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.
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We often hear that black belt isn’t an end goal, but instead a point where true learning can begin. We all generally accept this as sage wisdom even though it can be difficult to understand such an esoteric concept at first. After all, how can learning BEGIN at black belt?
Sometimes we rationalize the idea intellectually by observing highly skilled individuals and comparing our meager skills against them. But still we have a hard time grasping that we haven’t really learned anything after four or five years of diligent study. Only a few monk-like individuals are so devoid of ego that they truly believe they know nothing when going for shodan.
So how does one explain this mystery, especially to those students who are brimming with “self confidence” and don’t want to hear that their studies are only beginning?
Here’s an analogy that might help shed some light on the situation.
Consider spelunkers (individuals who explores caves). Spelunkers don’t just walk up to a cave and hop in…unless they’re idiots. Instead, they first carefully collect the proper tools for the job. They prepare themselves mentally and physically for the rigors of cave diving through hiking, rock climbing, and other gateway activities. They also find an experienced spelunker to tag along with and learn from.
It takes a lot of time, preparation, and experience for a cave adventurer to actually get into real caves and begin to appreciate their beauty and complexity. If they don’t take the proper time and precautions, their experiences can be baffling, unpleasant, and even dangerous.
Martial arts training is no different. Kyu ranking is a very colorful way to accumulate the proper tools for the job at hand (life protection). A punch is a tool, as is a kick, block, or self defense technique. Eventually, after the tools are assembled, the fledgling martial artist utilizes gateway activities (yakusoku kumite, blocking drills, etc) to orient themselves to the demands and rigors of the task. If they’re smart and lucky, they’ll find guidance from someone who has traversed a proper path ahead of them – a competent sensei.
Eventually, after a few years (let’s say four or five), that martial artist is ready to take some real steps into self expression, creativity, and effectiveness. Furthermore, the arts can then be used to slowly coagulate the body, mind, and spirit into a formidable whole.
Martial arts are deep and cavernous…so deep in fact that you can spend your whole life exploring them, appreciating their beauty, and never reach the bottom.
Black belt means you have the tools, but it takes patience and perseverance to finally reach the caves and dive down in without getting lost or worse.
(pictures: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/40/Kholki_cave_entrance1.jpg, http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_Mi7AIQ22soI/SQG1tflOj4I/AAAAAAAACl4/ZOZsye0fyX8/s400/gigantic_cave_room.jpg)
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This is another story from the IKKF 2010 Annual Training.
One of the guest instructors at our training was a gentleman named Miguel Ibarra. Ibarra Sensei studies and teaches aikijujutsu and has a dojo based out of Bronx, New York. Ibarra Sensei has been a probation officer in The Bronx for decades (now retired) and has what you might call ‘real world experience’. Let’s put it this way, if your interest is in street effective and tested methods, Ibarra Sensei is your guy.
That being the case, I asked him what he thought was more valuable during his time on the New York streets, striking or grappling. His answer was essentially as follows:
For a police or probation officer, grappling is a much much more valuable tool. You have to remember – when a cop strikes someone, the immediate reaction of everyone around (including the suspect) is to cry abuse and try to sue. That is not to downplay the seriousness and reality of police brutality, but perpetrators who are struck tend to believe they are innocent victims.
The recent video of a Seattle Police Officer was of particular interest in the conversation, which you can view here:
This officer was in a dangerous situation, being grabbed at by two irate women and surrounded by individuals who were looming in a threatening manner. it was within the cop’s legal right to strike the woman who accosted him. Yet, as we can see, this video has become an internet hot topic and has sparked controversy. If the officer had been able to handle the situation without striking, there would be no news at all from this arrest.
Ibarra Sensei’s aikijujutsu (known for grappling and joint-locking) is swift, direct, and punishing. It has to be for his purposes. He explained that since law enforcement officers need to avoid striking whenever possible in order to prevent lawsuits and scandal, they need to have an excellent ability to use the force of physics and joint manipulation to gain compliance. He also noted the unreliability of pain compliance when dealing with an adrenaline pumped, drunk, or high assailant who would like nothing better than to stomp your face.
Interestingly, when the conversation shifted to civilian self defense, Ibarra Sensei had a much more accepting view of striking. The continuum of force for civilian-to-civilian is much more even than that of cop-to-civilian. Therefore, for a citizen, a threat of being struck can be responded to with a strike.
Unfortunately, if you defend yourself at all during violent situations, our litigious society might still come knocking at your door. That’s why it is good to actively de-escalate a situation and make sure bystanders see you trying (if you are lucky enough to get the chance).
Most experienced instructors I have encountered tend toward the mindset of “defend yourself first, worry about the legalities second”. If in the heat of the moment you can stay within the continuum, that’s optimal…but don’t get yourself killed trying to play nice.
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