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.