Monday, December 29, 2008

Why "corkscrew" your punch?

In my view the reason so many martial arts utilise the standard "corkscrew punch" (eg. karate, taekwondo, many shaolin schools, etc.) has little to do with a conscious effort at enhancement of power/stability, or because of fashion or aesthics.

It is simply a function of our biomechanical design.

Consider a very short, close range punch into the ribs - with an uppercut type action. Your palm will naturally face upward.

Think of a handshake where you are middle distance (ie. your elbow is not fully extended). Your palm is side on and you have what is known as "vertical fist" punch.

Now think of an extended "raise your arms in front" (as a doctor or physiotherapist might ask you to do) - or even a pointing action - ie. where your elbow is fully extended. The most natural position is palm down. Hence when you have a fully extended punch it will naturally end up with the full corkscrew.

The standard "karate-type" punch covers all three of the above "stages"; at the beginning of the punch the palm is facing up. As the elbow clears the body the palm starts to turn to vertical fist. At its absolute maximum range it is turned over fully. Most of the turn from vertical happens in the very last few centimetres (or last inch or so for you Americans).

We practise a "full" movement when we practise basics. However when you hit, chances are you will not be landing a fully extended punch, hence it will be something in the spectrum of what is essentially a natural way of extending a hip chambered hand.

And yes - it does "add power" and "add stability" to do it this way, provided you are turning over the punch at the correct stage of your extension. Why? Because you are moving in a biomechanically efficient manner. Conversely, moving in an inefficient manner will reduce your power.

For example, it won't help you one iota to corkscrew your punch too early (ie. a short punch with a full corkscrew); rather it will be detrimental (the old "rabbit punch" is not something one associates with a trained fighter).

Now try doing a fully extended punch without turning your fist over at all (ie. palm up all the way).

Both of the above examples are seriously dorky.

Most punches we land are mid-range (in what I call the centre of the "melee") hence they will be vertical fist or slightly turned over from there. A full basic punch should cover all the stages as part of learning a natural movement.

It is important to note that a fully extended vertical fist punch isn't too bad (there won't be much difference in measurable power), but it still isn't as natural as a palm down. I emphasise "fully extended" because it really should be the last inch or so that most of your turn occurs.

That turning action at the end also grinds your knuckles in causing more damage - an added bonus.

It is also important to note that my comments above apply only in relation to the standard karate-type "corkscrew" punch.

There are other ways of punching utilising different principles.

For example you will note that I "bend the rules" in the video below (albeit using an open hand strike - but it could easily be turned into a punch at the last second):

I demonstrate suri ashi a type of sliding foot action together with an open palm strike

Much depends on how you load your strike/punch (or, rather, your “start position”). If you are using a high chamber, for example, there will be no "corkscrew" action at all.

I demonstrate the "kosa zuki" or cross as done in karate

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Goju ryu karate and health

Is goju karate bad for your health?

I was recently asked about whether goju ryu is potentially bad for your health. The correspondent was particularly concerned with knuckle push ups and makiwara punching causing arthritis, and sanchin kata having other adverse effects (eg. raising blood pressure).

Knuckle push-ups

Knuckle push ups will not cause arthritis. There are 2 kinds of arthritis; the rheumatoid type (ie. caused by an immunological disease be it rheumatoid arthritis or any other reactive arthritis related to Crohns disease, psoriasis, etc.) and osteoarthritis (which is commonly associated with age (wear and tear) and can result from joint degeneration following an injury or repeated injuries and inflammation, among other things).

Knuckle push ups and makiwara obviously have no relationship with rheumatoid-type arthritis. As to oseteoarthritis - they MIGHT have a relationship but only if you keep injuring yourself.

To avoid this risk, you should:

(a) do your knuckle push ups correctly (more on this in due course); and

(b) gradually condition your knuckles.

Do one or 2 knuckle push ups on a wooden floor, then revert to hands. Gradually increase the number over time. Earlier this year I managed 82 in a row - what failed was my endurance, not my knuckles. I did 120 in a row in my prime. Knuckles or flat hands - there was no real difference. I think knuckle push ups are rather like sitting in seiza (the traditional Japanese kneeling posture); something you have to get used to (particularly for Westerners). I remember in my first karate class thinking that it was an impossibly painful position; one I could not possibly sustain for any length of time. I assumed I would be the first student in that dojo who would need special dispensation to sit cross-legged. Needless to say I never received that dispensation and I have been sitting comfortably in seiza for almost 30 years.

Makiwara training

Makiwara training is not something I recommend for beginners. In my opinion you should be at green belt before you start it because by then your knuckles will be conditioned from the pushups. You should then begin by punching softly, gradually increasing the "power" of your punches. You should never do too many. If your knuckles feel bruised or sore, stop. NEVER continue punching if you have split them. Gradually callousing will occur and you will be able to punch harder without injury or discomfort. Morio Higaonna who has very conditioned knuckles has had them examined by doctors and they are in absolutely perfect health - enlarged and calloused, but no sign of arthritis.

In other words, the key to knuckle (or any other impact conditioning) is to start out gradually and slowly build up. Avoid injury. A bit of a bruise is going to go away. It is only if your knuckles are constantly inflamed that you face the possibility of joint degeneration over time, leading to osteoarthritis.

A makiwara demonstration

Sanchin kata

As to sanchin kata, there is a lot of speculation that it is a "crude" form of "isometric training" causing blood pressure elevation.1 This is simply not the case. Sanchin kata practise involves contraction of specific muscles - this part is true. But you are not holding your breath and making your face go red - something that is called the Valsalva maneuver.2 This maneuver is dangerous and may lead to a stroke (you'd be surprised how many people die on the toilet while straining - ie. doing the Valsalva maneuver).

Instead while performing sanchin kata correctly you should be breathing in a manner appropriate to the type of exertion3, teaching your body the correct tension for receiving blows (which ANY fighter will experience) and learning grounding. Whatever it is, sanchin kata is NOT intended/designed as a form of isometric exercise.

To the extent that your blood pressure is elevated slightly during practise - yes, this is true. But check your blood pressure after a sprint or after bench press and you'll probably find it is higher (in any case - beware that Valsalva maneuver!). It's probably higher when your boss is telling you off at work! Moreover, sanchin kata is not very long, so you're not exactly doing it for hours.

In the end, any form of exercise is dangerous if it is taken to an extreme. The key to goju ryu karate (or ANY exercise) is moderation and gradual conditioning. Just don't overdo it.

A demonstration of different sanchin/sanzhan kata


1. See Steve Bellamy's interesting but fundamentally flawed article "Sanchin - Your kata is killing you".

2. As to the Valsalva maneuver see the Wikipedia article here.

3. For a more detailed discussion of breathing in sanchin see Bill Glasheen's article "Sanchin Breathing: Are you hurting yourself?". The article is written for uechi ryu but in my view it applies equally to the correct breathing in goju ryu sanchin. If your goju sanchin involves a "vein popping" display then, quite simply, "you're doing it wrong"! For example, if you watch closely when Morio Higaonna sensei does his sanchin kata, his face isn't going red with Valsalva exertion.

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Creating a kata: Part 2

As I said in Creating a kata: Part 1, you create a kata in order to:
    1. package and preserve "fragments" of knowledge; or

    2. fill a void; or

    3. improve existing forms.
In terms of the latter 2, this is not an exercise to be entered into lightly. That you are "filling a void" or "improving" something is a big assumption. Nonetheless one can see some obvious examples, eg. with beginner kata; finding newer ways of teaching beginners how to acquire basic coordination and skill quickly is the role of any coach/teacher.

Now here is an interesting example of (I assume) a created kata:

Daishizen Koken-ha Goju-ryu Tode kata Mizute - click on the image to view the video.

I assume it is "created" recently because in my research I am not aware of any kata corresponding to this name or to this movement. If it is recently created, then I think it actually looks quite good. The real issue for me would be whether it would have any "value adding" benefit to warrant its inclusion in my syllabus. It does not appear to fill any "void" as far as I can see; it does not contain any moves that I feel can't be found in many other karate kata and in particular in some Chinese forms I know. [In the case of the latter, the "new" techniques contained in the created form are, in my humble view, not as sophisticated.]

Again, if this is a recent creation, it is the type of kata I would classify as "recombining" elements of other kata or arguably even "reinventing the wheel". Nor does it appear to preserve "fragments" of knowledge or package tequniques for 2 person practise etc. In other words, it does not appear to be created for a specific renzoku bunkai-like function.

Having said all that, this kata might well embody this gentleman's (or his teacher's) focus in training. It might instil some kind of movement or concept that he or his school values above others. So it might reflect the style of the creator. I'm a strong believer that every teacher - in fact every martial artist - has his/her own style. Labels such as "goju-ryu" have temporal significance but in reality they describe shifting, constantly changing paradigms. The concept of "constancy" is an illusion.

To someone like me who is fascinated by history, there is also a benefit in preserving an earlier form for the sake of academic study; but even this is fraught with difficulty. Who does kururunfa in a way that actually looks like Shinzato's performance in the 1940 video? How did Miyagi do the form? How did it look 10 years earlier? Did it even exist?

Jin'an Shinzato performing the kata kururunfa in the pre-WW2 documentary "Ryukyuan Things" - click on the image to view the video.

However creating a kata and changing a kata are 2 different things. I agree with my friend Jeff Mann when he recently said on the Traditional Fighting Arts Forum:
    "I am concerned about those folks who then conclude that any and all changes are not a big deal. For historical reasons, among others, I want to keep the form as closely to the original as I can. I can't do it perfectly, but hopefully I can do it well. There is value in preserving history as accurately as possible, even if not perfectly."
I don't know whether there really is an "original" but leaving that thorny issue aside, I think we ought to be very careful before we make changes to forms. I recall my teacher showing me a Chinese form and demonstrating some amazingly powerful, simple applications. He then showed me a particular move and said: "No one could tell me what this move meant. This doesn't mean it shouldn't be there. It means we should preserve it intact until such time as we discover what its meaning really was."

Changes made on the basis of insufficient knowledge can be very bad. This kind of thinking produced the ITF "sine wave" after all (more on that below)...

The taekwondo pattern Po Eun performed with the ITF "sine wave" - an "innovation" with which I strongly disagree

The juroku jo kata I refer to in my article "The 5 elements and the martial arts" is a case in point: I preserved it intact - as did my teacher (I believe via the late aikido master Ken Cottier who in turn was a direct student of Morihei Ueshiba). It was years after I learned it that I discovered that it is a 2 person form where both sides do precisely the same sequence. Had I changed the form in any way I would probably never have realised this.

A video showing the 16 or 13 count jo form with 2 person application

In other words, changes to kata should only be made when you have sufficient knowledge. However, how were form changes made in the past by so-called "masters" done with "sufficient knowledge?" As my friend Shidokai points out on the Traditional Fighting Arts Forum:
    "I can't see how they could have been. As I pointed out earlier, I know of no accounts of Funakoshi or Miyagi ever being in a life or death struggle, or even a minor scuffle. They were by many accounts respected for the fact that they did not get in fights. While this doesn't discount their ability or knowledge, it does indicate that perhaps not all changes made were for the sake of realistic application."
Certainly we can't be sure that masters such as Funakoshi or Miyagi did have "sufficient knowledge" when they made their changes. But we shouldn't rashly assume that they didn't. And the only way we'll know whether they did or not (and what to do about any deficiencies) is to have a sufficient level of knowledge ourselves...

People have sought to improve on Funakoshi. No doubt many things could be improved. I have my own ideas. But "sine wave" (as illustrated above) wasn't one of them! I would go so far as to say that the current emphasis on "sine wave" manifests a misunderstanding of what Funakoshi had right and simultaneously a misunderstanding of what he had that needed "improvement".

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing - sometimes a lot of knowledge is too. You have to have "sufficient" knowledge, and that might mean more than "a lot" when it comes to kata changes or kata invention.

My own forays in this area have been conservative - either 2 person drills/embu of existing techniques or very basic instructional forms. In a couple of cases they have packaged "stray techniques" into a sequence without modifying the individual components. I'm not game to revisit shorin/shotokan forms to "improve" them as I don't think I have the requisite skill to understand their full intent - flawed as it is. I'm not suggesting others do not and will not. There are some whose judgment in this arena I trust, but they are few and far between.

Chen Pan-Ling, the famous martial arts innovator, is well known for his "synthetic" form of taijiquan. He is one of those I am inclined to trust (as have many others, including well known Taiwanese full-contact fighters who were his students, such as the legendary Wang Shujin and Hong Yi Xiang - both strongmen of their era whose streetfights are well documented, as well as their "comparisons" during visits to Japan).

Hanshi Patrick McCarthy's Chokyu gata is another interesting development:

The quote below is taken from Hanshi McCarthy's article on this kata and Aragaki Seisan:

    The term Chokyu represents the combination of two separate ideograms: Cho & Kyu: *Cho* represents the alternative pronunciation for the first ideogram of the Japanese/Okinawan surname *Naga*mine (as in Nagamine Shoshin). *Kyu* represents the alternative pronunciation for the first ideogram of the Japanese/Okinawan surname *Miya*gi (as in Miyagi Chojun)... By eliminating the second person (the attacker) in the first part of the drill and then reconstructing the defensive portion of this exercise [a practice I have popularized], I became convinced that it must have been the original source from which Miyagi (& Nagamine) drew upon when developing Gekkisai in 1941. When composing a solo reenactment of the drill that I learned in China, I decided to draw on the same geometrical configuration developed by Miyagi & Nagamine. Drawing heavily on the vigorous stepping & sliding footwork unique to Southern-style Monk Fist quanfa (something I believe that is missing in modern karate), and the vibrant *Yamaneryu-like* body mechanics (something I also see missing in modern karate), I brought together the closed-fisted inside middle block (bridge) and kakewake tsuki (as exampled in Gekkisai #1) with the kake uke and mawashi uke (as exampled in Gekkisai #2) into a single configuration, thereby establishing a modified, and less redundant, version."

Patrick McCarthy's chokyu gata - click on the image to view the video.

I've said before that my own research has led me in a diametrically opposite direction to the Yamaneryu-like "hip vibration". Were I to design a "research" form of gekisai dai ni, for example, I would not have have moving in a sanchin/hiki uke that is more "internal"(specifically xingyi-like). The movements in sanchin with hiki/kake uke (hooking block) from gekisai dai ni would look something like the moving depicted below:

My research into making goju karate movement "internal"

Note that the momentum is generated by the whole body being thrown into an attack, not by the "double hip". It is for this reason that I would not consider, for example, an attack sequence terminating in a neko ashi dachi (cat stance) as occurs in chokyu gata.

Whose approach is "better"? Am I even remotely qualified to challenge the view of someone who has so many more years experience than I? Perhaps not - he is of my own teacher's "vintage" (they are friends and colleagues). I am certain that there is a great deal to his approach that I do not understand. I'm sure he has a very well-reasoned rationale behind his methodology. It is his "style" (bearing in mind my earlier reference to the concept that every teacher, if not martial artist, has his or her own "style" when you come down to it).

Yet respectful as I am of Hanshi McCarthy's research, my own inclination/style leads me elsewhere... After all, if we agreed on everything we would do precisely the same thing technically and stylistically!

Would my own hypothetical "research kata" based on gekisai be less or more "useful"? Possibly neither. Rather, it would reflect my own way of moving. Presumably a student might choose to study my method because he or she felt my "style" was more akin to their own natural tendencies/preferences, just as another would naturally gravitate to Hanshi McCarthy's way of moving.

And so we come back to the statements I made in relation to "Mizute" at the start of this article. Creating or modifying a kata might be suitable for you, but not necessarily for someone else. Consider the following adaptation of gekisai kata:

A version of gekisai kata adapted for a person in a wheelchair

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic

Friday, December 12, 2008

What happens when you lose your teacher?

When Kanryo Higaonna died, Miyagi is quoted as saying that he felt he was "groping his way along an unlit road".

To fully understand this metaphor you have to be in a completely isolated place like in the outback here in Australia where on a cloudy night there is no light - zero (where in most places on Earth there is a distant light on the horizon from one city/town or other). Even as you walk along a well demarcated road you soon find yourself straying into the bushes. More than once during our gashuku in the wilderness I have made the mistake of visiting the "sanitary convenience" without checking the batteries of my torch - only to find out on my return trip that they had gone flat.

With the campfire out you can become lost very quickly. In one case (in the middle of the night on a Gashuku in 1989) I wondered off the 4wd track (I couldn't even see its boundaries) and walked almost the opposite way for a kilometre or more. The only way I got home was by groping my way through bracken to the top of a hill from where I could just make out the faint glow of the embers of our campfire. I got back after an hour (instead of 3 minutes), scratched, bloodied and wet from crossing a stream - and never mentioned it to anyone!

When you lose your instructor try to think of it as an opportunity to see the world from another prespective.

When I "left" my first instructor I did so for the reasons a son leaves home. You get to the point where you want to do your own thing. Like it or not, 2 people will have different goals and objectives and after 16 years of following his footsteps I decided (like any impetuous youth) to go it alone. I spent a few years groping along the unlit road.

Like Miyagi I surmise, I sought out knowledge from all and sundry.

Years ago I went looking for references to my teacher's Chinese teacher on the net. His name was Hong Yi Xiang. I knew he had died a decade before, but I wondered if his Taipei guan was still functioning (it is, but I couldn't find it then). Then I remembered his own mythical taiji teacher, Chen Pan-Ling. When I did a search for this name the very first result in Google was a reference to a visit by his son Chen Yun-Ching to a place called the Wu-Lin Retreat (run by my now good friend James Sumarac) in Victoria, Australia (where he was going to hold a 4 day course).

I immediately booked a ticket and the rest, as they say, is history.

I haven't yet lost an instructor in a "permanent" sense. But if it happened tomorrow I'd know who might "fill in the blanks". Regardless, it would be a challenge, just like the time I scaled that hill in the darkness.

I'd also be aware that no one has a monopoly on martial knowledge. "Instructor hopping" is not a good thing, but being forced to learn another approach can be very enlightening too (provided you stick with it).

It is important to note that experiencing another approach requires years of dedication to that "perspective". Hong Yi Xiang said to my teacher that he remembered famous author and researcher Robert W Smith as a man "who learned very little from a great many". This does not diminish Mr Smith's achievement. It merely notes that he did train with very many different masters in Taiwan in the 50s, however spent very little time with most of them. I believe he eventually specialised in one particular style - but during his research era he simply didn't spend enough time with Hong, Wang Shujin and the many, many other Taiwanese masters to learn their very disparate forms of fighting. He did learn enough to introduce the West to these fighting systems in a general sense and he probably learned enough to choose the art in which he wanted to specialise.

Take a look at the complexity of the 1950s masters in this rare footage (Hong Yi Xiang is in there too with one of his sons - 2:28 to 4:08). There is simply no way anyone could usefully absorb each instructor's "perspective" just by spending a month or 2 with him or her:

Rare footage of Taiwanese martial masters in the 1950s

So if you lose your instructor - for whatever reason - accept the challenge. But whatever new knowledge you seek out, devote yourself to it sincerely and with diligence.

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Creating a kata: Part 1

Recently one of my colleagues on the Traditional Fighting Arts Forum referred us to the "24 Fighting Chickens" site which contains useful advice on "How to create a kata".

Now not everyone who creates a good kata was himself/herself a world beater or the most knowledgable. I've maintained before that kata is like a poem or piece of music (see my article "Kata: art or science") however not every kata has to be an "Eine kleine nachtmusik" to be effective.

I think what I found odd about the 24 fighting chickens article was the tone which suggests that everyone can and should make up kata - like those form competitions where you are judged on your own creation.

That said, the advice was fairly good and I actually have nothing against making up kata. Someone had to make up the originals! In fact I'm all for creativity. It's just that in any creative art you need a certain technical base before your creations are anything more than doodles (be they gifted amateur or otherwise). I like painting, for example. But I lack technical expertise/knowledge. I think I'd be quite good at it in my own way if I had that technical knowledge, but sadly I don't; I don't know enough about media, application, achieving a particular effect etc. On the other hand, I see people who are excellent technicians - they have these skills; but they don't have a creative bone in their body and so they are nothing more than skilled sign writers. They copy what others do. To be a creative artist you need both technical knowledge and creativity.

A 5 person form of Fukyugata ni as performed in my teacher's dojo (courtesy of Lao shi Bob Davies)

It took me 20 or so years to recombine existing techniques into a new "package" because I perceived a specific need for my own training and that of my students. And I consider myself a "creative" kind of guy. In other words, I didn't feel I had a sufficient technical base for a very long time to make even some small and conservative "creations".

My first "conservative creation", our Fukyugata Ni - a beginners' form which is taken from a 5 person practise drill for Fukyugata Ichi as practised in my instructor's dojo (see picture above)

I cringe when I look at some of the made up kata in the "make your own form" competitions because I see pointless twirls and acrobatic/gymnastic displays, techniques being misappropriated and also pointless recombinations (when the original sources are more than adequate - there are lots of kata!).1 You make a kata to fill a void or improve. In either case you've got have some knowledge and the more I learn the more I realise what I don't know.

The kind of creativity that I think IS useful at an intermediate or even senior (though not necessarily master) level is the kind that goes into preparing demonstrations of bunkai. I've been astonished by things I've seen by my own students or others out there. I also greatly admire the shorinji kempo embu where relatively senior students combine the rather conservative set of shorinji kempo techniques into 2 person fighting sets for their contests. This is really like preparing any other demonstration. It exercises creativity without pointless twirls and unworkable or even dangerous (to self) recombinations because you have pressure from a partner who is moving at top speed.

My Fukyugata embu - a basic 2 person form based on Fukyugata Ni that can be practised solo (in the 2 person versison both sides do the same sequence but start at different points). As at the writing of this article I am revising this form to take into account knowledge I've gained in the last 8 years.

The one last thing I wish to say about prematurely creating kata is this: when I was a fresh shodan I picked up book by an author (who shall go nameless) and saw a kata of his own creation at the back. It looked vaguely interesting - a cross between shaolin and naha te. So I taught myself the (rather basic) form from the pictures to see what it would look like (this was clearly in the pre-Youtube era). After several repetitions I noticed I was developing very sore knees. It didn't take long to work out that this was because the kata required some rather ill-thought through transitions from stances and turns. These were clearly putting torsional stress on my knees. I wondered myself how this kata could be "improved" to avoid this problem but eventually gave up. I realised that I simply did not have enough understanding of the way a human body moves, in particular in a martial way using traditional stances, to make something that was both functional and safe to practise.

Nagegata dai or Touxing Da - a form comprising a sequential packaging of stray qin na techniques taught to me by my teacher (the name reflects the fact that the applications are primarily take-downs). I would hazard a guess that few traditional forms were created "from scratch" but rather consitute "reworkings" or "assemblies of fragments" so as to preserve knowledge and provide a practical means of learning the appropriate "connectivity" between related moves.

You needn't be Mozart to create a functional form. Creating forms in martial arts is no different from choreography in dancing. But do a search of choreographers and you'll find that they are invariably highly experienced dancers who have a thorough technical background in their field. In martial arts there is an added element; creating a form for aesthetics is different from creating a form for function.

Accordingly a kata creator should be a cross between a seasoned trainer/coach and sufficiently gifted choreographer.

Next: Part 2


1. Here is a fairly "good" self-composed kata. It is good because it shows such an immense gymnastic skill level and crisp, clean technique delivery. But as a functional karate kata? Hmmm...

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic

Monday, December 8, 2008

Control vs. "missing"

A few months ago I read a post on a forum stressing the importance of not “missing” or “pulling” your blows in training.1 The gist of the gentleman’s post is that one should not train to “miss”. Instead one should train to contact, both to groove the correct approach to striking and also to become accustomed to taking blows. I agree wholeheartedly with this as a general statement in as much as it pertains to those who are training to apply their techniques, be it in civilian defence, the sporting arena or a military conflict.

But how can one make contact in training safe?

Being from a boxing background the poster notes that the punches should be “heavy, but not hard... you're driving through to your target but only with weight and not power”. What does he mean by this?

It is my view that the poster’s description of “heavy, but not hard” is entirely accurate from a physics perspective. In my article “Hitting harder: physics made easy” I discuss how in order to transfer momentum efficiently you need to stop your punch as fast as possible at the point of impact. The longer it takes for your punch to stop, the more “pushing” rather than “destructive” effect your punch will have. If you want to hit “harder” you must not slow your punch. If you want to hit “softer” you slow your punch before impact. You can still punch very fast leading up to the impact, but you have to slow it in the last few centimetres. Using this method you will convert some of the destructive potential of your blow into a push. Your opponent will feel the “weight” but not the force (something the poster colloquially – though inaccurately – refers to as “power”) of your blow.

So this particular poster’s approach is a boxing one; he hits his training partners, but he decelerates his (gloved) punches before impact to avoid injury. How does this compare with karate training?

In karate a certain amount of controlled contact is encouraged as well, especially from intermediate level onwards. So far this is the same. However the major distinction is that karateka train bare knuckle. Furthermore their punches empahsise focus or "kime" (see my article “Kime: the soul of the karate punch”). Karateka train to stop their punches suddenly and at a predetermined point (ie. the focal point) through their own muscular contraction. They certainly do not rely solely on their target to stop their blow. In the previously mentioned article I give the example of a boxer hitting a bag with power punches and the bag suddenly being moved out of the way; in this case the boxer should, if there is any weight behind his/her punch, lose balance.

By contrast, if a karate punch is executed properly and the target is suddenly moved away there should be very little difference in the reaction of the puncher – a “contact” punch and an “air” punch should be more or less the same (yes, the target does "stop" the karateka's punch, but only a moment before he/she would have stopped it anyway). In this respect the karate punch and a sword cut are analogous – both are executed with a pre-determined focal point in mind. Where they differ is that a karate punch is generally not focussed as deeply, nor is the karate punch expected to be as determinative in its effect.2

Apart from my discussion as to the physics of karate/traditional punches, there is another very important reason as to why traditional martial artists have adopted this approach of focussing their blows (or, as I will explain below, any technique, including a block etc.) so as to stop at a pre-determined point: It is part and parcel of having a more conservative "civilian defence" methodology; you rarely want to follow through with total commitment when executing a technique. Your "commitment" to a particular technique is disciplined and focussed at a particular point, so that:
    (a) if it fails you have minimised the opening you've created by executing your technique [by the way, every technique you do leaves some opening]; and

    (b) you have a degree of predictability and control in your movement so as to recover or preserve your position and effect an appropriate response to any further attack or counter.
The humble age/jodan uke (rising block) provides a good example of this principle:

My instructor used to refer to it and similar movements using an arnis stick as "roof blocks". In other words, your arm goes up “to the roof and no further”. One of the classic mistakes people make is wildly throwing their arms up to defend against an attack. If the defence misses (or the strike is a feint) the arm departs too far from the body leaving a massive opening. The attacker can then hit your unprotected face much more easily. However if you move to the standard "roof" position no matter what, then even if the attacker feints, you are still within the "kamae square" (ie. your arms are more or less in the guard position – see my article “The karate kamae or guard”) and you can easily defend the next attack by dropping your elbow in the "back up" aspect of the age uke as depicted below:

So how does this fit with the initial discussion? How does a karateka avoid hurting his partner in training? The answer lies in 2 separate but equally important factors:
    1. You need to be able to focus your blows as described above, however your focus will be directed so that it is very shallow – on the surface of the skin or just a millimetre in from that.

    2. Your direction and distancing has to be correct so that had you so wished you could have focussed deeper and punched with destructive effect.
Now I want to stress the second point; many people misinterpret controlled karate punches as “missing” or “pulling”. If they are done this way they are incorrect.

From day one karateka should learn “direction”. This means that one should never deliberately miss by moving one’s blow sideways at the last minute. Apart from grooving a very bad habit (and I can tell you any number of anecdotes to support this), it is also a very dangerous form of training in the dojo.3

Soon after that, the student will be expected to develop distancing (what is called “ma'ai” in Japanese – although this has a slightly more subtle connotation from the simple distancing to which I am referring here). In other words, your punch should not be fully extended at its finishing point. If it is so extended, you have missed. See the video below of my instructor Bob Davies together with one of my seniors Sensei Simon Bolze demonstrating this at a festival in 1985.

Rather, your arm should be sufficiently bent so that, had you focussed to a destructive point, you would have landed your technique with maximum force.4 Your punch is therefore deliberately focussed to land on the surface of your partner’s skin or just deeper. It hasn’t missed. It hasn’t grooved a bad habit – because you’ve chosen your focal point and landed your punch exactly where you wanted it to land. In this respect you’ve no more “pulled” your punch than had you chosen to decelerate it prior to landing (ie. the boxer's approach to ensuring a “heavy” but not “hard” punch). A karate punch is heavy and hard – it’s just that it is controlled – albeit in a different way from that used by the boxer to whom I referred at the outset of this article.

Why not simply adopt the boxing approach to “safe” sparring? Firstly we train without gloves; while a boxing punch can be decelerated safely, the same is not necessarily true with an ungloved punch where the knuckles can still cause injury. But most importantly, karateka already train to develop focus; as I have previously stated, kime is the soul of the karate punch. A karateka must never lose sight of this. To start decelerating punches before impact is to groove a habit opposite to everything a karateka is trying to develop in his or her punching/striking/blocking/kicking method.

1. The relevant text of the post by a certain J Kogas reads as follows:
    "It's funny how many people "intentionally miss" in training. Like the people you may be fighting are going to try and intentionally miss, lol. This is one of universal problems I've encountered over the years in martial arts training.

    The problems here should be obvious and if you're not wearing gloves, you're still cheating yourself of functional training. The reason is because pressure must come through. If not, you're not going to adequately test your structure.

    Open hand "touching" and the like has no weight behind it either. I've seen people "powder puffing" their training by either stopping short (as many do) or else either throwing so light that a person's stance, etc, isn't tested. How is that doing anyone justice?

    People will obviously take this to mean that you have to train with power and risk trauma, but that isn't true. The way around that is to drive heavy, but not hard. You're driving through to your target but only with weight and not power. It's something you have to feel and experience to understand more than likely. It's also something that's difficult to do with kicks as you have less control than you do your hands.

    This approach (heavy, not hard) is a great way to develop your structural integrity without brain trauma. However this wouldn't be safe to do without wearing gloves of some kind, because you are making contact (which I can't imagine training without). Bare knuckle is too risky and open hand training isn't going to suffice for the most part."
2. Many schools of mainland Japanese karate have taken the analogy with the sword to another level and have adopted the philosophy of “ikken hitsatsu” or “one punch/blow, certain defeat”. This is, in my view, an overemphasis of the concept of focus and reflects more the Japanese sword culture than it does the true nature of karate punches. However a kernel of truth remains in as much as karate (and indeed almost all other East Asian traditional art) punches are focussed and brought to a halt at a predetermined point – just as is the case with a sword or other traditional East Asian weapons art.

3. In my instructor’s dojo some of my fellow students were training for a particular demonstration. My instructor noticed that one fellow kept “missing” by veering sideways. He warned him not to do so. The warning was ignored. A moment later the person with whom the fellow was training moved the “wrong way”and caught the blow square in the eye. The injury was severe and the eye was almost completely lost. The injured student never trained again.

4. It is important to note that even if you "land" your punch, it might have missed if you're at full extension and your penetration depth is too shallow. Consider the following video:

The gentleman concerned is too far from the makiwara meaning that his punch is only penetrating a centimetre or 2 into it. In terms of its destructive force, this is as much a "miss" or "pulled punch" as my instructor's demonstration of a "missed punch" in the video earlier in this article.

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Ten rules for opening a martial arts school

A colleague on the Traditional Fighting Arts Forum recently asked us to list the 10 most important things to consider in opening a martial arts school. Here was my answer:

1. You should be passionate and committed to your martial art and your own progress within that art.

2. You should be qualified to teach at least up to an intermediate (what we call green belt) level. This means you should be thoroughly conversant with technical material to be taught for the first 3-4 years of your students' training. You can be qualified to teach even higher grades - the higher the better. But you have no business opening a dojo unless you have a deep knowledge of the material up to at least an intermediate level. It goes without saying that you should have attained a much higher level than that. But there is a difference in my view between passing a dan grade and being able to teach the material you've just passed. I am also assuming that you will progress further so that you always keep ahead of your students (see point 1)!

3. You should want (and love) to teach.

4. You should be confident but never arrogant.

5. You should preferably have one senior student/associate who is going to assist you.

6. You should find inexpensive premises to hire - premises that can be paid for through the fees of a handful of students.

7. You should conduct every class with the same gusto and energy - whether you have 2 students or 20. You should train by yourself even if no one else shows up.

8. You should keep yourself focused on your own tasks and goals, not what other schools/clubs are doing.

9. You should instil a level of formality in your class to offset its initial small size. The teacher/student relationship needs to be strictly observed during class (and usually outside it). This doesn't preclude you being friendly/friends with students, but it does pose some restrictions on your behaviour with them.

10. You should be honest.

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic