Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Watching kata

Training kobudo in Okinawa
with Matayoshi sensei and
students from UMass.
When I first started training Goju with Kimo Wall sensei, we trained in a fairly large room at the Univer -sity of Mass -achusetts Amherst. The room was probably 20 or 25 feet deep and 30 or 40 feet long, plenty of space, though there were often 50 or 60 of us lined up for training. The space was fine for warm ups and basics—we would generally line up one arm’s length apart, side to side, and a little more than the distance of a front kick, front to back—but it was a little tight if we were doing kata, particularly classical subjects. So we often took turns training. For example, black belts would divide into two groups; half the group would do a kata while the other half sat on the side and watched, and then the other half would do the same kata while the first group watched. 

This was often the way people trained in Okinawa, Kimo sensei explained, because the dojos were generally much smaller than they are in America. But the real point, he said, was so that each person could watch and learn, not just from one’s seniors but also from one’s juniors. The idea was to have an opportunity to check oneself. If one saw a mistake in someone’s kata—perhaps the elbow hadn’t been kept down or the shoulders were raised or tense—one was supposed to use that opportunity to check one’s own technique. It was the teacher’s job to correct the student, but it was each student’s job to correct him or her self. This was, in fact, the way Kimo sensei taught; I never heard him correct an individual student’s mistakes in front of the class. He would always comment to the whole class. “Check your feet.” “Don’t forget to breathe.” “Elbows down,” he would say, even if he had noticed only one person making the mistake. And I would always check myself to see if he was talking about me, and thought everyone else did as well. 

Doing Sanchin in Gibo sensei's
dojo in the '80s.
When we sat and observed kata, Sensei said, “first watch the feet, then the eyes, and then the hands.” Well, I thought, that’s pretty clear, but what am I watching for? Are we only watching for mistakes? If we already know the kata, what can we learn from watching someone else do it, aside from making sure that we didn’t make the same mistakes ourselves when it was our turn? I suppose in some cases, nothing. If all we’re looking for is mistakes, and we don’t see any, then there’s nothing to learn here. But perhaps it’s not really the movements themselves as much as the movement, how someone moves. 

There’s a video I used to watch a lot of a guy doing T’ai Chi saber form on YouTube. His movement was so incredibly natural and fluid that it was hard to tell where one technique finished and the next one began. You couldn’t really see his intent or the moment when the muscles required for one movement gave way to the muscles required for the next movement. In some way it reminded me of something Picasso had reportedly said about painting, something to the effect of, “It took me four years to learn to paint like Raphael but a lifetime to draw like a child.” 

Practicing sanchin dachi
and stepping with the log.
And yet natural movement, for lack of a better term, often seems to fly in the face of what we are led to believe is “good kata” from videos of winning tournament performances. What we usually see is kata performed with exaggeratedly large arm movements, techniques done with excessive dynamic tension, movements that are so fast that the use of the whole body is sacrificed, movements that are so slow that the functionality of the technique has disappeared entirely, and positions that are held (and seemingly admired) for so long that whatever practical use they may have had—particularly in relationship to the techniques that precede them and the ones that follow them—is forgotten. In fact, we seem to be forgetting the whole purpose of kata; that is, to preserve and practice self defense techniques.

I can remember when I first started to train Goju. I would go home and practice walking in sanchin dachi, focusing on balance and grounding and using a crescent step. It felt so unnatural but I was committed to practicing it until it felt good. Nowadays I try to make all of my movement natural, but it doesn’t look very much like the demonstration kata I see at tournaments. There’s very little locked down movement, labored breathing, rigid holding of postures. Some would no doubt say my kata is “sloppy.” Where are the punctuated, staccato movements? the dynamic tension? the deep stances? the loud breathing? the scowling look intended to intimidate the meek? But kata, it seems to me, is not a performance piece, and we’re not role playing. If anything—and if it’s even possible—we’re trying to demonstrate our understanding of kata applications, or bunkai, every time we do kata. That’s hard enough. Oh, and then trying to move naturally. You see, there it is again, Nature. It's always at the heart of things.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Watching the deer...and movement

I was out hiking on the Lost Boulder Trail a while back, when I spotted a young deer standing stock still about fifty feet up the hill. It surprised me. I don’t know what had drawn my eyes away from the trail. Most of the time, I think, it’s the movements of deer in the woods that you pick up if you’re going to see them at all. From a distance their legs look like young saplings and their tawny coats seem to blend into the backdrop of dead leaves that blanket the hillside. 

As I stood watching, trying to see if there was a family nearby, it sidled forward a few steps and began to nibble on a small mountain laurel, all the while keeping a wary eye on me. After a while, I moved on, heading down the trail which turned and dropped into a shallow gully, but the deer stayed there until I lost sight of it. 

A young Great Horned
Owl watching me.
I think this was on my mind—the idea of movement—because I had recently been reading something Bernd Heinrich had written about owls. He had performed a sort of experiment with a friendly owl that had regularly come to roost on a branch above the clearing by his cabin in the Maine woods. At first, he threw a piece of meat on the ground beneath the tree, but the owl showed no interest in it. But when Heinrich attached a piece of thread to the meat and dragged it under the tree, the owl quickly dove for it and carried it off. Heinrich concluded that the owl responded to movement or, in other words, movement may have been a more important consideration for the owl than sight alone or smell. 

Movement is such a nebulous thing to describe or put into words. I was watching a video the other day of a teacher trying to explain the movement of the waist, or koshi, in karate, as he slowly twisted his hips to one side and then quickly snapped them back. He did this repeatedly, snapping his hips back faster and faster. What I was wondering, though, was how a student construes this advice from this sort of demonstration, divorced as it is from technique. Might it give one the wrong impression about
how the waist is actually employed? That is, by isolating this use of the waist as an exercise, are we
This technique from Shisochin kata
very obviously uses the waist.
thereby giving students the impression that the waist is something that turns independent -ly of whatever technique is performed? I’ve seen students (and quite a few teachers) actually pull their hips back prior to thrusting it forward with an attack. They seem to be doing this as if it is a movement completely disconnected from the block or parry or whatever receiving technique that precedes it. It becomes a three-part movement: first the waist is twisted, pulling the hip back; then the hip is sharply thrust forward; and then the striking hand is quickly thrust forward. One, two, three. 

There’s a disconnect here, I think. What usually happens in kata—where at least in Goju-ryu we find illustrations of application (what we call bunkai)—is that the waist turns naturally with the initial block or parrying motion of the body (the uke or receiving technique). There is a structure to this, usually, because we learn it in Sanchin kata and we incorporate that learned movement in everything, remembering the admonition that “the arms do not move independently of the body.” This, of course, is facilitated by the notion that the first (and certainly instinctual) response to an attack is to get out of the way. Even if we can’t easily step off line, the body turns to deflect the attack or present a smaller target. The simplest way to picture this is to imagine an opponent stepping in with a right punch. The
The start of the fourth sequence in
Seipai kata.
defender turns to block the attack with the left forearm to the outside of the opponent’s right arm. The defender’s waist has naturally turned away, leaving the left hip forward and the right hip pulled back or “loaded.” In the next instant, the defender thrusts forward with a right counterattack. In each case, for both the “block” and the attack, the waist and arm move together. I’ve found that, more often than not, when you try to teach students to use the waist, they will disconnect the waist from the arms and use the arms independently, as if  the lower half of the body doesn’t know what the upper half is doing, and that seems like a lot of needless expenditure of energy. On the other hand, if all of this movement of the waist and the arms is done naturally and correctly, “blocking” and counterattacking takes very little effort. And, of course, this is greatly facilitated by the off-line stepping we see in kata, when, for example, the defender turns to block and counter, placing him or her self at a ninety degree angle to the attacker.

That seems like a rather long digression. I’m not sure what it has to do with deer standing quietly in the woods, not moving, unless it’s the notion that you probably won’t see much in the way of wasted movement when it comes to animals; they generally conserve their energy. We should too.  Oh, that, and learning to move naturally.