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.


  1. While I believe beginners may gain plenty from this book, I am guessing that the target audience is karateka with a decade (or more) of training behind them. Or at very least I believe that is the group best suited to appreciate the content of this book.

    Something I didn't necessarily make completely explicit in the post above is that the book is best appreciated by actively practicing each exercise as they are presented and testing the information through experience.

    In other words: you get out of it what you put into it.

  2. Hi Parker Sensei,
    Thanks for maintaining this blog. I often find it enjoyable to read. With regards to you comment about the tongue on the roof of the mouth. My thought is that it depends on the intent of the exercise. If the intent is simply to build chi to be stored in the tandien then I believe the tongue should stay on the roof of the mouth the entire time (breathing exclusively through the nose). I think that this allows the chi to stay within the microcosmic orbit and accumulate. If however the intent of the movement is martial (life protection based), I believe the tongue should leave the roof of the mouth while exhaling so the chi can be directed from the microcosmic orbit into the extremities and ultimately into the opponent. I am not 100% sure that I have this right, but this is my thought.

    Per your recommendation on this blog, I have been reading The Essence of Goju Ryu Vol 1. I have been really enjoying the book, but I recently came across some points that I thought were counter intuitive and I thought maybe I would ask your opinion on them.

    Pg 91-92 - The author explains Ude no Chikara Michi. The directions and energy flows that the author describes in this section seem backwards. They are opposite to the directions of the meridians. For instance he describes energy flowing up the inner aspect of the arm during inhalation. This does not make sense to me because the meridians on the inner aspect of the arm flow downward. He also appears to have it backwards on the outer aspect of the arm. Perhaps I am missing something, do you have any thoughts on it.

    On pg 94 the author makes the following statement "The ultimate aim when striking the makiwara is to feel that the resistance is being led back down into the ground through the feet. While I agree that this is one way the makiwara can be used I don't agree that this is the ultimate goal. The energy transferred during a strike does not always have to be grounded through your own feet. If you choose, you can also ground the energy completely through the feet of your opponent rooting him to the floor and forcing his "protective energy" into his feet. This then leaves the opponents upper body much more susceptible to damage. So it is possible to also hit the maki and direct all of the energy through the maki and into the floor. I believe this method does not require the rear heel to be anchored to the floor. If however you choose to direct the energy of the strike into the opponents upper body, then the method as described by the author makes sense. I guess I feel as though the author has identified only one of two (or more) options here. I am not sure if I described my thoughts adequately, but I would be curious to hear you opinion.

    I hold both of the authors of this book in very high regard and I am extremely grateful that they have shared this information with us. I am only on page 95 of the book so perhaps I will have some more questions/thoughts in the future. Thanks for reading my post.



    1. Hi again Josh.

      First I want to stress that I don’t regard myself as an expert in kiko. I have engaged in kiko practice for some time and have had what I feel are demonstrably good results from that training. However, that merely makes me a half decent practitioner, not any kind of expert. So, as with anything I say, your mileage may vary…

      Regarding the alternating tongue position all I can say is that what you suggest doesn't really tally with my own research and more importantly with my experience. I have not found that shoshyuten is used as a method to gather ki in the tanden. Rather the converse is true. Gathering ki in the tanden is a prerequisite to shoshyuten. I have not found that the alternating tongue position in any way interferes with keeping the ki within the two primary meridians (nor have I found that continuous contact makes it easier to do so). I have only found that contact is helpful when the ki is specifically travelling through that junction. When the ki is elsewhere in the cycle, there seems to be no particular benefit (in my experience at least). If one is only breathing through the nose, then continuous contact is not awkward. However, if one is exhaling through the mouth (as in sanchin kata), then the continuous contact is extremely awkward. Anyway, those are my personal experiences

      Moving on to the arm strength paths and Daisyuten kiko... There are many (dozens of?) contradictory methods for doing daishyuten. When considering these it is important to identify the aims of the particular variation as well as what you feel are the pros and cons of the different methods.

      Obviously it goes without saying that kiko/qigong methods sometimes (often?) involve moving the ki in the direction opposite from that indicated by the standard acupuncture paradigm.

      For instance, in the normal (aka the “fire path”) version of shoshyuten the ki moves through the conception vessel in the direction opposite of its “standard” flow.

      In the “wind path” (frequently used with Dynamic Tension training to keep the body from becoming overly yang) the ki is moved through the governor vessel in the direction opposite of the “standard” flow.

      So (as should be plainly evident from those examples) it is quite normal for this sort of thing to occur in kiko/qigong.

      If you find it especially troubling, then perhaps you might find another variation more useful?

      Personally, I have found the outside/back and inside/front distinction useful with the legs. However, I have found it to be far less so with the arms.

      In my own training, (at this point in time) I don’t use my intension/visualization in a hyper-specific way with respect to the arms:

      On the inhalation I visualize the ki moving up the arm (towards the body) and on exhalation I visualize it moving down the arm (away from the body).

      I have found this highly effective. If I am completely honest, I have to admit that I have not found it to be noticeably more effective if I make make the visualization more specific than that. I’ve experimented quite a bit with different methods and those are my honest observations.

      This is definitely less true of the legs.

      I don’t have any good explanation for those observations. But that is what I found.

      Hope that this was helpful to you

  3. Hello Josh,

    Thanks for your feedback. I can tell from your comments that you have thought long and deeply about some of the most advanced (not to mention arcane) aspects of the Okinawan martial arts. So I am assuming that this conversation should be pretty interesting ;-)

    I will be taking the time to address your comments at length as soon as possible. However, the you raised regarding the Machiwara is (I believe) relatively easy to answer. There are many impact tools in Okinawan karate. In addition to the Machiwara, there are tools like Sagi-Machiwara, Tou, kakete biki, "ude kitae", and the jari bako to name only a few. All of these can be used to condition various striking surfaces and all can be used to develop striking power. The unique thing about the Machiwara is that it *pushes back* when you strike it and maintain contact. None of the other striking tools can be used as "rooting" feedback devices. That is what I believe the authors mean when they talk about its "ultimate aim".

    They are clearly speaking about the machiwara:
    a) in a very specific context
    b) talking about it in contradistinction to other Okinawan impact tools.

    They are speaking of what makes the machiwara unique. IMHO they are not claiming that there is only one way to use it. I'll reply to you other points a little later when I have more time.