I read once that a karate kata could be called a dance of death
Now, I am not talking about some of the highly sensational “stuff” that has come out over the years. There are many books out there by such prolific “martial arts” writers as Ashida Kim talking about Count Dante and others, claiming that The Dance of Death is the most deadly collection of “poison hand” techniques known to man. There are also several “martial arts” genre movies that have been released using versions of the phrase “Dance of Death” in their titles. All I am going to say about that martial arts “pulp fiction” is, buyer beware.
But in general, I think you could consider a kata to be a form of dance. It is a series of movements combining concepts such footwork and stances, proper posture, presence, balance, flow, relaxation, dynamic tension, etc. They have a certain rhythm which can vary as skill grows or even depending on what the practitioner is thinking technique-wise. And, you could easily receive a description such as this from a karate instructor – or a ballroom dance instructor.
Ballroom Dancing and Karate-do
Ballroom dance and karate both require years of practice to achieve real skill. Both require the study of and understanding of body mechanics, timing, breathing, distance, technique, and posture.
Both require a great deal of time spent practicing basic techniques, simple patterns, and advanced choreographed movements, the mastery of which later allows the skilled practitioner to forget the patterns and to allow his own expression of technique or dance to flow.
The similarities do not end there!
For both karate and ballroom dancing, a good instructor can make all the difference in the world. I first started out learning basic steps from instructors that were essentially a few lessons ahead of me. Having studied karate with a few excellent instructors, I soon became bored with this level of teaching. I wanted more.
Then I met Mark and Rhonda Becker at Champion Ballroom in Knoxville. This husband and wife team are both great instructors. They did not teach steps – they taught you the art of ballroom dancing.
That was when the similarities between karate-do and ballroom dancing began to really show.
So, are karate kata really a dance of death?
Well, if you consider that a traditional karate kata has so much in common with a dance, and then take into consideration what a kata contains, I would say the answer is – yes.
What is a kata? It essentially is a collection of effective and proven combat techniques distilled down to their purest form. Like a dance, they require balance, breath control, timing, focus, proper body mechanics, and flow.
They also require understanding. Many of the techniques, while they certainly can be modified, if executed to their fullest potential, have disastrous effects on the human body. Many can, indeed, be fatal.
So, from that perspective, I guess they could be called, “The Dance of Death.” But they are so much more than that.
Preforming kata is a great form of exercise. And depending on how you work them, you can achieve a great variety of results. You can blast through them as a good cardio workout, or you can perform them slowly to work on balance and strength. You can work on timing your breathing to techniques or utilize dynamic tension. Then kata can become moving meditation and help you improve your focus, or relax and reduce stress.
Working on kata will improve your ballroom dancing – and working on ballroom dancing will improve your kata.
It’s almost like a Yin Yang relationship, isn’t it?
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So, what does a rusty Ford tractor have to do with karate?
Well, nothing really. But then again, everything. Hey, that’s kind of like a Zen riddle isn’t it?
Several years ago, say late 90s, at one of our post seminar workouts, Sensei Harrill was working with me and a couple of my senior students on Sanchin Kata.
Now first let me say there are several versions of this kata and while they have commonalities, they are not the same. A version of Sanchin can be found in several Chinese and Okinawan styles including Fujian White Crane, Five Ancestors, Uechi-Ryu, Goju-Ryu, and Isshin-ryu. There are certainly others as well. Tam Hon taught a style that was called “Saam Jin” which is Cantonese for “Sanchin.”
At its essence, Sanchin is taught to help the practitioner understand body mechanics and condition their body, while learning to deliver properly focused techniques from a stable platform.
It is also, unfortunately, a kata about which a prodigious amount of “bullshit” has been has been propagated. But that is not the subject of this post.
Isshin-ryu Karate’s Sanchin
The Isshin-ryu version of this kata is really quite difficult in its simplicity. It consists of only five steps (three forward and two backward) and there is a great deal of repetition. But, like an onion, there are many layers to this kata and as your understanding grows, and the more layers you peel away, the more you realize there is to learn. It gives a new level of understanding to the idea, the more I learn the more I realize how little I know.
I had been working with Sensei Harrill for sometime now, and had made a lot of changes in how I trained, and this included Sanchin. I now practiced Sanchin most often with the vertical fist (which I liked because it fit our basics). I still, on occasion, will practice with the corkscrew punch as I had originally been taught, and sometime I will mix it up. At that time, I was trying to get a handle what the kata taught as far as body mechanics, as well as the many different breathing patterns found in the kata (none of which, by they way, resembled a gasping pressure cooker about to blow its top).
However, there was one movement in the kata that always gave me a fit. I practiced and practiced, trying different ways of executing the movement, and nothing seemed to work for me. I had once seen Sensei easily demonstrate the use of that movement at a seminar on a pretty big guy, but I was not even getting close. And of course, as I demonstrated my Sanchin Kata while Sensei watched, that was readily apparent to him.
You’re not doing that properly …
I probably felt like that was the “understatement” of the year. I was painfully aware of that fact. especially seeing what he had done with that very same movement.
I am sure that I replied with something to the effect of, “I know, Sensei. I just can’t seem to get it right.”
And I remember him saying something like, “You don’t have the right focus.”
The hook …
So, how did I change my focus? By listening to what my Sensei told me!
He said to imagine a rusty old red Ford tractor that’s been sitting in the field for awhile. Now you’ve got to crank it up and plow that field. You finally get the tractor started, climb up into that seat. and reach for that big old shift lever with your right hand. Then you squeeze and give the lever a strong tug. And what happens? It doesn’t budge. It’s pretty much rusted into place. What do you do?
I thought about it a second … stand up and give it a real yank, I was thinking.
Then he added … but, you have to keep your butt in the seat.
Now that’s an altogether different proposition.
Which muscles would come into play and when? In what order would you use them? How would that feel internally? Think about it.
And over time, that earlier “movement” that had previously been using the muscles of my arm changed. It began to originate at my core. It employed the rotation of my hips, my abdominal muscles. the lats, the shoulders, and finally … the arm. The pull became a properly-focused, mechanically sound whole-body movement. And after working on it awhile, when I tried it in the dojo, people began to move.
And that is what an old rusty red Ford tractor has to do with my Isshin-ryu Karate.
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I first met Sensei Roy Loveday in 1983 at Wheeler’s School of Karate in Powell, TN. It was at the same time I first met Sensei Sherman Harrill. I remember Roy being present at a few amazing classes Sensei Harrill taught, and then both were gone. It wasn’t until much later that I learned the backstory to that, but it really doesn’t matter for this post. This post is about Roy Loveday, a former Navy SEAL, a Vietnam veteran, a solid karateka, and a friend.
I got reintroduced to Roy when I started bringing Sensei Sherman Harrill in for seminars in the mid-90s. Sensei asked if he could invite Roy as his guest, and I said, “No problem, Sensei. Please do.” After that first seminar, Sensei and I would often visit Roy whenever he came into Clinton, TN, for future seminars. Sometimes we would train, and sometimes they would reminisce, and I would just listen. Sensei Harrill and Roy Loveday were great friends, and it was fascinating to sit there and listen as they talked back and forth about Isshin-ryu Karate and their shared history. After we finished training at one of these sessions, Sensei surprised both Roy and me with new rank certificates.
After Sensei Harrill passed away on November 4, 2002, I started bringing in his senior student, Sensei John Kerker, for seminars. John had inherited Sensei’s dojo in Carson, IA. Although health issues were beginning to make it hard for him to train, Roy Loveday would still come and support us. I remember one comment Roy made to me as he watched me struggle to understand how to to make one of the techniques we were working on flow properly. He came over and stood there for a minute and watched. Then he commented.
“Darren, don’t forget your elbow principles.” “Elbow principles?” I asked. “What the heck are those?” I hadn’t heard that phrase before. “When a technique gives you a problem, give it to your elbow to solve,” Roy replied. Then he grinned and walked off.
It turned out that was a great pearl of wisdom, and applying the “Elbow Principle” has help me understand and solve a lot of difficulties in technique since.
Roy passed away on February 11, 2021, at age 76. He was born on October 25, 1944, graduated from Central High School, and enlisted in the US Navy, where he became a SEAL. Roy served in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam during the war. After Vietnam, he retired from the Norfolk Railroad and served as a Free Mason. Sensei Loveday studied and taught Isshin-Ryu Karate for over 40 years and held a 7th Degree Blackbelt.
In addition to Isshin-ryu Karate, Roy also studied Shinto-Ryu and Tai Chi. He wrote and published an Isshin-Ryu training manual. I was honored to help by being in some of the photographs demonstrating weapons techniques with Sensei Harrill. It was a real honor. The dojo patch (shown in the post banner) adopted by Sensei Sherman Harrill and proudly worn by his students was based on Roy’s design. The name would just change depending on the school.
For hobbies, Roy enjoyed rebuilding old ’55 Chevys, and I still remember one old Chevy truck he was in the process of painting on one of my visits over to his house. Roy was a master diver and loved SCUBA diving.
For anyone who knew Roy and would like to pay their respects, the Family will receive friends from 6:00 – 7:00 PM Saturday, February 20, 2021, at Mynatt Funeral Home Halls Chapel, with a service to follow at 7:00 PM. Rev. Mark Large, Rev. Danny Scates, and Daniel Beason will be officiating. Family and friends will meet at 12:15 PM for a 12:30 PM interment on Monday, February 22, 2021, at East Tennessee State Veterans Cemetery on John Sevier Highway. Online condolences may be left by clicking here.
It saddens me, because I just moved back to Knoxville, Tennessee and was looking forward to reconnecting with Roy. He was a good man who served his country and had a lot to share. He will be missed.
If two hands meet in the air, can you “suddenly enter?”
This post is a continuation of the thread started in my last post, No First Strike. If you are unfamiliar with my thoughts on this idea, you may wish to read that post first. And again, there is no right or wrong here. This is just one of my understandings and interpretations of these concepts after many years of training and research into Okinawan Karate. And, in no way do I imply that I am the originator of these ideas. They are things I learned from many other karate practitioners I have met on my journey.
In the Kenpo Gokui (also known as the Isshin-ryu Code), we have line #6, whose kanji can be translated as, Hand : Meets : In the air : Suddenly : Enter
The more common interpretation of this idea found in the U.S. is, the time to strike is when the opportunity presents itself. As mentioned in the previous post in this thread, I prefer the more exact translation of the kanji.
First, a quick example of understanding body mechanics.
Try this exercise with someone strong.
Have someone get into a solid stance, make a fist, and extend their arm. Stand in front of them and ask them to resist the pressure you apply to their arm.
First, press down on their fist. Can they resist that?
Second, lift or press up on their fist. Can they resist that?
Push their fist to the left. Can they resist?
Push their fist to the right. Can they resist?
Now holding their fist with your thumb and second finger, move their fist in small circles. Can they resist that? Not so much…
There are muscles in place that allow your body to resist the up, down, left, and right pressure pretty effectively. Of course, to what extent does depend somewhat on how strong you are. However, there are no muscles, specifically in place to resist those small circles. That is a simple example of understanding and applying the concept of body mechanics.
So, let’s think about this for a few seconds.
If that same arm was being extended toward you in an attack, and you met that arm with your own, could you use that understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the arm structure to redirect the attack and suddenly enter with your own counter? … as in
Hand Meets In The Air, Suddenly Enter
In the above illustration, arm A. is the punching arm. Arm B. has met arm A. in the air. There would be several options open to arm B. at this point, one of which might be the basic Isshin-ryu low-level block.
They’re not blocks! They’re really Ninja Delayed Death Strikes!
First, let me just go out on a limb here and say that I do not subscribe to the idea adopted in recent years by some Isshin-ryu Karate practitioners that there are “no blocks in Isshin-ryu Karate;” that the blocks are actually ” some kind of top-secret pressure point, Ninja delayed death strikes.”
It is much more likely that nobody ever showed them how to properly practice and employ these blocks in technique. The blocks do, in fact, work extremely well for me and several practitioners I know quite well.
So, the answer to the above question is …
Of course, you can. In fact, this is one of the key elements of blocking in Isshin-ryu Karate. A second is that Isshin-ryu does not typically employ linear blocks. They are designed as circular blocks. However, the circles are tiny. Can these blocks be used linearly? Of course, they can. But many of the Isshin-ryu kata techniques are set up through the use of this “two hands meet in the air” concept combined with circular blocks and then followed up with an aggressive counter-attack.
However, it is important to remember that combat is fluid and ever-changing, so as soon as you understand a concept, someone tosses in an exception. This, too, is also fine. That is where years of training, experience, and flexibility come into play.
Experience and Flexibility
As an example of this experience and flexibility, the third seminar we held in Clinton, Tennessee, with Sensei Sherman Harrill was on Seisan Kata. The opening technique in that kata is essentially a mid-level block followed by a reverse punch. We probably spent the first two hours of the seminar exploring variations of those two basic techniques. And nobody was bored! Two hands would meet in the air. The entry would vary with each version, and therefore the counter-attack would target different areas of the attacker’s body. But the technique was the same.
Then, of course, there would come the “those are the things I do with these techniques. What Sensei (for him that was Master Tatsuo Shimabuku) showed me was this …
It would be a simple block/punch karate technique. But it would also be very effective. Two hands would meet in the air, a sudden entry, and then – the fight is over. Ikken Hissatsu
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The popular interpretation of this guiding principle of karate is that karate is for self-defense only. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with this interpretation, especially if you are just getting started on your martial arts journey. Teaching this maxim to your students helps instill the rule that karate techniques should not be misused. But is that truly all there is to it?
There is no first strike in karate.
Hmmm. Okay. This phrase does not say, “Karate is for self-defense only.’ It clearly says, “There is no first strike in karate.” Why is that? If they meant to say, “karate is for self-defense only,” why didn’t they just say that. Part of the problem is that these maxims were not coined in English. Most were probably originally written in Chinese, then translated into native Okinawan languages such as Uchināguchi, then possibly Japanese, and finally into English.
Another consideration is the translation itself. Chinese and Japanese languages are rather different from their western counterparts. One-to-one translations of characters into letters can be problematic at best. Thus, the age, knowledge, and life experience of the translator becomes a translation factor.
To provide an example of what I am talking about, I will use the Isshin-ryu Code, which is basically a streamlined adaptation of “The Eight Poems of the Fist” found in the Bubishi.
The Isshin-ryu Code
A person’s heart is the same as Heaven and Earth
The Blood circulating is similar to the Moon and the Sun
A manner of drinking or spitting is either hard or soft
A person’s unbalance is the same as weight
The body should be able to change direction at any time
The time to strike is when the opportunity presents itself
The eyes must see all sides
The ears must listen in all directions
Man’s spirit, heart, mind : is like (same as) : Heaven : Earth
Blood, hope, range, pulse : is like : Moon (day – date) : Sun (month)
Stiff – hard, strong. stubborn, inflexible : Soft-gentle, mild-tender, mellow : Take in (soak in) : Throw out
Fear, horror : March : Past (pass) : Leave : Meet
Directions : Any : Time : React (respond) : Flexibility (change)
Hand : Meets : In the air : Suddenly : Enter
Eyes : Should : Watch : Four : Directions
Ears : Laterally placed : To listen to (to comply with) : Eight : Directions
Clearly, the two versions of the Isshin-ryu Code are pretty similar. Version 1 would certainly be easier to “read” for most English-speaking Americans. Version 2 is definitely much more cryptic and makes you want to scratch your head. But beyond that, there are some notable differences. I like to highlight #6 and #8 as the first differences for my students to explore.
Version 1 is found in most books on Isshin-ryu Karate. I have no idea where it comes from. Version 2 is a direct translation of the code’s Kanji by an elderly Chinese gentleman known to my instructor. It is the translation his students use and has shaped our training a little differently.
So, where is all this going?
First, if differences in translation can occur in one text, they can occur in another. Second, phrases that mean one thing to a beginner often mean something else to an intermediate, advanced, or long-time student. As an example of this, take The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi. If you have read this book more than once, say at different times over your training years, you will understand exactly what I mean. While the words themselves have not changed, your understanding of them will have.
So, here is an alternative “understanding” of the phrase, there is no first strike in karate.
The words could say, there is no first strike in karate because, quite literally, there is no first strike in karate. By way of explanation, here are two examples.
A traditional story
There is an old story of two early karate masters in nearby villages on Okinawa. Each village was very proud of its resident Sensei, and therefore talk soon began around the topic of which was better. Over time, this argument grew to such a fevered pitch that a match became inevitable. Finally, the two masters met on neutral ground and squared off. The residents of both villages gathered to watch. The villagers waited in breathless anticipation for the action to begin. The two masters calmly faced each other, each waiting for an opportunity. It never came. After what seemed like an eternity, the match was called a draw, and the disappointed villagers went home, grumbling to themselves.
A student from one village, following his Sensei back to their village, finally worked up the nerve to ask, “Sensei, why did you not fight? What was settled by this?”
The Sensei smiled, “We settled the fact that we are both excellent karate-ka. Each of us understood that the first one to strike would surely lose. Therefore, neither of us was willing to strike first.”
From the sport side of things
While over the years, I left sport karate behind, there were many years I did participate. I was never a “Hall of Famer,” but I was a solid competitor. I won some and lost some. Eventually, I refereed matches and judged the kata competitions. I also hosted the Tennessee Valley Karate Championship on the Tennessee Karate Circuit for about seven years. I am not sure that circuit even exists anymore.
In my experience, there are basically three types of tournament karate fighters: 1) the charger, 2) the runner, and 3) the counter-fighter. Which fighter is harder to beat?
The charger comes right at you, straight on, fast and hard. However, if you get fairly adept at working angles, you can do well against the charger.
The runner runs, and you have to chase him all over the ring and try to pin him in a corner. Typically, they get a lot of warnings for running out of the ring. However, if you can learn to control the ring and cut the runner off, you can do well against the runner as well.
The counter-fighter sits and waits patiently for you to attack. When you do, he simply shifts position, parries, or blocks, and then counter-attacks. And, for my money, this is the toughest competitor to beat.
You cannot initiate an attack with out creating an opening
If your opponent simply has the patience and skill to take advantage of the opening you have just provided them with, you will lose. Perhaps, this is another reason there is no first strike in karate. Especially when losing might be a matter of life or death.
Just food for thought …
That is the beauty of art. It is open to interpretation. And karate, after all, is a martial art. I am just sharing one of my interpretations with anyone interested. It is neither right nor wrong. It is simply another avenue to explore. And, for those who want to argue, I leave you with a few additional thoughts from Mr. Miyagi …
“The answer is only important if you ask the right question”
“Only root karate come from Miyagi. Just like bonsai choose own way grow because root strong you choose own way do karate same reason.”
“First learn stand, then learn fly. Nature rule Daniel-San, not mine.”
Then, of course, if you do understand the point I am making, and when you pair this take on “There is no first strike in karate” with “Hand meets in the air, suddenly enter,” pretty cool things begin to happen. But that’s a subject for another day.
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I hadn’t gotten too far along on my Isshin-ryu Karate journey when I heard rumors of something called Master Tatsuo Shimabuku’s “Secret Scrolls of Kumite.” I envisioned Master Shimabuku walking over to a dusty intricately carved old chest in the corner of the dojo and opening it. After the dust had settled, he’d reach in and take out a dusty old cloth wrap containing a traditional scroll. With much reverence, he’d remove the cover, unwrap the scroll and share some of its ancient and mysterious knowledge with a chosen few.
Imagine my disappointment when someone told me they were just listed on the dojo wall in plain sight. The reason they were so secret is that they were very cryptic. Most Marines were not stationed on Okinawa long enough to get to a point where they would learn these techniques. A typical tour for a Marine on Okinawa might be 14 to 18 months. That is barely enough time to get a thorough grounding in a system’s basic techniques, never mind lessons from the “Secret Scrolls.”
From discussions I’ve had with my Sensei, Sherman Harrill, and others, It has become clear that these techniques were mostly taught to his Okinawan students. This was simply because they lived there and therefore trained long enough to have a base of knowledge sufficient to make practical use of them.
But we got lucky …
First, Sensei Sherman Harrill was lucky enough to be in Tatsuo Shimabuku’s dojo when he was teaching his Kumite techniques to a group of his Okinawan students. Sensei was drafted to be “uki,” meaning Shimabuku’s students practiced these techniques on him. I guess Master Shimabuku figured if they could make them work on a big, strong U.S. Marine, they understood them properly.
Second. Sensei Arcenio Advincula made repeated trips back to Okinawa. This was for several reasons. He remained in contact with Master Shimabuku’s wife and his second son, Shinso. He also visits his in-laws, having married Michi Nakamashi in 1961. And he continued to train and research Okinawan Karate and Kobudo. Because of his additional time on the island of Okinawa, Sensei Advincula did learn Tatsuo Shimabuku’s Kumite.
Sensei Harrill would often incorporate these Kumite techniques into his classes in the dojo, depending on what he was teaching at the time, and did not “separate” them out for special classes. At one point, he did compare notes with Sensei Advincula to ensure what he remembered from being on the receiving end of these techniques jived with what Sensei Advincula was taught. Once satisfied, they were both on the same page, he began teaching them more openly as Tatsuo Shimabuku’s Kumite.
One of the early seminars Sensei John Kerker did for us in Clinton, Tennessee, covered Tatsuo Shimabuku’s Kumite. John was Sensei Harrill’s Sempai and inherited the Carson Dojo when Sensei Harrill passed away in 2002. This seminar, held in March of 2005, was a real eye-opener for many Isshin-ryu folks who attended because they had not seen these “secret techniques” before.
So, what are these Kumite all about?
Essentially, they are keys to understanding Tatsuo Shimabuku’s karate. From my experience, they are multi-faceted in that they are solid techniques on their own. They also give examples of how Tatsuo Shimabuku viewed the techniques in the kata he taught, and perhaps why he modified them as he did when incorporating them into his system.
There are fifteen Kumite Techniques. The last five are knife defense techniques. I will list these below. When you look at the list, I think you will understand why they were “secret.” If someone did not actually show you what each technique was, you would be hard-pressed to figure it out on your own.
Also, several have multiple variations, so the fifteen expand to about forty-five if you look at the “official” variations. Personal variations are really only limited by your level of knowledge, your imagination, and, of course, the rules of body mechanics.
Tatsuo Shimabuku’s Kumite
The lefthand hold the right wrist
Outside block, punch inside
Punch back of the hand
Knuckle block for kick, counter kick
Hold arm, use against a punch
One handhold gi, grab, twist, kick
Full nelson, karate cut groin
Bear hug waist, hands-free, grab one finger, break, or hit back of the hand
Devil’s handshake, grab your fist, pull, kick.
Two-hand straight choke, break, grab adam’s apple
Straight stab, grab hand and writs, twist kick, trip kick.
Ice pick stab, block across, kick.
Straight stab, both hands up, karate cut block, kick.
Straight stab leaning forward, grab the hand with both of yours, pull. trap at elbow
Two knife straight stab, squat kick
Well, there you have them, or at least the primary fifteen. The Secret Scrolls of Kumite is not so secret anymore. I do think, however, you can see why a new Marine standing in Master Tatsuo Shimbuku’s dojo might look at this list and say to themselves, “what the heck is this?”
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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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I have had a long-held interest in the martial arts. One Christmas, I received a book called Best Karate, written by Mas Oyama, when I was 13 or 14 years old. I spent hours in my bedroom trying to learn from the book.
When I began attending the Charles H McCann Technical School in North Adams, Massachusetts, I was invited by a friend to a Uechi-ryu Karate (a very traditional Okinawan system) class in nearby Adams and started attending. But once I discovered cars and girls, that pretty much ended that … as well as my interest in scouting.
When I was stationed in Korea (12/81 to 12/82), I studied Tae Kwon Do with the battalion instructor. He was excellent. I earned a red belt, which, in that system, was the equivalent of a brown belt in the ranking system used by many styles. When I got back to the U.S., I started competing in tournaments and did okay. However, I discovered these Isshin-ryu guys who had a wicked reverse punch. They would slide up your extended kicking leg and nail you with it. I decided I needed to see what they were doing and so sought out an Isshin-ryu dojo.
Years later, I was running my own dojo and hosting tournaments. But I was very disappointed in the way things were evolving. I was never that wild about sport karate. I just did that to keep students. I saw limited techniques being used in sport karate; it was more like a game of tag. The rules seemed to violate the karate “maxims” I was trying to adhere to.
For example, in Okinawan Karate, all kicks are targeted below the waist. Step into the ring, and now all kicks must be above the waist. That seemed odd!
And kata, especially with the advent of musical kata, quickly devolved into breakdancing with some kicks thrown in.
Note: Let me just say that full-contact karate and MMA fighters of today are great athletes and some damn tough individuals. They are very good at what they do and deserve respect. It is just not “karate” as I had come to understand it.
The problem was that I do read a great deal, and I had read a lot of history about Okinawa, the birthplace of Karate, and the early pioneers of Tang Hand, which later become known as Empty Hand … or Karate. I was simply not seeing the Karate I’d read so much about. Either the stories were all lies, or there was nobody around who could do that stuff anymore. I was actually ready to throw in the towel. Then I met Sensei Sherman Harrill.
Sensei Harrill was from a cross-roads in the cornfields called Carson, Iowa (near Council Bluffs). He was an ex-Marine who trained with the Isshin-ryu system’s founder, Tatsuo Shimabuku, while stationed in Okinawa in the late 50s. And he was the real deal.
Everything I had ever seen paled when stacked up against what he did. No matter who you were, how big, how strong, or what you knew … he would effortlessly show you the error of your ways. Organizations, rank, who you knew did not matter. It was what you could demonstrate on the mat that counted.
So, I started over. I traveled all around the country to seminars for years to train with this guy. It was a humbling and memorable moment when I asked him how I could become his student. He laughed and replied. “well, most folks just ask.” So, I asked. And he replied, “Darren, I have seen the changes you are making in your Karate and how you train … so welcome aboard.”
That was the beginning of the journey of a lifetime.
The origins of JD’s Nguyen-ryu
Nguyen-ryu is an indigenous martial art found in Vietnam. Mai’s father, Ang, was a village elder, and in the book Serpents Underfoot, a well-respected practitioner of this art. Ang taught this art to both his daughter, Mai, and the son of his old Montagnard friend, Dish. Dish and Mai both taught the art to Curtis Cordell, Mai’s American husband, and JD’s father.
Curtis tried to teach Nguyen-ryu to his son, but that old father-son thing interfered. Eventually, Curtis took his son to a dojo run by a friend of his. That Sensei taught a very traditional version of Isshin-ryu. JD did learn a great deal of Nguyen-ryu from his mother, which blended well with the Isshin-ryu.
It has been my experience that most “real” martial arts have more in common than differences. That is because when you get past all the marketing hype, it is body mechanics that determine what works … and the human body only moves powerfully so many ways.
My exposure to Nguyen-ryu
Enter Charlie Taylor, a good friend, a Vietnam veteran, and a damn good martial artist. He just showed up at my dojo one day and started helping out.
Charlie had served several tours in Vietnam as a medic on Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols in the region of Vietnam my books focus on. He was a quiet guy, but when the mood struck, he had some fantastic stories to tell about his experiences in Vietnam. I am sure he embellished them a bit to make them more fun to listen too, but there was something in the stories and his eyes when he told them that led you to understand that there was an element of truth to each one.
Charlie was also a highly-skilled martial artist, and there was nothing “superfluous” in what he did. I remember spending time training what was essentially a “silent sentry removal” technique with him and being shocked and a bit disturbed at the ease with which it worked. I still remember asking him, rhetorically,
“And, you’ve used this before.”
He just looked at me kind of funny and replied, “On a few occasions.”
While he knew a few of the kata, Charlie didn’t practice Isshin -ryu. In fact, many of our workouts consisted of me teaching him more Isshin-ryu kata. He practiced what he called Nguyen-ryu. Charlie claimed he’d learned it from his grandfather, who’d married a Vietnamese girl while stationed in Japan after WWII. This girl’s father was a skilled practitioner of the style, and after a suitable period of denials, consented to teach it to his daughter’s round-eyed husband.
I know it sounds like a movie plot. And maybe it is. I can neither prove nor disprove Charlie’s claims. However, I can definitely vouch for his abilities. Charlie could be damn scary when he was “in the zone,” much like my former instructor, Sensei Harrill. Those who have trained with Sensei Harrill will understand what I am referring to. We called it “shark eyes.”
Charlie did have an honorary 5th-degree black belt in Isshin-ryu Karate signed by Harold Long. However, he always claimed it was not worth the paper it was written on. It seems Charlie had impressed Harold Long with his abilities while training for a period at Long’s school in Knoxville, Tennessee, but, as mentioned earlier, had only learned a few of the kata. He held no official rank in Nguyen-ryu, so he always wore a white belt.
I will say that the kid’s classes loved it when Charlie regaled them with stories of his early training days. He always referred to them as “Papaw Days.”
Unfortunately, Charlie passed away a few years ago from a combination of medical conditions, several of which I am sure originated with his tours of duty in Vietnam. Some of the threads in Serpents Underfoot and Montagnard are based on past discussions with Charlie. And I think Charlie may be resurrected from the dead for a character in the next book in the series titled Reciprocity. I think he would like that.
Martial Arts scenes in the two books …
I have seen a large man knocked unconscious with a punch to the shoulder. I do not know too many people who could do that. Sensei Harrill certainly could. And, his “fence post punch” was something to behold. You did not want to get hit with it.
On more than one occasion, MMA fighters or cage fighters from the casinos in Council Bluff would make their way to his dojo after hearing about this karate guy who had a reputation for being a badass. Every one of them left with a new appreciation for karate … well, at least Sherman Harrill’s version.
The technique JD uses to take out the drug smuggler on the trail from Laos into Vietnam is simply one of my variations on Charlie Taylor’s sentry removal technique.
Putting it all together
I like to think my stories are written to entertain, but there is so much more to them, at least for me. They are ways to remember, record, and share the people I have known, places I have been, things I have seen, and the stories I have heard, as well as the possibilities those things can combine to create.
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There are essentially two mindsets when it comes to karate.
Karate is a sport.
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.
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.
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.
Man maintains his balance, poise, and sense of security only as he is moving forward.
It was all balance. But then, she already knew that from surfing.
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
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.