Tag: Kata

The Dance of Death

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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Karate and Rusty Red Ford Tractors

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.

I did.

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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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.