Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Monday, June 15, 2015

Resurrecting the past

Hanging out with Kimo sensei.
Finally back at it...well, almost. Busy month. Five weeks out from total hip replacement surgery. Lying around. A lot of reading and rest. Of course they get you up to walk a little the next day--miracle of miracles--but still. I mean, they cut your thigh bone off and pound a titanium spike down it. No more running marathons, I guess. Slow and rather lengthy recovery...what do they say, at least three months, though more like six to feel "normal" again? Try to get in a mile or so walk a day and some exercises, but nothing all that strenuous. Still limping a bit, but at some point I should be almost like new. Can't really complain. What the hell, at least I can walk again.

I'm always amazed to discover how integrated karate movement is whenever I get injured. Now, of course, it's the realization of how the waist/hip area (koshi, if you will) is involved in everything you do in the martial arts. We all know this intellectually, but when you get injured you experience it in a very different way--different from when you work on it and use it every day you train if you're healthy. But anyway, the job now--the training for me--is to make a full and healthy recovery. Not an easy task, given how quickly strength and flexibility seems to leave you over the course of a six-month lay off.

Elbow technique from Shisochin kata.
But is it an attacking elbow or is it a
hooking elbow? Is there any similarity
between this elbow technique and the
elbow we see in Sanseiru kata?
The weird thing is that I had this odd sensation that as I slept, so did the rest of the martial world. I look back at the Goju blogs and forums and find the same old stuff, as if nothing ever changes. As if "reuse, recycle, and reduce" were a sound martial arts slogan. How many times can you watch a couple of random guys trying to come up with good bunkai for Gekisai kata? For that matter, how many times can you watch black belts practice Fukiyu or Gekisai kata? How many times can you read a forum post asking for people's opinions about which "gi" is best or which kata is their favorite? Why doesn't anyone question the necessity of the karate gi--and while they're at it, the belts and patches and titles? What does it mean to say that one has a favorite kata? Despite what some influential people have suggested, each kata is not a system of self-defense in and of itself. So we should be asking: what does it mean to practice a system composed of various kata? What relationship do those various kata have to the system as a whole? Are they thematic? Are they related to each other in any way? Could you have an incomplete system where some themes or scenarios or self-defense situations have been left out or lost?

Is this a technique from
Shisochin kata or
Suparinpei kata?
I came across one recent post trying to resurrect an old argument that a number of people seemed to have bought into seven or eight years ago; that there are two groups of Goju kata: one group that Miyagi sensei learned from Higashionna sensei (Sanchin, Sanseiru, Seisan, and Suparinpei), and another group that Miyagi sensei himself made (Saifa, Seiunchin, Shisochin, Seipai, and Kururunfa). If I remember it correctly, the original argument was based on a "cluster analysis" of the different techniques and the seeming difference between the "asymmetry" of the first group of katas and the "symmetry" of the second group. I hope this isn't an over-simplification of their argument. However, the real over-simplification is in suggesting that such a small sample can yield significant results when studied using cluster analysis, not to mention the obvious, that some similarity of technique occurs between both groups. Secondly, there are elements of asymmetry and symmetry in both groups of kata as well. My initial criticism of this study when it first came out was that any comparison of kata without a thorough understanding of bunkai was superficial at best. Many movements may appear similar but function quite differently within the structure of the kata and the application of its techniques. Conversely, many techniques may look quite different but may have essentially the same function in bunkai.

But as I say, this whole argument resurfaced. The suggestion now is that even though Miyagi sensei said he learned everything from his teacher, he actually didn't mean it. In other words, the writer argues, what Miyagi sensei said in public (tatemae) was not what he actually felt in private (honne). He goes on to suggest that there is a cultural component to this.

Forgive me, but to base a scholarly argument on the supposition that what a source said is, for all intents and purposes, the opposite of what they meant seems not just weak but the most circuitous route to a rationalization of an unfounded and unsubstantiated position that I can imagine. When you stop to think about it, it's really quite brilliant! I'm sorry, I didn't mean that.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

What's wrong with Sanseiru?

The kick-elbow-down punch combination
occurs only on one side in Sanseiru. But
you can always take techniques out of
kata to practice the other side.
   Recently I decided it was time to make some changes. I realize I'm a bit late. After all, it's already the beginning of May and most people have long since made and abandoned their New Year's resolutions. Most people have moved on to newer and better things by now. Smart phones, smart televisions, smart watches. I'm going to wait a bit 'til they come out with a smart hat--one that can think for me and keep my head warm in the winter and dry in the rain.
   So anyway, I was thinking about what sorts of improvements I could make around the house and I noticed the old crab apple tree was looking a little unbalanced. I mean it would probably do better to cut the thing down as it's home to more ants than birds, but I'm attached to it. The problem is that when you look at it straight on, the left side doesn't match the right side--it's asymmetrical--so I'm thinking of taking the chain saw to it. 
   Of course there might be more pressing problems. I was cleaning up the yard the other day, putting things away, and I noticed my son's football lying around. Now I don't know too much about football, but what's with the whole oval shape? A ball's supposed to be round. It's supposed to roll. So I started to think that might be a good project--make a round football. I mean people are improving things all the time--that's just what we do. My son showed me a cool invention the other day: an umbrella that used jets of air instead of a cloth canopy to keep the rain off. It looked like a big microphone or flashlight, but the battery that operated it--and I have no idea whether it was strong enough to work in a real downpour--the battery charge only lasted thirty minutes. And what happens to those poor souls walking next to you that get sprayed with the water getting blown sideways by these jets of air from your clothless umbrella? On second thought, maybe that proves the old adage: just because you can do something, it doesn't mean you should.
This technique illustrates one of the
differences between the Shodokan
(Higa) version of the kata and the
Meibukan/Jundokan versions.
   Anyway, I paused in my ruminations and resolutions to sit down and get caught up on some blog posts and forum discussions. I came across one where the teacher had decided that the Goju kata Sanseiru was puzzling because it was so
unbalanced or asymmetrical. Of course, all of the Goju-ryu classical subjects are unbalanced and asymmetrical to some extent, so I wondered why Sanseiru particularly bothered him. But at any rate, he decided to "correct" the problem by putting in extra movements--doubling up single techniques--to make the kata more balanced and then post the performance on-line. To give him his due, this was just for training purposes. I'm sure he was not suggesting that the kata be permanently modified just to satisfy some human craving for balance and harmony.
   But of course the most obvious question one might ask is: why does a kata need to be balanced? A kata is not a performance piece. I think too often in modern karate practice we treat our karate--and particularly the execution of kata--as if it were a performance. But kata is, above all else, a repository of technique. It contains the principles and self-defense techniques of the system. To superimpose an artificial construct of balance on kata is...putting the cart before the horse...it's pounding a square peg into a round hole...it's analyzing kata through the distorted prism of our own petty biases...I don't know, but it ain't right.
The final technique of Sanseiru only
occurs once in the kata. The structure
implies that its mirror image could be
attached to the same preceding
techniques on the opposite side.
Is there a need to repeat it then to
satisfy our need for visual balance?
The real lesson: Know Thy Structure.
   Rather than trying to make Sanseiru a more balanced pattern, we should be asking what the three "punches" at the beginning of the kata have to do with the rest of the kata. Or why there is a repetition of three block-kick-elbow techniques in the middle of the kata. Or what relationship the open-hand techniques have to the rest of the kata, so much of it closed hand. Or how many entry techniques there are. Or how many finishing techniques. What if some of the apparently distinct sequences do not actually show an entry technique but instead begin with the controlling technique because of a unique structure to the kata? Heck, it would be better (and more instructive) to ask what significance there is to the differences in the Jundokan/Meibukan version versus the Shodokan (Higa) version of Sanseiru. These are difficult questions to answer. They take years of trial and error (bunkai) and much open-minded thought and experimentation. Perhaps that's why people look for balance, because not having the answers to these questions makes one feel a little unbalanced, a little uncomfortable. Geez, the very fact that a kata is not balanced suggests that there are combinations of techniques that go together in less than obvious ways, doesn't it?! Like, you show the controlling technique on both sides of the kata and then only tack the finishing technique on to the end of the second series. It's not about balance, it's about understanding the structure.
   Being a little uncomfortable can sometimes be a good thing, though, which is why I think I might just leave that long, scraggly, awkward and unbalanced limb on the crab apple tree...at least until the insects get the best of it or a storm comes and takes the whole thing down. On second thought, maybe I'll just cut it down 'cause all that stuff about balance in kata and trees doesn't have anything to do with karate anyway.