Saturday, August 23, 2014

Five Oral Teachings (Kuden) and Gamaku

Kuden are "oral transmissions" or "oral teachings" and are very common in martial arts. Of course most teaching is done orally (as opposed to in writing) but kuden are not just the words a teacher says in a given class... Rather they are usually teachings that have been passed down for generations and the phrasing of these teachings is fairly standardized. Anyone who has been involved in Okinawan martial arts for any length of time has heard many of these kuden. Here are 5 kuden which almost every longtime student of Ryukyu martial arts has heard many times.

  • Straighten the spine
  • Roll the pelvis forward
  • Put strength in the tanden
  • Relax the lower back.
  • Squeeze the buttocks

These sound familiar, right?  When I first heard these, they sounded like totally separate instructions (some of which made more sense than others).  However, over the years it has become clear to me that these instructions are (on one level) all describing the same thing. These all refer to aspects of the exact same motion: a pelvic tilt that minimizes the lumbar curve.


 Straighten the spine
While all these oral instructions describe the same motion, many of them also have additional aspects. In this case straightening the back requires the pelvic tilt and minimizing of the lumbar cure, but it also refers to minimizing the thorasic and cervical curves. The lumbar curve has the biggest impact on power transmission, but all three curves are straightened to the degree that is naturally possible.


Roll the pelvis (pelvic rotation)
Forward pelvic rotation minimizes the lumbar curve, and can offer a degree of protection to the groin. Generally this pelvic action is used in conjunction with the utilization of internal musculature and diaphragms in the lower abdomen (but this is beyond the scope of this article). 

Put strength in the tanden

The main muscles involved in rotation of the pelvis forward are in the lower abdomen, and activating the muscles in the tanden area (putting strength in the tanden) will automatically pull the the pelvis forward (assuming there isn't equal activation of antagonistic muscles like the erector spinae muscles). However, the activation of the tanden area abdominal muscles is also important for creating a firmer connection between upper and lower body (discussed below).

Practice the pelvic roll several times and pay attention to the muscles of the tanden area.... Did you feel that contraction just below the navel? That is putting strength in the tanden.


In order to tilt the pelvis forward and minimize the lumbar curve the muscles of the lower back must be relaxed (because they pull the pelvis and back the opposite direction).

Utilization of (or tension in) the muscles of the lower back (assuming there is not equal activation of antagonistic muscles) will automatically cause the pelvis to tilt backwards and the lumbar curve to become more pronounced. Too much tension in the lower back is unfortunately very common in modern karatedo, and it is not uncommon to see karateka actually leaning backwards while punching. Anyone with even a rudimentary (or just intuitive) grasp of body-mechanics will understand that leaning backwards is totally contrary to the the goal of projecting mechanical force forward (as in a punch). It guarantees one will not hit as hard as one is able to hit, and it compromises the stability of one's body structure (making it easier to lose one's balance). If there was one feature of old-style karate that I could get practitioners modern karatedo to adopt it would be to relax the lower back and eliminate this counter productive backwards lean.

Leaning backwards & pronounced lumbar curve

Practice the pelvic tilt several times. notice how the muscles of the lower back elongate rather than contract.

Squeeze the buttocks

Next to the tanden muscles, the muscles most most responsible for the pelvic tilt (and therefore also the minimization of the lumbar curve) are the muscles of the buttocks. In addition to this, squeezing the buttocks helps protect the groin (to some degree) and creates an internal tension that can be felt along the inner thigh.

Practice the pelvic tilt several times, notice how the buttocks are engaged in the motion.

While writing this article I stumbled onto the image below on a fitness website. It is remarkable in that the right side of the picture illustrates all five of the kuden and shows their relationship very explicitly: Straightening the spine, rolling the pelvis forward, putting strength in the lower abdomen (tanden), relaxing the lower back, squeezing the buttocks

Click to enlarge

OK, now that we have shown the relationship between these five oral instructions, we should at least briefly discuss why a pelvic tilt that minimizes the lumbar curve is important. This can be summed up in one word: gamaku.

_Okinawan-English Wordbook_ pg 47
 Gamaku is an Uchinaaguchi (Okinawan language) word which refers to the waist area including the small of the back (ie the lumbar curve). Obviously gamaku coincides closely with what modern fitness gurus call "the core". Gamaku is the part of the body which joins the upper body and lower body together. It is therefore the area responsible for transmitting force from the lower body (legs and hips) to the upper body (including the arms and hands). The reverse is true as well (transferring force from upper body to lower body).  Needless to say the area is pretty important both for delivering strong blows and transferring incoming force through the body structure to the ground (rooting).

The primary load bearing structures in the human body are bones. One look at the bones of the torso immediately reveals something very important about the gamaku (waist) area.

There is a lot of bone in the upper half of the torso and a lot of bone in the lower torso, but only a thin column of bone joining the upper and lower... The waist is conspicuous for it's lack of boney structure. If that wasn't bad enough, this thin column of bone is curved in a way that acts as a shock absorber, dampening the amount of force that travels from the lower body to upper body and vice versa. This is obviously not a good formula for transferring power form the hips and legs into a punch.  The solution to this problem is to minimize the lumbar curve optimizing the transmission of force through that area. As discussed in the section on "Putting strength in the tanden" the pelvic action which accomplishes this engages the rectus abdominis muscles, especially in the area around and below the navel. This provides additional structural support and stability in the area joining the upper and lower body. So there is now better structural connection on both the back and front of the body. The use of the gamaku area in Okinawan karate also stablizes the sides of the waist area. Arakaki shinshii describes this as “the moment a fist reaches a target, you employ gamaku so as to rapidly contract but not tighten the muscles between the lower ribs and the sacrum. Gamaku will put extra weight behind your tsuki and help stabilize your position, so when you hit a target, you will not be pushed back by a rebound from your own tsuki.”

The muscles involved in this squeeze are mainly the external and internal obliques (the external obliques are also involved in the pelvic rotation).

So when you combine the minimization of the lumbar curve, engaging the rectus abdominis muscles, and squeezing the obliques, you've enhanced the structural connection and stability between the upper and lower body. This in turn means that you have optimized the transmission of force from lower to upper body (and the reverse).

It is interesting to note that power lifters are well aware of the lack of stability and connection in the waist area and wear specialized belts which stabilize and support the area (minimizing the chance of injury). In a very real sense, these belts can be considered artificial gamaku.

artificial gamaku

Now I realize some readers are thinking to themselves "Wait, I thought gamaku was some kind of whipping energy created through hip motion". Since these hip motions utilize the gamaku area, they can be considered an application of gamaku, but only if the basic structural gamaku I outlined above is being employed to create a firmer connection between the hips and the upper body. So the above description is "structural gamaku". Hip motions of various sorts can be dynamic applications of this structural gamaku. Another way I have heard it discussed is that structural gamaku is "basic gamaku" and the "whipping energy" can be considered "advanced gamaku" (it being based on "basic gamaku").

It is very important to understand that only a small number of Okinawan martial arts use this whipping energy to a significant extent, but all Okinawan karate uses (or should use) "structural" gamaku.

For a more detailed look at the use of gamaku in punching techniques please read my earlier article on the difference between modern and classical tsuki waza.

Classical Tsuki Waza

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Use of Ryukyu Martial Arts Techniques in MMA

I am happy to present an article by Noah Legel as the Ryukyu Martial Arts Blog's second guest-post.

Noah Legel a serious practitioner of the Ryukyu martial arts who has also successfully competed in MMA competition. In his blog (Budo no Kaizen), Noah has frequently mentioned examples of the use of old-style Ryukyu martial arts techniques in MMA events. Because of this, and his background, I asked him if he would be willing to contribute something on the topic to this blog. This great article is the result.

Classical Okinawan martial arts were not developed for competitive fighting against a similarly-trained opponent--this is a fact that most traditional martial artists will agree on. Most often, when this topic is discussed, it is mentioned that Itosu Anko said that karate was for use against “a villain or ruffian. “ Some even bring up that Motobu Choki said that karate was best used on someone who did not understand the strategies being used against him, and that “when fighting a boxer, it is better to go with his flow and take up a rhythm with both of your hands.”

These men, both masters in their own right, quite clearly stated how Okinawan arts were intended to be used. Despite that, however, there are many techniques and skills present in Okinawan arts that cross over into the competitive realm. Mixed martial arts competition, in particular, lends itself to the use of some classical methods, because of the open-fingered gloves and relatively relaxed ruleset. Over the past couple years, in particular, we have seen MMA fighters focus more on their striking skills, and this has brought some of those techniques to the fore.

Suki-Geri (Oblique/Shovel Kick)

Suki-geri, the oblique/shovel kick, is a staple technique within the Naihanchi kata. It is a rather close-range technique, and can be used to cause pain, off-balance your opponent, dislocate their knee, and more. All told, it is a very useful tool, but up until the past couple of years, it has been relatively obscure in the competitive fighting world. The range at which it is best used it between punching range and clinching range, and most fighters at this distance opt to; continue punching, enter the clinch, or shoot for a takedown. When UFC Light Heavyweight Champion, Jon Jones, started utilizing the kick in his fights, people started to take notice.

Around the same time, and increasingly thereafter, more fighters started adding it to their repertoire. Indeed, several fighters from the Jackson-Winkeljohn camp (where Jon Jones trains) were among the first to showcase it in high level MMA competition. Currently, this kick is being used at the end of its effective range, and for the same reason fighters tend to throw the front thrust kick--to discourage and stop an opponent from closing the distance. For long-legged fighters like Jones, this works well. I suspect that, over time, we will see it being used in the clinch, and to wear away at the legs the way roundhouse kicks to the thigh are currently used. Strikes directly to the joint are technically illegal (at least in much amateur competition), but most fighters can get away with them, so we may see a rise in injuries if this kick becomes more popular and they choose to use it in that manner.

Tsumasaki-Geri (Toe-Tip Kick)

Kicking with the tips of the toes is a skill that requires a lot of dedication to conditioning, so it stands to reason that it would not be a popular striking method in competitive fighting. Fighters typically train in cycles, and need techniques that can be quickly utilized in competition. As MMA has progressed, some of the more experienced fighters have been able to put in the training time to start using tsumasaki-geri. Japanese fighter, Kikuno Katsunori has used it to some degree, as has Lyoto Machida.

Most recently, Erick Silva has used it with greater success, dropping several opponents with kicks to the body using the tips of his toes. The longer people train for competition, the more likely they are to utilize techniques that are more complicated, or take more training. This technique may never become extremely popular, but I suspect we will continue to see it from time to time.

Sasae-Uchi (Supported Strikes)

We are all taught about "The Five Senses," when we are children, but in truth, there are far more "senses" than that. One of them is the sense of "body awareness"--that is, knowing where your body parts are in space without seeing them. This sense can be used to make striking a moving target much easier. If you were to close your eyes and hold out your hand at a random point in the air, you could slap it with your other hand quite easily. The same is true if you put that hand on your opponent's head. Wherever their head moves, your hand moves, and wherever your hand is, your other hand can find it.

In the heat of combat, this awareness gives you a shortcut to accuracy, and negates the need for clear vision—something that you may not have, between the adrenaline-induced tunnel vision, taking punches to the face, and getting sweat and blood in your eyes. This also has the added benefit of being able to push and pull your opponent into your strikes for greater effect. In Muay Thai (the most popular striking art for mixed martial artists to study) this is most often done from a "single collar tie," striking with the elbow; a technique we can see in Naihanchi. Now, we are seeing more fighters use the same technique for punches and kicks, as well, and I suspect that trend will continue. It becomes particularly useful when your opponent is dazed, attempting to clinch, or being overly defensive.

Tuidi (Standing Joint Locks)

Classical Okinawan martial arts make use of standing joint locks (classified as "tuidi") in conjunction with strikes and takedowns. This aspect of these arts is less widely-known than the striking aspect, but plays a valuable role in enhancing the strikes and takedowns. A seemingly large number of martial artists, both inside and outside the karate community, believe that these techniques are too impractical to use, and so they have neglected them. As the striking in mixed martial arts competition evolves, so will the trapping and grip-fighting aspects. It is in this realm that tuidi is most useful--using your opponent's grip and resistance against them.

Unlike the joint locks that are commonly taught for combat sports, tuidi is typically a means to an end, as most tuidi-waza are not intended to be submission holds. Instead, they are used to wrench the joint to cause pain and damage, before moving on to other techniques if the opponent continues to fight. Sometimes, they are used in judo as a distraction, despite being technically illegal, and widely regarded as ineffective. Aoki Shinya used a tuidi technique found in the "stacked hands" position of Naihanchi during his fight with Keith Wisniewski in the Japanese MMA organization, Shooto. That technique ended the fight immediately. More recently, Frank Mir and Jon Jones have both made use of a shoulder-wrench found in Naihanchi Sandan. This is something that I expect to increase in popularity as fighters realize that the context within which they can be utilized does exist within MMA.

Muchimidi (Sticky Hands)

In this case, I am using "muchimidi" in a very general sense, to refer to fighters using their hands/forearms to trap, jam, follow, and grip-fight with their opponents. This is an aspect of fighting that has been largely ignored within mixed martial arts competition, due to the fact that emphasis is placed on clinching range and punching range, without addressing the area in between. Typically, if fighters do anything other than continue to throw punches at this range, they will either back away, try to close the distance to clinching range, or shoot in for takedowns. These are much easier strategies than muchimidi, and require less training to be effective, so they are very popular strategies. If any hand trapping had been going on, it was mostly hikite (pulling hand) being used to move an opponent’s guard out of the way, but even that hasn’t been popular until recently.

Over the past couple of years, however, we have seen the rise of muchimidi in MMA. Jon Jones likes to use it, because of his reach, to keep his opponents in elbow range, but that is a very rudimentary use of the concept. UFC Bantamweight Champion, TJ Dillashaw, uses it to jam his opponent's lead hand, forcing them to punch with the other and making it easier for him to defend against, which is a more complex usage. The most extensive use of trapping in mixed martial arts, recently, has been by Robbie Lawler and Matt Brown. Both fighters have a tendency to grab at their opponents' hands, follow the hands, and jam strikes. When they fought each other, this hand-fighting was especially prevalent. As fighters improve their striking and clinchwork, I suspect we will see more of them venturing into this middle ground of "trapping range." That will bring with it a rise in tuidi-waza, supported strikes, and close range strikes, such as the ones described here, as they fit very well into this area of fighting.
Be sure to checkout Noah's excellent blog Budo no Kaizen
Noah Legel trains and teaches at the Peaceful Warrior Martial Arts & Healing Center

Friday, August 1, 2014

Ruuchuu Buji

The kanji in the picture below are pronounced "Ruuchuu Buji" in Uchinaaguchi or "Ryukyu Bugei" in Japanese. The word Ruuchuu (Ryukyu) is used instead of Uchinaa / Okinawa as a nod to the Ryukyu Kingdom (Ruuchuu Kuku / Ryukyu Okuku), which existed until the late 19th century, and to show respect to the entire Ryukyu archipelago and its culture. The term "buji" (bugei) is the old Okinawan term for martial arts. Unlike budo, the word buji (bugei) has the connotation of pre-Meiji martial traditions focused primarily on a practical approach to functional fighting skills. The goal of the this of blog is to increase awareness of old-style practical Okinawan martial arts (Ruuchuu Buji as opposed to shinbudo karatedo) and to encourage their practice and preservation.

© 2014 Ryan Parker (all rights reserved)
The picture shows a fist formation called Keikoken and is a type of foreknuckle strike. The thumb is used to properly brace the joints of the index finger allowing it to support/transmit a large amount of force. It is used to attack anatomically vulnerable areas of the body. The art of attacking especially weak anatomical structures is a sub-science of old Ruuchuu Buji called "chibudi" (tsubo-te). Interestingly, this fist formation was also used in old systems of health oriented massage which typically focused on a number of the same anatomical locations (chibu/tsubo).

The fist is superimposed over the Mon (family emblem) of the Ryukyu Monarch, which is now widely used as a symbol for Okinawa and the Ryukyu archipelago. Sometimes called the Hidari-Gomon or a Hidari Mistudomoe, it was a symbol of Hachiman (a war deity) the tutelary kami of the Minamoto clan. According to The Chuzan Seikan, the first official history of the Ryukyu Kingdom, the Minamoto clan gave rise to the first Ryukyu dynasty via king Shunten, the son of Minamoto no Tametomo.

Minamoto and Taira refugees from the Genpei-gassen introduced sophisticated weapons, martial arts, and military strategies to Okinawa in the 12th century. This event marks the beginning of martial arts and traditions in Okinawa. Traces of these very ancient martial traditions seem to still exist in Okinawan martial culture in the form of tuidi,  the weapons arts preserved in some Okinawan family traditions and Udundi, folk dances with weapons,  as well as various old plays about events in Okinawan history.

Friday, July 18, 2014

12 Suggestions for Effective Practice (Guest Post)

Today we have very special treat... This is the first guest post to appear on the Ryukyu Martial Arts Blog. It was written by Wesley Tasker several years ago for the Pekiti Tirsia International Newsletter, and he has kindly granted me permission to share the article here.

12 Suggestions for Effective Practice

“Practice is the best of all instructors." - Publilius Syrus
“I'm into scales right now.”- John Coltrane
When practicing either by one’s self or with a partner, there are several “responsibilities” that a person takes on. The first is to have a quality of practice that will help improve and/or maintain the current skill level in the given art. The second (which is applicable in partner/group practice) is to not give your partner (or yourself) bad habits and incorrect skills. The following is a list of 12 points that I believe will help with those responsibilities, and others that I am constantly stressing in class.

1 – Law of Beats
If we map a confrontation with music, we start with the initial attack as the opponent’s first beat. Within that beat (assuming we see it coming) we can move as well. So, let’s say that for the attacker’s first beat, he throws a haymaker. During this same beat we see it coming so we intercept. Now we are onto beat number two. The one thing you can be sure of is that the attacker will not stand there and let you tool off on them with impunity. On beat two, and all subsequent beats, you both get to do something – unless, of course, you did something to impede him. Some examples are attacking simultaneously as defending, using footwork, etc. Do not be lulled into the incorrect practice of an attacker who attacks once and then becomes comatose as you hit them with your best 24 strike combination. If practicing a more ambush-like scenario, remember that after you survive the attack – it is beat two and you have to expect something coming in and be prepared for it.

2 – Law of Equal Time Framing
I always stress that you should move in direct proportion to the speed of the person feeding the technique or practicing the drill etc. There is always something that gets to me when I see someone demonstrate a really fast counter to a very slow attack. This does not take much skill at all. If you were sparring and someone countered “just right”, but slow – and you moved as fast you could to counter. You got hit in reality. If they had gone even a little faster (which they could have) you would not have been able to move faster out of the way.

3 – Authenticity of Attack
I was at a seminar once and, while demonstrating a technique, I asked my student to throw a hard and fast punch at my head. He did. Later one of the participants asked me what would have happened had I not moved. I told them that I would have been hit really, really hard in the face. If you do not make your attacks authentic – you are training your partner to fail. You are also giving them destructive habits. This does not mean you have to try to cave their face in every time with a punch or stick strike. Even going slow, if they miss the block, your fist should push their face back. A slow angle one should follow through unless they stop it somehow. If you constantly lock out the stick as it reaches their head – you are not giving them realistic feedback no matter the speed. Pretty soon your partner is really good at defending against stick strikes that do not follow through and punches that would have never hit them. Now picture what happens the first time they spar or have an intense session with someone else…

4 – Plan A Comes First
“Plan A” is a term I use for the ideal of what we would like to accomplish in a confrontation. In a stick-fight Plan A is to hit the other guy while not getting hit our selves. That’s it… One’s technique becomes complex in concordance to one’s opponent’s skill. Things get complicated only because Plan A was thwarted – not because we want them to be. You don’t just walk up to someone during sparring, plant yourself at close range and then work on a specific technique. It should happen because you needed it to. Always revert back to Plan A whenever possible. I believe William of Ockham put it best when he stated, “Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem.” (Things should not be multiplied beyond necessity.) This very idea of Plan A is why I focus a lot on basic footwork and strikes on footwork, regardless of the weapon being used. The actual techniques, drills, etc. only come out when needed. Even then one should seek to return to Plan A as quickly as possible.

5 – Deal With Collaterals When Doing Counters & Re-Counters
This one is seen the most in Disarms. Let’s say that someone is doing a counter to the 1X1 disarm. The person doing the disarm does an inside deflection / parry and then adds a reverse 7 to the legs, an outside vertical to the head, and then brings the arm around for the disarm with the simultaneous 9 strike. The person countering waits until the actual disarm is happening and then counters. What happened to countering the “collaterals”? The reverse 7 and the vertical need to be addressed if one is truly countering the whole disarm. It would be like Lennox Lewis throwing a jab, right hand, hook, right hand at you. If you wanted to counter the last right hand, it would be unwise to just take the jab, right hand, hook. I would imagine a good time later, when you woke up, you could think about what you would have done…

6 – Drill Integrity
The drills we do in FMA were designed for a reason. That reason was to impart very valuable principles and concepts. A lot of times in training the authenticity of the offensive and counter-offensive roles in the drills get lost and they become nothing but lifeless stick clacking exercises. To keep a drill “authentic”, no matter what the weapon type, always consider rules 1, 2, and 3 and make sure they are functioning in the drill.

7 – Transcend & Include
In short, this simply states that whatever drill, pattern, and/or technique that you are doing – is only a vehicle that needs to be transcended and the skills it imparts included into your arsenal. One of the first pieces of advice Tuhon Bill gave me after passing my Mataas na Guro test was that I should “take the system apart” and just start flowing / fighting with the various sections (single stick, double stick, knife, etc.). He told me to break apart the drills and techniques and let them come out when needed and move beyond just rote memorization. This point is exemplified by Manong Florendo Visitacion who was fond of saying, “Learn the system, destroy the system, rebuild the system.” One can see this same methodology espoused by Magino’o Tom Bisio in an article for Black Belt magazine where he states that one must “Learn the drill, master the drill, dissolve the drill.” The rote techniques, drills, etc. of Pekiti Tirsia are profound, but they are not “it”. They too must eventually be dissolved and their lessons internalized in order for them to be truly functional.

8 – Work in Progressions
When one is learning a skill, it is best to work that skill in various progressive drills that vary in risk and/or predictability in order to truly functionalize that skill under pressure. It is counter productive to teach a student a #1 umbrella and then immediately gear them up for full contact sparring. There is a better chance of the student actually being able to use the umbrella under pressure if they have had sufficient time drilling it and have confidence in it.

9 – Pressure Test
This is the end result of 7 and 8. In order to make sure that your skills are “workable” one has to eventually either spar or drill in a more free style (or Juego Todo) type way. Or if you are concerned with certain self-defense skill sets, to use scenario work with what’s called “force on force” simulations. Either way, there eventually has to be “pressure” (or risk) in order to test out one’s skill sets.

10 – Teleological Knowledge
In philosophical terms, teleology is the “study of the ends or purposes of things.” One should always strive to know why one is doing even the smallest part of the art. Within the bigger picture of drills, technique, combinations, etc. it is helpful to know why and to what ends the given activity is meant for. That way one is not parroting the movements with no idea of what the goal is. Also, this point is here because I really wanted an excuse to use a big word…….

11 – Basics First & Last
This one is pretty self explanatory. Every system is built around a core set of basics that are cohesive throughout the curriculum, no matter how “complicated” or “large” it may seem. My friend Allen Hopkins (a Gracie Jiu-Jitsu black belt) always says that there are really only two Guard Passes – everything else is variation. This really exemplifies the idea that you always return to your basics. It is easy and sometimes alluring to get caught up in the more “technically fancy” drills and techniques – but in reality they are built on the foundation of basics. This is almost a variation of point number 4. Plan A is always rooted in your basics.

12 – Have Fun
Yes this seems obvious, but I believe there are three very important points contained in this statement. One is the obvious, enjoy your training. This does not mean that it’s always easy, or that you don’t get hit, slammed, etc. After all, as my good friend Mataas na Guro Jack Latorre said after getting hit by Tuhon Bill and Tuhon apologizing, “No need to apologize sir, this isn’t knitting.” If you dread your training each and every time – why do it.

The second is a point that is emphasized a lot by Tuhon Bill, especially when talking about knife work. He says he tries to keep the mood light and funny (even though the material is serious) because it is really easy to slip into a “cult of the knife” type of atmosphere. And let’s face it – no one I know wants to get into a knife fight, nor do they desire to seek it out. Most of us do this art for both martial (self-defense) reasons and art reasons – all the while having the maturity and experience to know that violence is best avoided and having left the adolescent fantasies far behind us.

Third, is that this point references safety. As a practitioner (and especially as an instructor) one should always keep safety in mind and make sure that the martial environment is as safe as possible without sacrificing the quality and intensity of training. Of course there is risk involved with martial arts, and sometimes at advanced levels you take away certain safety factors; but overall it is hard to have fun with a training dagger sticking out of one’s eye.

I hope that some of these points resonate as things already stressed in training, and perhaps one or two may be more crystallized ideas that are easily assimilated. There are more I’m sure…

Wesley Tasker teaches Ba Gua Zhang, Xing Yi Quan, Qi Lin Pai, and Pekiti Tirsia Kali at the  Somerville Martial Arts Institute and practices Zheng Gu Tui Na (Chinese medical orthopedic body work) and Die Da Shang Ke (Chinese trauma medicine) at the "Da Guo Tui Na Clinic".

Friday, July 11, 2014

10 Things Karate Must Do...

To Be Taken Seriously As A Martial Art

A while back I was in a discussion about karate and bunkai. Unlike most of my conversations on that topic, I was the only karateka participating. It provided an interesting window on how karate is viewed by long  term practitioners of other martial arts. The bottom line was that they could not take karate seriously as a martial art.

There were a number of reasons (all addressed below), however they didn't have much of a problem with the actual bunkai itself. Rather, they were critical of the way the bunkai was being practiced. In many ways a suitable alternative title for this article could have been "How to be a good Uke". (In the text of this article "Uke" always refers to the partner assigned the role of "attacker".)

Their main issues revolved around the fact that “no real attacker will throw karate punches”. So that seems like the place to start.

No “Karate Punches”

1) Defend against face punches, because nobody throws punches at your chest.

In real self defense most punches will be to the face. Usually starting on the left side of the face (because 90% of people are right handed). Nobody ever aims at the chest. Yet in class after class (and video after video) that is exactly what we see... It is EXTREMELY important to practice against what people ACTUALLY do in the real world. One can see from Motobu shinshii's books that he was aware that head punches were the realistic likelihood.

In real self-defense, anytime an opening strike is directed to the torso it MUST be assumed to be a knife/shank/pointy-thing attack. Nobody punches to the tummy as an opening gambit, so treat the hand like a knife (because it probably is holding one whether you see it or not).

2) If you aren't USING the "hiki-te" don't do it.

The hikite is the hand which pulls to the hip which is seen in many kata. In old-style karate this is usually meant to be some sort of limb control, usually trapping an opponent's arm. If you are not using the hikite for limb control DON'T DO IT. When Motobu shinshii wasn't using a hand he kept it in a center-line guard. This is a very good option, but not the only one. Using the free hand to cover one side of the head is another decent option. IMHO bunkai and self-defense practice should never include the one-hand-on-the-hip posture (if the hand on the hips isn't actively being used).

3) Uke should have his non-attacking hand up in a guard.

 Uke should keep his free-hand up protecting one side of the face (instead of having the hand on the hip). In the real world some attackers swing wildly without protecting their head. Others have more foresight and try keep their head protected while attacking... It is the later group that we need to understand how to deal with. So have the attacker keep his free hand up in a guard to protect the head. Oddly Motobu shinshii didn't seem to require this of his partners (despite being aware that the defender should never have one hand on the hip (unless it is being used). I am at a loss as to why he didn't insist on this with both defender and attacker.

4) Practice against wide punches. 

Karate heavily favors straight punches. So predictably karateka spend much time practicing against straight punches. However, in the real world a great many people throw rather wide punches (round-house punches, hay-makers, big over-hand rights, etc).  Therefore it is essential to spend a fair amount of practice time defending on the inside-line. In addition it is very important to practice methods of transitioning from the inside-line to the outside-line which is where much of Okinawan karate is meant to function. Motobu Choki shinshii's books show that he was well aware of this problem and practiced a significant percentage of waza from the inside-line

What not to do

No Zombie Attacks (Dead Kumite)

I borrowed the term Zombie Attacks from Dan Djurdjevic's excellent article: 
Attack of the Zombies

5)  Uke should always try throw a second (and third) punch.

People don't usually throw a single punch (although it certainly sometimes happens). Nor do they usually throw a continuous frenzy of punches nonstop without punctuation (although this too certainly sometimes happens). Rather people usually tend to throw punches in bursts of two or three punches... These bursts can come very close together, which subjectively can almost seem continuous but objectively there are usually brief punctuations when a beat or two are skipped (as the opponent evaluates relative position etc).

Real world experience and indirect information via anecdote and video footage of assaults and real fights, leads me to the supposition that the most commonly seen variants of the "short burst" are the two punch combination in the form of a left jab and right cross, and the three punch combination in the form of the big-right, big-left, big-right. The big-right, big-left, big-right combo tends to have more power and commitment than the jab-cross, but also travels a bit slower (due to the need to mobilize body-mass behind the punches which is not characteristic of a jab).

There are techniques in karate which are meant to automatically provide cover for a second and third punch.  Likewise there are techniques designed to "shut down" the opponent's offense before they throw a second or third punch. However wonderfully effective  these methods may be, the only way to see if they are working is to have your partner ATTEMPT a second (and third) punch. Without this actual feedback from an attempt to hit you with a second and third blow it is very unlikely that even the best techniques will succeed in the way they are meant to... So, the majority of one's training against a punch should be done with the partner intent on delivering a second and third strike... and actually attempting them.

6) Uke should attempt to parry/block your strikes.

In his summary of some of the wisdom passed on to him by Motobu Choki shinshii, Nagamine shinshii had this to say:

"The fact is that we should not assume any discontinuation of the opponent's movements since he would, in an actual situation, likely continue his movements, and perhaps emerge the victor. Our attitude in practicing prearranged kumite should, therefore , be based strongly on the premise that our opponent is likely to try to block our counterattack and continue to fight"

Motobu shinshii railed against  "dead kumite" (in this case "kumite" means "prearranged techniques") in which Uke fails to attempt to throw multiple strikes and does not actively attempt to parry/block the defender's counter-attack(s). In other words Motobu Choki shinshii hated seeing people train against "zombie attacks".

Learning how to exploit an opponent's natural defensive reactions (for instance by trapping and controlling an opponent's blocking hand) is an important aspect of self-defense and an extremely useful fighting skill.

7) Uke must throw techniques with penetration.

This one is totally self explanatory. Your uke must throw techniques with at least 3 or 4 inches of penetration past the surface of your  body. This changes the options that are possible and far too often I see people "blocking" punches that would never even make contact. This is totally unrealistic and creates a false sense of security. If you don't parry, the punch should connect and push you back a bit (using a safe level of speed and force of course).

Situational Realism

8) Start at close range.

You should spend a large portion of partner training working at a range where your partner does not need to step to land a punch. If he can't reach you without stepping he is too dang far away. This is the range most real assaults or altercations start at (and often where they end at).  At this range parries must be very economical and the use of tactile sensitivity is important to maximize accuracy in both offense and defense (meaning that some sort of contact should be quickly established and ideally maintained (although which parts of the bodies are in contact can be constantly changing).

Real self-defense/fighting happens within arm's reach. The other stuff is just full-contact dancing.

9) Start from a natural stance (must initially block inward).

It is very likely that you will be in a normal standing position when attacked. It is therefore very important to spend a large percentage of one's time training to defend from that position. If training at close range from a natural standing position, the initial parrying technique -must- be with an inward motion. It is literally the only option that will work against a quick strike (in that scenario, which as pointed out, is a very likely one).

close-range shizentai

10)  Occasional practice in regular clothes

This is important, because clothing can change how effective techniques are and which techniques are even possible. But psychologically it is important too, because you need to associate the skills you are building as something you have access to outside of "suiting up". I know people who pitch better in a baseball uniform than in a tee-shirt and shorts (which should offer greater freedom of movement). Why would that be? Because they only ever pitch in uniform.

However, practicing in your normal daily dress can be important for another reason. Doing so can help you evaluate techniques. Techniques that look quite reasonable when performed by, and on, people wearing a karate gi can easily fail to pass the "laugh test" when seen being done in regular clothing. If you have access to a camera or even just a webcam, film yourself practicing techniques in regular clothing. When you watch the footage ask yourself if it looks like you are practicing self-defense/fighting? Or does it look like you are practicing karate?

If it doesn't look like you are practicing self-defense/fighting then you almost certainly are NOT doing so.

I sincerely hope this article is received in the spirit it is offered, as advice for future practice, not criticism of anyone or anyone's current practice. We all need to look for ways to improve the way we practice, and friends can tell each other the truth, even when it might not be something they want to hear.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Tuidi in "old style" karate & Naihanchi (mini-post)

Here is a short entry from the Motobu-ryu Facebook page. This is the group headed by Motobu Chosei shinshii who is the son of famed karate master and fighter Motobu Choki shinshii. Motobu Chosei shinshii is the current headmaster of both Motobu Kenpo and Motobu Udundi. This entry discusses the existence of Tuidi [取手] within "old-style karate" and especially within Naihanchi series of kata. "Tuidi" [トゥィーディ] or "Tuiti" [トゥィーティ] is the Uchinaaguchi word meaning "seizing techniques" and refers to the old Okinawan joint locking art.

Thanks to Ulf Karlsson for finding this post and sharing it in the _Naihanchi no Kenkyu_ Facebook group. I felt many people here would likely be interested as well.

Notice how Motobu shinshii has established muchimi (adhesion) with his leg, is locking the opponent's right arm and is trapping his opponent's left arm. Such multifaceted control is the hallmark of an advanced and very sophisticated approach to tuidi.


Sunday, June 22, 2014

Iron Body Training Tool: The Steel Hitter (Tesutaba)

If you are interested in Hojo-undo (supplementary training) especially Okinawan iron-body training & impact conditioning, Chinese Iron Shirt & Golden Bell Cover training, or even such health, rejuvenation, and longevity practices as Bone-Marrow Nei-Gong & 99-Powers Shen-Gong, then there is a piece of equipment which is extremely useful (arguably almost essential) for all of these endeavors. It is the bundle-hitter... in particular the steel bundle-hitter (called a "tetsutaba" in Japanese)

And it's awesome...

These can be purchased from various martial arts and/or qigong supply shops for a variety of prices ranging from $80 at the lowest to well over $600 on the high end (and that is not including shipping costs which are substantial). Which I suppose is probably why so few people own and work with them...

But even if you are on a tight budget you needn't despair:

Did you see that? The rather attractive tetsutaba in the lower right corner says it is only $25!!

That can't possibly be correct...

 It is correct.

It is a Do-It-Yourself Tetsutaba built by Joseph Warner and posted to the Hojo-Undo Facebook discussion group.
Click to enlarge

The design it is based on is the brainchild of Matt Perlingiero. Matt has made a excellent video tutorial on constructing this device which is funny in addition to educational.

Here is Matt's video:

So... I supposed some readers are wondering what the heck do people DO with such a device...

Here is a playlist featuring a collection of videos showing the use of bundle-hitters in Okinawan karate's Tai-Tanren, Chinese Iron Shirt training, and health Qigong... (including a very long-winded video on throat conditioning by yours truly):
Click for the "Tetsutaba & Related Conditioning" playlist

I imagine there are a few of you out there who were hoping for something a bit more "esoteric" or from a more detailed TCM type of perspective. Well we can accommodate that. Here is a book on Bone Marrow Nei-Gong which is chock-full of esoteric jargon and Chinese medical theories (and actually is a fairly practical methodology when you get down to the actual core practices).

Monday, June 9, 2014

Seipai Kata (十八手型)

I am a member of a fair number of karate groups and I hear various kata discussed all the time, but I have noticed that Seipai is not mentioned very often... Which is odd because it is a very nice kata.

What makes it even more odd is that there is a real wealth of good quality information on (and applications for) Seipai available to karateka. This is not just a recent phenomenon, way back in 1934, Mabuni Kenwa shinshii wrote Seipai no Kenkyu (Study of Seipai). This book contains interesting insights on kata generally as well as some bunkai which go beyond the modern percussive "punch/block" karate so common in the 20th century including a few tuidi type techniques.

The original Japanese text can be downloaded here

Mario McKenna's English translation (which I highly recommend) can be purchased here:

A whole host of interesting YouTube clips exist. Let's start with Ian Abernethy (who's karate in these clips is uncharacteristically Okinawan in feel):

OK, that wasn't bad, both rational and practical... but lets kick it up a few notches and look at Taira Masaji shinshii doing some Seipai material:

Now a couple of his student Andrea Buttazzoni shinshii who is an impressive karateka is his own right.

Here is Garry Lever shinshii of the Shinsokai working Seipai waza on a wooden man dummy (tou).

Finally let's look at some more tuidi concepts and techniques based on the movements of Seipai

This one is from Dan Djurdjevic shinshii:

And another from Jesse Enkamp of KARATEbyJesse fame:


Friday, May 16, 2014

Systematic Exploration Of Kata Bunkai

I have enjoyed exploring bunkai in a systematic (and I hope reasonably comprehensive) way for a long time now... I have alluded to this in Facebook discussion groups, but I don't think I have ever discussed in detail the "formula" or "system" I use to do this. So, I think this may well be the first time I have shared it publicly. 

I ask you to keep this in mind, as this is very much a rough first draft of my thoughts on the topic.  Each of these "levels" could occupy many pages worth of exposition to do them justice. However, outside the context of building a body of knowledge with a student over the course of years, I don't think that additional level of detail will really be very meaningful. 

I have only systematically analysed the 3 Naihanchi kata using this formula... I suspect this can be done with most kata, but I don't want to give the false impression that I have done this with all the kata I know. 

These are the "levels" (used informally and very broadly) that I use to systematically explore the applications of a kata's movements: 


1) Understanding applications of individual techniques as standalone waza.

2a) Most of those waza can be done inside or outside.

2b) The same standalone waza at an increased level of detail (ie vital-points as targets etc).

3) Understanding that each kata movement has a relationship to the movement after it, in that the subsequent movement can be used to address an opponent's attempts to defend themselves (from your prior technique)

4) It therefore stands to reason that all movements (except the first) also have a relationship to the movement preceding it. In other words this level explores chains of techniques that are three movements long. This is highly pragmatic because you control one of the opponent's hands on the first movement, you control their other hand on the second, guaranteeing the third technique should be unimpeded.

5) It therefore necessarily follows that long chains of movements can be strung together (often the length of the entire kata), with the opponent attempting to defend against each technique, with you using the next kata movement to counter their defense. This illustrates how the kata is highly proactive in forcing an attacker's moments.

6) Most of these long chains can be worked on the outside and on the inside.

7) The same principle should also work on renewed offense or semi-continuous offense... as opposed to just countering an opponent's passive defensive movements (ie the opponent's blocks).

8) It is necessarily the case that each kata movement is only followed by a single movement in the kata. However, it would be enormously foolish to believe the kata designers gave you *only that single option* for a follow-up technique or a counter to an opponents defense and/or renewed offense. Kata is far more cohesive than that. The movements in kata like Naihanchi were carefully selected so that they work not only with the subsequent motions but *also* many other motions throughout the kata. At this level those alternate combinations are explored.

9) The next level of bunkai studies is to examine whether each of these "alternate combinations" (or alternate follow-ups) work on both the outside and inside, and whether they work against both a passive defense (blocks) and against renewed offense (this won't always be the case, but it usually is).

10) Naihanchi (and most likely other kata) is quite intentionally designed to contain counters to all of its own technique (gyaku-waza). At first this is done as standalone gyaku waza (counters to bunkai levels 1 and 2 above).

11) It stands to reason that if the kata has gyaku-waza to all its individual techniques it must also be possible to construct gyaku-waza for combinations of those same techniques (still only using the waza explicitly shown in the kata). These should be worked against all the levels 3-9

12) At this point, the kata should be comprehended a cohesive fighting style which is able to address a multitude of possibilities and eventualities. It is no longer a collection of waza. Nor is it merely a collection combinations. It is not even just a system of proactive control. It is a rational, systematic, and reasonably comprehensive fighting system (in, and of, itself).

13) Through the use of kakie and resistive free-fighting one should be able to express these all those levels spontaneously and in response to ever changing circumstances but still staying entirely within the kata (only using waza presented in the kata). This is going from understanding that the kata is a self-contained fighting system, to being functionally able to use it as a fighting system.

14) The next level is the extension of principles and technique within the kata beyond what is explicitly shown in the kata (ie implicit options within the kata). For instance, the kata shows one elbow strike. This level asks "what other ways can we use an elbow strikes, and what other types of elbow strikes can we use?". The kata shows a particular wrist-lock against a specific grab. This level asks "when else can we use that wrist-lock and against what other attacks?" Techincally other terms especially "henka"
might be better designations for this level of application principles. Other terms might also possibly be used such as oyo, findi, ura-bunkai and so on...

15) Exploring "extended principles" (or implicit techniques) in a way similar to the explicitly illustrated waza in the kata (ie levels 1-13)

I think this could potentially take a decade or more worth of study to fully explore.

Monday, April 21, 2014

A Hojo-Undo Checklist

It is my opinion that every serious practitioner of Okinawan karate should have a decent (if not fairly complete) set of hojo-undo equipment (called "kigu" 器具). Frankly, I think making frequent (ideally daily) use of this type of equipment is one of the things which sets the very serious practitioner apart from the endless legions of hobbyists. I also believe hojo-undo is one of the things which sets "old style" Okinawan karate apart from watered-down "modern karatedo".

Kakete-biki 掛け手引き  / Kakiya カキヤー


Chii-ishi 鎚石 (stone clubs) [ ]

Ishi-sashi 石錠 / Tetsu-sashi 鉄錠 (stone pad-locks / kettlebells) [ ]

Nigiri-game 握り瓶 (large weighted jars) [ ]

Makiage-kigu 巻揚器具 (wrist roller) [ ]

Tetsuarae 鉄亜鈴 (dumbbells) [ ]

Tan 坦 (wooden handled barbell) [ ]

Sashi-ishi 差し石 (large round stone with two handles) [ ]

Kongoken 金剛圏 (very large metal oval) [ ]

Tetsuwa 鉄輪 (iron rings) [ ]

Ishi-geta 石下駄 / Tetsugeta 鉄下駄 (stone or iron foot-weights) [ ]

Ishi 石 (large heavy rock) [ ]

Suburito 素振り刀 (heavy wooden sword) [ ]


Makiwara 巻藁 (flexible tapered punching board) [ ]

Sunabukuro 砂袋 (punching bag) [ ]

Kakete-biki 掛け手引き  / Kakiya カキヤー (one-armed dummy) [ ]

Taketaba 竹束  (large bamboo bundle) [ ]

Jari-bako 砂利箱 (container of pebbles) [ ]

Ishi 石 (slapping rock) [ ]

Ude Makiwara 腕巻藁  (round slatted striking post) [ ]

Tetsusabukuro 鉄砂袋 (iron shot bag) [ ]


Ko-taketaba 小竹束   /  Te-taketaba 手竹束  (small bamboo bundle) [ ]

Tesutaba 鉄束 (steel bundle hitter) [ ]

Mamebukuro 豆袋 (mung bean bag hitter) [ ]

Illustrations from the "72 Skills of the Shaolin" illustrate that Okinawan Hojo-Undo originated from hard Qigong and Chinese Iron-Body methods. It shows training with Ishi-sashi, Nigiri-game, Tan, Makiage-kigu, Ude-Makiwara, Sunabukuro, and Jari-Bako.

Hojo-Undo/Ko-Kiko (Supplementary Training/Hard Qigong)

Sunday, April 13, 2014

A Chinkuchi Makiwara Exercise

Chinkuchi (チンクチ [cognate to Kinkotsu 筋骨]) is an Okinawan word meaning "Tendons/Muscles & Bones". It refers to the last instant before contact is made when the skeletal structure becomes correctly aligned, all the agonistic muscles are very suddenly and sharply contracted, and the muscles which stabilize the relevant joints are engaged to an appropriate degree. It differs from kime in that it doesn't involve all muscles equally and depends on structural alignment and stability from connective tissues.

A chinkuchi exercise: Starting with the fingers in contact with the pad, without drawing the relaxed hand back at all, the goal is to punch the machiwara with enough speed, force, and penetration to send the plumb-bob smashing into the ceiling. If done well, enough mechanical energy may remain to make the plumb-bob ricochet back into the board a moment later.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Family Crests of Okinawan (沖縄の家紋)

I just wanted to draw the attention of readers of this blog to an excellent website on Okinawan family crests (Okinawa no kamon). Take a look around. These crests are visually interesting, and in some cases strikingly beautiful. See if you can find the crest of the family of the founder of the style of Okinawan karate you practice. 

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Okinawan Proverbs

Excerpted from:
_Kotowaze ni miru Okinawa no kokoro_ [諺に見る沖縄の心] (The Okinawan Mind in Proverbs)
by Zenko Shimabukuro

This is a set of proverbs that is found on many websites, which makes posting it again a bit redundant. However, I believe that the people who read this blog will find value in some of these and (if they have not seen these before) will appreciate having these posted here. Proverbs I that have heard in a karate context are highlighted.

Ataishi turu atairu.  - We get along well with those we can get along with well.

Achinee ya tankaa mankaa. - Business is a two-way street.

Aramun jooguu ya duu ganjuu. - One who eats plain food is healthy.

Ichariba choodee. - Once we meet and talk, we are brothers and sisters.

Uya yushi kwa yushi. - Parents and children teach one another.

Kaagee kaa ru ya ru. - Beauty is skin deep.

Kamuru ussaa mii nayun. - The more you eat, the more you gain.

Kuu sa kana sa. - Small things are lovable.

Kuchi ganga naa ya yakutatan. - A smooth talker is a good-for-nothing person.

Kutubaa.  Jin chikee. - Spend words as efficiently as money.

Kutuba noo ushikumaran. - A word can't be recalled once spoken.

Shikinoo chui shiihii shiru kurasuru. - Let's live helping each other in this world.

Shinjichi nu ada nayumi. - Kindness will never be wasted in any way.

Jin too waraaran kwa tu ru waraariiru. - We can laugh happily with our children, but not with money.

Chu uyamee ru duu uyamee. - If you respect others, they will respect you.

Choo kukuru ru dee ichi. - The heart is the most essential human quality.

Tusui ya tatashina mun.  Warabee shikashina mun. - The old should be treated with due respect.  Children should be treated with gentleness.

Tusui ya takara. - The old people are treasures to us.

Miitundaa duu tichi. - Man and wife are one flesh.

Nuchi nu sadamee wakaran. - Only God knows one's term of life.

Machushi garu ufu iyoo tuyuru. - One who waits patiently will catch a big fish.

Miinai chichi nai. - We learn by watching and listening.

Mii ya tin niru aru. - Our fates are as registered by heaven.

Munoo yuu iyuru mun. - Speak well of others.

Yaasa ru maasaru.  - Food is delicious when one is hungry.

Duu nu duu ya duu shiru shiyuru. - You know your body best.

Choo kani ru deeichi. - Common sense is essential.

Yii kutoo isugi. - Do good things quickly.

Chira kaagi yaka chimu gukuru. - Kind hearts are better than fair faces.

Yuu ya shititin mii ya shitinna. - Even if you hide yourself from the world, don't lose sight of your real nature.

Nmarijima nu kutuba wasshii nee kuni n wasshiin. - Forgetting your native tongue means forgetting your native country.

Ashibi nu chura saa ninju nu sunawai. - The more the merrier.

Acha nu neen chi ami. - Tomorrow is a new day.

Yikiga nu kutubaa shuumun gaai. - A man's word is his honor.

Mookiraa kwee michi shiri. - Once you have made a fortune, know how to spend it.