Tag: Isshin-ryu Karate

Karate-do: Classical vs. Sport

There are real differences between what I call “classical karate” and sport karate. Before you sign up, just be sure you understand what you are signing up for.

karate-do
Tatsuo Shimabuku / Makiwara

The intent here is not to disparage either version. I am only saying they are different, and you want to be sure the instructor will be teaching you what you are paying to learn.

Understand too, that I am focusing on karate. It is what I know. There are other martial arts such as Aikido, Jujitsu, and Kung Fu, each which may have a different focus in doctrine and technique. And, I have dabbled in Aikido, Tai Chi, Arnis, and Escrima over the years … really just enough to get me in trouble. But, also enough to understand that all these systems or styles often offer the prospective student the same choice … the classical approach or the sport approach.

Some would argue there is a third approach, one of seeking self -improvement. To me, that is simply an integral part of the classical approach, and unfortunately, these days is too often missing on the sport side of things.

In addition, the martial arts industry is very much a “buyer beware” industry.

Why the term “classical karate?”

I use the term “classical karate” in an effort to distinguish it separately because, from what I have seen, the term “traditional karate” has been kidnapped by suspect karate schools who have finally figured out adults aren’t buying what they are selling.

Often times, these are daycare centers masquerading is karate schools because they have learned that it pays much better. Schools like this typically have huge kids classes, but a noticeable lack of adult students.

This is because most adults are not stupid, and after a week or two, can figure out what they are being taught is nonsense. However, the unsuspecting parent who just wants a healthy activity for their children and doesn’t actually participate may never uncover the truth, and some may not even care.

Some of these instructors, in an effort to lure adults back, have gone back to white gis and greatly exaggerated displays of “traditional” behavior.

Just understand that seeing the students all running around in white gis and screaming “Ossss” all the time, does not mean it is a good karate dojo.

But, I digress …

Back to Classical vs Sport Karate

Classical karate is the original karate with a history that is over two thousand years old. It is a uniquely Okinawan art that was influenced by Chinese martial arts. Since Okinawa traded with China, Chinese officials would often teach their art to members of the Okinawan ruling and business classes.

The myth that karate was some kind of a peasant’s fight art is just that, a myth. Karate was taught to the eldest sons of upper class Okinawan families who often served as the palace guard to Okinawan kings. There were rare exceptions.

karate-do
Sensei Harrill demonstrates a technique

For example, Motobu Choki was the third son of Lord Motobu Chōshin, and as such, was not entitled to learn the family style of Te (an earlier name for karate). However, Motobu Choki was fascinated by the art and from an early age, began training on his own. He eventually was able to train with such karate legends as Matsumura Sōkon, Ankō Itosu, Sakuma Pechin and Kōsaku Matsumora. Motobu Choki was a strong advocate of proper makiwara training in karate. He was also one of the three notable karate masters Tatsuo Shimabuku, the founder of Isshin-ryu karate, studied under.

In those days, karate was a fighting art, a system of personal combat that was very much founded in scientific principles such as the laws of physics, a keen understanding of body mechanics, and the strengths and weaknesses of the human body.

Old-style Sport Karate

Sport karate primarily evolved as U.S. Marines were stationed on Okinawa and began seeking instruction from local Okinawan instructors. Due to the competitive nature of U.S. marines, they wanted a way to try out what they were learning on each other. To facilitate this, instructors like Tatsuo Shimabuku put their Marine students into what was essentially kendo armor, and let them go about bashing each other.

Voilà … you now have sport karate!

It is important to consider that the average tour for a Marine on Okinawa was a year to eighteen months. That is barely enough time to achieve a thorough understanding of the basics of karate, much less explore real application of kata techniques or advanced principles. Everything was rushed and there was little depth to the training because of time constraints and the fact that Marines spoke little Okinawan and the Okinawans spoke little English.

Modern Sport Karate

While the Marines certainly learned the kata of the system they studied, there was simply not enough time to explore what was in them. And, they probably preferred sparring with each other much more anyway.

Many of these Marines later returned to the U.S., opened karate schools, and taught what they knew and loved. Basic punching and kicking skills, with an emphasis on bashing each other in the ring.

That’s gonna hurt!

But to say that this is the sum total of karate is simply untrue. Fortunately for us, some Marines, such as AJ Advincula, went back for more, and others like Sherman Harrill followed the Kenpo Gokui (topic of a future post) and just kept working.

However for now, as a means to illustrate some of the basic differences between Classical and Sport Karate, I will list a few of the more obvious ones here.

Classical Karate

  • Emphasis on mastery of basics and exploring the application of techniques from kata.
  • All kicks are executed at or below belt level.
  • Strikes executed with many weapons including fists, forearms, elbows, specific knuckles. knees, heels, toes … etc.
  • Goal is to not lose the fight.
  • Because of the “no rules” nature of combat and the risk of injury during training, as well as the need for continued training partners, courtesy, control, humility, and respect for life become an integral part of training.
  • Most of the techniques practiced would get you disqualified in the ring.

Sport Karate

  • Emphasis on conditioning and developing good sport appropriate techniques.
  • All kicks must be above the belt. (Certain traditional tournaments allow limited groin kicks.)
  • Strikes executed with padded fists and feet.
  • Goal is to accumulate points to win the match.
  • Training is much like training for any sport such as boxing with a focus on developing techniques allowed under the rules of the game.
  • While these techniques can be effective in the street, you can’t train one way and fight another.

One of the fundamental building blocks of classical karate is an understanding of body mechanics. This understanding should begin to grow on your first day at the dojo. Therefore, it will be the topic covered in the next post.

Isshin-ryu Karate

For other posts on this topic, click here!

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.

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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.

Vietnam Veteran, 5 Star Review & The Flesheater

Check out this great review from a Vietnam veteran!

Anyone who reads Military Fiction will enjoy this book. DC Gilbert did an excellent job developing the characters and bringing them to life. I enjoyed the beginning, being a Vietnam Veteran, and thought it added to the plot of the story. The story has depth, and the author did an excellent job in fitting in historical events. It was evident that he did his research. I am looking forward to the next one!

vietnam

A word about the sequel, Montagnard!

I added a new character to my sequel to Serpents Underfoot. This new character is amazing! He is … the Flesheater!

vietnam

Jim Hammond designed this amazing blade with input from Guru Arcenio J. Advincula. Guru Advincula is also a 1st generation Isshin-ryu Karate student of the system’s founder, Master Tatsuo Shimabuku. Sensei Advincula was a colleague and good friend of my Isshin-ryu Karate Sensei, Sherman Harrill.

Jim Hammond and AJ Advincula designed the Flesheater as a highly effective fighting knife compatible with the fundamental mechanics of both Largo-Mano Escrima and Isshin-ryu Karate.

Introducing the Flesheater.

The story of the Flesheater began when Master Chief Petty Officer Don Griffiths discussed fighting knives with his martial arts instructor, AJ Advincula. The Master Chief led the design and development research for the SEALTAC knives developed for USN Special Warfare (SEAL) Operations in the early 1980s. During one of the Master Chief’s visits to the shop, he accidentally experienced the cutting edge of the first prototype. The Master Chief exclaimed, “That knife’s a real flesh eater!” It seemed to be a very suitable moniker for the blade.

Largo-Mano Escrima

I knew of the Flesheater sometime before my introduction to its capabilities because I have attended a few of Sensei Advincula’s Isshin-ryu Karate seminars over the last several years. However, the real introduction occurred when I began practicing Largo-Mano Escrima with Richard Rosenthal, a fellow long-time Isshin-ryu Karate practitioner and a student of Escrima for the last 15 years.

Richard runs an escrima class on selected weeknights at the House of Hops in Raleigh, NC. Weather permitting, we train in the upper parking lot and then enjoy a few craft beers as well. It is a good time and a great workout!

vietnam

Of course, we don’t practice with live blades. I am partial to keeping my fingers attached to my hands. In addition, I am not too keen on being disemboweled. And, this blade excels in both areas of endeavor. Therefore, we use a hard rubber version of the blade. It is solid and will definitely leave bruises. Consequently, realism is not really an issue. Anyone interested can find the training version here. It is available from several third-party vendors.

It will be interesting to see what part this awesome blade plays in Montagnard when JD Cordell and a few of his fellow SEALs return to Vietnam on a mission that is highly personal in nature!

Certainly, whether hacking your way through a hoard of crazed terrorists, the dense jungles of Vietnam, or simply cleaning your fingernails, the Flesheater is the blade you should have on hand.

Read more great posts by clicking here!

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.