The “Big Karate Picture Book”

We had a discussion in my Dojo the other week about the error of thinking of Karate technique as a set of snap shot pictures strung together and I noticed on Facebook today that someone else used a similar analogy to “just looking at the pictures” and trying to understand the intention.

The point we were both making is not exactly the same but the fundamental idea is, I believe.

If we accept the premise that Kata is a collection or catalogue of Karate techniques (and I understand that how you may use those techniques is open to a myriad of interpretations) and then look at any classic karate Kata text book it is quite understandable why students struggle to understand even the most basic of lessons contained within kata, or even the proper function of any given technique at all.

From the point of view of the style of karate I teach the classic techniques of karate as they are typically transmitted in “snap shot” form are actually not techniques at all and are virtually useless in any sort of genuine application. A style of karate has grown up around these snap shot techniques and is very widely accepted but only because a series of artificial concepts have grown up with them in order to justify the terminology and to give an appearance of functionality where none really exists.

That is not to say there is no value in practicing these techniques and the body mechanics they impart, you just need to understand what it is they are trying to teach you and that they are a means to an end and not the end in themselves.

To clarify, what I mean by “snap shot” technique is what you will see in virtually any classic text book on karate basics and kata. For a pictorial representation of a kata you will usually get a series of still poses showing one “technique” after another along with a representation (or map) of the embusen. If you are very lucky you will get a picture of the preparatory movement as well (but more often not).

Now obviously, there are limitations to what you can achieve on the printed page so it’s easy to see why this happens. This is not a modern problem, even in pre photography days the illustrations were still only of the snap shot variety and taken out of a direct learning context are fairly meaningless (or at least open to multiple interpretations).

The problem that I see on the back of this however (and what I was trying to explain to my students) is that a lot of Karate is actually taught using the “snap shot mentality” of technique. That is to say that we approach technique as if the end posture, that “Kodak moment” (a reference for any really old readers 🙂 ), were actually the technique we are aiming for rather than something that just happens as the logical conclusion to performing a solo technique to its end, and that we need to overcome that limited way of thinking to understand technique fully.

What appears to have been lost in translation over the decades of classical karate training is that the technique is the bit that happens between the start and end posture of any movement (the dynamic movement from point to point) and that the end posture (the static pose), that bit so many try to perfect as their “technique”, is not and never has been the technique at all.

This is why many struggle with trying to come up with logical and meaningful bunkai for their kata as they are starting from the false premise that the “techniques” (the pauses between movements) are what they are trying to find meaning for rather than looking at the transitions between these snap shots which is where all the real karate takes place.

So, if you are looking for practical meaning in your karate and its techniques then you need to take a step away from the snap shot mentality and take the time to explore the spaces in between the pictures in the “Big Karate Picture Book”.

Lineage. Why it’s important (and why it’s not).

Talk to the average person on the street or early stage beginner in Karate (or other arts) about lineage and they probably won’t have a clue what you are talking about.

This is hardly surprising, as far as they are concerned Karate is Karate, they seldom even understand that there are different styles of karate let alone the various sub-sets and diverse lineages within any of those styles.

Some of us like to think they are important but that tends to creep in later in our training careers.

Lineage tends to be seen as a measure of legitimacy within a given style. If you can trace your path back to master “x” then you can be sure you are learning the “real thing” (whatever that may be) and not just something some guy made up himself.

There is also the chance to be “special by association”, nobody in the karate world may have heard of you (I certainly fall into that category 🙂 ) but they will almost certainly have heard of the person you trace your source back to and that seems to be a path to acceptance in the wider karate world.

Depending on your reasons for training this can be seemingly very important or on the other hand totally irrelevant.

Now, if I were to follow this route then I could legitimately claim to be only 3 steps away (4 if I include myself) from Funakoshi himself and, if you understand these things, that starts to sound like a true and impressive lineage back to the founder of the style. However, there are probably many hundreds of thousands of karate-ka (if not millions) who could make the same claim and their karate varies wildly in both style and interpretation.

We think of Funakoshi Gichin as the founder of the Shotokan style but the karate we practice is actually very little like his karate and is really based on the karate of Nakayama Masatoshi and then modified under the dozen or so group heads who went their own way after him, each with their own subtle (or in some cases not so subtle) variations on the original version of JKA style Shotokan. On the plus side it does move me one step closer to the source (on the down side, it does for everyone else as well 🙂 )

To my way of thinking (and I’ll admit this is just a personal viewpoint and not a statement of fact) if you are more than one step down the ladder in any given tree then the lineage rapidly becomes meaningless. You may inherit a common syllabus and a membership of a group that traces it’s path back to the head but at the end of the day your instruction is only as good as the instructor who stands in front of you day after day and week after week.

Whilst I have hung on to the understanding of the basics of karate as taught to me by my own instructor (with some modifications from outside sources) and the kata as they were originally taught to me, the karate I teach on a day to day basis bears little relation to the way I trained with my own first instructor.

There are others who followed the same route as myself who teach a virtual carbon copy (within their understanding) of his karate. We all have exactly the same lineage but our karate and our interpretation of what karate is are wildly different. I know many karate-ka from other lineages who are in exactly the same situation so at what stage does lineage cease to mean anything? (Other than as a badge of supposed legitimacy).

These days I tend to look at lineage as an indicator on whether someone has been involved in a style that does the groundwork on the fundamental principles of karate before moving on to whatever path they have chosen to follow but then judge that person solely on their own level of skill and understanding (as if my opinion matters anyway 🙂 ).

At the end of the day the only person who really matters in your lineage is the one who stands out in front of you every week, what they understand and how well they can pass it on to you. You succeed or fail in your training goals entirely on that basis. Being 4 steps from Funakoshi won’t help.

“Good” Bunkai

(as has been said many times before, for “Bunkai” read “Oyo” 🙂 )

Just a short one this time and may well cause a few raised eyebrows in my own circle.

This has come about on the back of a chapter I was currently involved in writing anyway and a FB advert that came up today for an upcoming Iain Abernethy seminar specifically on this subject (plus the imminent arrival of this years “Bunkai Bash” event in a few weeks).

So it’s just some random thoughts on what constitutes “good” bunkai.

Bear in mind that this is coming from someone who’s main focus is on teaching practical and functional techniques based on kata as a fundamental part of my syllabus and you may think some of my conclusions are quite at odds with that viewpoint.

The short version of my thinking on this is that good bunkai is ANY bunkai which adequately demonstrates the points and principles that you were aiming to demonstrate with it.

Does this mean that it needs to demonstrate realistic self-defence skills based on sound combative principles in order to be valid? Strangely enough in my view, no it does not. If (and it’s a big IF) that is not what you were intending to achieve with it.

If you intention was to provide a set of drills or applications to demonstrate the body mechanics and basics of classical karate (typically long range, multi attacker, one at a time scenarios with no definitive finishing move for each opponent before moving on to the next one) and you achieve this then it constitutes “good” bunkai for the purpose and reflects what you are training for.

Was this the original intent of kata, almost certainly not, but it has become a fundamental part of modern karate as an “art” or “way” and as such is valid for that purpose.

Likewise, if your aim is to work practical and realistic skills and your bunkai reflect the kata, contain no “fluff”, are based on sound principles and lead to a logical conclusion then they are probably “good” bunkai in the context of what you were trying to achieve.

There is however that grey area in between, you can do all the same bunkai as the first group above but call it “self-defence” and it will immediately become “bad” bunkai simply by changing the context (choreography is not self-defence, not matter what Hollywood would have you believe).

There are worse “grey bunkai” out there than that of course. You can spend many a happy hour on You Tube (or similar) looking at videos of terrible bunkai that are neither one thing nor the other. They purport to be “practical” whilst sticking to unrealistic ranges, unrealistic attacks and a dependency on things happening in the correct order to work. These are the genuine “nonsense karate” that many of us work against but they are popular because they look like highly skilled applications and are still “proper” karate.

So effectively it comes down to the context and intent as to whether your bunkai is “good” or not (only in my personal opinion, obviously).

Those of us in the pragmatic or applied side of karate often get hung up in the notion that as we train for practical skills that everybody else does (or in our opinion should be doing) the same. This however is not the case and there are a large number (possibly even the majority) of students who have no wish to either face or try and understand the realities of violent conflict and are actually pursuing a martial art for the sake of the art (and the physical disciplines that entails) itself.

I have long ago given up on the concept that I am everyone’s Dad and should be trying to lead them to the “true” way. People train for their own reasons and it’s their own responsibly to make sure that their training is fit for purpose. To paraphrase “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it think!”

Respect, the tie that binds us or the stick that beats us?

This is a subject that has been much on my mind lately for a variety of reasons, some personal, some not so much. I have recently been accused (by a friend) of being a bit controversial on occasions and this well may be one of those occasions, this is not an intentional attempt to court controversy however and I understand that this is a (very) sensitive subject for some. Having said that, despite what some seem to think , I am as entitled to an opinion as any and so all I would say is that by reading further you are intentionally asking my opinion, it is based on my personal experiences and ongoing visibility of some parts of the larger karate world, take it as what it is.
Respect or should I say “Respect ™” (for reasons which will become obvious) is much touted as one of the main virtues of traditional karate (and I believe that same can still be said for most traditional arts).

Look at pretty much any advertising aimed at kids classes and you will see courtesy, discipline and respect touted as one of the main benefits of sending your child to partake in a martial art (although why these things are not being taught at home still mystifies me slightly). Be that as it may, participation in a martial art at a young age does tend to bring a number of benefits in attitude and behaviour, if the feedback I used to get from parents and teachers was anything to go by when I still ran children’s classes.

I have no issues with proper dojo etiquette for both children and adult classes, karate (if you follow what has become the “traditional” model) has become a very formal and formalised art and there is a culture that has become part of that tradition which is followed to a greater or lesser extent in pretty much all dojos. This can be a positive thing if it brings a feeling of belonging to something more than just a sporting activity or hobby (even if the reality is that it is actually nothing more than that for many participants). Part of that etiquette is the notion of respect. Respect to your sensei, respect to the seniors, respect to your peers and respect down the line. This is a very fine notion and one which I am all in favour of (and I labour that point specifically because of where I am heading with this particular article). The problem is that, in some places (and I do emphasise the “some”), respect has become a thing in itself rather than a feeling.

Rather than being something that is earned, offered and given freely it has become instead part of the dogma of modern karate and is demanded as a right, whether deserved or not. It may well be culturally appropriate if you are of Japanese origin, I cannot say, my understanding of actual Japanese culture is very superficial and all I have to go on is the mock culture transposed onto Western karate as if it were some sort of 14th century feudal system.

  • “Thou shall respect thy sensei and everything he says”
  • “Thou shall respect thy seniors”
  • “Thou shall respect anything attributed to the old masters”
  • “Thou shall respect any accepted “truth” of karate history” without question (despite how much of it is just made up)

Now, like most of the (slightly) strange things many people do in their karate training I have no issue with people playing at being the “new samurai” and considering themselves to be “warriors” for an hour or two a week if that’s what floats their boat (despite the fact that the “old samurai” had nothing to do with karate anyway and punching fresh air in a pair of white pyjamas doesn’t make you a warrior) and do the pretend stuff in dojo while dressed from the “dressing up box”, as long as everybody understands that is what it is.

Should you respect your sensei? Well hopefully yes, otherwise why are you training with him at all? However, should your sensei demand your unquestioning respect as a right? That is a different question entirely.

I am not going to go into the rights and wrongs of adopting the term “sensei” as if it were a conferred title (it isn’t and never has been but Westerners particularly seem to like the phrase “I am a Sensei” just to make themselves a little more special than anyone else).

As a word to use in dojo for your instructor, fine, we use Japanese terminology for everything else so why not that? On your business cards or Face Book profile you start to sound a little more pompous but if it is used in the context of communication with your students it may still be valid.

If you insist on being referred to as “Sensei” by students outside of the dojo, and the parents and family of students who don’t even train with you (and anybody else who has a tenuous link to you via your karate activities) then you should just stop it. It may be ok to treat 6 year olds as 6 years olds (although I have my doubts on that even) but when you are treating grown adults as 6 year olds then that’s too far. Please take your mock “lord of all” persona off with your Gi when you leave the dojo and go back to being just another bloke (because that’s all you are).

The truth is that in many dojos and organisations (both big and small) “Respect ™” has become nothing to do with actual earned respect (or mutual respect) but all to do with control and making sure that people “know their place” in the hierarchy.

I have seen it first hand and find it very sad that grown adults fall for the “Yoda principle” and assume that some bloke on minimum wage in the real world is a life coach on all things (karate related or not) because he happens to bet a bit better at punching and kicking stuff than the rest of us. This is a direct result of the “sensei knows all and must never be questioned” culture found in many dojos (and I do realise this does not mean ALL dojos but these guys are out there in numbers).

Now I don’t want to put anyone off sending their children to karate classes, there are a lot of positive benefits. They will behave better, they will have more focus, they will have more discipline and they will be physically more active and confident BUT be aware that they are not learning this in a culture of real mutual respect but in a culture where “Respect ™” is about knowing your place, “you will bow to me because I am better than you” “you will not question my truth (even if patently absurd) because I am better than you” “you will bow to my black belts and treat them with (almost) as much reverence as me because they are also better than you” “if you work hard and do not question you will rise to a place where others will have to bow and listen to you because you are now better than them”.

I’m not saying that as a system it doesn’t work, it obviously does and it achieves results (particularly with children) but it sounds a little less attractive when put in those terms. So if any of that makes you uneasy, then take the time to look around at the culture of any group you consider sending your children to, or even joining yourself.

So, as I’ve said previously on many subjects, if you are doing what you enjoy in a culture you enjoy and do so knowingly then more power to you but do take a step back occasionally and look at what you are doing with a critical eye, just so that you know.

Respect!

OSS!!

(sorry, couldn’t resist)

Spirit First, Technique Second!

A slight diversion from my on-going bunkai stuff but this came into my mind on the back of a recent training session.

It’s a very old karate cliché and you hear it said often by the traditionalist, not so much by the pragmatic crowd because many of us have distanced ourselves from the clichés of the past tradition in order to differentiate the focus of our training, which is about effectiveness rather than self-improvement after all.

The problem is that there is still a lot of truth in these old clichés (as there is with most) and we need to examine how they really apply to the way we (the “applied” karate-ka) train and teach our students.

From our point of view “spirit” doesn’t mean marching in line until you drop or ki-ai-ing louder than anyone else (tongue in cheek, I’m aware that it doesn’t for a lot of traditionalists either, but we are discussing clichés), but the idea is very relevant, dare I say, even fundamental to what we do.

There has always been an issue in modern karate of any flavour that learning a martial art is somehow “magic”, if you know the right techniques (and practice them enough) then when you need them they will come and all will be right with the world. There is as much of a measure of this in modern applied karate as there is in traditional as our sort of training is becoming more mainstream but modified so as not to scare off potential students.

There are a lot more people now training at realistic ranges, hitting pads, doing partner based drills etc… which is all a good thing, however there is still an expectation from this that your knowing a technique to deal with a certain situation makes you able to cope with that situation irrespective of the physics involved.

However, with the best will in the world this still comes under the heading of “charms to ward off evil” unless you really take the time to pressure test these techniques in unpredictable, messy and (within certain safety limits) full on power.

What will invariably happen in these circumstances is that techniques that you’ve practiced successfully over and again with a partner will start to fail under pressure and the random chaos that more accurately reflects a real situation (and it is still only play fighting, so if you can’t make stuff work here…).

If you partner is now no longer playing the drill game but just coming on until your technique would have stopped them (you still have to “play the game” to a certain extent or people will get seriously hurt) and your technique fails to stop them because they are no longer being nice then you need to start to understand why.

First and foremost we need to acknowledge that there is no magic in technique, it will not work for you just because you made the right shape. All you are training with technique is efficient use of the resources you have (your own body), understanding the potential weaknesses in your opponent and modifying the odds of your surviving a confrontation to be slightly more in your favour.

This is where we come back to the question of “spirit first”. Once you start to really pressure test a technique you will quickly find a student with mediocre technique but full commitment (what we used to call “heart”) will fare far better than a student with good technique but no commitment.

Now you have to be careful when pressure testing techniques with students as for those who (may currently) lack the “heart” they can very quickly become disillusioned with their training (and they are typically the ones who need it the most) so you have to walk the line between reality and building (and rebuilding) their confidence until they develop a level self-sufficiency (I think a large part of this is still about being honest and setting a level of expectation up front).

So, “spirit” is not just about shouting loudly and sweating a lot, spirit is actually a large part of the cycle of training and something we as instructors should actively be trying to consciously develop through specific exercises in confidence building, pressure testing, showing what works and (more importantly) knowing what to do when it doesn’t (just shouting “more spirit” at students doesn’t cut it in my book).

Whilst I acknowledge the ideal is both spirit and technique and that’s what we should be working towards if the sh*t ever hits the fan for a student in the real world then “spirit” will be what sees them through, effective technique is just the vehicle to carry it so I’m perfectly happy to stick with “Spirit first, technique second!”

Bunkai – Change the range

I made a bold boast a while back in my “Learn Bunkai” post about each of the topics I quoted being worthy of a post in themselves.

In reality this is probably not true as each of the subjects is so inter-related with the others that you can’t really split them out, but if you were to try and cover everything in one shot it would require a whole book to do it justice and there are better writers (and more experienced karate-ka) than me already offering that.

Having said that I’m going to take a stab at it anyway, just because I said I would.

“The first, easiest and most fundamental idea is “change the range”, genuine confrontation takes place at a far shorter range than conventional karate so don’t try and work applications from karate range with karate techniques.”

The problem of trying to get into kata bunkai work whilst sticking to the traditional karate ranges used in Gohon, Sanbon and Kihon Ippon kumites and the conventional explanations of what the meanings of the techniques are is that it very quickly becomes apparent that they make absolutely no sense (in a self-defence context) within a kata worked with a partner.

Just as a short example, a very commonly seen “classical” bunkai from kata will be the turning 180 degrees on the back foot to block a Mae geri with a gedan barai (as seen in move 3 in Heian Shodan, and many other places). It looks very nice in a choreographed demonstration but even the least critical mind would spot that if you just stood in place the kick you are blocking would in fact fall 4 to 5 feet short of the target (in fact, in a self-defence context you would actually be at far less risk by doing nothing at all)

So the first step is to do some research on to what is typically known as habitual acts of violence (or variations on the term), a quick google search will give you a short list of the most typical acts of violence that most of us (outside of law enforcement or the armed forces) are likely to encounter. If the list is much more than a dozen items long the chances are that you are entering the realms of the made up (and if it includes rear bear hugs then you definitely are).

I will insert one caveat here (as being as good a place as any) that I am talking about bunkai as a tool for self-defence against common attacks, I am not talking about the “just step outside” one on one duel in the carpark where two protagonists square off against each other to prove who’s best, or defend their honour (or any of the other B.S. reasons typically used for fighting).

Once you have an idea of the sort of attacks you are likely to face you can start to evaluate the ranges you and your partner will need to work at.

There will be a couple of long(ish) range attacks (e.g. a shove to the chest immediately followed by a punch to the head) but even these will not be at “karate range” as the attacker is already within touching distance and the range will close very quickly indeed from the initial contact. Most attacks will be initiated from medium to close range, they will not be single attacks and they will not be done to a count.

My experience has been that it’s very difficult to get karate-ka with many years of training to be comfortable with training at very close range (it’s very often easier with beginners who have no pre-conceptions) as they always want to leave themselves room to move, this seems to be true even with styles that train at a closer range than the Shotokan base I come from. You will need to get used to this.

Whilst there are situations in which you will need to open a space to make room for a technique to work or to make a strike or to make an escape (important idea to hold on to), most fundamental work on bunkai (at least using the approach I prefer) is to be close enough to control your opponents centre, balance and structure, if you can disrupt any or all of these (which are just aspects of the same thing) whilst keeping control of your own then you are in (some) control of the situation and will have options. You cannot typically do this at arm’s length where you are relying on muscle power over long levers. Again, this is a generalisation (there are always exceptions) but is predominantly true.

Once you start working at this range using the HOAV attacks you will find a lot of you uncertainties of the effectiveness of “bunkai style karate” will resolve themselves.

It may be unpopular amongst bunkai practitioners to say this but this is not “proof” that our way is right and everybody else’s way is wrong but just that this approach will work better for you IF self-defence against common attacks is the main aim of your karate training, not everybody’s is and there is nothing wrong with that (as long as they understand the difference).

Next time “Bunkai – Don’t be looking for technique”

 

Want to give it a go?

I would start this short write up with an apology but given the cause (which I am shameless in promoting) I won’t.

I have quite boldly stated in the past that I’m not trying to sell anything but once a year I make an exception to this as I run a Karate camp in aid of the children’s cancer charity “Christopher’s Smile” which directly funds research into specific treatments for childhood cancers. (If anybody wants any more information on this you can find it at http://christopherssmile.org.uk/

I normally promote this annual event (now our 4th year) elsewhere but given that I’ve been banging on about bunkai a bit lately and particularly about how to get involved if it is something that you are new to I thought I’d add a short write up here as well.

The event runs over the 3 days of the early May bank holiday weekend in South West Herts (UK) from 29th April to May 1st. It runs as a camp and people are encouraged (although not compelled) to stay over as it’s as much about the social and making new friends, networking and swapping ideas as the training itself.

If you are camping we provide everything apart from the tents. All meals are included from Saturday breakfast to close of training lunch on the Monday. You do need to be prepared for the catering as we do try and fit in 5 meals a day during training (I have had some returners tell me “**** the training, I just come for the food!”).

Having said that this is an ideal opportunity for anyone looking to be exposed to the world of applied Karate all in one hit (if you’ll pardon the expression) as we have a number of the country’s top applied instructors all under the same roof for one weekend.

In recent years I have run this event as a more eclectic mix so that karate-ka could be exposed to other arts and other ways of thinking and to that end we’ve had sessions on Boxing, Gracie JJ, Judo, Aiki-jitsu, Iaido and Jujitsu on top of both classic and pragmatic karate training.

This year’s event seems to have worked out far more karate based and predominantly from the applied side (although we will still have a bit of other stuff thrown in).

The instructors this year include a number of published authors on the subject and instructors from the international seminar circuit. They are John Titchen, Andi Kidd, Paul Herbert, John Burke, Jim Dart, Malcolm Bates and myself (for whatever that’s worth) and will cover many different aspects of applied karate from a number of different viewpoints.

The event is not style specific (we have Shotokan, Wado-Ryu and Goju-ryu practitioners attending) and anyone with a measure of traditional training should be able to cope quite adequately with the content, We had 3 Aiki guys there last year who, I believe, sat out for about 30 minutes of the weekends content. The age range last year ran from 16 to 69 so there is something for everyone.

Everybody gives up their time without charge for the cause so all profits from the camp (after venue hire and food) go directly to the charity.

There are many good seminars out there but very rarely will you get the chance to try this much quality tuition all in one go, and particularly at the price (£90 for the entire weekend, 15+ hours of training). Day tickets are also available.

Personally I think this is one of the premier events of the year (but then I must admit to a bit of bias) and is all in a good cause.

Full details can be found at https://www.facebook.com/events/891957250949605/ or you can contact me direct at redfishkarate@virginmedia.com if you have any questions (or want to book your place).

 

Learn Bunkai !!

How do you even do that? (Part 1 of an occasional series)

There has been a growing acceptance that learning bunkai is a valid path to follow in your karate training. That is not to say it is the only path but for those looking at pragmatic skills in self-protection as the main aim of their training then it’s probably the path for you.

Having said that the phrase “learn bunkai” says very little without context and an understanding of what “Bunkai” actually means.

As I said in a previous article the word bunkai is typically misused as a short form for anything application based and so has become interpreted as meaning “application”.

Rather than going over it again just be aware that Bunkai is the analysis of the kata to look at possibilities, principles and potential meanings and that the hard set application drills that drop out of the analysis for partner practice are “Oyo” which are used to test these possibilities and, if found to be valid, become your applications.

So Oyo are typically what people are looking for when they start to take their first steps down the pragmatic path.

Obviously, the best path to follow (as with any training) is to find an instructor with the relevant experience and go and train with them on a regular basis. This is easy to say but less easy to do. When I first started down this path they were few and far between and I had to travel some distance to train. Fortunately more experienced instructors are now following this path so, whilst still not easy to find, it is getting easier.

If you find yourself in a position or location where this is not practical then there are other ways to make a start but it does make life a little harder. You may be currently training somewhere where this sort of training isn’t a focus so it is not encouraged or it may just be a simple question of geography.

First step is to book yourself on a seminar with a specialist instructors on the subject. You can buy a book or DVD but exposure to first-hand information can save you from making a lot of time consuming errors. You will also get a chance to meet some like-minded people and at least come away with a set of tried and tested Oyo to start working with, and never underestimate the power of networking.

You could always do what many of us did when first starting down this path and jump straight into kata analysis on your own using your current understanding to work with what you think a kata is trying to teach you. Whilst this can be very entertaining and thought provoking it is also a very big trap waiting to spring so tread with care!

So, on the basis that I will no doubt revisit this subject many times and in more detail (and for the sake for brevity in any one blog post) if you want to have a go on your own let me give you my take on some to the starting concepts in developing your own “bunkai mind” and to try and avoid some of the easier traps (all of which I have fallen into at one time or another). These are quite simplistic as each topic could be an entire post on its own, and no doubt will be at some point, but if you’ve not done this before it will at least give you a starting point.

The first, easiest and most fundamental idea is “change the range”, genuine confrontation takes place at a far shorter range than conventional karate so don’t try and work applications from karate range with karate techniques.

Secondly, don’t be looking for technique, i.e. typically what we see as the classical technique in a karate kata is actually the end position, the actual techniques take place in the transitions between one “technique” and another and these are just the postures at the end of a sequence.

Loose the concept of what any particular technique is, don’t get stuck on the block, strike or kick labels, they are again just classical explanations for end postures.

Try to avoid the “if I do this, then my partner does this then I do that…” If your application is dependent on your partner behaving in an entirely predictable way in order to work (particularly if the sequence is a number of moves) then there is a problem. That’s not to say you can’t develop predictable drills to practice a move but recognise them for what they are.

Try not to get caught in trying to figure out what a move means and then find an attack to fit it, you end up with trying to manufacture problems to fit solutions that you already have rather than finding the solutions to problems which you may actually face.

Work with real “street” attacks (they are well documented if you google) and try and react naturally, you will very often find your natural reaction is mirrored somewhere in kata, and this will provide the clues to build a move on.

The simpler a move is the more likely it is to work, application does not need to be flash but it does need to be effective.

Finally, don’t get too attached to a good idea. It may in fact be a good idea but test it well, if it proves to be flawed don’t hang on to it just because, and this is the same for both your own ideas and those of others (no one person has all the answers and we are all subject to our own biases and favourites).

Do we even need Kata?

It’s a question that comes up time and again.

“Where’s the link between Kata and Kumite?”

“Why do we need to do Kata? It’s just boring and doesn’t mean anything”

“It’s just performance art”

The reality is it depends entirely on what your goals in learning karate are and where you are training.

We could go into the nature and history of kata and try and build an argument for why they are the core of Karate but there is only any point in doing that IF you train your Karate with Kata as the core and the fundamental centre of your training and if your Kihon and Kumite are there just to enable the practice of Kata based karate.

We could make an argument for the “tradition” of kata as a part of the art of Karate which is both true and not at the same time. It has become true as kata have been collected into the system and are practiced as one of the signature identifiers of Karate as an art. This gives us the classic 3 corners of Kihon, Kata and Kumite as a triangle, not a very coherent triangle admittedly but one that works if you accept it at face value and are happy to only ever try and link 2 of the corners at any given time.

So if you are practicing “tradition” you need them as part of the tradition otherwise what art are you practicing?

If you are practicing karate as a sport then it comes down to if you are doing competitive kumite or kata? If you are doing kata then they are obviously quite important, if you are doing sport kumite then they are next to useless. Don’t look for the link between sport kumite and kata because there just isn’t one.

If you are learning with a self-protection mind set then it becomes (or can appear to) a very grey area indeed.

It may be heresy to say it but there is nothing that you learn from the Kata that you cannot learn equally as well without them. They are a condensation of principles and technique into a compact and portable form that acts as a catalogue and reminder and gives you a way of practicing your body dynamics when a partner isn’t available (and a valuable set of drills when one is) but they are not magic.

There is nothing they contain which cannot be worked without referring back to the kata. I could teach a full set of drills and techniques (that come from kata) without ever teaching you the kata itself. You would walk away with some effective skills with no idea of where they came from or how they hang together in the form and they would be no less effective because of that.

Having said that, anybody who practices an art that has consistent drills to learn form, technique or body mechanics either solo or with a partner is effectively doing kata (whether it is two moves or twenty), they may just not be linked back to a “traditional” form but they are kata none the less. I have trained with many people who have a sudden light bulb moment and say “Oh, I recognise that move, it’s the same as we do in xxxxx”, and why wouldn’t you, there is a lot of commonality in most effective fighting systems (and it makes sense that there is).

So you don’t need kata to be effective but what you will do is spend a lot of time reinventing a wheel (or set of wheels) that already exist in order to have a coherent frame to hang your training off of.

So, you can have an effective art and skill set without kata but without kata is it Karate?

In answer to that I would tend to paraphrase Terry Pratchett here (Hog Father) with his discussion on whether the sun would come up or whether the world would just be illuminated by a big ball of burning gas.

Without kata you are not doing Karate, you are just defending yourself with empty hands.

Disclaimers, Bias, Prejudices and General Bull

 Apologies if this post is a little self-indulgent as it’s all about me and very little else.

I thought that as I was now blogging that, rather than having to pussy foot around in every article I write and explain the direction I am writing from each time, it would easier to explain myself in one go and then move on.

For those who don’t know me, and that’s assuming that anyone who doesn’t will ever read my ramblings (or even that anyone who does actually will), my basic bio is on the “About” page and is a short form C.V. of my training background, however that doesn’t really explain “me” as such.

I have recently been accused by a friend of being “sometimes controversial”. I do not typically set out to be controversial but it would seem that this just sometimes happens.

One of the reasons I moved to blogging in the first place was I was finding that I now have a wide circle of karate “friends” on social media, most of whom are friends of friends (and so don’t know me at all) some of whom have a very different take to mine on what karate is and how you should behave within the karate world. It has never been my intent to cause upset, although I will stir the pot occasionally if I think it needs to be done (or just for the entertainment value if the mood is right).

When it comes to expounding my views on karate (and other things) on social media I look at it as akin to shouting at people from a soap box in the park, basically I’m just haranguing random people, many of whom have no interest in what I have to say and some of whom will actually be genuinely upset by my views, so I am trying to do it less. The point of moving to the blog is that you have now effectively knocked on my door and asked for my opinions so that is what you’ll get.

It will hopefully be obvious that on occasions I write some of my observations with intended good humour and very much tongue in cheek. If it is not always obvious then apologies but if something seems contentious then re-read it with that in mind and see if that helps (btw, sometimes it will also be contentious just because it is).

I am not trying to set myself up as an authority on any subject particularly. Anything I write is just my personal take on what my understanding and opinion is at any given time based on my own learning and experiences, just because it’s written down it doesn’t mean that opinion won’t change over time or in the light of new information (they are just snap shots, treat them as such).

I do not intentionally have an agenda (although whatever I say will be coloured by my own personal biases and prejudice obviously), I have nothing to sell, no brand to build or any particular interest in becoming the “master of glib comments and platitudes” to be followed by thousands (and there are others who already have that well covered anyway ). That won’t happen anyway as I have nothing to offer in the way of easy answers, just the tendency to sometimes ask some uncomfortable questions (and who would want to sign up for that? )

A lot of what I write will contain sweeping generalisations on both sides of any subject, we all know (or as adults should at least) that the real world is many shades of grey so there isn’t really a black and white argument on any given topic, however this does make it somewhat difficult to write a concise opinion on any subject.

So to make it plain, I come from a traditional Shotokan background but for a number of years now I have moved away from that to a bunkai centric form of training as the understanding of the practical application of karate has become what interests me personally. However, I am not one of those zealots who feel the need to convert everyone to my way of thinking because “everything YOU are doing is now wrong”, I just like to prod people occasionally to make sure they are at least thinking for themselves about the subject.

I am well aware that we all train karate for our own reasons and have no problem at all with those who continue to practice the “traditional” model. They are still very much in the majority anyway and have nothing to worry about from the likes of me. A lot of people get everything they want from following this path and if they do so knowingly then what’s the issue? It’s just that it is not for me anymore.

So to wrap this piece of self-indulgence up. I am just a bloke with some views on karate, I know more than some and less than others. I will never be a master of anything but am not striving to be so that’s very much an achievable goal at my stage of life. My opinions are just that, opinions, if you enjoy them then read them, if you don’t then why are you bothering? Just sayin’