Tag: Sensei Sherman Harrill

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: 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!

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.