Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Chudan uke: to "spiral" or not to "spiral"?

Recently a colleague of mine on the Traditional Fighting Arts Forums posed this question:

"Ok, so I've thought about something else that I don't completely understand about chudan uke. I've been taught that as the hand goes under the opposite elbow, the fist should face palm up. Why? Wouldn't it be more of a spiraling motion if the fist started with the palm down and then turned up as it intercepted the attack?"

The question is a very interesting one and not many pick up this point.

Let's start with the goju chudan uke. As my colleague mentions, the block is done with a fist that stays "palm up" through the entire movement.

This type of movement relies on the circular action of the entire arm (moving at a 45 degree plane to your chest) to deflect the attack.

Another way of deflecting an attack would be to use a spiralling movement in your forearm. This can be done from palm down to palm up or vice versa (both are found in the martial arts). Let us consider the former. In my view this is the correct way of performing what I call the "shorin chudan uke".

If I understand the initial question it can be paraphrased as "why not do both the arm and spiral deflection together"?

Indeed one can and it appears in higher goju kata. Consider for example seipai as illustrated in the series of pictures below and to the right:

Others have gone further and placed the "spiral" into kata such as gekisai dai ichi. I strongly object to this. Why?

Blocking actions that involve both circular arm deflection and a spiral forearm deflection are compound movements: in other words, you are combining 2 different techniques. While this can be useful at times, it does not mean that it should be the default. This is particularly so when you are doing gekisai - a relatively basic form in which you should be learning the fundamentals. To learn fundamentals you need to isolate them. You won't ever really understand the correct way to use the circular arm deflection if you also use a spiral and vice versa. You will simply end up confusing the two.

Nor is a compound movement always warranted; I've found that in about 70% of my sparring I utilise either a circular arm deflection or a spiralling forearm. Only in about 30% of cases do I perform some sort of hybrid/compound movement.

My colleague also asked:

"Why then isn't the hand turned the same direction with open-handed blocks?"

What my colleague seems to describe here is the reverse: in other words: Why doesn't the hiki/kake uke (open hand block) start palm up so as to finish palm down?

Again this is a compound movement. And again, it is found in kata such as seipai, directly after the technique discussed previously (ie. the compound chudan uke). In other words, in this segment of the kata seipai is introducing you to both types of compound deflection. Consider the series of pictures to the left:

Lately I've seen a lot of Youtube footage of people putting this kind of spiral into the hiki/kake uke of kata such as gekisai dai ni and shisochin.

The goju kai1 shisochin: note the use of a spiral in the hiki/kake uke at around 1:02, 1:06 and 1:08

Once again, I'm firmly against this. The open hand deflection (hiki or kake uke in goju ryu) is a fine technique in itself. It does not require augmentation with a spiral - and certainly not in every case.

I draw this conclusion by reference to my studies of the Chinese arts where this deflection occurs frequently. It is used in all 3 Feng quan (mountain top boxing) forms of Chen Pan Ling (forms which are drawn principally from long fist/taizu). It is even found in the forms of Taiwanese master Hong Yi Xiang - see for example the form Wu hu xia xi shan below at 0:38:

Hong Yi Xiang's form "Wu hu xia xi shan" - note the "hiki uke" at 0:38

So to conclude, circular and spiral deflections are 2 different things. They can be combined, but they don't have to be. And they should not be combined as a matter of course, otherwise a fuller understanding of each will never be acquired.1


1. I note that in offshoots from the Goju Kai organisation, such as Zen Do Kai, the "spiralling hiki uke" is sometimes replaced by a "palm up" block (ie. as if the spiral started, but never finished). I see this as symptomatic of the introduction of the spiral where none was warranted, resulting in a dilution of both the original hiki uke (open hand, palm down block) and the spiral deflection as used in the Goju Kai version.

The Zen Do Kai shisochin - note the open-hand blocks at 0:42 to 0:46

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