Monday, July 23, 2012

The Essence of Goju Ryu - Vol 1

I purchased my copy of _The Essence of Goju Ryu - Vol 1_ about a year ago and the book is already tattered. This is not because the book was poorly constructed (it is well constructed for a paperback and uses quality paper). The reason it is in tatters is that it has received more use than many of my books receive in a decade. This post is an attempt at explaining this frequent use. The description on the back of the book can give you a sense of the authors' ambitious goals:
“This book represents many years of combined research into the fascinating art of Goju Ryu Karate-Do, and is a joint work by Richard Barrett and Garry Lever concerning the relationship between Junbi Undo, Hojo Undo and Sanchin."

The authors' approach to these topics could be described as a prolonged rumination on the role of Go and Ju in martial training. In fact, the title could have easily been _The Essence is Go and Ju_. For readers who don’t know, Go literally means “hard” and Ju means “soft”. The authors Richard Barrett and Garry Lever have obviously spent many years (decades?) pondering the role and interplay of these two aspects within Goju ryu karate. For the authors (and myself as well) the terms Go and Ju are functionally equivalent to Yang (Yo) and Yin (In).  The authors examine various Junbi Undo and Hojo Undo exercises through this Go/Ju lens and then discuss how these principles and exercises relate to Sanchin performance (and occasionally other martial practices). It didn’t take me long to figure out that this was a very deep book written by authors who have a profound understanding of Okinawan martial arts (including some of the most obscure areas).

Let me give you just a single example. Early on they discuss the Junbi Undo exercise in which you “rock” (for lack of a better word) back and forth from the ball of the foot to your heels. In relation to this they then examine how, during the inhalation/pulling phase of Sanchin, the focus should be on the ball of the foot and the musculature of the inside/front (ie shin side) of the lower leg. During the exhalation/pushing phase of Sanchin focus shifts to the heel and outside/back of the lower leg.

I spent the next hour going back and forth between a machiwara and a set of mounted bungee cords. The machiwara acts a kinesthetic feedback device for pushing/punching/extending motions. The key element here is that when you push against a machiwara the machiwara pushes back (which is quite unlike most punching-posts/punching-bags). Likewise when you pull on the bungee cords (rubber tubing works well too) the bungee cords pull back. This provides the same type of feedback as those rooting exercises in which a partner pushes and pulls on your arm. I was delighted to find that the shift in focus recommended in the book occurs naturally to some extent but deliberate focus substantially enhanced my “root” during pushing and pulling. I also discovered that this type of focus during the “rocking” Junbi Undo exercise could indeed further enhance my proprioceptive awareness of the role of the ankle during the shift of weight (and tanden/center of gravity) that occurs in pushing and pulling.

I was struck by how they linked the Go/yang and Ju/yin aspects of the body  (outside/back & inside/front) with the Go/yang and Ju/yin aspects of breath (exhalation & inhalation), and Go/yang and Ju/yin motions in Sanchin (expanding/pushing & contracting/pulling) and how this all tied in quite nicely with the actual application of mechanical force from a rooted stance.

I was also struck by how the proprioceptive awareness needed for this application of force could be enhanced by mindfully practicing that simple ankle exercise. 

I could already see that this information had a direct one-to-one correspondence to the visualizations utilized in Okinawan kiko as well… but I’m getting ahead of myself...

Anyway, at that point I was hooked. It was obvious that the book would enhance my understanding of the proper role of those exercises and would deepen my practice of karate in general.

The authors provide a similar analysis for many Junbi Undo and Hojo Undo exercises and they also occasionally discussed how they relate to other areas of martial study such as kakie or developing "short power" with the aid of a machiwara.

The authors then discuss the Go and Ju aspects of the study of Sanchin. First they address the practice of Shime. This is a practice which allows both student and teacher to become aware of any structural weakness and also sharpens the attention in various ways.  The machiwara/bungee cord feedback training I mentioned earlier can provide some of the same feedback as Shime when practicing alone. However, I don’t think anyone would argue that it would form an adequate substitute for Shime. Their presentation of this subject is reasonably thorough and they discuss Shime from the perspective of both teacher and student (or tester and testee). It is worth mentioning that there is a great deal of tie-in between Shime and the earlier material. The authors also present some novel ideas on Shime and its potential effects on the CNS.

Next, the authors discuss the practice of Sanchin Qigong/Kiko. They begin with a discussion of the Go/yang and Ju/yin areas of the body. After which they discuss the “Sanchin kata chikara michi” (strength paths of Sanchin kata). The first of these is the “Kokyu no michi” (breath path). This is the “small circulation” (shoshyuten) exercise that will be familiar to some readers.(1) Then they explain the "Ashi no chikara michi" (strength path of the legs) and "Ude no chikara michi" (strength path of the arms) and offer insights on how several Junbi Undo and Hojo Undo exercises could deepen one's understanding of these paths.

Included in their presentation of these "strength paths" is a discussion of how to use a machiwara and bicycle inner-tube as structural feedback devices. I was surprised and delighted to see this information as it is not well known even in Okinawan styles. I first learned how to use a machiwara in this way from a gifted Matsumura Kenpo instructor. I originally learned of the use of bungee cords (which are functionally identical to the bicycle inner-tube discussed in this book) as a feedback device from a well known master of a Chinese style. He actually made me promise to never reveal that this was his "secret" for developing the "rooting" and "power generation" abilities he was famous for (which is why I have not used his name).  The reason I mention this is that I had been training for more than a dozen years before I first learned these methods and I have encountered them very few times in the intervening years. Yet here they are presented with no fan fair or oaths of secrecy. I suspect very few of their readers will realize how rare this sort of high quality information really is.

After this, the authors reveal how to connect these three “strength paths” and that this combined practice is in fact the “large circulation” (daishyuten) practice of qigong/kiko. This is by far the simplest, most rational, and systematic method of teaching the “large circulation” practice I have ever seen. I am not at all ashamed to admit that I have been practicing and exploring their approach for the last year and am convinced it is the best approach I’ve come across. 

I should quickly add that this material is presented in a way that makes it quite clear that these methods are tightly intertwine with the methods and information presented earlier in the book.

I have understood that Junbi Undo and Hojo Undo place great emphasis on proper kokyu-ho (breathing methods) and could be used as a form of qigong/kiko practice. I also understood that it was a traditional teaching that Hojo Undo and Junbi Undo were deliberately designed to enhance both one’s understanding and performance of kata especially kihon-gata (Sanchin in the case of Goju-ryu). 

I had a vague idea of what this meant. 

After studying this book I can see in very clear and specific ways how this is accomplished. I can also see how these various topics are all very tightly intermingled and actually inform each other. Thanks to this book, my understanding of Okinawan arts has deepened (and is continuing to deepen) in ways I would have not guessed were possible a little over a year ago. New vistas have opened up before me and I have recaptured some that excitement for learning and exploring that one has as a beginner. 

The authors also present a fair bit of historical information, a few well thought-out historical hypotheses, and a whole bunch of somewhat random but extremely interesting facts regarding funshii (feng shui) and Okinawan folk-beliefs that relate to karate in one way or another. They cover a great deal of material I have not mentioned as well, but I want to leave some of those gems for readers to discover on their own.

As a final thought I want to emphasize that this book is not only for Goju-ryu karateka. In my opinion it should be owned by EVERY serious practitioner of Okinawan martial arts regardless of style


(1) When I first learned this method I was under the impression that the tongue was to touch the roof of the mouth continuously. This felt natural while inhaling but felt very unnatural while exhaling. I eventually decided to practice by alternating the tongue position (since it was only strictly necessary during one phase of respiration). This definitely felt superior to me but I felt guilty that I wasn’t doing it in what I thought was the "traditional" way. It wasn’t until 2001 that I learned that this alternating tongue position is traditionally taught in Okinawan karate. I now believe that I had most likely misunderstood the instructions I originally received.   

Here the authors are very explicit about the alternating position and their students/readers will be fortunate enough to practice it correctly from the very start.

Friday, July 6, 2012

A Neurophysiological Approach to Kyusho (急所)

I first started looking into the neurology and physiology related to kyusho(1) around 1985. By around 1993 I had formulated a rough outline of what I felt might serve as (the beginnings of) a neurophysiological approach to kyusho.

These are the topics I believe may provide the best neurophysiological explanation for the effect of kyusho strikes. I've divided them into three general categories


1) Adrenaline and hyperreflexia
  • One often hears that vital points will be less useful “on the street” than they seem to be in the dojo because adrenaline will supposedly dull the effects of vital point techniques. Everyone knows that there is a decreased awareness of injuries sustained in adrenaline fueled combat. Talk to nearly any soldier and they can probably give you an example of somebody they know that didn’t realize they were injured (or at least didn’t realize how badly they were injured) until after the high levels of adrenaline in their blood had substantially decreased. These stories are true and I can even offer a few examples of my own. However, a critical fact is often ignored in these accounts: adrenaline did not in any way decrease the injury, it just decreased the awareness of the injury.

    When I was about seventeen years old a friend and I got into an altercation with six other boys (two of whom did little more than watch and offer encouragement for their friends). I had kicked off the flip-flops I was wearing to make sure I had good footing. After the altercation was over my friend asked “how bad is your foot?” I had no idea what he was talking about. I looked down and saw that my left foot was bloody, and upon inspection I saw that I must have stepped on a piece of glass during that altercation. My friend had noticed that I had a very pronounced limp as I was walking towards him. The adrenaline had made me unaware of the injury. It did not prevent the injury nor did it stop my body from reflexively responding to the injury (causing the limp my friend noticed).

    What this means in practical terms is that *pain compliance* is less useful under the influence of adrenaline. People who don’t understand Okinawan Kyusho-jutsu and Tuidi often interpret this as meaning vital points and joint locks are useless (or at least less useful). However, what these people fail to understand is that Kyusho and Tuidi techniques are NOT aimed at causing "pain compliance". Kyusho and Tuidi techniques are aimed at causing injury, dysfunction, or reflexive reactions that can be exploited to the defender's distinct advantage. While pain may be a typical result of these techniques, it is never the purpose of these techniques. Pain is merely an ancillary side-effect. So the entire issue of "pain compliance" is completely irrelevant.

    People sometimes claim that adrenaline supposedly dulls reflex reactions. However, scientific research indicates this is definitely NOT true. In fact, adrenaline results in an amplification of reflexes. This state of amplified reflexes is called hyperreflexia and adrenaline is *by far* the most common cause of this state. Adrenaline amplifies neuromuscular reflexes such as myotatic reflexes, withdrawal reflexes, and autogenic inhibition reflexes. In other words, adrenaline makes the most fundamental level of Kyusho-jutsu even more effective.

    *More effective*, not less effective.

    Given the effects of adrenaline on blood pressure, one might assume it makes blood-pressure related knock outs (hereafter referred to as “BP KOs” or “syncope”) less likely.

    Scientific studies like _Effect of adrenaline on vagus nerve reflexes_ (by Masaki, Furukawa, Watanabe, & Ichikawa) have found that adrenaline does dull the blood pressure lowering effects of vagal stimulation in many parts of the body but it actually *amplifies* the sudden decrease of cerebral blood flow. In other words, adrenaline makes BP KOs far *more* likely.  Strikes stimulating the vagus nerve, the three main branches of the trigeminal nerve, or  barroreceptors located in the neck and chest, are significantly more likely to cause unconsciousness if the attacker has an elevated adrenaline level.

    To the best of my knowledge there has been no direct research on the effects of adrenaline on cutaneovisceral reflexes (although existing research has found that some noxious stimuli, which can certainly be expected to elevate adrenaline levels, do reliably trigger these reflexes). However, given that adrenaline amplifies the effects of Kyusho-jutsu’s neuromuscular reflexes and BP KOs it seems probable that the effect of Kyusho on the internal organs either remains the same, or is amplified, under the influence of adrenaline.
2) The use noxious stimuli to trigger the flexor reflex as well as closely related ipsilateral and contralateral reflex actions.

3) Mechanical compression of a nerve leading to paresthesia, transient muscular dysfunction and/or neurapraxia.

4) Deep tendon reflexes (myotatic reflexes) and muscle spindle stretch receptors

5) The autogenic inhibition reflex

Knockout and Syncope

Here is a perfect example of a very typical kyusho-jutsu knock-out (a forearm blow to the side of the neck), complete with pretty good tai-sabaki, being performed in an actual (real life) self-defense situation:

6) The 5 main baroreceptors of the body and their relative potential for producing vasodilation etc.

7) Trigeminal nerve and the vasovagal response

8) Neurocardiogenic syncope triggered by trauma (sometimes even just the anticipation of trauma).

9) Enhanced or disguised "boxer's KOs"

  • Linear impact KOs
  • Sudden rotational head motion KOs
  • Using the arm to cause a sudden rotational head motion KO
  • Using nerve impact to enhance a "Boxer's KO" 

Vital points and Viscera

10) Cutaneovisceral reflexes and the myodermatomes

11) Referred pain locations as well as the viscero-cutaneous reflex

12) The relationship between 10 and 11 and the Shu and Mu points of acupuncture

As time goes by, I'll be slowly adding descriptions of how I believe these topics are related to kyusho effects. In the meantime I hope this list provides readers with potentially fruitful areas of research.


Although modern Western medicine (particularly neurophysiology) almost certainly offers the best explanations for the effects of kyusho techniques, many Chinese, Japanese, and Okinawan martial arts still use the pre-modern conceptual framework of traditional Chinese medicine [医学] to teach vital point techniques and revival methods.

This can be seen in these videos of kyusho and kautsu techniques being taught in the traditional fashion in the art of Shorin-Ji Kempo:

(1) The art  of attacking vital points is refered to by numerous names. In karate it is usually called Kyusho-jutsu [急所術]  or Tsubo-te [壺手] ("chibudi" [チブディ] in Uchinaguchi). Other terms include Tenketsu [ 點穴] ("Dian Xue" in Mandarin or "Dim Yut" in Cantonese) and Tenmyaku [點脈] (“Dian Mai” in Mandarin or “Dim Mak” in Cantonese).