Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

It's the clothes, you know.

Practicing Sanseiru.
We actually had snow a week or so ago, five or six inches. That's more snow than we had all last winter. I couldn't resist heading out into the woods for a walk just to see what it would all look like, frozen and cold. But in my rush to get in a bit of a hike before the sun set and the coyotes and goblins came out, I forgot to change out of my old Chippewa boots. They were all oiled up, so I wasn't worried about getting my feet wet, but the soles are pretty smooth and I was a little worried about how slippery the hill trails might be. Generally I subscribe to the notion that there's no such thing as bad weather, there's just the wrong clothes for the occasion. And these were really the wrong boots for walking on slippery winter trails.

It really made me think about clothes and some of the rituals we engage in when we practice martial arts. And it seems to me that all of these rituals--the clothes we wear, the language and terms we use, the ceremonies and titles--tend to invest martial arts practice with mystery and a sort of quasi-religious feeling. I wonder whether the Okinawans themselves view the practice of martial arts the same way that Westerners do? I mean, when we count to ten or use various terms to describe techniques, we learn these words almost as if it is a rite of initiation--we become members of a select group. The same is true of the karate gi. Certainly one could say that these pajama-like clothes are comfortable and loose and durable, but seriously couldn't one also train in sweatpants? The interesting thing about the karate gi, at least the top, is that it seems to be constructed very much like the kimono. So again, I wonder how Okinawans felt putting on a gi to practice karate some 75 or 100 years ago? I don't think it would have felt "special" in quite the same way as it does to a Westerner.

Practicing Sanseiru.
I've trained in Okinawan dojos alongside Okinawans, but I wondered sometimes whether the experience was the same for me and the other Americans as it was for my Okinawan friends. We don't usually wear
geta or zori, so going barefoot inside isn't quite as natural for us. Is practicing karate in bare feet then another sort of ritualized behavior? After all, most of us in North America are not practicing in a tropical climate. 

There is a strong argument, of course, that we pay homage to Okinawa and the source of our karate by adopting the clothing, the language, and the rituals. I think there's certainly something to be said for honoring our forebears or preserving the traditions and acknowledging our roots, but how does it affect what we do? Do the clothes make the man, as they say, or do the clothes make a person's experience something other than it is? Would we be practicing the same martial art if we were wearing shoes and sweatpants, counting and giving commands in our native language, and, heavens, at all cost avoiding bowing to the shrine? Would it change anything if the commands were, "Ready? Form 13. Begin."? Or form 18 or 36 or 108?

I guess my question is, how does the adoption of all these essentially Japanese things affect the way we view our martial arts? Don't get me wrong, I loved learning all the esoterica--from how to fold a gi properly to all the correct terms for things as simple as standing with the feet shoulders' width apart to the etiquette of titles and bowing. But how does all of this--fairly familiar routines for an Okinawan--affect someone who's not from Japan or Okinawa? It seems to me that some of this at least has nothing whatsoever to do with learning a martial art, and in fact may get in the way of the
strictly martial aspect of the art.

In some ways, it strikes me that this is a by-product of our modern culture. We dress in certain ways in order to identify with an activity. And it's almost as if we do this to broadcast this identity to everyone else. If we bike, we find ways to spend a fortune on biking clothes, as if we are convinced that we need to dress and look the part in order to engage in the activity. And the same is true of almost any athletic activity you care to name. There are special sneakers or shoes for each activity--whether it's running or weight lifting or soccer or cross-training or T'ai Chi or even just plain walking. Gone are the days of a good pair of canvas Keds or Converse All-Stars for all occasions. And we have special clothing to go along with the shoes. And of course there is a special language to learn as well. All sort of weird when you think about it. 







Saturday, March 25, 2017

That's what we call y'ur basic basics

First day of Spring.
I was out snowshoeing the other day. The snow wasn't particularly deep--I think there was six or eight inches on the wooded trails--but the snowshoes made it much less of a slog. Part way up the trail I ran into an old New Englander walking his two dogs, and since the dogs were running free and charging down the trail at me, I stopped to say hello to both the dogs and their owner. And, as often happens it seems when you stop to talk off in the woods, one thing led to another and before you know it I'm getting an introduction to the trees of New England.

"That there is your basic hemlock," he said, pointing ahead to a large tree by the side of the trail. "And that over there is your basic black birch. And most of those down across there are your basic quakin' aspens." By this time, though, the dogs were off down the trail and he decided to head off after them, and I set off in the opposite direction.

I walked the first two mile loop and then, feeling energetic, I set off to run the second loop. But what I found myself thinking about was your "basic" tree. Now I know his use of the word "basic" was just a manner of speaking, but it got me to thinking about a video I had seen a few days before. The video lasted about ten minutes. There were four old men (I feel as though I can say that being one of that older group myself) in gi's and black belts doing basics. They did 20 counts each of sweeping kicks, front kicks, short punches, single forearm blocks, double forearm blocks, and chest punches, over a hundred of those, and then more double punches. The video was labeled "Basic training." And that's what got me to wondering. Why is this basic training?

Your basic block and attack from
Seipai kata.
Now admittedly, this was Shorin-ryu training, which I know next to nothing about, but it wasn't so very far from what we would see in any other dojo training any other style of karate. And maybe that's the problem: Shouldn't the training of basics train one for what is fundamental to the art or the system or the style? That is, if the essence of a martial system like Goju-ryu is contained within the classical kata--fairly obvious, I think, since Miyagi Chojun sensei seemed to suggest that the classical kata were the only things sacrosanct in the system (witness his statements at the 1936 meeting of karate masters sponsored by the Ryukyu Shinpo newspapers)--shouldn't the "basics" reflect the tenor of the classical kata? Why not take basics straight from the classical subjects and practice those instead of these generic basics we so often see at the start of any karate class? For each class one could select a different technique, one from each of the classical kata, for instance, and repeat it 10 or 20 times, with the added benefit that students would be practicing the technique on both sides. When we generally move to that part of class focused on classical kata, we do each one once or twice. That means some techniques, since there are many single techniques in the classical subjects, may be practiced once or twice in class. Multiply that times the number of times a student trains the kata and see how long it takes to get to 10,000, that magic number of mastery in any physical activity according to the journalist Malcolm Gladwell.

The longer I live, the more language seems to befuddle me. I'm not at all sure I know what basics or kihon waza are. The head block ("jodan uke") we see practiced so diligently doesn't occur in the classical kata of Goju-ryu. Of course, we see it in the Gekisai kata, but those are certainly more generic karate kata, "school-boy kata" as they are sometimes called, so how is that fundamental or basic to the practice of Goju-ryu? And when you really begin to look at the classical subjects, there aren't that many straight punches either, certainly not the preponderance of straight punches that their seemingly endless practice in basics would warrant. And why that particular chest block? And the down block? Does it change how we practice basics if we find that the down block is always used as an attack in the classical subjects of Goju-ryu? And there are probably more knee kicks in the classical kata than kicks with the foot.

Your basic block and attack from
Seisan kata.
So why does this sort of basic training still persist? When I first started training, we would practice these basic punches and blocks hundreds of times each class--we often counted around the dojo for each basic, sixty students counting to ten for each blocking or punching or kicking technique. We got very good at basic blocks, punches, and kicks. And there is certainly something to be said for developing a good stance and foundation or good body mechanics. But why the emphasis on those particular techniques, techniques that one finds in Gekisai Dai Ichi, even if one has been training for five, ten, or twenty years? Is that the essence of Goju-ryu? Are there fundamental lessons to be learned here, even though the techniques themselves have very little to do with the classical subjects? If these basic blocks and punches constitute so much of one's training, won't that affect how one sees kata and bunkai? Won't a student's interpretation of kata (bunkai) simply be a reflection of one's training? That is, if it's all block, punch, kick, that may be all one sees in kata. Is there such a thing as a basic karate kata (and here I'm asking about only the classical subjects)? What would it even mean if someone sitting at a traditional embukai were to lean over towards his neighbor and say, "That there is y'ur basic karate kata"?