Thursday, May 14, 2009

Details, details...

I have a mate named Harry who will dismiss a (sometimes obviously) valid point or argument with the retort: "Details, details...". Of course he always says it with a little smile. It's a long-standing joke we have.

The reason it has particular ironic resonance with us is that we are both, in our own ways, rather fond of details - particularly in debate. Some might even describe us as pedantic (although I think this description is as dismissive of the importance of "details" as Harry's joke).

Details are important, particularly in the martial arts. Consider the following example:

The late, great, Chinese martial arts teacher Chen Pan-Ling was given the task by the then Chinese government of collating knowledge of martial systems before their likely extinction in the face of the advance of the Japanese and later the Communists. Being one of the most respected scientists of his era (he was the leading hydraulics engineer in pre-war China) and having an impeccable martial arts pedigree, he was given access to martial systems that were usually kept secret.

What Chen Pan-Ling did with this knowledge is important; he didn't seek to preserve each art he was taught with slavish adherence to the particular forms. There simply wasn't time to preserve each art "warts and all". Rather, he focused on the essential techniques of each system and how they worked. This involved a close examination of the biomechanics of each movement. Where he found common techniques or methods with discrepancies he evaluated them in light of his scientific knowledge and settled on the most biomechanically sound and efficient option. This is where the "details" became important.

For example, in the case of taijiquan, he didn't preserve the Yang, Wu, Hao, Chen etc. forms as separate entities; rather, he compiled the essential movements of the art of taiji into a synthetic form - what is known today as the "99" form or, obviously, the Chen Pan-Ling form. This form was his attempt at "rationalising" the discrepancies in detail between the styles.

That this mild-mannered, scholarly gentleman would become a national treasure of Taiwan and the chosen teacher of some of that island's most legendary fighters (eg. Wang Shujin and Hong Yi Xiang) speaks volumes of his knowledge and contribution to "detail" in martial application.

Today there are myriad styles of martial arts. Even a particular style (eg. goju ryu karate) has literally thousands of variants, each of which does things in a particular, slightly different, way. Sometimes the differences are not significant, however I will, in this article, take the opportunity to highlight 2 "details" that I feel are significant.

Some important details of the goju ryu kata saifa

Consider the video above relating to saifa kata. At the start of the video I examine a particular inverted fist punch (ura zuki) performed after a hammer fist strike (tetsui uchi). The hammer fist is performed side-on, and you then turn your waist towards your opponent and perform the inverted punch - much like an uppercut, but to the floating rib. It is at this point that the detail becomes interesting.

Some schools insist that after you turn your waist to effect your blow, you should sharply pull your hip back at the moment of impact. Why? It has been argued to me (by some very senior martial artists) that when you turn with your punch you are vulnerable to being pulled off-balance should your arm be grabbed. The hip "pull back" stops this from occurring.

The problem is it does much more than that: The hip "pull back" also pulls back much (if not most) of the force you are trying to impart into your opponent. Many karateka will attempt to off-set this by trying to make the move as "fast and hard" as they can. But is there another way?

Some schools (eg. gojukensha) have resolved the issue by doing the entire sequence of hammer fist and inverted punch facing their opponent "head-on". But all my research indicates that this is at odds with how the kata was designed. The concept works, but it renders that part of the sequence into an entirely different "beast". After all, there are many times when you end up side-on to your opponent (even gojukensha practitioners practise their naihanchi sideways). Is there a way of keeping the move "as is" (ie. a side-on technique) but avoiding the pitfall of being pulled off balance when you turn at the waist?

I found the answer in Chen Pan-Ling's work; his approach to similar movements in the "internal arts" is to sink the body as you turn. Not only do you end up more solid/stable than you do when you are side-on after a forced hip "pull back", but you are also able to put the full power of your hip into your blow.

The nukite in seiyunchin kata; note the angle of the strike is forward towards your attacker. Since your body is 45 degrees to the front, your hand must be angled 45 degrees to your body...

A related "detail issue" commonly arises in versions of the kata seiyunchin/seiunchin (see the video above). The opening sequence includes a technique where you are in a deep horse stance (shiko) and execute an inverted knife hand strike to your opponent's floating rib or into his/her inguianl canal. The kata positions you at 45 degrees relative to your opponent. Accordingly, in order to strike straight forward (90 degrees) your hand needs to be 45 degrees to your body (45 + 45 = 90; it's straightforward logic isn't it?). Yet today many schools perform the nukite in line with the direction of their stance (see the video below).

A version of seiyunchin with the nukites in line with the stance

It is my strong view that this angle cannot possibly make for an effective knife hand strike to your opponent: As with the inverted punch in saifa, your body is simply not aligned efficiently since your hips are pulling away from your strike. Even your own body gets in the way! This is not to suggest that I think the nukite is a "power" technique; it isn't. At the best of times, an inverted knife hand strike is going to be suitable for "vulnerable regions" only as it doesn't have the scope for building momentum (as opposed to, say, a reverse/cross punch). The fingertips further limit "power" usage. The nukite might have a powerful effect, but it is not a "power technique" per se. Why emasculate a "non-power" technique even further?

As Harry would say: "Ah, details, details..."

[Go here for more details!]

Copyright © 2009 Dejan Djurdjevic

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Abandoning form: the paradox of the "shrinking" martial art

Here's something I was told when I first started training in martial arts:

You start with "no form" - ie. natural movement. However this movement is not necessarily productive and is almost certainly not efficient. You then learn "form"; this involves a basic, formal, structured type of movement being "imposed" upon you. Once you have absorbed or "internalised" this "form" you abandon it - and your movements become natural again.

"Abandoning form" and "shrinking your art" seem to go hand in hand.

By "shrinking your art" I'm referring to making your formal blocks/deflections etc. smaller, using finer and more efficient angles etc. until the basic "form" you were taught becomes almost unrecognisable. The "formality" of your technique (ie. the structure dictated by katas/forms etc.) disappears and in its place is just the smallest movement necessary to effect the principle or essence. These small movements are relaxed and natural in the sense that they no longer resemble the kata techniques. But they are not the "natural" movements that you started with; this time they are productive/efficient.

Basic form, particularly in its blocks or deflections, contains "safety nets"; back up movements or multiple "saves". There are 2 reasons for this:

First, basic techniques are compound movements; for example a "block" contains not just one deflection but 2 or more for teaching purposes. In other words, each formal technique teaches you 2 or more principles of movement because of their encyclopaedic value to those who are still in the process of absorbing or "internalising" those principles.

Second, compound movements mean that you have some "back up" in case you fail; these are quite useful to the student still learning to apply the principles taught in the basics. But note that they are "back up" movements only in a very general sense... Every technique has weaknesses and leaves openings. These back up movements don't provide some sort of "failsafe guarantee". At best they give you a small chance of recovering from a stuff-up. That's because most stuff-ups usually mean that you cop it - whether you have a back up technique or not. Moreover, a more experienced student who achieves in one movement what you do with 2 will always "beat you to the punch". The gentleman in the video below makes this perfectly clear.

This video deals with the broader topic of "checking" which I have dealt with elsewhere, but I have used it as an example of the importance of "directness" in combat. Most basic goju karate blocks, for example, contain a back up movement that transfers an attack from one hand to the other - which is great as a safety "buffer" but also takes up a fraction longer to effect. The move is not as "indirect" as the above "check", but the same issue arises at least to some extent.

Once you have absorbed or "internalised" the principles taught in basic, compound movements (ie. they are natural to you, and no longer feel "imposed") you no longer have to rely on formal structure - indeed, as noted above, it is often limiting to try to do so (eg. you shouldn't "force" the use of a formal structure where you might otherwise do a smaller, abbreviated "natural" movement).

Considering the sokumen awase uke in sanseru, it is my view that the technique cannot be described as "lacking" just because, when it used as a simultaneous deflection and counter, it doesn't have a "back up". Rather, the use of the technique in that context indicates that the practitioner is sufficiently advanced so as to have not needed a "back up" of the kind one associates with basic "learning" structures. In other words, his or her timing was sufficiently precise to abandon a more basic, compound form (of which the kata offers many alternative responses, should you need them) - and perform more a direct technique.

In it's expression as a more "direct" movement, the kata technique might become barely recognisable: In the case of the sokumen awase uke with an elbow strike, all you might see is the practitioner appearing to fall "naturally" into his/her opponent, somehow simultaneously slipping past the opponent's blows and impaling the opponent with an elbow.

Smaller, less formal, yet effective movement seems to me to be an indicator of highly refined timing - and hence of "advancement" in martial arts.

As a matter of interest, my primary karate teacher, Bob Davies, calls his school "wu-shin" - "no form" - for this very reason. This is despite the fact that he teaches plenty of "form". His idea is that every student must strive to absorb or internalise the principles taught/inherent in particular forms. Once this is achieved the student can and should abandon the forms. In other words, the ultimate goal is to have no form at all and just move naturally.

Many modern practitioners understand this goal, but don't appreciate the role that formal structures have in enabling you to get to reach it. It seems a paradox, but it is my strong view that to get "no form" you have to start with "form".

In this sense, a jazz musician needs to master scales and other formal structures before being able to abandon them and "just play" with his/her fellow bandmates. Ditto tennis players, who spend hours being coached on formal methods of serving, volleying and baseline play before being competent in free-play (note that tennis is, by comparison to the infinite variables of combat, quite simplistic). Ditto any other skill or discipline...

You need the basics of any skill or discipline as a stepping stone to free expression. Once you have mastered the basics your expression can become free - and you only need to revert during practise to basics from time to time so as to keep your technique "sharp".

Copyright © 2009 Dejan Djurdjevic

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The "oh sh*t!" moment: more about 2 person forms

Further to my article "Muidokan embu: 2 person forms for karate":

By design, any drill that is continous (ie. that "loops") must comprise entirely moves that permit continuation. This can be criticised as not allowing the practise of "finishing moves". Indeed this is a valid criticism. However it does not dissuade me from regarding continous 2 person "looping" drills as highly useful training. Rather, it merely suggests to me that they are only part of a well-rounded martial arts regimen. You shouldn't imagine that "looping" drills can replace kata and kata bunkai practise. Instead they add to them. How?

Our most basic embu based on Fukyugata ichi - demonstrated by me as a single person sequence, then by Sam and Clement as a 2 person sequence. In the latter both sides are doing the same sequence as demonstrated by me.

The answer to the above question lies in the closer consideration of "finishing moves": What happens when you attempt such a move and it doesn't pay off? Will you be able to rescue the situation or will you be so committed, both physically (in terms of your momentum) and mentally, that you won't be able to recover?

This is what I call an "oh sh*t!" moment.

How do you train to deal with these moments? A big part of my answer lies in our "embu"; our "looping" or continous 2 person forms.

Central to the design of our embu is the principle that no technique is infallible. To me it's a bit like "rock, paper, scissors";1 every technique can be defeated provided it is intercepted early enough. I think that one of the most valuable lessons taught by embu is to drag yourself out of the feeling that your commited counter is going to "finish" things - because it might not; you might find yourself in an "oh sh*t!" moment, requiring some "fancy footwork". You always need to be able to rescue your situation by transferring from your committed counter to another deflection (ie. you might need to "generate"1 another technique to deal with a destructive counter to your own)...

The drill below is acutally for koshi training (hip use). However it also teaches that "simultaneous" techniques are often not infallible; there are times in this drill where you have to be "live" at the end of your punch - ie. you have to be aware of an incoming blow despite having just thrown a blow yourself (the core concept in embu).2

A flowing drill designed for "koshi" (hip) training, but useful in the analysis of "oh sh*t!" moments.

Note how Sam (on the left) does a haiwan nagashi (high sweeping block) with his left hand and hits with his right at about 0:20. However at about 0:21 Sam has to convert his right hand punch into a brushing hand block (te nagashi uke) - to counter Oscar (on the right) who has thrown a left punch (in real life Oscar might have evaded/dodged Sam's right punch and Sam needs to be aware of that possibility occuring).

I think this concept of training for the "oh sh*t!" moment is largely ignored in the martial arts, yet it is crucial. "Looping" 2 person drills like our embu, if designed correctly, can address this issue.

If 2 person drills are designed poorly, are designed so as to be one-sided (ie. non-looping)3 or are too "formal" (eg. the 2 person gekisai drill designed by karate master Toguchi Seikichi, where one person performs gekisai with a high fidelity to the kata sequence while another sequence is matched to fit the kata),4 you miss out on the transition from throwing a blow to suddenly being forced into a recovery.

In other words, our embu training is the antithesis of "finishing blows" for a good reason. It is the other side of the coin. In my view karate training has traditionally spent too much time on "finishing" - and not enough on your recovery from the fact that you haven't been able to "finish".

In the end you need both.


1. See my article "The 5 elements and martial arts" on a discussion of how techniques can "destroy" one another and "generate" others (ie. how they can and should flow into other techniques that negate a destructive force).

2. Nowhere is the core concept of "converting a finishing blow" more evident than in our seiyunchin embu. Note in the single person version below at about 0:20 I throw a right cross - generally regarded as the most powerful punch and usually a "finishing blow".

I demonstrate the single person performance of our seiyunchin embu

However at about 0:21 note that the right cross is quickly converted into an evasion and a low block (dealing with the fact that your opponent has weaved/dodged your right cross and responded with a "low blow"). This is most visible in the video below at 0:26 to 0:27 where Jeremy (on the left) has thrown a right cross which is dodged by Nenad (on the right), forcing Jeremy to convert his punch directly into a "gedan barai" or low sweeping block against Nenad's counter.

Nenad and Jeremy demonstrate the 2 person performance of the seiyunchin embu.

3. A good example of a "one-sided" (ie. non-looping) drill is this excellent renzoku bunkai of the kata sepai, designed by Taira Masaji Sensei of the Jundokan.

Taira Masaji Sensei demonstrates his renzoku bunkai of sepai kata.

Note that while it is an excellent form of training that permits "finishing blows", the drill does not train for the "oh sh*t!" moment. My latter comment should not be taken to diminish the value of Taira Sensei's bunkai - merely to note that, like any other drill, it cannot be the sum of all your training. Rather, like our embu, it is just one facet of training.

4. I had previously used as an example of one of Toguchi's drills (gekisai sho) done by Kimo Wall sensei and Giles Hopkins sensei - you can watch it here. My good friend Jorge Morales-Santo Domingo has since alerted me to this example which is identical sequentially to the version of this drill that I practised for almost 2 decades. It is done exceptionally well - far better than I ever did it:

Renzoku kumite of gekisai kata performed by Sensei Silvera and Sensei Testa

Despite the outstanding performance of this drill, my comments remain the same: while the drill does have significant benefits, the emphasis that Toguchi placed on fidelity to the kata in terms of actual sequence means that the drill is, to my mind, too formal and ultimately different in body mechanics/movement from free fighting. In this regard it is worth noting that the drill does not contain any real tenshin (body evasion), but rather relies on straightforward stepping as per the kata.

Also the drill does not "loop" per se; there are 2 separate sequences which both reach a conclusion (one side loses). While this design does not, of itself, preclude "oh sh*t!" moments from occuring, it is quite unlike the "constructive" and "destructive" loop to which I refer in my article "The 5 elements and martial arts". That type of "rock, paper, scissors" construct means that each counter will itself be overcome, resulting in a continual, purpose-designed sequence of "oh sh*t!" moments...

As a matter of interest, I have recently completed a revision of our gekisai embu, reducing them from 2 separate drills into one short one containing (I hope) the most salient and useful features of the kata. This is hot on the heels of my revision of our fukyugata embu (see above) a few months ago. I have also used the opportunity in both cases to "value add" by using "internal arts" principles, particularly in the footwork. I will be publishing a video of the gekisai embu soon, along with a detailed explanation in this blog.

And for those who haven't read Jorge's blog "Memories of a Nidan" do yourself a favour and start at the beginning. Jorge is a "writer's writer" - and a karateka's karateka...

Copyright © 2009 Dejan Djurdjevic

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

"Forgotten" techniques #2: sokumen awase

Sokumen awase uke

An excellent technique that I feel has "slipped under the radar" is that which I call "sokumen awase uke" (side of the head "matching" block).1

A video showing the inside and outside sokumen awase uke

What is sokumen awase uke?2 There are 2 kinds: both utilise similar body mechanics, but result in a different deflection.

Inside sokumen awase uke

The first of these is the inside sokumen awase uke. It is performed by using your palm and forearm to catch an incoming punch, the guide it past your head as you move on the inside of your opponent. The "matching" occurs insofar as you go out to meet the attack, match its speed and redirect it past. The pictures to the right illustrate this technique.

This inside sokumen awase uke occurs, I believe, in the kata sanseiru. However in most schools this technique now appears as a "jodan uke" (ie. an age uke or rising block). Consider for example the photograph on the left of Chinen Teruo Sensei performing sanseiru kata: note the positioning of his body and the angle of the forearm which is in contrast to the usual angle of age uke away from the face.

For the reasons detailed in my article Sanseiru kata and its variations: Part 2, I don't believe the jodan uke is consistent with the body mechanics of the particular kata movement.

When used in the above movement in sanseiru, the inside sokumen awase avoids the problems inherent in trying to use a jodan uke or age uke because the angle of the forearm must slope past the head; the whole idea of the block is to match the attack and carry it to one side (where the deflection concept in the age uke is quite different).

The interception on the inside sokumen awase occurs with your palm which in turn transfers the attack to your forearm as you brush it past your head. Your elbow is then put into a position where you can effect an empi uchi (elbow strike).

Outside sokumen awase uke

As I mentioned at the outset, the outside sokumen awase uke has similar body mechanics, but the deflection utilises the back of the palm and forearm, not the front. In effect the attack is intercepted with a "steeple" block, then passed down to the "turtle" or "shield" position that one sees in MMA today. As with the the outside sokumen awase uke (perhaps more so) the block takes you into an elbow strike. The pictures to the left illustrate this concept. In either case, the technique sets you up nicely for performing a footsweep (see the pictures on the left).

In our school we tend to evidence this in our performance of sanseiru kata rather than the inside version. We also practise this move in the kata kururunfa (as do, I believe, most goju schools) - see the picture to the right of Higaonna Morio Sensei demonstrating the outside sokumen awase uke ending with an empi uchi in kururunfa.

Sokumen te awase uke

There is yet another "sokumen awase" block in karate that I feel has been "forgotten". For the sake of convenience I have referred to it as "sokumen te awase uke" - since it involves more of the palm and less of the forearm.  I considered calling it "sokumen nagashi uke" however I use "nagashi" for different purposes (sweeping sideways).

Once again, there are 2 verisons; an inside version and an outside version.

Here is a video about these techniques.  Sorry about the sound quality - but I filmed it mid-way through a lesson.  The rest of the class were busy on bunkai of other kata.

In relation to the seiyunchin version, note carefully the lifted front foot: this functions to put immediate pressure on the opponent.  Given that the tenshin (evasion)  or taisabaki (body movement) is directly in towards your opponent you have to be quick.  Lifting the front foot and letting your weight fall forwards is the quickest way to put pressure on the opponent.

The deflection utilises an "upward circle", and the lifted foot helps this aspect as well.   In this respect the kata is very xingyi-like; xingyi uses upward and downward circles to deflect while it moves forwards and backwards in a linear path.  There are many examples of this kind of upward or downward deflection in seiyunchin prompting me to wonder whether seiyunchin is not influenced/partly descended from xingyiquan (despite its shikos etc.).

In the series of photographs above I demonstrate the inside sokumen te awase uke as used in the Tang Shou Dao form Da Peng Zhan Chi.


1. This is a combination of 2 articles I wrote last year. I have combined and updated them in light of my recent post "Forgotten" techniques #1: haiwan nagashi and ashibo kake.

2. It is important to note that I use the term "sokumen awase uke" differently from other (usually shorin-based) karateka. I use it to describe the deflections discussed in my previous post relating to the variations in sanseiru.

Usually in (shorin) karate the term is (I think erroneously) used to describe a 2 handed circular block.Consider these screen captures of Kanazawa sensei performing the block usually referred to by that name in the kata bassai dai.

Essentially it is a 2 handed block that moves up to the side of the head. Most definitions of the term focus on the "2 handed" aspect, which I feel is misconceived.

"Sokumen" is, of course, the side of the head. "Awase" comes from the verb "awaseru" which, in turn, comes from the verb "au" (all of which use the same character as "ai" in "aikido" ). "Awaseru" basically means "to match up with " and "awase" is basically its noun form.

Accordingly "awase" carries the connotation of matching one's movements up with someone else's. In the case of the deflections I refer to in my video, your hand moves out to match the opponent's attack, then carry it slightly off to one side. I suppose the justification for the "standard" use of the term "sokumen awase" to refer to 2 handed blocks is because both hands match each other, but to my mind such a technique is best described in terms of "morote" (augmented) or some other reference to "double".

Certainly "awase", as a martial concept, is known to refer to "matching with an opponent" - especially in arts such as aikido.

Copyright © 2008-9 Dejan Djurdjevic

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Simultaneous techniques: Part 1

Here is another title that is a misnomer: excluding "hard" blocks that hurt your opponent's attacking limb, there is no such thing as a simultaneous block and strike. Why? The answer is very simple; any block or deflection that you perform will always occur before you land your strike.

Consider the following sequence of pictures of the haiwan nagashi uke together with a punch - usually regarded as one of the prime examples of a "simultaneous" block and counter. You will notice from the frames on the left that the block (a "steeple" block) intercepts and deflects the blow just before the punch lands.

The same is true of any other type of 2-handed block and deflection as is illustrated in the video below.

Many martial artists make a lot out of the fact that their art features such "simultaneous" movements, but as you will note, the only real difference is that they leave the blocking arm in place during the strike. In that way the blocking arm can continue to control the initial attack. However the move is most definitely not "simultaneous".

I demonstrate the principles of "simultaneous" blocking and striking.

It is marginally more correct to call a technique a "simultaneous block and strike" if one hand is used to deflect and strike at the same time. But even then, the block occurs just before the strike. Why? Again the answer is simple: the interception of the attack happens closer to your body, while the strike lands on your opponent (who is further away). The sequence will always be "block, then strike".

The latter is indeed a most direct way of dealing with an attack. I tend to use it a lot in sparring. However the "directness" comes at a cost. Any punch that also serves as a deflection relies on pin-point accuracy and very fine angles of deflection. Faced with a determined and tough opponent are you really going to risk your health and well-being by relying on such fine angles - or will you default to a safer alternative?

The safer alternatives are not to be scoffed at; for all intents and purposes they can achieve the same goal when done correctly while minimising risk. Consider the pictures to the right which illustrate the steeple block applied against a cross punch. Note the body evasion and the flow with the opponent which both work in your favour to ensure that your opponent is taken off guard. A well executed "non-simultaneous" combination is not going to give your opponent time to recover if your timing is correct.

Moreover the "non-simultaneous" 1-2 block and counter will also compare favourably in terms of speed - consider the following video of the standard goju chudan uke, followed by a straight thrusting punch at about 0:40.

A demonstration of the primary movement of chudan uke (chest block). Note the speed of delivery of the counter at 0:40...

Next time: Part 2 - seizing initiative

Copyright © 2009 Dejan Djurdjevic

"Forgotten" techniques #1: haiwan nagashi and ashibo kake


The title of this post is, of course, a misnomer: there are many martial arts that preserve the deflections that I call "haiwan nagashi uke" and "ashibo kake uke". There are even more martial artists who use them unconsciously or unknowingly. However in traditional karate these are techniques that appear to be disappearing - at least in the kata. That they should do so is sad, because they are genuinely effective deflections; one might even say that they are essential elements of a civilian defence arsenal.

Haiwan nagashi uke

What is the haiwan nagashi uke? As I discussed in my previous post "Blending blocks", haiwan nagashi uke is a rising block where the body is turned so that the deflection is carried past the head. It is unique in basic techniques because it is invariably accompanied by a "simultaneous" movement with the other hand; either a strike or another (usually low) block.

The advantage of haiwan nagashi uke over the basic rising block (age uke) lies in 2 principal factors:

(1) It allows for both a rising and sideways deflection. Two angles of deflection provide a greater safety margin than one.

(2) It avoids the issues that accompany the raising of the shoulder girdle in the basic rising block or age uke.

I emphasise "basic" in relation to age uke because I am comparing formal techniques one practises repetitively or in certain kata. When age uke is applied in combat the result is quite different, as I will elaborate below. There is also the small matter of whether it is even possible to apply a haiwan nagashi uke; not every situation permits a "simultaneous" technique of this kind.

Martial artists (in particular those who practise taijiquan) will often cite the weaknesses of raising the shoulder girdle, including the opening that it leaves for strikes to vulnerable regions or the fact that it leaves you subject to being thrown with techniques such as the shomen nage (see the video below). As a result, some practitioners of taijiquan will doggedly avoid raising their shoulder girdle with any rising block, even when their body has turned. In effect, for any rising deflection they rely exclusively on the "steeple block" - ie. where your forearm is raised at a sharp angle to deflect an attack without raising the shoulder girdle. I am strongly of the view that this is unnecessary (and sometimes unnatural) to take such a strict view.

I discuss the haiwan nagashi uke in class

Haiwan nagashi uke avoids the "shoulder girdle" issue because it uses the steeple block at the point of interception. By the time your shoulder girdle is raised your body has turned sufficiently to avoid creating a "weakness" or other opening. In other words, haiwan nagashi uke is actually a sequence of movements blending the steeple block with the basic rising block in the context of a body turn.

Consider also that I have yet to apply an age uke without turning my body to some extent (using taisabaki or tenshin - body evasion). Examined in this context, every single effective application of an age uke is actually a steeple block or a haiwan nagashi uke - depending on how you look at it.

The basic age uke is just that; a basic movement that acts as a precursor to the full application. I wouldn't dream of abandoning it in favour of the formal technique I call haiwan nagashi uke since the latter is a compound movement. One needs to understand and groove the constituent elements before one can combine them.

You will note from my previous post that haiwan nagashi uke occurs in goju ryu kata such as seiyunchin where it appears together with a low block/strike with the heel of the palm (as demonstrated by Morio Higaonna in the adjacent picture).

It is my view that haiwan nagashi uke also occurs in a number of shorin kata, including the kata I call naifunchin (also known as naihanchi shodan or tekki shodan). I believe that naifunchin has, in many schools "lost" this technique through a slow process of dilution. However if you look at footage of Funakoshi Gichin performing this kata, you will observe the technique present in the sequence just after the step across with the chudan uke (chest block). The haiwan nagashi in naifunchin was, until recently, uniformly practised in the style of karate founded by Funakoshi, namely shotokan - in particular by organisations such as the JKA (the Japanese Karate Association). It was also initially preserved by Mas Oyama (who studied directly under Funakoshi).1

Funakoshi Gichin performing the kata he called "tekki shodan". Note his use of haiwan nagashi uke at 0:15 and 0:31.

An early '70s performance of tekki shodan - again, note the use of haiwan nagashi uke at about 0:13 and 0:25. Even in shotokan schools the use of haiwan nagashi uke in tekki shodan is becoming quite rare.

It is quite common nowadays for practitioners of Okinawa-based shorin ryu schools to scoff at the Funakoshi's shotokan as a "modified", "Japanized" (as opposed to the "original" Okinawan version) and hence "diluted" form of karate. As a result, other versions of naifunchin are preferred, notably those of Itosu Yasutsune's other students, namely Kentsu Yabu, Chomo Hanashiro, Moden Yabiku, Kanken Toyama, Chotoku Kyan, Shinpan Shiroma, Anbun Tokuda, Kenwa Mabuni and Choshin Chibana. To my knowledge, none of the schools founded by these karateka practise the haiwan nagashi uke in naifunchin.

Could it be that Funakoshi was the only one who had it "right" in this respect? He was, after all, a student of Itosu just as the others mentioned above. And not everything he did would have been modified or "wrong"... Indeed, it is my view that Funakoshi's tekki shodan kata preserves some elements of the original Chinese chuan fa form that have otherwise been lost in shorin ryu karate. One of these is the haiwan nagashi uke. Consider, for example, the image that appears on Funakoshi's book "Karate-do Kyohan", featuring a statue of a chuan fa practitioner clearly demonstrating a haiwan nagashi uke. Where in shorin ryu does this movement survive? I believe that, among other places,2 Funakoshi preserved it in his tekki shodan. Could it be that it was "missed" by the others in their versions of naifunchin and then reinterpreted (usually as standard chudan uke or chest-level block)?

Ashibo kake uke

Another "forgotten" technique that I believe is preserved in Funakoshi's tekki shodan is the ashibo kake uke (hooking shin block) performed when you step across - a very effective deflection using your shin in an outward crescent motion (see the video below).

I demonstrate the ashibo kake uke or shin hooking block

You will note from the video of Funakoshi's performance of tekki shodan that this deflection is clearly in evidence. In the '70s performance the technique has morphed into a full crescent kick (a gyaku mikazuki geri). I am told that this was an innovation of Funakoshi Gichin's son, Yoshitaka. In our school we retain the crescent kick, much to the amusement of some (see the Youtube comments on the video below). Why do we retain the crescent kick? It adds without subtracting; the same basic motion of the ashibo kake uke remains, but there is an added technique of the crescent kick which can be quite useful - even if it is just for conditioning. In other words, we see no reason to remove it. That said, I will frequently allow older students to practise the form with just the ashibo kake uke (the crescent kick does require a youthful flexibility and strength).

In my view it is sad that so many variants on naifunchin/naihanchi today simply feature a "dead" step which has no specific application in itself other than to get you into position. To the extent that some applications of this move in the kata do not require a crescent motion of the knee3, you lose nothing by adding a technique in the kata. However, if you leave it out, you might lose knowledge forever.


1. I have seen footage of Mas Oyama performing naifunchin (he called it "naifanchin") with the haiwan nagashi uke clearly in evidence. The video was on Youtube but has since been removed.

2. My friend Ben from the Traditional Fighting Arts Forum has reminded me that the kata pinan shodan (called heian nidan in shotokan) contains the haiwan nagashi uke as well - see the pictures below:

The opening move of the kata pinan shodan or heian nidan which features a haiwan nagashi uke.

Another candidate for a "changed" haiwan nagashi uke is the move in the kata Jion illustrated in the picture below. I have long suspected that it was originally performed in the manner of the statue shown on the cover of Funakoshi's Karate-do Kyohan (a movement seen in many Shaolin forms).

A technique from the kata Jion. Could an earlier version have featured a haiwan nagashi of the kind seen on the cover of Funakoshi's Karate-do Kyohan?

3. Consider the throw I call "ura irimi nage" which I demonstrate below against a grab at 0:46. The technique does not feature a crescent-like motion of your knee when you step, however whether you have such a motion in the kata or not is irrelevant to the application. Note that I subsequently demonstrate the ashibo kake uke at 0:51.

A (somewhat stilted!) demonstration of naifunchin and its applications that I performed at a festival in 1996.

Copyright © 2009 Dejan Djurdjevic

Monday, May 4, 2009

"Blending" blocks

My good friend Zach Zinn asked the following question on the Tradtional Fighting Arts Forum:

    "Do you think maybe age-uke is just Goju's hiki-uke done higher than normally seen? I find myself performing it more like hiki-uke most of the time and it works fine, and since age-uke is notably absent from every koryu Goju kata, it makes me wonder what is being said by it's presence in the first kata usually taught."
I think the age uke and hike uke are very different in their basic form, but they do approach each other when applied...

Age uke is a basic rendering of haiwan nagashi uke - the block one sees with the simultaneous upper block and punch as is found in long fist, taiji, bagua, xingyi etc.

The key difference between this block and the age uke is that the body turns (at least to some extent) to let the attacker's momentum be deflected sideways, not just directly up. This is the case even with pao quan from xingyi (where the "simultaneous" punch is performed as a reverse punch, not a leading one, but the body is still angled as you block/strike).

Hiki uke (an open-handed hooking chest level block that deflects sideways) also occurs in long fist, taiji, bagua, xingyi etc. In the Chinese arts it really is a separate technique, especially when practised as a basic. The main difference in its mechanics arises, as Zach points out, from the height at which you apply it. You could apply a high hiki uke, but you'll probably find yourself blending it into a haiwan nagashi uke - ie. you'll roll your forearm and turn your body as you deflect it sideways.

I think age uke was used in the first goju kata as part of the drive to create "uniform" karate by Miyagi and Nagamine. Goju's rising block was probably the haiwan nagashi uke as found in the kata seiyunchin where you have a a high block near the head and a low block (instead of a punch) in shiko.

It seems to me that the reason why you might blend age and hike uke is that at a certain position your body mechanics start to merge: the hiki uke applied at head height with a slight sideways turn of your body becomes a haiwan nagashi uke (which, as I've said, is a more complex form of age uke)!

In my view the blocks are meant to "blend" into one another; the basics we use are, I believe, just points frozen along a continuum.

The other "age uke" in goju is the steeple block as found in seisan, kururunfa etc.

I see the steeple block as just the first (intercepting) portion of the haiwan nagashi uke - stopped before the forearm rolls over.

In goju ryu I believe the role occupied by age uke as a basic is taken up by mawashi uke because mawashi uke contains a "steeple" block. Mawashi uke is quite ubiquitous in goju, where hawian nagashi uke only occurs in seiyunchin from memory (I also use it in naihanchi, but this is not common). I acknowledge that my theory about mawashi uke is controversial (and is a separate issue - see my article "Is mawashi uke goju's rising block?").

Copyright © 2009 Dejan Djurdjevic

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Reinventing the wheel: back to the rising block

I find it quite ironic that people are slowly returning to the rising block after decades of disparagement.

I can't remember where, but I recall reading that the Russian military forces have reverted to the traditional rising block which was discovered to be one of the most effective ways to fight against hacking attacks by the Mujahideen armed with long bladed knives.

Others have rediscovered age uke but talk in terms of "punching" - consider the video below:

A video showing street fighting defences (click on the picture to access the video). Note the use of the rising block.

Perhaps this is because the block is being used as it was intended: for civilian defence against ungloved opponents (not for sport). Most importantly, the gentleman in the video uses the block as an intercepting technique - meaning that it goes out to meet your opponent, not one that stays close to your head.

It is my view that this has been lost from traditional karate, where the block is commonly performed very close to the head. Even I was taught this way: "one fist from the forehead". Experience and common sense have taught me that this is not a good idea. I have found it impossible to apply. Indeed, why would you ever want to wait until an attack had practically landed on your face before trying to deflect it? If you do so you allow yourself very little margin for error; the attack will be travelling at its top speed and you will have waited until the last millisecond to deflect it. To me, this misconception of age uke is a prime example of dilution of knowledge in traditional fighting systems (see my article ""Why blocks DO work" for more on this question of dilution).

Rather, the rising block needs to extend out so that it can intercept the attack early. If it is too extended it becomes a mere punch; that in itself is not "wrong"; it's just that it leaves you too little margin for error. The further the arm is extended, the smaller the angle left in your forearm for deflection. Given that karate is a civilian defence art, not a sport or military discipline, the emphasis is first and foremost on not being hit, not on hitting.

A video showing the correct form of the age uke or rising block

The only real difference between the basic age uke or rising block and how it is applied in combat is your simultaneous use of body evasion. Just as the video at the outset demonstrates the defender leaning to avoid the attack, a karateka should use taisabaki/tenshin (body movement or evasion) together with every deflection. The fact that deflections/blocks are practised standing still is neither here nor there; this is an isolation exercise for basic practise. Once the movement is correct it should be applied contextually.

Note however that since karate is a civilian defence art, a premium is placed on not allowing the body to move too far off the centreline; balance must be preserved as much as possible. Accordingly karate uses the age uke / rising block with a step evasion rather (preferably to the side or 45 degrees forwards or back). A small lean might be required, but this will be less than the lean demonstrated in the opening video where the defender does not move from his position. [For more on this topic, see my article "Evasion vs blocking with evasion".]

I have, and will continue to, use the rising block in sparring. If you haven't or cannot I would hazard a guess that you either haven't practised the rising block correctly or you are fighting at an extended range, not the "melee range" of which I often speak.

It seems to me somewhat surprising that people coming back to the age uke / rising block are doing so with the impression that they've found something new ("it's a kind of punch" etc.). I see it as reinventing the wheel. I suppose it doesn't matter if they are reinventing it - the important thing is that they recognise its value.

As I have detailed in my article ""Why blocks DO work", many people in the martial arts today seem to think blocks are functionless. Others say that blocks are not actually "blocks" but are strikes, grappling techniques etc. It is as if the former ride on sleds, remarking on how effective the sled is in snow and ignoring the superiority of wheels on other terrain. The latter (revisionists) think the wheel makes a good frisbee or necklace...

[See also "Is mawashi uke goju's rising block?" and "Two for the price of one: more about karate blocks".]

Copyright © 2009 Dejan Djurdjevic