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).


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