Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Book coming out...cross one more thing off the bucket list


This has gone through a lot of revisions, but it's finally at the printers. No more changes. Wait...no, just one more thing. Too late. I suppose that's the trouble with publishing anything; it locks it in, carved in stone. I know there are things I would revise even now, but it's taken almost two years already from when I began this book. 

Of course, I've been writing about this stuff--Goju ryu kata and bunkai--since 2002, when I published an article on the techniques of Seipai kata in the erstwhile Journal of Asian Martial Arts. And the blog posts have been fairly regular for the past few years. But this book is an attempt to put it all in one place, to discuss some of the key points of kata analysis in a more systematic way in each of the classical Goju ryu kata, from Saifa to Suparinpei, and with some reminiscences of training with some great teachers as well, teachers like Matayoshi Shinpo, Kimo Wall, and Gibo Seiki senseis.

There are a lot of books out there that illustrate a couple of kata and then throw in a few examples of applications. Then they pad out the book with oft-repeated historical information or illustrations of generic karate techniques. I've done very little of that here--after all, history, in this case, seems to be half guess-work and rehashing generic applications seems a waste of time. This book, like each of my magazine articles and blog posts, is an attempt to get at the original intent of the techniques found in the Goju ryu kata, to point out themes and explain the structures of the various kata, to show how we might better analyze kata, and how we can come to see it as a system, to see it all fit together.

What we so often see on the Internet, while wonderfully creative, can, in most cases, hardly be called realistic. And when it does seem viable, it does not follow the movements of kata and more often than not seems to ignore sound martial principles. Most of this is simply a repetition of conventional "wisdom," such as it is, and only seems to remind one of Miyagi Chojun's observation, reported by his student Genkai Nakaima in his "Memories of My Sensei": "Studying karate nowadays is like walking in the dark without a lantern." So my attempt is to offer students of karate something else. If I were merely repeating what others have done already, I wouldn't have bothered to write at all.

I've hinted at a lot of these things in blog posts over the years, but I've generally been fairly guarded about giving away "secrets." This, however, is an attempt to be far more clear and specific, with pictures to illustrate key points and descriptions of the bunkai to be found in each of the Goju-ryu classical kata. 

I'm hoping that others will read it, study it, understand the methods and principles, and that finally sharing this will help us all--me included--improve our practice and understanding of karate. North Atlantic Publishing and Blue Snake Books did a great job editing and laying out the book. It's fairly simple and straight forward, and in general pretty clear.

Anyway, it comes out the beginning of February, though you can pre-order it now from Amazon or Barnes and Noble. 

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Seiunchin once again

Off in the woods the other day, admiring the mushrooms and toadstools that seemed to have sprung up overnight, and generally marveling at the magical quality of the woods after a rainstorm, I found myself thinking about a news story I had heard on the radio a few days earlier. The story summarized an article published in Nature about the supernova known as iPTF14hls. (Now there's a catchy name!) It's 500 million light-years away--astounding to me but that's not what the astronomers found so interesting. What was unusual, apparently, was that they expected it to act like any other supernova and gradually dim until it would fade from view--something that takes around 100 days for your average supernova. This one has exploded multiple times since 1954 and this current "explosion," if I understand it correctly, has lasted three years. What I thought was interesting, however, was that the scientists said that it defied their understanding of how stars die--that current theories couldn't fully explain what was happening. In other words, they'd have to go back to the drawing board. And that's why they sounded so excited!

Gedan finishing technique for
the four angle sequences.
I wonder how many people get that excited when they get it wrong? And why? Does it take a certain thirst for discovery or is it a simpler pleasure, a sort of pleasure in the realization that one doesn't have all the answers, that there are new frontiers, new things to learn? Or perhaps it's the moment we realize that the structure or the rules or what have you are more complex and intriguing than we first imagined.

I was thinking about all of this while I was practicing Seiunchin. I like the movements of Seiunchin, but I thought that at least this kata was one that I felt fairly secure about, that I knew the bunkai. There are, after all, only five sequences in the kata (not counting repetitions).  And it's fairly clear, I think, that the counterattacks (or receiving techniques, if you will) are all against either cross-hand grabs or two-handed pushes. Of course, if you don't see the sequences, then even this part won't make sense. But that's a whole other issue.
The beginning of the second
of the north-south sequences.

Anyway, I realized that I may have failed, after all these years, to notice something about the structure of the kata. If you understand the structure of a kata, it can explain a lot about the techniques themselves. The problem is that at least in some cases there may be a fair amount of guesswork, though just as in any scientific inquiry there are some things that indicate at the very least whether you're on the right track or not.

But what I noticed was that the sequences on the angles--since this part of the kata is constructed in an "X" pattern, the angle sequences move to the northeast, the northwest, the southwest, and the southeast, in that order--all end with a downward forearm strike to the back of the opponent's neck. (This is the technique that is sometimes referred to as a gedan barai or gedan uke.) There are four of these angles but only two different sequences since each is repeated on both the right and left sides. What is of interest here is that the downward forearm strike to the back of the neck is a finishing technique, just as it is in Seipai kata.
The beginning of the third
of the north-south sequences.

The other three sequences of the kata all occur on the north-south axis. The first of these, of course, is the opening sequence, which is partially repeated three times, with the "finishing" technique tacked onto the third repetition--the left hand wrapped around the opponent's chin and the vertical right elbow attack coming up into the back of the opponent's neck. (I've written about this in an article in the Journal of Asian Martial Arts, 2005, vol. 14, no. 2.)

The second of the north-south sequences is the high-low technique done in shiko dachi and shown on both the right and left sides. The second of these, with the right arm up and the left arm down, shows a right hand grab of the opponent's right arm and a left, low nukite attack to the opponent's ribs. This technique seems to finish with a right forearm attack and downward elbow (and one should emphasize seems).

The technique that ends the
second north-south sequence
but seems less than satisfying
as a finish technique.
The third and last of these north-south sequences is often described as two elbow attacks. (I've tried to explain this misunderstanding in my new book, The Kata and Bunkai of Goju-Ryu, due out in February 2018.) The finishing technique for this sequence is the knee attack to the head, the last technique of the kata, often described as a yama uke in cat stance (neko ashi dachi).

But structure is everything. The structure or pattern of a kata is often the key to understanding the techniques--in this case, the sequences of the kata. I had always felt that the "finishing" techniques in the first two
north-south sequences, while good, seemed less conclusive, less lethal, than many of the finishing techniques in the other classical kata or even in the third of these sequences, and this was what I was thinking a few weeks ago while I practiced Seiunchin. And then I realized that the two patterns of the kata--the "X" pattern of the angle sequences and the north-south line of the other three sequences--might show two different finishing techniques, but only two. The first one is the use of the downward forearm strike. The second is the knee kick to the head in cat stance. The supposition is that the "yama uke" and knee kick in cat stance--the last technique of the kata--is the finishing technique for all three of the north-south sequences, only it's just shown once, tacked onto the third sequence. This structure--of showing the finishing technique tacked onto the final repetition--is typical of the classical kata. It also makes the end of each sequence more lethal, finishing the sequence with a more decisive blow, if you will. And it fits. That is, it's easy to move into this final technique from the end of either of the first two north-south sequences.
The technique that may, in fact,
be the finish technique for each
of the north-south sequences.

I found this realization, though admittedly only an educated guess on my part, to be exciting, even if I had been wrong in how I had been thinking about Seiunchin all these years. Live and learn. I still don't know, however, whether it was the discovery that I found interesting or the realization that the structure of the kata was more complex than I originally thought, that whoever created this kata had been so clever at hiding something and yet keeping it right out there in plain view at the same time. It was all so fascinating. And, of course, it also reminds me that there is always so much more to learn.