Evasion
The best way I’ve personally found to train this nuanced movement is through swordsmanship. There really is no substitute for the lightning strikes of a shinai blitzing toward your head; your block deflecting it so narrowly that it still scrapes your hair.
But, as I’ve continued my training, I’ve integrated this practice into my other arts, like karate and kobudo. This leads me to confidently state that a practitioner of any art can cut down on their movement and improve their distancing.
Here is one fun little drill if you feel like working on this concept: stand arm-length away from a partner. Have your partner strap on some gloves, and throw straight punches toward your chest. At first, keep your arms at your side. As the punch comes in, allow yourself to pivot at the waist, making the punch bounce off at an angle. It should feel like the punch just barely glances you.
As you get more comfortable, make your pivot occur a bit quicker, so that the glove barely touches you.
As you get even more comfortable, make it so the punch just scrapes your gi, and nothing more.
Be careful, if you pivot too fast and the punch touches nothing at all, you’ve lost the concept – you’ve lost one sheet of rice paper. Your opponent may pick up on your early intentions and compensate.
Best of luck in your training!
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One of the most commonly cited reasons for starting a martial art is “self defense.” It makes sense. Martial arts are designed for personal protection.
But what is self defense, really? Is it the flurry of punches and kicks we see during sparring matches? Is it grappling and ground-and-pound? Sure, on occasion. But when it comes to real self defense, there are more dimensions than just technique.
In karate there is a saying – ‘Karate ni Sente Nashi’, which translates to ‘there is no first attack in karate’. This is one of those great sayings that has a few levels of interpretation. On the surface, it simply means “do not physically strike first”. Wait until your opponent has begun his technique, and counter or preempt it with a technique of your own.
Legendary Karateka Funakoshi Gichin – Creator of the phrasing “Karate Ni Sente Nashi”
Upon deeper investigation, Karate Ni Sente Nashi can be seen as a preempt of intent. Martial arts training helps practitioners become in-tune with factors like body language and severity of threat. The esoterically inclined will suggest that it allows you to connect your martial spirit to your opponents. However you’d like to explain it, Karate Ni Sente Nashi dictates that if your opponent has projected his will to harm you, you may take adequate steps to disable that harm.
Of course…this wouldn’t be a classic saying if it stopped there, right? Karate Ni Sente Nashi can also mean that you should do what you can to prepare for an encounter, and devise ways to avoid using karate long before the encounter occurs. This way, no strike is necessary.
The final interpretation brings me to my main point for this post – what can we do to prepare for encounters long before they happen?
Safety Before Street Justice
We all love to imagine ourselves taking out a gang of street toughs, who eventually learn the mistakes of their ways and help us break into a drug barons home in order to rescue our forlorned girlfriend (No wait…that was Crocodile Dundee II). Nevertheless, “street justice” is a dream our egos like to indulge. Every now and then we have to keep that stuff in check and think about what we can do to escape dangerous situations safely, instead of daringly.
Here is a perfect example – one serious threat in the real world is muggers. Muggings happen all the time, especially in the city. Instead of trying to kick a gun out of your attacker’s hand, have you considered giving up your wallet?
I know what your thinking – it doesn’t take 30 years of training to give up a wallet. But what if you planned ahead, and organized your important cards and bills so that they weren’t in the wallet? You’d just be giving up a bunch of business cards and coupons to Applebees.
My personal preference is the wallet/magnetic clip combination –
In case your worried about the magnetic strip ruining your cards, don’t be. The Mythbusters proved that it would take a far greater field of magnetism than we encounter in every day life to strip a card.
I have absolutely no qualms about giving up my wallet. And trust me, in the neighborhood I work in, I might have to one day. Something tells me a few readers out there know how I feel.
Women who carry purses can utilize the same concept by only carrying what they absolutely need if they are going into a risky situation (or even on a day to day basis if they can make that change in lifestyle).
There are other checks you can make. What kind of shoes do you wear? Flipflops won’t help you in a bar scuffle.
What kind of jewelry do you sport? Nose rings are a passport to pain.
Ultimately, we are all vulnerable – especially if we are facing a seasoned and intelligent attacker. But don’t be afraid to analyze your daily habits and tighten up any obvious flaws you might see. Karate Ni Sente Nashi may seem like a real hassle, but it’s for our own good in the long run, and it’s one of the keys to training the way our progenitors trained.
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