Category: Isshin-ryu Karate

Traditional Okinawan Karate: It’s a very small world.

This morning I had the opportunity to visit a traditional Uechi-Ryu dojo in Knoxville run by Sensei Bob Noel. I was invited by a former student who, since I moved to Raleigh, NC, started training with him. Lucas and I had discussed this over the years I was away, and Lucas had mentioned that he felt comfortable with Sensei Noel because of how he taught and that the things he had learned from me about body mechanics and technique allowed him to understand what kind of an instructor Sensei Noel is. And I will say that Lucas chose well.

I have often stated that Okinawan systems of karate have more in common than they do have differences. Of course, the early karate pioneers on Okinawa had “favorite” techniques and preferred training methods that created differences. However, you must remember that Okinawa is a tiny island and many of the early masters knew and, at times, trained together. In fact, Kanbun Uechi (the founder of Uechi-Ryu) and Tatsuo Shimabuku (the founder of Isshin-Ryu) were good friends and often trained together. Add to that the fact that good technique is determined more by body mechanics than anything else, and you should be able to see the logic in my statement

Adding to the visit’s pleasure was that I learned that Sensei Noel grew up in Williamstown, MA, which borders North Adams, MA. I studied Uechi-Ryu for a brief time while still in high school in North Adams with an instructor who was one of Sensei Frank Gorman’s students. It bothers me that I can’t remember my instructor’s name. I only remember that he also played guitar in a local band called Steele. But it turns out that Sensei Noel trained with Sensei Gorman at Williams College while we worked there.

Then I discovered that Sensei Noel was in Boy Scout Troop 70 in Williamstown. I had a good friend, Camden Pierce, for many years who was in Troop 70. Don Gilbert (no relation) was the scoutmaster of Troop 70 at that time. I was in Troop 88 in North Adams, and Douglas Filkens was our scoutmaster. Camden and I did a lot of backpacking and canoeing together over the years. And we had an annual New Year’s Eve campout on the top of Mt. Greylock, which is the tallest mountain in Massachusetts. It was cold, and the snow might be up to your armpits, but it was a blast. I guess we did that three or four year in a row.

Sensei Noel has an efficient and straightforward approach to how he teaches and a deep understanding of his art. Lucas did a great job of choosing him as an instructor.

It really is a small, small world when you are dealing with those who practice traditional Okinawan karate.

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Karate-do: Basics

Advanced techniques are nothing more than applying a thorough mastery of the basics.

I remember meeting Sensei Sherman Harrill for the first time in 1983. He was a guest at Wheeler’s School of Karate in Powell, Tennessee. I had just been discharged from the U.S. Army and had a red belt (equivalent to brown in most systems) in Tae Kwon Do. But I was not too happy with Tae Kwon Do.

Not being overly flexible, I was looking for a style that didn’t require me to be like Gumby. I discovered Isshin-ryu Karate. Sensei Harrill taught a few classes I attended at the dojo … and then disappeared. I did not know enough about Isshin-ryu at the time to understand exactly what was going on, but the man really impressed me.

I again saw Sensei Harrill sometime later at an Okinawan Karate-do Union seminar where he did a bo bunkai session. He took the first movement out of the bo kata, Tokumine No Kun, and spent two hours astounding us all by what he could do with just that first movement. Bo’s went flying everywhere, and many fingers were pinched or smashed. It was glorious.

I did not see Sensei Harrill again until the mid-90’s when he and Sensei AJ Advincula gave a benefit seminar in Michigan for Sensei Don Bohan, who was battling cancer. By this time, I was a black belt, had my own dojo, and thought I knew something about karate. However, to put it mildly, when I saw what he was doing, my jaw hit the floor. I had never seen any karate instructor anywhere do anything like what he was doing. It didn’t matter who you were, how big you were, or what you knew. You hit the floor when he put his hands on you. It was the kind of karate you read about in karate history books but never saw on the dojo floor.

What was the difference you might ask? I quickly came to learn it was a thorough understanding and mastery of the system’s basics. Prior to that time, I had trained with just three other world-class instructors who had that same kind of mastery of their art, and who were true masters. They were Remy Presas (Arnis), Joe Lewis (Full-Contact Karate Champion), and Wally Jay (Small Circle Jujitsu).

All advanced techniques are made up of combinations of basic techniques.

If this is not true where you train, I suggest you hunt for another dojo, dojang, or school.

And I am not just talking about the basic Charts I and II of the Isshin-ryu curriculum followed in most Isshin-ryu dojos. Understanding basics, body mechanics, stances, distance, timing, etc. transcends any particular art or style. It is the key to real success in any technique, method, or system.

I remember returning to a dojo I had not visited in some time. Upon entering, I spotted one of the head instructors on the floor going through Isshin-ryu Chart 1. He was performing the techniques precisely the same way I was shown when I was a brand new white belt. How’s that for consistency? Great, huh?

I’m going out on a limb here and say, “No, not really.” If you are still practicing the basics today the way you did 20 years ago, what did you learn? Could you not have improved them over that period. Twenty years and this man had never gotten off the porch (most serious Isshin-ryu practitioners will know what this refers to).

Here is an analogy. I remember in elementary school being taught to write. We were given lined paper and shown how to form the letters. You’d make a row of A’s, a row of B’s. a row of C’s. etc. Do you still write that way today?

Before you say, “but that’s how I show a new student …,” I am not talking about working with a new student. I am talking about your own personal workouts (which is what this guy was doing. Sunday morning workouts were restricted to black belts).

A difference in basics …

The first year I brought Sensei Harrill to Tennessee for a seminar, it was great. Friday night and Saturday, I got mercilessly pummeled in a very instructive sort of way. However, I loved it. Each pain, each loss of breath, or loss of balance was a light bulb going off in my brain. It was effortless, almost casual on Sensei’s part, but totally disruptive to me. And there was nothing I could do about. They were all simple techniques. However, they were executed in a very advanced manner; nothing like I had ever experienced before.

Sunday after the seminar, we had several hours before I had to get Sensei to the airport for his flight back to Iowa, so we hit the dojo to train. I remember it being just Sensei, Charlie Taylor, and myself. But one or two others may have been present.

Sensei asked, “What do you want to work on?”

I replied, simply, “Whatever I have to … to understand what you do.”

The sad but straightforward answer was that I had to start over with how I did my basics. Many trained with Sensei over the years, mostly at seminars, and would sometimes mimic his techniques successfully while at seminars. Often, however, this was with cooperative attackers.

But they never changed the way they practiced back at their own dojos. Therefore, they could never really make the techniques their own and would eventually give up. It’s just the same old adage: You can’t train one way and fight another way!

We went through Chart I, one technique at a time. First, I would demonstrate a technique from the chart. Sensei then showed me how he did it and why. He never told me what I was doing was wrong, but there was no question in my mind after we finished each technique which way was better, and more importantly, WHY!

You cannot learn basics from a book, a website, a blog, or even a videotape or DVD. You need practice time, one-on-one interaction with an instructor who understands all of these things, and enough repetitions to create CORRECT muscle memory.

However, here are a few tips that might help

  • Stand on stakes
  • Never violate the principles of body mechanics
  • As your understanding progresses and your basics begin to smooth out, your hands should start to NOT cross the body’s center line.
  • Always use crescent steps when you move forward or backward (or even sideways).
  • Each technique is a whole-body movement.
  • The “snap” in the “snap punch” comes from your waist (Understand that the knot in your obi is not just to tie your belt around your waist. Pay attention to how it moves).

If the knot’s not moving, you’re not doing it right.

Sensei would always say, when sizing up a new opponent or training partner, watch the knot on his obi. It will tell you whether you want to let them hit you or not.

Isshin-ryu Karate Charts I and II

Practice at least 10 repetitions to each side, several times a week.

Chart I

Chart II

  1. RFF / RH Straight Punch
  2. RFF / RH Upper Punch
  3. LFF / LH Straight Punch
  4. LFF / LH Upper Punch
  5. RFB / LH Low Block – RH Reverse Punch
  6. RFB / LH Mid-Level Block = RH Reverse Punch
  7. RFB / LH Open Mid-Level Block – RH Gouge (Nukite)
  8. RFB / LH Open Arc Sweep – RH Upper Punch
  9. RFB / LH Upper Block – RH Reverse Punch
  10. RFB / LH Bridge of Nose – RH Reverse Punch
  11. LFF / LH Low Block – 3 Punches
  12. LFF / LH Mid-Level Block – 3 Punches
  13. LFF / LH Strike to Mid-section – RH Strike to Base of Neck
  14. LFF / LH Palm Heel Block – 2 Hook Punches
  15. RFB Bear Hug Break
  1. Bend Forward / Touch Floor
  2. Back Bend – 5 Exhales
  3. LH Hold Right Heel – RH Push Knee Down
  4. Leg Stretch
  5. Front Kick
  6. Cross Kick
  7. Angle Kick
  8. Side Kick (Heel and Edge)
  9. Side Kick (Ball of Foot)
  10. Squat Kick
  11. Toe Rip Kick
  12. Knee Smash
  13. Knuckle Push-ups
  14. Side Twists
  15. Breathing

Note:

  • In Chart I, 5 – 15 repeat to the other side.
  • In Chart II, 3 to 12 repeat to the other side.
  • RFF = Right Foot Forward. LFF = Left Foot Forward
  • RFB = Right Foot Back, LFB = Left Foot Back
  • RH = RIght Hand, LH = Left Hand

Remember, simply practicing does not make perfect. It takes proper practice to make things perfect. If you practice incorrectly 25,000 times, what have you gained?

Karate-do: Body Mechanics

The body moves powerfully in a finite number of ways

Muscles can only contract or relax back to their non-contracted state. For example, the biceps and triceps work in conjunction to bend and straighten your elbow. That is all they do.

Though human bodies come in all sizes, we are all built the same. We all have two elbows and the corresponding team of controlling muscles. While some may have stronger muscles than others, these two muscles still simply bend and straighten the elbow.

karate-do

Understanding body mechanics means understanding how the human body was naturally designed to move and moving in a way that keeps it stable and balanced, utilizing its natural strengths to generate power, while at the same time protecting its inherent vulnerabilities.

Karate techniques seek to utilize these natural strengths while taking advantage of those inherent weaknesses in our attacker.

Principles of body mechanics include

  • Center of Gravity
  • Line of Gravity
  • Strong Foundation
  • Body Alignment
  • Balance
  • Coordinated Movement

The proper adherence to each of these principles should be part of every karate technique you execute. And this is not specific to karate. Every “legitimate” martial art in the world adheres to these principles. That is why most traditional martial arts share the same powerful movements. They may just apply them differently. Often, to the casual observer, this makes them look like different techniques.

Body mechanics in karate technique

The proper execution of a karate technique should result in two things.

  • The attacker should find himself off-balance, in a weakened position, and unable to defend against the strike should its delivery become necessary.
  • The defender should be in a strong and balanced position, safe, and with several options available for proceeding to the next level if it becomes necessary.

This is much like a defensive shooting scenario!

It’s just a bit off the subject, but it illustrates the point.

We have all heard the phrase “never take your gun out of your holster unless you are going to shoot someone.” Sounds cool, I know. But it’s essentially macho-cowboy bullshit.

Any trained shooter will tell you that there are two separate decisions involved in the use of a gun for self-defense. The first is to pull your gun from its holster. The second is to actually pull the trigger.

If you pull your gun on an attacker, and the attacker ends the attack and leaves, you have protected yourself without ever pulling the trigger. If the attacker ends the attack and you shoot them anyway, you probably are going to be tried for murder.

If however, you pull your gun on an attacker and the attacker continues the assault, you might now make the second decision to pull the trigger.

Back to body mechanics

Oh crap!

Look at this picture. What do you see? That is me about to be in some serious hurt. And yes, I was the attacker for the purpose of demonstration, and threw a punch.

I am off-balance and leaning back, my entire abdominal area is extremely vulnerable, and I have no viable weapons with which to defend myself.

Sensei John Kerker is essentially in what a karate practitioner might can a mid-level block position … balanced, stable, safe, and with several options to proceed should I try to continue the fight. For example:

  • Draw his left fist back striking my liver or floating rib.
  • Punch across with his right into my liver.
  • Take my rear supporting leg and drop me to the floor.
  • Punch down with his right into my quadriceps.

Or any combination of the above, and these are just the more obvious options. There are many, many more.

Some rules for beginning to understand body mechanics …

  1. All movements in karate should be natural, meaning they should not ask your muscles to do things they were not designed to do.
  2. Maintain good posture … even in karate.
  3. Economy of motion. The tendency is to make movements too big.
  4. Keep your center of gravity between your feet. Do not overextend.
  5. Never cross your own center.
  6. Never take your elbows above your shoulders.
  7. Never completely lock a joint.
  8. Most karate techniques mimic movements you make naturally every day. If something feels off, it probably is.
karate-do

Next post! Karate Basics

Karate-do: Choose wisely!

There are essentially two mindsets when it comes to karate.

  1. Karate is a sport.
  2. Karate is a system of personal combat or self-defense.

And, we all know that Americans do love their sports.

While both versions of karate certainly do exist, the two conflicting viewpoints are not really compatible. One is a relatively modern interpretation of karate with its beginnings in the 1920s, and the other, what I call classical karate, can trace its roots, at least according to some sources, back to about 450 AD. They are very different in what they teach, what they focus on, and how they train.

There are rules in the sport karate ring. Even the more brutal modern extreme martial arts sports such as found within the UFC or MMA have rules. Do not misunderstand me. They are tough competitors and I take nothing from them. However, in the street, as on the battlefield, when it come to life and death, there are no rules. And the simple truth is that, you cannot train one way and fight another.

karate-do

These opposing views can create a real problem in understanding for those who are interested in karate-do, and much depends on why they are interested. Some want to be the next tournament or MMA grand champion. That is fine. However, there are also those who want to study the art of karate as practiced for generations on Okinawa. The art that was used by palace guards to defend the Okinawan Kings. The art of such karate notables as Seikichi Uehara, Sakukawa Kanga, Matsumura Sōkon, Itosu Ankō, Motobu Chōki, Chōjun Miyagi, or Tatsuo Shimabuku.

I have over 35 years of training in Isshin-ryu Karate. This in not counting a short time studying Uechi-ryu in high school and Tae Kwon do while stationed in South Korea during my enlistment in the U.S. Army.

The first 15 years of my training was with a dojo that subscribed more to the sport version of karate. We certainly practiced our kata to earn rank and even held self-defense and “bunkai” classes. But several critical elements were missing and that made any real understanding all but impossible. That being said, that dojo turned out some excellent tournament competitors, so if that was what you were looking for, it was a great choice for a karate dojo. However, my interests were really elsewhere.

In the mid-90s, I was reintroduced to Sensei Sherman Harrill and began to train with a group of karate practitioners who take the second view of karate. Eventually I became accepted as a student of Sensei Harrill’s and that has been the honor of a lifetime (anyone who has had a chance to train with him will understand what I mean by that). It was also an enlightening and often times, mind-blowing change. It totally changed how I train. what I train, my understanding of basics and kata, and my effectiveness in executing solid, well-focused karate technique.

A Series of posts on what I call “Classical Karate.”

Over the next few months, I will be posting a series of articles in which I will endeavor to identify the differences in sport karate and classical karate, and what that means to the practitioner. These posts will include true stories to help illustrate the points I am trying to make, as well as tips on what to look for in an instructor, training methods, kata and technique. My goal is to help anyone interested in exploring the art of Okinawan Karate make the best decision in their choice of a karate school based on what they want to achieve through their training.

I think this will be fun as well as interesting to anyone who has an interest in Okinawan Karate.

Isshin-ryu Karate

Standing on Stakes: An Exercise in Balance

Balance is so important in life

We hear this all the time. There are quotes by many famous people that illustrate this concept. Here are just a few examples:

The best and safest thing is to keep a balance in your life, acknowledge the great powers around us and in us. If you can do that, and live that way, you are really a wise man.    

Euripides

Man maintains his balance, poise, and sense of security only as he is moving forward.

Maxwell Maltz

It was all balance. But then, she already knew that from surfing.

Eve Babitz

Balance is something we should all strive for in all aspects of our life. Mental balance, physical balance, work-life balance, and the balance between whom we wish to be and who we need to be.

Balance is also vital to success in Karate

Isshin-ryu Karate

An old friend of mine, Charlie Taylor, used to repeatedly say to me, “it’s all about standing on stakes.”

Charlie was a very good martial artist. He had studied some Vietnamese martial art he called Nguyen-Ryu. Charlie also knew several of the Isshin-ryu kata, and at one time I was teaching him our version of the Wansu kata.

Charlie did, however, have a fantastic understanding of technique, balance, and body mechanics; an understanding I have seen in very few modern karate practitioners. Some exceptions to that would be my late Sensei, Sherman Harrill, and several of his students I am privileged to call friends.

Anybody who has studied karate seriously for any length of time should understand the role balance and body mechanics play in the execution of proper, well-focused technique.

Just a quick word on stances

Unfortunately, too many karate practitioners today do not understand stances. Far to often, you hear comments like, “I like to fight from a cat-stance” or “I like to fight from a horse-stance.” What you have to understand is that, it is the transition into the stance that often makes a real karate technique work. You don’t fight from a stance. You transition into the stance as you execute the technique.

The story is the same for ballroom dancing

Although I have understood this for some time, its importance was really nailed down to me when I spent some time learning to ballroom dance. All the stances in karate can be found in ballroom dancing. Why is that you may ask. It is because, like karate, ballroom dancing relies on balance and body mechanics. The dance comes out in the steady transitioning between the stances.

The best structures are built on a solid foundation

How do we start to build this solid foundation? One answer, and the method I use, is to start new students practicing “standing on stakes” right away.

Standing on stakes

To begin practicing “standing on stakes,” stand with your feet shoulder width apart and your weight evenly distributed on the balls of both feet.

Your heels should be lightly touching the floor, but with the feeling that you could slide a sheet of paper between your heel and the floor if you wanted to.

Unlock your knees and straighten your lower back by tucking your pelvis forward.

Your weight should feel under-sided, meaning that you should feel like your body mass is hanging from the framework of your skeleton.

Breathe! In through your nose, into your diaphragm, and out through your mouth.

Hold this position as long as you can … a minute … a few minutes … 5 minutes … 10 minutes … 20 minutes.

This exercise will strengthen your base and core muscles that are so important to balance, movement, and using your stances.

When this way of standing feels natural and comfortable to you, it should be applied to your practice of crescent steps, and eventually in your kata.

Over time, standing on stakes will greatly improve your balance

It does not take too long a time to see results if you practice a little every day. Long term, the benefits to balance, both in karate and life, are quite astounding.

Pareto’s Rule and Isshin-ryu Karate

I was doing a little spring house cleaning and came across a few old articles from the time when I ran a karate dojo. This was from 1994 until 2007. These articles appeared on the dojo website or in our dojo newsletter. I thought a few of them were fairly interesting, so I will share them here. This first one deals with Pareto’s Rule and Karate. An old student of mine, Lynn Hodges, wrote this article.

Pareto’s Rule and Karate

rule

One of my older students, Lynn Hodges, after a night of working on the basic techniques of our system and the development of Chinkuchi in the techniques, went home and could not sleep until he had written these thoughts down to get them off his mind. This article is the result of that mind purge.

Ramblings and Reasoning on Pareto’s Rule and Karate
by Lynn Hodges

In many business and non-business situations, the Pareto Principle, also known as the 80-20 Rule, emerges as a statistical constant. Dr. Arthur Hafner* provides a succinct overview of Pareto’s work:

Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923) was an Italian economist who, in 1906, observed that twenty percent of the Italian people owned eighty percent of their country’s accumulated wealth. Over time and through application in a variety of environments, this analytic has come to be called Pareto’s Principle, the 80-20 Rule, and the “Vital Few and Trivial Many Rule.”

Called by whatever name, this mix of 80%-20% reminds us that the relationship between input and output is not balanced. In a management context, this rule of thumb is a useful heuristic that applies when there is a question of effectiveness versus diminishing returns on effort, expense, or time.

Sensei Sherman Harrill often said “There’s not much I can’t handle with a good mid-block and reverse punch!” This suggests that the 80-20 rule might be at play in Isshin-ryu Karate. 80% of situations can be handled by 20% of our techniques. The key is figuring out what 20% are those ‘vital few.’ While the remaining 80% of our techniques would never be called trivial by any serious karateka, most would agree that there are techniques that rate as the most effective or at least the most fundamental in our empty hand arsenal. In conflict, we’d choose these vital 20% of our techniques about 80% of the time.

What are the vital few? That is the key question for karateka, and especially the Sensei. Logically, the basic physical moves must be part of that 20% since they underpin all of the techniques. These would include the sweeping step, the stances, the launching of the punch with hips rotating, the “opposite reaction” force, the Isshin-ryu fist and the fundamental bio-mechanics of balance, leverage and movement. Since the basics of Isshin-ryu karate also include punches, blocks and kicks, those are likely in the 20% and are described by the upper and lower charts. Therefore, it could be argued that the basic physical moves and the upper and lower charts make up the vital 20%.

Mastery of the vital 20% does two things. First, it allows us to handle 80% of the conflicts where we rely on karate for self defense. Secondly, it stages us with a firm foundation to engage the remaining 80% of the empty hand and weapons techniques that comprise our martial art style. Perhaps that is why the old masters insisted on learning the vital 20% first. One recalls stories of a single stance being the single lesson for a whole year!

Unfortunately, since the basics and charts are fundamental and seldom spectacular, a beginning karateka is anxious to rush through them, and get into the ‘real karate’ seen as the kata or sparring and competition. Reflection on the importance of these vital 20% will bring the serious karateka back to them for betterment and mastery. As one masters the basics and engages the remaining 80%, a lifetime cycle of continuous improvement begins. What we observe as “Improvement in the vital 20% results in considerable improvement in the remaining 80%!” It’s Pareto’s Rule at work in the dojo 

How is that for a scientific look at the built-in efficiency of karate techniques?

While most often talked about in the business world, Pareto’s Rule applies to many other aspects of our lives. This 80-20 rule seems to very accurately reflect the effort, performance, and efficiency of many human endeavors. Think about it! Where can you see Pareto’s 80-20 rule in effect in your life?

Read other great posts here! I like to blog on a variety of topics and I do try to avoid politic. This is not a political blog. So, I do apologize if it sometimes sneaks in.

Also, please be sure to check out my military action thriller, Serpents Underfoot, and my collection of Adirondack Bear Tales! Both are receiving great reviews and both are available in both Kindle and paperback formats! I would love to hear what you think about these two books.

Isshin-ryu Karate: The Road Less Traveled

Isshin-ryu Karate

Remembering Sensei Harrill on his Birthday

Today would have been Sensei Sherman Harrill’s 76th birthday.  I sometimes wonder how many folks truly realize just how unique a gift he left to those of us who practice his brand of Isshin-ryu karate when he finally lost his battle with cancer in 2002.

On May 6th, Eddie Satterfield hosted Sensei John Kerker for the annual Isshin-ryu Karate Seminar in Maynardville, Tennessee. This seminar, in a loose way, carries on a Tennessee tradition started by me when I brought Sensei Harrill to Clinton, Tennessee in 1996.  We held that seminar the 3rd weekend in March each year up until Sensei died. (This did keep me in hot water with my family because often the seminar date fell on my daughter’s birthday. I guess I should have thought that through a little more.)

Those seminars (as well as others I traveled to held in places like Champaign, Illinois … Carson, Iowa … Chicago, Illinois … Pontiac, Michigan) had a profound influence on me. When Sensei passed away in 2002, I think we went perhaps a year without a seminar. Then we started bringing in his senior student, John Kerker, to continue the seminar series.

Isshin-ryu Karate –  Passing on the Tradition

Sensei Harrill left his Isshin-ryu Karate Dojo and everything that entailed to John Kerker.  As is often the case, several “instructors” tried to move in and usurp that role … claiming that, since they had higher rank, or their own organizations, or special friendships with Sensei Harrill, etc., John should join their “group” under them.   But, what they did not have was the actual skill, knowledge or character to fill those shoes. They did not have the many years John spent in that dojo. Many of them just liked to hang around and have their photos taken with Sensei. John stepped up and assumed the task left to him by Sensei Harrill, and while those were very big shoes to fill, fill them he did.

Sensei Kerker has done a great job. When John took over doing the seminars for us, maybe in 2004, he might not have been quite at the same skill level as Sensei Sherman Harrill, but I think he was actually a better teacher. Sensei Harrill was not much on explaining things. He just did not seem to have the knack for explaining things that John has. Sensei Harrill showed you … it hurt … you tried it.  And you kept trying it until you figured it out. That was not bad! But, John added an additional element.  He shows you … it hurts dang near as much … you try it … John analyzes and explains what you were doing wrong … you try it again. For me, at least, that adds a lot.

Isshin-ryu Karate

Sensei Kerker has definitely come into his own over the years and I would now hate to try and say which of them now has, or had, more skill.

It is Never a Straight Path

Sometimes life gets in the way and, unfortunately, I had to stop hosting the seminars, and I have since moved to North Carolina. Sensei Eddie Satterfield has picked the Tennessee seminar back up and has hosted it several years now. I am very glad he did … as are several other people. I hope at some time in the future, we can bring Sensei Kerker to North Carolina for seminars as well.

On May 6th, Sensei John Kerker gave a great seminar covering several techniques from kata … focusing on not getting hit, controlling the distance, disrupting your attacker’s balance, and proper timing in executing technique. It was excellent and, as always, I learned something new or was reminded of some important information I had forgotten. There is so much you can learn from Kata if you study them correctly and have the right teacher.  I been in many Isshin-ryu dojos over the years, and what we do is pretty unique.

So, what is unique about the karate we do?

Isshin-ryu Karate

We do not spar in the common sense of the word. I once did.  I originally came up in an Isshin-ryu dojo where we learned the kata to earn belt rank. Then we put pads on and sparred in the ring for points. Self-defense was something we made up as we went along and most of it was pretty bad. Nobody knew what kata was really for. We knew kata taught us balance, coordination, timing, etc. And, while all that is certainly true … kata are so much more than that. They are essentially a physical encyclopedia of the principles and techniques of karate.

I was actually ready to quit once I get my 2nd Dan.  The problem was that I read a lot … and had read about the history of karate and what the Okinawan karate masters were capable of.  Of course, I had seen none of that. Either the histories I had read were all a bunch of hooey or none of karate instructors I had yet met and trained with actually knew any karate!

Enter the Sherminator!

Enter Sherman Harrill.  The first time I saw him give a real seminar my jaw nearly hit the floor. He was demonstrating what I had, until that day, only read about.  So, I started over. I traveled to many seminars and eventually became one of his students. For me, that was a real honor … the honor of a lifetime. I worked hard to change and improve my karate.

A critical moment came for me when I  tested for my 3rd Dan. I passed with flying colors, but there was one caveat. The testing board told me I had to undo all the changes I had made in my karate from working with Sensei Harrill. I though about that and decided I simply could not do that. That forced me to make the difficult decision of changing instructors. Telling Sensei Allen Wheeler I was leaving was also one of the hardest things I ever had to do. I always liked and respected Allen Wheeler very much. He was a good man and had been very good to me and helped me in many ways. I just needed my karate to take a different path. It was also one of the proudest days of my life when Sensei Harrill said “Welcome aboard!”

Injured or Just Hurt?

Not many will like or appreciate the way we train.  It hurts.  I have learned over the years that pain is actually a very good teacher. Notice … I said pain … not injury! Karate is, after all, a striking art.  So, you have to be willing to hit and to get hit hard enough to understand the mechanics of the techniques … why and how they work.

You have to understand what the techniques do to you and you have to understand the real results of the technique on your attacker. Your targets are very often the areas which are off-limits in sport karate. So, it is a rather small group … those who train like we do. I am sure there are other groups like ours training here and there in many other traditional arts. It does slowly seem to be growing as folks lose interest in the “Hollywood fluff” offered by way too many karate schools today.

Isshin-ryu Karate

Folks, it is very much a buyer beware situation out there in the world of martial arts schools.

Just Another Flavor of Karate

I am not really knocking sport karate. There are some good sport karate schools out there. It that is what you want to do, that is fine. It is certainly your interests and your choices that matter. I know some folks who are very good at it and they are tough competitors. But the keyword here is “competitor!” It is a sport … and there are rules (which sometimes do vary). Certain target areas are off-limits. For instance, no kicking below the belt, no attacking small joints, no head contact, sweeps only allowed on the front leg, etc. There are absolutely no rules in a dark alley way mugging, an attempted rape, during a vicious home-invasion, a terrorist attack, or on a battlefield.

For us, it is just a different flavor of karate. We just train more the way the Okinawan’s trained … you might say a more self-defense orientated approach. We study how to apply the basics and techniques from kata in real-life combat situations … focusing on body mechanics, timing, and developing our weapons with the makiwara.  The Okinawans did not spar … they studied kata. They trained with the makiwara. And, they were pretty deadly fighters.

A Teacher and a Friend

I considered Sensei my teacher and my friend. He was a marine and tough as nails, but he was also a kind man. I learned that lesson very clearly one day. My students and I had worked very hard to convert an old used-auto parts shop into an Isshin-ryu Karate dojo. The building belonged to one of my students, Eddy Weaver.  Weaver’s Used Auto Parts had been an institution in Anderson County, Tennessee for decades.

Isshin-ryu Karate

We finished everything except getting the mats down. So, we trained on the freshly painted concrete floor.  I just gotten the gas heater in the day before the seminar and it ran all night, but that old concrete floor was still very cold that morning. There had been no heat in the building for some time. During the seminar breaks, we all took turns sticking our feet under the gas heater to thaw them out!

Shit Happens!

A few months later some kids playing with fire behind the building, let the fire get away from them and our dojo burned to the ground. Sensei Harrill happened to call that next day just to chat. He would do that fairly often. I told him what happened. Sensei Harrill expressed real concern. He knew how much work we had put into that dojo. A few days later I started to get checks in the mail, boxes of training gear, etc.  He had put the word out to his Isshin-ryu Karate friends! He was not even my instructor yet! That part came just a bit later.

I will end this post by saying … Thank you, Sensei Harrill … for your gift to those of us who had the honor to be your students. Happy Birthday and Kanpai!

And, … Thank you, Sensei Kerker … for continuing to carry the torch.  I am looking forward to that next seminar!

Isshin-ryu Karate, Maynardville, TN 2017
2017 Maynardville Tennessee Seminar Crew

The Road Less Traveled

IMG_0832Today would have been Sensei Sherman Harrill’s 76th birthday.  I sometimes wonder how many folks truly realize just how unique a gift he left us with when he finally lost his battle with cancer in 2002.

On May 6th, Eddie Satterfield hosted Sensei John Kerker for the annual seminar in Maynardville, Tennessee. This seminar, in a loose way, carries on a Tennessee tradition started by me when I brought Sensei Harrill to Clinton, Tennessee in 1996.  We held that seminar the 3rd weekend in March each year up until Sensei died. (This did keep me in hot water with my family because often the seminar date fell on my daughter’s birthday. I guess I should have thought that through a little more.)

sh_dg
Darren Gilbert and Sensei Sherman Harrill

Those seminars (as well as others I traveled to held in places like Champaign, Illinois … Carson, Iowa … Chicago, Illinois … Pontiac, Michigan) had a profound influence on me. When Sensei passed away in 2002, I think we went perhaps a year without a seminar. Then we started bringing in his senior student, John Kerker, to continue the seminar series.

Sensei Harrill had left his dojo and everything that entailed to John.  As is often the case, several “instructors” tried to move in and usurp that role … claiming that, since they had higher rank, or their own organizations, or special friendships with Sensei Harrill, etc., John should join their “group” under them.   But, what they did not have was the actual skill, knowledge or character to fill those shoes. They did not have the many years John spent in that dojo. Many of them just liked to hang around and have their photos taken with Sensei. John stepped up and assumed the task left to him by Sensei Harrill, and while those were very big shoes to fill, fill them he did.

Sensei Kerker has done a great job. When John took over doing the seminars for us, maybe in 2004, he might not have been quite at the same skill level as Sensei Sherman Harrill, but I think he was actually a better teacher. Sensei Harrill was not much on explaining things. He just did not seem to have the knack for explaining things that John has. Sensei Harrill showed you … it hurt … you tried it.  And you kept trying it until you figured it out. That was not bad! But, John added an additional element.  He shows you … it hurts dang near as much … you try it … John analyzes and explains what you were doing wrong … you try it again. For me, at least, that adds a lot.

jk_dg
Sensei John Kerker and Darren Gilbert

Sensei Kerker has definitely come into his own over the years and I would now hate to try and say which of them now has, or had, more skill.

Sometimes life gets in the way and, unfortunately, I had to stop hosting the seminars, and I have since moved to North Carolina. Sensei Eddie Satterfield has picked the Tennessee seminar back up and has hosted it several years now. I am very glad he did … as are several other people. I hope at some time in the future, we can bring Sensei Kerker to North Carolina for seminars as well.

On May 6th, Sensei John Kerker gave a great seminar covering several techniques from kata … focusing on not getting hit, controlling the distance, disrupting your attacker’s balance, and proper timing in executing technique. It was excellent and, as always, I learned something new or was reminded of some important information I had forgotten. There is so much you can learn from Kata if you study them correctly and have the right teacher.  I been been in many Isshin-ryu dojos over the years, and what we do is pretty unique.

So, what is unique about the karate we do?

me
Sensei Darren Gilbert and student

We do not spar in the common sense of the word. I once did.  I originally came up in an Isshin-ryu dojo where we learned the kata to earn belt rank. Then we put pads on and sparred in the ring for points. Self-defense was something we made up as we went along and most of it was pretty bad. Nobody knew what kata was really for. We knew kata taught us balance, coordination, timing, etc. And, while all that is certainly true … kata are so much more than that. They are essentially a physical encyclopedia of the principles and techniques of karate.

I was actually ready to quit once I get my 2nd Dan.  I read a lot … and had read about the history of karate and what the Okinawan karate masters were capable of.  I had seen none of that. Either the histories I had read were all a bunch of hooey or none of karate instructors I had yet met and trained with actually knew any karate!

Enter Sherman Harrill.  The first time I saw him give a real seminar my jaw nearly hit the floor. He was demonstrating what I had, until that day, only read about.  So, I started over. I traveled to many seminars and eventually became one of his students. For me, that was a real honor … the honor of a lifetime. I worked hard to change and improve my karate.

A critical moment came for me when I  tested for my 3rd Dan. I passed with flying colors, but there was one caveat. The testing board told me I had to undo all the changes I had made in my karate from working with Sensei Harrill. I though about that and decided I simply could not do that. That forced me to make the difficult decision of changing instructors. Telling Sensei Allen Wheeler I was leaving was also one of the hardest things I ever had to do. I always liked and respected Allen Wheeler very much. He was a good man and had been very good to me and helped me in many ways. I just needed my karate to take a different path. It was also one of the proudest days of my life when Sensei Harrill said “Welcome aboard!”

Not many will like or appreciate the way we train.  It hurts.  I have learned over the years that pain is actually a very good teacher. Notice … I said pain … not injury! Karate is, after all, a striking art.  So, you have to be willing to hit and to get hit hard enough to understand the mechanics of the techniques … why and how they work.  You have to understand what the techniques do to you and you have to understand the real results of the technique on your attacker. Your targets are very often the areas which are off-limits in sport karate. So, it is a rather small group … those who train like we do. I am sure there are other groups like ours training here and there in many other traditional arts. It does slowly seem to be growing as folks lose interest in the “Hollywood fluff” offered by way too many karate schools today.

sh_dg_2
Darren Gilbert and Sensei Sherman Harrill

Folks, it is very much a buyer beware situation out there in the world of martial arts schools.

I am not really knocking sport karate. There are some good sport karate schools out there. It that is what you want to do, that is fine. It is certainly your interests and your choices that matter. I know some folks who are very good at it and they are tough competitors. But the keyword here is “competitor!” It is a sport … and there are rules (which sometimes do vary). Certain target areas are off-limits. For instance, no kicking below the belt, no attacking small joints, no head contact, sweeps only allowed on the front leg, etc. There are absolutely no rules in a dark alley way mugging, an attempted rape, during a vicious home-invasion, a terrorist attack, or on a battlefield.

For us, it is just a different flavor of karate. We just train more the way the Okinawan’s trained … you might say a more self-defense orientated approach. We study how to apply the basics and techniques from kata in real-life combat situations … focusing on body mechanics, timing, and developing our weapons with the makiwara.  The Okinawans did not spar … they studied kata. They trained with the makiwara. And, they were pretty deadly fighters.

I considered Sensei my teacher and my friend. He was a marine and tough as nails, but he was also a kind man. I will never forget when that fact was made very clear to me. My students and I had worked very hard to convert an old used-auto parts shop into a dojo. The building belonged to one of my students, Eddy Weaver.  Weaver’s Used Auto Parts had been an institution in Anderson County, Tennessee for decades.

kanpai
Calvin Parker, Darren Gilbert and Sherman Harrill

We actually finished all but the getting the mats down right before that year’s seminar, so we trained on the freshly painted concrete floor.  I had just gotten the gas heater in the day before the seminar and it ran all night, but that old concrete floor was still very cold that morning. There had been no heat in the building for some time. During the seminar breaks, we all took turns sticking our feet under the gas heater to thaw them out! A few months later some kids playing with fire behind the building, let the fire get away from them and our dojo burned to the ground. Sensei Harrill happened to call that next day just to chat. He would do that fairly often. I told him what had happened and he was genuinely saddened and concerned. He knew how much work we had put into that dojo. A few days later I started to get checks in the mail, boxes of training gear, etc.  He had put the word out to his folks! He was not even my instructor yet! That part came just a bit later.

I will end this post by saying … Thank you, Sensei Harrill … for your gift to those of us who had the honor to be your students. Happy Birthday and Kanpai!

And, … Thank you, Sensei Kerker … for continuing to carry the torch.  I am looking forward to that next seminar!

maynardville_2017
2017 Maynardville Tennessee Seminar Crew

Do You Smack the Mak?

motobu_Makiwara
The Makiwara

Choki Motobu working ippon-ken (single knuckle fist), commonly used in traditional karate, on the makiwara.

There is a lot of misinformation out there about the use of the makiwara (or striking post) in traditional Isshin-ryu Karate training. I thought I would try to clear some of it up … at least as much as you can in a short blog post.

Japanese and Chinese styles certainly have some similar training equipment. For example, the Wing Chung style has the Wing Chung dummy. Karate styles have several different types of Makiwara.

However, the use of the makiwara in traditional Okinawan Isshin-ryu Karate is very different from what I have often seen portrayed in photographs or videos on the web or in books, etc. I have seen photographs of bleeding, badly deformed knuckles and arthritic fingers that could no longer hold a pencil or work a pair of chop sticks. I once saw a video where a Japanese instructor with horribly deformed looking hands was repeatedly pounding them into a large boulder!  Folks, this is not the way it was or should be done.

Anyone who has had the life-changing experience of being hit by Sensei Sherman Harrill before he lost his battle to cancer, can attest to the power in his strikes. Sensei Harrill could hit you in the shoulder and pile-drive you right into the floor. It bordered on being a religious experience. I have had the same experience being hit by Sensei John Kerker. There are a few other student of Sensei Harrill running around that can make a true-believer out of you. All that being said, Sensei Harrill could still hold a pencil, sign his name, or shake hands. When you looked at his hands, they looked … you know … normal! You might say they looked like “working” hands. But, by no means were they swollen, deformed, bruised, red, misshapen or otherwise ugly-looking. The two large knuckles of his hands did not look like some kind of mutant walnuts or purple ball bearings. But, those hands were truly deadly!

It has often been wrongly stated by many that the purpose of makiwara training is to build up calluses on the knuckles. Really? Is the purpose of playing the guitar to build up calluses on the fingertips? Or do the calluses build naturally as your fingers become stronger and more dexterous, and the music begins to flow? Has anyone seen a guitarist whose fingers were so deformed he could not hold his pick?

What the makiwara offered the karate practitioner was a means to strengthen his strike from the ground up. It offered progressive resistance. The more you moved the punching post, the more it pushed back. You would start by pressing into the post with the two large knuckles of your fist. You would set into your stance, place your knuckles against the post and press. Typically, the first time, the post would not move. You would feel some weakness somewhere in your stance, or your lower back, or your shoulder, or wrist. Something would feel out of whack. You would make an adjustment to your stance, your posture or your alignment, and try again. After awhile you begin to feel more solid, and the post began to move just a little. Over time, you would continue to press into the post focusing on your improved stance, adding hip rotation, shoulder extension, proper elbow and shoulder alignment. Little by little, the post begins to move more and more. You add breathing … exhaling into your strike.

After a time, you add distance and throw a controlled half-punch, then move to a controlled full punch. You try different strikes and striking surfaces. More times passes and you are throwing solid properly aligned punches and strikes and the post is really moving now. You are now also controlling the return of the post. Offering it resistance as it pushes back into your strike. Then one day you look down at your hands and notice the skin is a little tougher on your striking surfaces … harder. But not purple, or black and swollen, or otherwise deformed. They still look pretty damn normal!

The real difference … you are now striking with Chinkuchi! You hit your target with the entire body moving in perfect orchestration. The bone, muscle, sinew are all strengthened, honed, and working in proper alignment. Your strike is now intently focused with a surgical-like precision. It flows seamlessly and effortlessly from a dynamically relaxed movement into a concentrated, well-focused explosion of kinetic energy … which, instantly after impact, returns to a dynamically relaxed state … ready to strike again if needed. It seems effortless and flowing for you. It is natural and a part of you.

The person on the receiving end, however … probably wishes your hands were swollen, bruised, bloody and deformed.

Makiwara: Do You Smack the Mak?

 

The Makiwara

Choki Motobu working ippon-ken (single knuckle fist), commonly used in traditional karate, on the makiwara.

There is a lot of misinformation out there about the use of the makiwara (or striking post) in traditional Isshin-ryu Karate training. I thought I would try to clear some of it up … at least as much as you can in a short blog post.

An Okinawan Training Tool

Japanese and Chinese styles certainly have some similar training equipment. For example, the Wing Chung style has the Wing Chung dummy. However, the use of the makiwara in traditional Okinawan karate is very different from what I have often seen portrayed in photographs or videos on the web or in books, etc. I have seen photographs of bleeding, badly deformed knuckles and arthritic fingers that could no longer hold a pencil or work a pair of chop sticks. I once saw a video where a Japanese instructor with horribly deformed looking hands was repeatedly pounding them into a large boulder!  Folks, that is just wrong.

Sensei Sherman Harrill

Anyone who has had the life-changing experience of being hit by Sensei Sherman Harrill before he lost his battle to cancer, can attest to the power in his strikes. Sensei Harrill could hit you in the shoulder and pile-drive you right into the floor. It bordered on being a religious experience. Being hit by Sensei John Kerker is a very similar experience.

There are a few other student of Sensei Harrill running around that can make a true-believer out of you. However, Sensei Harrill could still hold a pencil, sign his name, or shake hands. When you looked at his hands, they looked … you know … normal! You might say they looked like “working” hands. But, by no means were they swollen, deformed, bruised, red, misshapen or otherwise ugly-looking. The two large knuckles of his hands did not look like some kind of mutant walnuts or purple ball bearings. However, those hands were truly deadly!

Why Do You Play the Guitar?

It has often been wrongly stated by many that the purpose of makiwara training is to build up calluses on the knuckles. Really? Is the purpose of playing the guitar to build up calluses on the fingertips? Or do the calluses build naturally as your fingers become stronger and more dexterous, and the music begins to flow? Finally, has anyone seen a guitarist whose fingers were so deformed he could not hold a fork?

Progressive Resistance

What the makiwara offered the karate practitioner was a means to strengthen his strike from the ground up. It offered progressive resistance. The more you moved the punching post, the more it pushed back. You would start by pressing into the post with the two large knuckles of your fist. You would set into your stance, place your knuckles against the post and press.

Typically, the first time, the post would not move. You would feel some weakness somewhere in your stance, or your lower back, or your shoulder, or wrist. Something would feel out of whack. You would make an adjustment to your stance, your posture or your alignment, and try again. After awhile you begin to feel more solid, and the post began to move just a little. Over time, you would continue to press into the post focusing on your improved stance, adding hip rotation, shoulder extension, proper elbow and shoulder alignment. Little by little, the post begins to move more and more. You add breathing … exhaling into your strike.

After a time, you add distance and throw a controlled half-punch, then move to a controlled full punch. You try different strikes and striking surfaces. More times passes … you throw solid properly aligned punches and strikes and the post is really moving now. You are now also controlling the return of the post. Offering it resistance as it pushes back into your strike. Then one day you look down at your hands and notice the skin is a little tougher on your striking surfaces … harder. But not purple, or black and swollen, or otherwise deformed. They still look pretty damn normal!

Chinkuchi

The real difference … you are now striking with Chinkuchi! You hit your target with the entire body moving in perfect orchestration. The bone, muscle, sinew all strengthen and now work in proper alignment. Your strike is now intently focused with a surgical-like precision. And, flows seamlessly and effortlessly from a dynamically relaxed movement into a concentrated, well-focused explosion of kinetic energy.  Then, instantly after impact, returns to a dynamically relaxed state … ready to strike again if needed. It seems effortless and flowing for you. It is natural and a part of you.

The person you hit, however … probably wishes your hands were swollen, bruised, bloody and deformed.