What Story Does Your Kata Tell?

This week our Sensei was on fire for Kata. He was looking to light our kata fire as well. He asked us the question “what story does your kata tell?” Of course some of us answered we need to practice our kata more.  The point of kata isn’t just to teach a form or sequence for dealing with danger. The point of a kata is to pass along a story about how an important confrontation was won in the past. We learn the outline of the story and do not go into the plot line fully for the whole story. We see down block left skipping to the next story sketch, learn its basic outline, and move on yet again, never getting the full flavor of the story. Instead of exploring all of the different ways we can use one kata, we move onto the next move or next kata in the belt progression without developing any competence about what we already have access to from the initial kata.

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On the attack looking to save a village!

One of our Senseis who helped us prepare for our black belt test challenged us to fight using only the kata we knew. The fight had us calling out after the punch, kick or block the kata name that the move came from. It was hard at first and never became as easy as it should have been. I thought I knew my kata moves. What I learned is that I did not know my kata story.

Kata story

Fighting using kata. Here is an outside block about to become a front hand punch!

Fundamentally we need to know the moves. What direction to turn, when to block and punch or kick and what type and how many. Without the direction and outline we do not have the foundation to tell our story. Practicing kata gives us the opportunity to learn how to demonstrate and express awareness, power and strength, softness, ferocity, and tranquility as we run through our basic moves. We set the foundation with learning the block, kick or punch and then put it to the moves. This alone does not bring the kata to life. It leaves the kata as mechanical and movement without purpose. Our katas provide us a forum for learning movement, self-defense, and self-expression. Practicing the principles of understanding body mechanics and application and giving that movement energy and life, will enable us to present a richer and more dynamic kata.  Each of us has the same moves and will interpret the story differently depending on our background.

Any good story has a beginning, a climax and an ending. Once upon a time there was…fill in the story from there. Or “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….” the epic opening for the Star Wars films.  As we perform the kata think about the introduction, the middle part (the battle) and then the climax (the big scream of hey we won!).  Each kata has a sequence that when acted out by two or more will tell the story of the event in a way that practicing by yourself would not happen. This is called Bunkai, the application of kata or the process of analyzing kata and extracting fighting techniques from the movements. Sometimes these movements are hidden from us practitioners of kata until we begin to understand them and tell the story to others through our kata.

Our Sensei told us a story of a great warrior who returned to his Master and told the story of how hew slew 18 warriors and freed the village from tyranny.  The Master asked the warrior to show him how this was done. The warrior was perplexed. He did not have the 18 men to show how he dispatched them and the village saved was not close by. He said to the master; let me demonstrate by breaking boards or bricks to demonstrate my skill. The master only replied that breaking was not the same. The Master then said it was not possible to demonstrate as anyone can get lucky and break a board or a brick. This great warrior was unable to demonstrate to his Master the skills. In kata we are able to fulfill the desire of the warrior to demonstrate how he defeated those 18 warriors. This also demonstrates to our Sensei how it was accomplished. With Bunkai we are able to show how the block or punch was effective.

Come on Sensei Mae. Lets get up and kick

One of the defeated warriors

How about it—what story does your kata tell? I am working on each one of my katas to see what story I am telling or missing. See you in class soon.

What is Your Favorite Strike?

Today we did open hand strikes in class. Sensei Mae and I probably enjoy a good back fist more than any other strike. It was great that we got in several back fists today and kept alive the streak of participating in the 10 strikes a day challenge. We were practicing referencing and moving up and down the dojo floor with the back fist.

Sensei Mae Backfist Prep

Sensei Mae getting ready for her favorite strike

Of course the reason to have a favorite strike or strikes is to use it in self-defense or fighting. I have worked on a two strikes and one kick combination for sparring so I would always have a “go to” move. Like our self-defense on the tests at our dojo, this repetition allowed us to relax more in a fight. When I am more relaxed in a fight (which is not too often) I fight better. Having a favorite strike or two really is a benefit to my martial arts career.

Sensei Mae Backfist

Sensei Mae lands a back fist on the bag as part of the 10 strike challenge.

Today we did open hand strikes including ridge hand and shuto. Our sensei reminded us that the open hand strikes were the most dangerous. We used Muay Thai pads in class today as a part of the drills. Ridge hand is very dynamic and we enjoyed using the pads. We always learn how to block a strike when holding the pad for our partner in the drill. It was a great lesson in the techniques we practiced today.

We were reminded that in a fight, the open hand strikes may be deadly, so please be careful when practicing on your friends. A good pad holder for the drill makes the drill a success. After several rounds of ridge hand and shuto, we performed them in combination. Our sensei shared with us that we could first break the opponent’s weapon, like their arm…and then attack the body. The combination techniques were fun to execute with our partners.

How are you doing on the 10 strikes a day challenge? In last week’s post we were challenged to get back to the roots of karate. I have met my daily quota for striking; it was easy to make 10 once I was at the bag, so I added more strikes than the challenge called for each day. Karate is fun! It is great to go home after work and in a safe place be challenged to hit things.

In my week with the challenge I have begun to notice that my kata is getting better when I need to throw a punch. This may have been what sensei had in mind when he issued the challenge. Of course our strikes in kata are not on the bag as the challenge has us practice. I can see the benefit for my kata in the challenge by concentrating on my strikes. How about your kata practice? Did it benefit from the challenge?

In class today I was instructed, I instructed others and I watched others perform. At the class prior to the adult class, several of our kids were performing a complicated bo kata with varying levels of proficiency. It is so great to see the kids’ progress and learn almost in front of us as the class progresses. I look at them and know that I look like the class participants in learning my most recent kata. We all go through this process of learning a new skill.

Hope you had a good class. I know that I enjoyed the class today. Please let us know your favorite strike in the comment section. I wanted to say hi to our Sensei Mark P who is with the Army stationed in Germany. I know he has a favorite strike. How about you?

See you in class soon.

Have You Hit Something This Week?

Baseball season has begun and this is not what our Sensei was on fire about. Karate is the way of the empty hand. This means we are striking, or hitting, or in some way using our hands to defend ourselves and well, I can say, attack others after they attack us. Gichin Funakoshi has on his gravestone this quote, “Karate ni sente nashi” or “There is no first strike (attack) in karate.”

As karate practitioners, we hit things! It is what we do. That was the point Sensei was making for us all in class on Tuesday.  We started with a simple reverse punch and moved to a front punch. We did combination strikes front and reverse punch. It was a lot of fun after a long day of working to punch a bag. We did have a go at my favorite, back fist. It felt good to do back fist drills.

Sensei Glen with a back fist as part of the ten strikes for the day.

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This is the first class this year that I recall us focusing on striking. Our Sensei shared with us that we are a karate dojo and we hit. He then listed some of the other martial arts:

  • Taekwondo emphasis is on kicking
  • Judo is designed to grapple and throw
  • Aikido has an emphasis on throwing
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Sensei Glen hitting the bag. Have you hit yours today?

The point for all us on Tuesday was that we needed to go back to the bag and ensure we were hitting and striking daily. He gave us the 10 hit a day challenge: each day punch a bag or other object ten times with each hand to improve our strikes. I am happy to report that so far I have participated every day and met this challenge.

In studying for our black belt test we had a series of over 100 strikes to perform both standing still and moving. It was a challenge to master all of the different strikes. It is interesting how many of them we use in our various katas. The next point that was made on Tuesday was that our katas all have strikes in them. Not just blocks. We need to work on both. Even with no first strike in karate we need to know how to strike properly.

Have you noticed that katas begin with a block? Take a look at the kata you like the best and let us know if you see that as well. I am sure our Sensei would also like us to make good punches in our kata. Block, punch is a basic winning formula for a good kata. Yes, we have the occasional kick as well. When we teach striking, we use our bodies, not just our fists. Throwing our hips and weight into a punch makes it land better.

At our dojo, we incorporate the best of martial arts into our teaching. We are a karate dojo and we also teach kicking, grappling, throwing and weapons. Our teacher is real. He worked as a bouncer at a bar and tried out the material he teaches us to ensure it worked. Besides the confidence that comes from learning a new technique or drill, we want to ensure that it works. What if, like the Music Man, you used the “think system” to learn any drill. In the movie, the boys to learn to play via the “think system,” in which they simply have to think of a tune over and over and will know how to play it without ever touching their instruments. That is not what I want for me and my family. We want the real deal.

I know that I am practicing my strikes and here is our challenge for all of you. How are you doing on your strikes? Could you make 10 strikes a day for the next ten days beginning the day you read this? Follow us on twitter and you will hear how we are doing #10strikestoday. Put a comment on Facebook or on this blog post. We are interested in how you are doing.

See you in class soon.

Are You Stretching Yourself?

Our Sensei often says that running kata is a workout and all you need to maintain your fitness level is to come to class and practice at home. One of my fellow senseis has a tee shirt that says “kata is my workout.” Being physically fit encompasses five essential components:   Cardiovascular endurance, muscular strength, muscular endurance, flexibility, and body composition.

Of these five, flexibility, which is the ability to move a joint through its complete range of motion, is often neglected outside of our pre-class warm up. Some of you know that I make attending yoga classes a part of my routine. We are emphasizing flexibility in our movements in yoga as well as in all of our classes at the dojo.  You can reap the benefits of flexibility training at any age. I am sometimes surprised that my regular flexibility training shows up in performing moves with ease that if I was still or inflexible I would be unable to perform. Flexible joints are a key in maintaining pain-free and independent movements. This is a vital component for karate. How high we can kick, if we can perform that strike or kata often depend on our flexibility.

Think back to your last class at the dojo. We follow the same pattern in the classes. We begin with getting the muscles warm by performing a series of exercises designed to get blood flow into the legs, arms and all of the muscles we will use in class. When stretching at home please follow the same guidelines and never stretch cold muscles. The muscles must be warmed up for them to stretch.

Strech

Working on getting head to knee as shown here.

There are three components that affect flexibility: muscle elasticity and length, joint structure and nervous system. Of course we were born with our joint structure. Where flexibility training is impactful is on muscle elasticity and length and the nervous system. These two areas can be positively impacted by regular flexibility training. This is why we stretch prior to each class and some of us stretch after the class. After class stretching, especially after a fun kick class on Saturday, is where the real benefits of stretching come into play.

Flexibility is important for completing everyday activities with ease. Have you ever had trouble getting up out of bed or performing a simple task of bending down to pick an item up off the floor? Of course each of these requires a certain level of flexibility to be comfortable. Flexibility for students under the age of 20 is more natural. As we age we need to pay more attention to stretching and flexibility as our flexibility deteriorates with age. Engaging in regular flexibility training can assist with increased joint mobility, better posture, decreased back pain and a lower risk of injury.

Increased flexibility can improve muscular strength and endurance. Stretching can be a form of relaxation, which can positively impact physical fitness and mental fitness. For karate students this can positively affect your performance through increased mental toughness. When we enter the dojo we are to leave our worldly cares behind so we can focus in the moment on the lessons for the day. Meditating while stretching can assist with this concept and make it real for us.

To achieve peak performance, we must utilize the full length of the muscle to exhibit power and strength. As Sensei say, power comes from the maximum extension of a technique. If our muscles are too tight, they may not be able to provide the explosiveness necessary for a particular movement.

AP Strech

Proper stretching takes time. Spend at least 20 seconds per move–longer is better.

Here are several key benefits of flexibility: Improved performance of daily activities, Improved performance in karate class and training at home,            Enhanced joint health, Prevention of low-back pain and injuries, Relief of aches and pains (particularly in the muscles exercised), Relief of muscle cramps, Relaxation and stress relief (mental and physical), Decreased risk of injury due to more pliable muscles, and, Improved posture and balance (minimizes stress on spine).

Static and dynamic flexibility training is important and necessary to become “flexibly fit.” Dynamic flexibility is important for daily activities and for karate as karate movements require a full range of motion. Static flexibility, on the other hand, is preferred for increasing overall flexibility through muscle elasticity and joint mobility.

Flexibility training should be performed after the muscles of the body have been properly warmed up to allow effective stretching to take place. Ideally, flexibility fitness should be included five to seven days a week for all major joints. Here are some guidelines for general flexibility fitness:

  • Intensity: Stretch to the point of mild discomfort, not pain
  • Time: Hold stretches for 20 to 30 seconds. Perform them two to three times for the same area
  • Type: Static stretching exercises that focus on the major joints (stretch slowly and do not bounce). For karate performance, incorporate dynamic flexibility as well.

Next time you are with me on the floor let me know about your flexibility. Is increased flexibility a goal for you in the coming year? Please let us know your favorite stretch and warm up drill in the comments below.

See you in class soon.

Tournament News

Okay, March madness is on and we are not talking about basketball. Let’s talk karate! Today was the Kentucky State AAU Championship hosted by our dojo.

Sensei Mae leads in Ring number 1

Sensei Mae leading ring 1

When you watch others perform a sport, you are called a spectator. How many students even participated in today’s tournament? For an NCAA school with a basketball team it is 12 out of several thousands. For a dojo it may be 5 to 15 out of a 100 or more. So, my conclusion is we have more participants in a karate tournament from the dojo than we do for a basketball tournament for the colleges. We are just not on television yet. I am sure we do have some Facebook videos that were taken today and posted.

two white belts fighting

Nothing like good white belt kata!

Our head Sensei told us this week that you know how good of a fighter or martial arts practitioner you are when you compete in the arena. It is one thing to spar with your friends and another to spar with a stranger.

I was reminded of what Teddy Roosevelt (he is one of the presidents on Mt. RushmoreJ) said: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

As we were watching the performers and judging them we noted that it is better to perform a simple kata very well. We notice the times when the winner performed a simple kata well and waited for the more intricate kata to complete. We are taking back this lesson. I know that I need to practice the fundamentals on stances, hand positions and referencing when performing katas. The judges look for these items first in an evaluation of the performer.

Both Sensei Glen and Sensei Mae served as referees in the tournament. Sensei Mae ran the brown belt ring. She also assisted with running the tournament for the first time. Well done. The tournament ran smoothly. We had participants from Kentucky, South Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee, Indiana, and Illinois. The Napiers did a great job of running the Kentucky AAU state tournament for the twelfth year in a row.

KY AAU S S Sensei

Sensei Mae with the Napiers

Sensei Glen also did well, by all accounts according to Sensei Mae. Sensei Glen remarked that regardless of being “right or wrong,” go all out on the decision that you make. No second guessing. No hesitations. Not all judges have good angles. Sensei Glen always works on making good decisions that leave no doubt on what he saw.

AAU KY Sensei Glen

Sensei Glen getting ready to judge kata.

One special guest was Kancho Bambouyani from Chicago. He travels the world teaching karate and is a regular participant with his dojo at our tournament. It was great to speak with him today and be reminded of how big the sport of karate is in the world as well as how close knit the karate family can be.

Arbitrator

Kancho Bambouyani second from left

Keep practicing and working on the fundamentals. Thank you to all who participated and assisted with running the tournament. Well done! See you at the dojo.

Excerpt from the Theodore Roosevelt speech “Citizenship In A Republic” delivered at the Sorbonne in Paris, France, on April 23, 1910.