Going in Circles?

I don’t really post about technique or form here, as I don’t think the written word is a very good format for that. However, I was speaking with a friend a few weeks ago about our kobudo and he mentioned the circles in our art, speaking in particular about the nunchiyaku. I paused for a second and then kept going. The term “circle” is a pretty common shorthand for a variety of shapes in most martial arts, but the comment stuck with me. That was because there are not actually any circles in our art, at least as far as I can see.

Of course there are curves- pretty much all our blocks and strikes travel in a curve of some sort- but the best way to describe those curves is probably a parabola, or an ellipse. Perhaps a J? Not a circle. Never a circle. The strike or block should have an apex. With some weapons- the bo for example- if the hands do not leave the body-box, as they not supposed to, the tip’s parabola is pretty obvious. With others, like the nunchiyaku, it can be harder to see and, more importantly, to do. This is mostly because it is tempting to move the tip of the nunchiyaku in a circle. This is easier to control, since it keeps the force in the end of the weapon constant and easily predictable, but it is incorrect. There should not be constant force in the weapon, but a tug at the end of the swing where the tip is hitting the apex of the curve and is going the fastest. This gets even harder to see, and do, with longer more flexible weapons like the sansetsukon or suruchin but again the strikes are not circles but parabola. (This is one difference between the suruchin and, say, poi- the movements are designed for striking a target, not just spinning.)

Look at it this way:

A circle travels like this:


On this path of motion the tip of the weapon stays a constant distance from the center and with a constant input the force in the direction of the velocity is constant at any point along its path.

 A parabola travels like this:


The tip of the weapon is furthest from the start at the tip of the curve (the vertex), and if constant energy is applied the force changes along the path of travel, with the tip moving the fastest at the vertex.

Obviously this is hard to explain without a moving weapon, a way to relate it to the user’s body box, a target, and some attention to methods of energy development, (and more advanced, as well as more technically accurate, geometry). But even though it is difficult to describe in words it is an important distinction. The parabola is faster, develops more power (and allows for use of things like compression and expansion of the torso in power development that circles do not), and is harder to both see and predict. On the defensive side it absorbs energy a little differently and stays closer to the body-box, the only area one needs to defend.

Anyway, short comment about technique, or geometry I guess.

Meditation Class

“There is no beginning to practice or end to enlightenment; there is no end to enlightenment or end to practice.”

In the dojo at the end of each training we sit briefly in mokuso, meditation. Some members of our community also practice meditation on their own. It is a demanding and rewarding practice, and one that is much more accessible with proper instruction.

We are lucky to have in our dojo a connection to the Dogen (Soto) Zen lineage. Mori Tzelnic has been practicing for over 20 years and is ordained as a lay monk, Chiso Anagarika, in this community. Here is a brief description of their practice:

“This lineage is base don practice and instructions to practice, as opposed to study of the stutras or writings about Zen. Texts are used but the main practice is sitting. It is about doing rather than learning about doing. It is straightforward and very simple. For example, we talk about sitting rather than meditation because meditation engages people in a lot of additional contextual ideas. As its core it is about experiencing each and every moment, not avoiding or getting away from reality.”

They do not usually teach outside of their community. However, Chiso Anagarika has asked for, and, after a vetting process, has received an exemption to teach a class on proper meditation technique for us. We greatly appreciate this exemption and the opportunity it affords our dojo!

This class will last approximately one hour and will cover meditation, kinhin (walking meditation), and have some time for Q&A. No special equipment or clothing is needed. There will be a small donation, $10 or whatever participants chose to donate over that. The class is open to all members of the Kodokan Boston community, training or not, including family and friends.

This class will be help Sunday, June 12th, at 10 AM. It will be at our dojo.

To sign up please contact me and I will put you on the list. Class size will be limited and once the class is full the list will be closed.

If you have any questions also please feel free to contact me.

We are looking forward to what promises to be a very rewarding and interesting opportunity!



Kimo Wall Sensei

We who practice the Okinawan martial arts in the West today owe a debt to those who pioneered this practice here. Primarily American servicemen during the occupation of Okinawa after WWII, these men brought what was then a small scale set of local martial practices to a much larger public. Either as their direct students or in a more general way as beneficiaries of the work they did to spread these arts, without their hard work few if any of us would have had the chance to do what we do.

Among these men is Kimo Wall sensei. In general he has maintained a fairly low profile over the years. He has had no stories about him in Black Belt, has published no books or videos, and barely has a web presence. He has led a somewhat nomadic life, moving around to stay in contact with his students and share his art. He has never been much for advertising and he does little to promote membership in his Kodokan (and does not even charge membership dues). He feels that the training should speak for itself and if people want to train they can come train, without the need for advertising. Recently Kimo sensei has engaged more with social media and I have noticed that this has not been accompanied by much accurate information about him. That is too bad, as he is one of the most well-rounded, generous, and hard-working pioneers of the Okinawan martial arts in the US. To remedy that somewhat, I would like to share a little about him.

Knife defense at a demo at UMass Amherst in the early 1980s

Knife defense at a demo at UMass Amherst in the early 1980s

I will leave personal information to him but his training background is indeed unique. The child of a US serviceman he grew up primarily in Hawaii. He got an almost stereotypical start in the arts- he had asthma and a friend of the family suggest karate training as a way to help him get over it. In a less stereotypical way his training began in Kamuela, Hawaii, in 1949. His teachers were Sam and Walter Higa. The father, Sam, had immigrated to Hawaii with his family around 1939. Before that he had studied Goju Ryu under Miyagi Chojun and Higa Seiko. Kimo sensei studied with these teachers until he moved to Georgia and entered the Marine Corps in 1961. He has also mentioned that after 1959 he met and occasionally trained with Mitsugi Kobayashi, also a student of Higa Seiko’s.

Kimo sensei was first stationed to Okinawa in 1962. He was certainly not the first US Serviceman to enter an Okinawan dojo. However, he was the first to enter HIga Seiko’s dojo and was very likely the first to arrive on Okinawa with both a letter of introduction from a former student and over a decade of experience in the art. So, instead of starting his study of Goju Ryu he started a process of refinement and expansion of what he already knew. His training began under a teacher that had learned before Goju was fully formed (He relates that Sam Higa taught Naihanchi as part of his Goju Ryu, since it had been something Miyagi taught in the 20s and 30s.), giving him a valuable window on the development of the art as he continued learning from his first teacher’s teacher. He was accepted to Higa sensei’s dojo and continued to train there through his various postings on Okinawa, and on his frequent trips to the island after he left the service. Higa Seiko passed away in 1966 and after that he trained with the other seniors- Takamine, Higa Seikichi, Kiyuna, Gibo, and others.

Takamine Chokubo, Higa Seikichi, Kimo Wall

Takamine Chokubo, Higa Seikichi, Kimo Wall

At that time, the Okinawan karate community was not as factionalized as it is now. Kimo sensei tells stories of visiting many dojo, including those of Yagi sensei, Miyazato sensei, Masanobu Shinjo sensei, as well as non-Goju dojo, to train together, to do testing which at that time was often held at the Jundokan, to do demonstrations, and to socialize. He was introduced to the Shoreikan dojo in Koza in the 60s, when Toguchi sensei was primarily living in Tokyo. Kimo sensei first met his students Tamano and Shinoda, and got interested in the training subjects and two person application sets they demonstrated. He learned those subjects from Toguchi sensei’s students and first met Toguchi sensei in 1969. Higa sensei also introduced him to another student of Miyagi’s, Kina Seiko.  He trained with Kina sensei both in the 60s and on his visits to the island later on, and found the insights into Goju he got from Kina very valuable and the friendship that developed a wonderful part of his life in Okinawa.

Renshi certificate from Kina Seiko, 1980

Renshi certificate from Kina Seiko, 1980

All told this forms a remarkable and unique experience of Goju Ryu, one quite different from most other members of his generation. Able to start his training on the island with a good deal of experience and a formal introduction from a respected source, as well as some understanding of the language and culture from his home dojo and childhood village, he became a part of the dojo in ways that few if any other foreigners at the time were able to.  His training reflected this: soon after arriving he was accepted into the seniors class time, which was private and took place after the kids and lower level black belts finished their training in the evenings. Along with his exposure to other teachers and aspects of Goju Ryu, it formed a depth and breadth of knowledge few can espouse.

masanobu shinjo

With Masanobu Shinjo sensei

But his Goju training was only one aspect of his experience in Okinawa. While for most servicemen of his day karate was the main aspect of study, Kimo sensei also embarked on an intense study of Okinawan Kobudo. It started on his first day visiting Higa sensei’s dojo. He had just arrived on Okinawa and came to the dojo with his introduction letter. He was met by Matayoshi Shinpo, who was living at the dojo in those days. That turned out to be a very fortunate meeting, as Matayoshi sensei would become his kobudo teacher and in many ways his mentor in the Okinawan martial arts.

Kimo sensei relates that in those days Matayoshi sensei was still re-connecting to many friends and former students of his father. He had not been back in Okinawa long, and did not have a car. Kimo sensei did, and with his days often free he would train with Higa and Matayoshi sensei and at times drive Matayoshi sensei around to find and visit find friends and students of his father. Even on Okinawa in those days kobudo was not very popular. Matayoshi sensei was just starting to think about what would become his life’s work of developing kobudo on the island. The formal syllabus of the Zen Okinawa Kobudo Renmei, the development of things like the formal hojo undo (basic sets), and the founding of Matayoshi’s Kodokan dojo were all more than a decade away. The kata syllabus was slightly different (Kimo sensei relates sometimes doing 10 or 11 bo kata, for example), and the sequence of some other kata were still in flux. Matayoshi would sometimes focus on one weapon for weeks or a month at a time, and there were all sorts of applications he taught that were not contained in the kata. The tie between kata and application was very strong, and the applications were geared towards not allowing the opponent the opportunity to block or defend in any way, as opposed to blocking and attacking sequences. With his schedule his training was often one-on-one during the day, and it gave him a unusual window into the Matayoshi lineage kobudo at a period when it was developing and changing.

matayoshi, oshiro, etc

With Matayoshi, Oshiro Zenei, Kina

By the early 1970s he was already well versed in Matayoshi’s kobudo, something that few other foreigners had much experience with and something that was fairly rare on Okinawa as well. In addition to his training he developed a close bond with Matayoshi sensei. When he left the Marine Corps in the early 70s and founded his own dojo, he asked and was authorized by Matayoshi sensei to use the name Kodokan for his new organization. (For many years the characters he used to write the name were identical to the Kodokan of Matayoshi Shinpo. In later years he changed the first character, Ko, from Light (光) to Old (古), to represent his desire to preserve and pass on all the material he had been given from his various teachers.)  On visits to the island Matayoshi sensei would help him find work and lodging, and he visited Kimo sensei in the US a couple of times, including a long trip around the country together in 1995.

k m

The experience Kimo sensei had studying with Matayoshi sensei, and with Higa sensei, was in many ways a slice of Okinawan martial arts training that has mostly disappeared- often one on one training with a basis in kata and application, geared towards the individual student and their progression. Indeed, Kimo sensei has related that the changes that have taken place in both the karate and kobudo on Okinawa are sometimes subtle but as a whole have created a very different feeling in much of the practice: more formal, less organic, and sometimes more focused on form than application. Training in the 60s was also based in a strong and ongoing relationship between teacher and student, one not founded on an economic transaction like paying for instruction but in years of training together and getting to really know each other.  Something that is hard to develop in short visits to the island, or with someone you have just met.



His relationships in the karate community on Okinawa also spread outside the dojo. He became friends with Mr. Nakasone, the owner of the well known Shureido karate and kobudo equipment store, when the business was just getting started. He relates how he encouraged Nakasone san to move away from a mix of sporting goods and focus on martial arts equipment, was there when Matayoshi and Nakasone met to discuss the size and shape of some of the weapons that would be part of the Shureido brand, and that he wrote the first English language ad for the business. (He was also given the original license to sell Shureido equipment in the US, something he passed on to Mr. Takushi a number of years later.) The two men are still friends, and I remember Nakasone san taking a good deal of time when we first met in 1990 to help me find a dojo near where I was living in Kagoshima, and to treat me to lunch, as a favor to a student of an old friend. These relationships have formed the backbone of Kimo sensei’s connection to the Okinawan martial arts, and are a unique window into the development of the Okinawan martial arts as they are today.

With Nakasone san in the 1980s

With Nakasone san in the 1980s

When he opened his first Kodokan dojo in Puerto Rico after leaving the service in 1971 Kimo sensei also began developing his own syllabus from what he had been taught. He created his own versions of the two man bunkai Toguchi developed for a few of the Shoreikan training kata, application sets that conformed more closely to the principles his teachers had instilled in him. He also began teaching kobudo. At that time kobudo instruction was fairly rare in the West, and skilled kobudo instructors even rarer. Of course by this time he was not the only Westerner to have trained in Matayoshi kobudo but he is certainly the only one who had learned the entire syllabus taught in his day, from bo to suruchin, 9’ bo, utsu or kudamon bo, and so on. Indeed, there are a limited number of people, Okinawan or Western, who can claim that today, never mind in 1970! To this day his kobudo reflects what he was taught in the 60s and 70s, before the development of the Zen Okinawa Kobudo Renmei and the formalization of some aspects of the system.

This flag, long a centerpiece of the Kodokan Dojo in Sobe, Naha, was made in Guatemala and was a gift from Kimo sensei.

This flag, long a centerpiece of the Kodokan Dojo in Sobe, Naha, was made in Guatemala and was a gift from Kimo sensei.

From the founding of his first dojo Kimo sensei embarked on what has been a long road of teaching and spreading his karate and kobudo. As I have gotten to know people around the country who practice our arts, I am constantly surprised by how often his name comes up. He was the first exposure many people had to Kobudo, starting in the 70s. (And he may be the person responsible for the story of the sai originally being a tool for planting seeds- he says he made the story up in response to someone’s continuous questions at a seminar in the early 70s, and thought everyone there knew it was a joke!). He has influenced the training of generations of karate and kobudo ka in the US, and has run dojo in Puerto Rico, Guatemala, California, Tennessee, and at UMass Amherst, (where I first started training with him in 1986) among other places. While he has maintained a low profile, he has had a significant impact on the Okinawan martial arts community in the west. It is not something he talks about, but without him the history of Goju Ryu, and of Okinawan Kobudo, in the US would certainly have been different.

With Matayoshi sensei, Giles and Martha Hopkins,  and members of Kodokan Boston, Amherst MA, 1995

With Matayoshi sensei, Giles and Martha Hopkins, and members of Kodokan Boston, Amherst MA, 1995

Over the years, Kimo sensei has maintained his ties to his teachers in Okinawa, visiting for extended periods and later bringing students with him. In 1986, 30 years ago, he was graded 7th dan by both the Shodokan and Matayoshi Shinpo sensei. At that time (and possibly still) the highest ranked foreign student ranked directly by Matayoshi, or the Shodokan.  As his direct teachers have passed away, he has seen little need to press for added rank. Indeed, he suggested to Higa sensei and Matayoshi sensei in 1965 that foreign students never be allowed to rise beyond 5th dan in rank, though they should be taught the full depth of their systems. He still feels strongly that the Okinawan arts are a cultural artifact of the Okinawan people, and as such should be guided, guarded, and controlled by them. Time has seen other ideas prevail in so far as rank goes but he has always tried to teach his students the same respect for their teachers, and for the Okinawan culture, he has, and has maintained the ideal of practice and teaching over rank or acclaim. While this has not garnered him much in the way of wealth or fame it has enabled him to have a profound effect on the lives of many of his students, and to have profoundly affected the course of the practice of the Okinawan martial arts in the US.


Of course there is lots more that can be said about Kimo sensei. Perhaps another time. But while he does not go in for much self-promotion I do hope Kimo sensei will take some credit for the work he has done to promote the arts, and to teach his students. He deserves it, but I am not sure if he really wants it or not. Really, I think he just wants to keep training and teaching. As he said to me years ago: “I don’t want to be put up on a pedestal. There is no room to move up there, and I want to keep moving, and learning!”

Visit From Kimo Sensei

We just had another good visit with Kimo Wall sensei. As ever, it was good to see him. We had some good training each day he was here, and he got to meet some of the new students in the dojo. A few of Anthony Mirakian sensei’s students also came out to join us for some of the training, which was really nice! One evening a couple of his seniors did kata, and it was like Mirakian sensei was there with us. It made me think about the tangible nature of transmission, and how those relationships are in our bodies as well as our minds. I was reminded of the responsibility that puts on those of us who teach- our students copy what we are doing, both in their bodies and in how they think about the art. If we are not careful, we can pass on some bad things along with the good. But deep thoughts aside, it was great fun, and Kimo sensei was very happy to see everyone who came out.

We also, of course, got to see a number of old friends, people who live further away or who are no longer in the dojo regularly. It is always good to see them! Sensei’s birthday is at the end of the month so we had a little early birthday party for him on Saturday night. Good conversation, good food, and good friends, what more can you ask for?

cake for Kimo sensei

Kimo sensei is now back to Puerto Rico and we will look forward to the next time we see him. We wish him well in his travels, and with his students around the country. Nifeeideebiiru Sensei!

Kodokan Boston Demo!

Hello all,

The 5th annual Japan Festival Boston is this weekend. It is an all-day event on Boston Common and is a great time. Lots of Japan-related events, food, vendors, and of course two stages with everything from Cosplay to Bon-Odori to….. Kodokan Boston! Come down, enjoy the event, and watch the dojo demonstrate some of our practice. We are on Stage 2 at 1:35, and are really looking forward to the event!

There is more info here: /http://www.japanfestivalboston.org/  if you want to see the schedule, food, vendors and such. Again, it should be a fun day!




All In The Family

A while back Andres Quast did an excellent post on Sakugawa no kon here. What I really like about it, besides its thoroughness, is that all these versions are clearly treated as just that- versions of the same kata. Practiced in different lineages, with slightly different sequences and mechanics, but nevertheless the same kata.

Why is that important? Because I think there is an over-focus on “styles” within Okinawan martial arts. Ryukyu Kobudo, Matayoshi Kobudo, Yamane Ryu kobudo, they are different, right? Different styles! Ok, but just 3 generations ago they were not. Heck, they didn’t even exist yet. Taking these three systems, they all spring partially from some of the same folks. Taira learned from Yabiku Moden (among others), who learned from Chinen Sanda. Matayoshi Shinko learned from Chinen Sanda and Oshiro Chojo, who was a student of Chinen Sanda, (also among others). Current Yamane Ryu lineages come primarily from Chinen Masasmi, son of Chinen Sanda.  At least in part the bo techniques in all three lineages are descended from Chinen Sanda, if you want to look at it that way.

So why are they so different, you might ask. Why indeed? Ask different people, you get different answers, but I think it is obvious. Every generation changes something. They emphasize certain parts of their teachers’ instruction over others, they add their own flavor, they mix with something else they have learned. Do that a few times and you get variations that look different. I don’t think any of these systems look exactly like they did 4 generations ago. It seems silly to me to think they would. They have each branched out in a different way. Taira and Matayoshi had other teachers, as did most of the Yamane practitioners. They all made changes to what they had learned- that is the way of things.

But again, looking at these three systems they have a lot in common. They have common roots. They also all currently have at least two kata in common- Shushi/Suji no kon and some version of Sakugawa no kon.  While done a little differently they are pretty obviously the same forms. There are other kata connections as well:

  • both Taira and Matayoshi lineages do versions of Shishi (Soeishi) no kon
  • some Matayoshi folks do an Ufugushiku no Sakugawa that is in pattern obviously a version of the Yamane Ryu Sakugawa
  • in the past Matayoshi kobudo has included the Yonegawa no kon created by Chinen Sanda, much as Taira and some Yamane do
  • Matayoshi kobudo has, again in the past, also included Yara (Chatan Yara) no kon as Taira does
  • Yamane and Taira share Shirotaru no kon
  • some Yamane and both Taira and Matayoshi do versions of Tsuken/Chikin bo, though these are so different that they may not have much in common besides the name
  • Matayoshi and Taira share a kata called Choun no kon, though they are so different technically that they are very unlikely to share more than a name and even then the first character of the name is different. (The Choun in some Yamane groups is an clearly unrelated and recently developed kata.)

Honestly, it looks more like a shared syllabus than three different ones. And if you spend a little time with them, the mechanics also have more in common than it might at first appear.

So instead of trying to see who has what right or what wrong wouldn’t it make more sense to see how these systems inform each other?  What do they share? What is the same even if it does not initially appear to be? Why are certain things different? How do these differences affect application? Given their shared roots, that might give us some insight into the choices different teachers made about what to emphasize, what to de-emphasize (both in mechanics and content) and most importantly, why. Maybe a study group like McKenna sensei suggested here is a good idea, but across systems. Our systems are closely related. Instead of keeping apart or arguing about who is right, shouldn’t we be sharing with our family?

Principles of Training

Principles. The ideas behind a system that reflect its designed purpose and without the effective operation of which the system fails. Put another way, an ingredient that imparts a characteristic quality.

In our arts principles usually refer to the ideas behind a given system. But they can also refer to the ideas behind the approach people take to their practice. One of the principles of my practice is to keep an open mind. In fact our dojo motto is Open Mind, Joyful Training. But principles can’t just be ideas, they have to be acted upon to be worth anything. Acting on this principle means I should get out of my training space and experience other arts, other approaches. Put someone else in charge once in a while.

The last weekend I had the good fortune to be invited to take part in a weekend retreat my friend Russ Smith gave at his Burinkan dojo. As it happens, this weekend was about principles. Smith sensei has a strong background in our Goju Ryu, as well as a number of other arts, including Pak Mei, Ngo Cho Kun, and Ming He Quan. This background has given him a unique window on some of the common ideas behind these various systems, and how they relate. He spent the weekend working us through an approach to this information that started with ideas- principles of movement, interaction, energy, structure, power- and included a simple but effective methodology for working with them in a randomized way, enabling experimentation with the ideas directly, as opposed to through pre-set techniques. It was all great fun, and I found it a very clear approach to material that is often shrouded in mysticism, clouded by deliberate obfuscation, or simply misunderstood.


I see sink, turn, strong on weak, structure, closest target/closest weapon, and swallow, to get started. And in keeping its hard to say who will “win”…

Working with the ideas behind our practice, instead of examples of these ideas (kata or techniques) sounds difficult to do. It isn’t, really, but it does take some work, both to get there and not to fall back on familiar habits. I won’t go into the details of the training. It is not that important, and not my story to tell anyway. But I must say I was impressed with the organization of the material and the clarity of approach Smith sensei showed. That made for a weekend that was both intellectually and physically challenging, and a lot of fun.

I was also impressed with the other principles on display. The ingredients that imparted the characteristic qualities of the weekend were of course Smith sensei and his material. But they were equally the people participating. The students and training partners in the Burinkan and the guests there were, to a person, kind, interesting, focused, generous, and skilled. This really made the weekend, as it allowed us to take the material and work with it without fear of injury or lack of experience. Everyone had a slightly different spin on it, but the ideas stayed the same, and the central idea, that we were there to learn, play, and assist each other, made everything else possible.

Thanks everyone!

Thanks everyone!

Thank you Russ, and Marcus, and everyone else that made the weekend so much fun. I learned something from each and every person there. I feel like I came away with a lot to think about, which is great. I could list things I took away, but again that not really that important, and could be a little boring. But thanks to Russ sensei and everyone’s hard work there was certainly a lot to take away. And above all I can’t imagine many better ways to spend a weekend. That seems like a good starting principle for any event!

Use Your Words

We’ve got a few new students in the dojo right now, which is great. (Welcome Jovan, Zak, Jeanna, Bob!) I enjoy sharing our art with new people, and really hope that they stay and become old friends and training partners. I also enjoy the opportunity new students give me to examine how we are training, and teaching. One thing that jumped out at me the other day is that when you train with people for a long time you don’t need to speak as much. A nod or a gesture might be enough to say “step it up”, “go softer on that, I’ve got a small injury”, or “you are still leaning a little forward; it is costing you both speed and power and I should not have to correct that anymore. Straighten up, raise your eyes, and tuck your hips”. (Yup, that last is from training on Thursday, and was communicated with a raised eyebrow and pointed look at the waist.) But with new members the shorthand that develops over years isn’t there, so you must use your words. And so must they.

There is a sense that “the dojo is for training, not talking” in most dojo. And that is correct- it is for martial arts practice, not chatting. But what exactly does that mean? Shut up and train is good advice for someone that prefers talking to doing, but it can also be really bad advice for someone who is not clear on what they should be doing. Speech is one of the things that makes us human. It is a powerful tool for sharing information. So use it! That does not mean blathering on incessantly, or talking about whatever pops into your head. It means to use all the tools at your disposal to learn.

talking 3

For teachers, explain clearly what you expect people to do, and why. Do it quickly and concisely- don’t get too attached to the sound of your own voice- but don’t expect your students to understand what they are supposed to do if you don’t tell them. And contrary to common practice in the martial arts, the why is often pretty useful. “Because I told you so”, while it may instill obedience and possibly a form of discipline, does not give a student any way to measure themselves except by your approval. Not the best measure, really. Instead help them understand the reasons for a training method so they can start to measure how they are doing for themselves. Not endless description and use of obscure terminology, but concrete descriptions and reasons. Convey information.

And then listen! Give students opportunity to ask questions. Let them figure out where they are confused, listen to that, and try to help them through it. This is harder. It is the leader’s role to facilitate clear communication, but also to stop incessant questions when they are not helping. You have to figure out a good balance- enough room for good questions but not so much talking that you don’t actually get time to do what you are talking about! That balance is going to be different for each student, and requires the teacher actually listen to the student, not him or her self.


But perhaps the most important use of your words is between training partners. Words allow you to train better. For example, in kotekitae partners can take the “just go really hard and see how that works out” approach, but since the goal is working just over your partner’s comfort level, and different partners will have different thresholds, it saves a ton of time, limits injury, and helps development if partners just say to each other “harder” or “softer” as needed.  Discipline is the key, as it is in most of our training. You need to discipline your words. Use them carefully, and clearly. You need to be able to ask your partner to push you. That is a rather important discipline as well; part of it involves understanding your own failings.

In my opinion, a silent dojo is a poor one. People are missing out on the opportunity to learn from each other if they don’t communicate. But a chatty dojo is also a poor one, probably undisciplined and unfocused. There are times for a few words, especially during certain types of paired practice. And there are times when talking is simply the wrong thing to do. Kata is a good example here- except when getting direct instruction you should just be working on it, not talking about it. Finding that balance is up to the dojo and the dojo leaders. Maybe you should discuss it?

Are You The Karate Police?

A lot of what is written about karate is about how it is done wrong, how it is flawed or broken, or how it is missing or has lost something. Usually the writer is comparing “most” karate to his or her karate, with the missing elements of course being in the writer’s practice. Sport vs. Budo. Japanese vs. Okinawan. Traditional vs. Modern (though by definition everyone training today is training modern karate, unless they have a time machine, so I am not so sure about that one). But why is it so important to tell the karate world what they are doing wrong? It seems futile, I must say, as it is highly unlikely everyone else is going to change their practice and emulate any given author’s. But there are so many people writing comments on YouTube about how technique x is unrealistic or done improperly and writing books about how karate needs x. Let’s not even talk about blog posts! The karate police are everywhere!

That is not how you apply the first moves of Sesan!

But since it is futile, why? There are three answers, in my opinion. The first is the most common: ego. The author knows his style/practice/answers are the right ones. For everyone. Everywhere. At every stage of their practice, and their lives. And then follows the insecurity: if there are other answers they must be corrected! (Otherwise mine might be wrong! NO!) So they launch a crusade to “fix” the karate world, to save karate from the way it is getting degraded by, well by whatever it is they don’t like. (Of course marketing and money might also play in here, but let’s leave that alone right now.)

The second, and far less common, is a desire to help. Author x sees a problem and says “hey, maybe people don’t know about this problem, I better tell them”. Good intentions. But you know what they say about good intentions, and where that road leads, right? Because intentions notwithstanding, it is still futile, wasted effort. And that leads to the third, martyrdom. Being the “hero” standing alone, seeing the devastation of an ancient art and being a lone voice fighting back, trying to save it. Appealing for some, I guess. But a self-fulfilling prophesy really, as amongst the millions of people practicing their versions of karate, no one voice is ever going to shine through as a guide or savior to them all.

The lion stands for everyone doing karate wrong. Get it?

And that is, in my opinion, how it should be. As Mario McKenna sensei notes here, karate is not broken. Sure it is fragmented, but that has always been the case. There are accounts of karate used as entertainment as early as any other accounts of the art. (I’ll go back to McKenna sensei’s blog for one from 1930 here.) And when Funakoshi wrote his autobiography he was already railing about how the art was being debased, well before real international popularity. These problems seem to be part and parcel of the art as far back as we can see. Therefore, I would hazard that the problem is not with karate, which seems to be able to encompass quite a variety of practices and is still going strong, but with people wanting to tell other people what to do. But with the huge numbers of people practicing their versions of karate, and with none of them having any reason to listen, any attempt to police them really does seem a bit, well, not to over-use a word, but, futile.

Of course I have my own opinions about what my karate is, and what the roots of the art represent. But I am not fooling myself. I have no monopoly on ideas about what karate is, and there is no reason anyone should listen to me, unless they choose to. Honestly, the same goes for everyone, including the top researchers, teachers, and practitioners of the art. Karate is not broken, it is just not one single thing. It is no one’s job, or right actually, to be the karate police, to decide what is right and wrong.

Well, actually, that is not true. It is one person’s job. Yours. What is right for your practice? Are you honest in it? Do you understand its limitations and strengths? Are you open minded about it? Do you push yourself? Use your energy learning and policing yourself. That energy is well-spent there. Essential really. But trying to police the rest of the world? Knock yourself out. Literally.

What movements matter?

We just had a good visit from Liu Chang’I sifu here in Boston. It is always good to see him and spend some time hanging out, sharing meals, and hearing about his family and life in general. And of course, training together. There was the annual seminar which, as usual, included folks from near and far. It is always good to train with our friends and kung’fu brothers and sisters from other groups. Thanks to those who drove up and stayed in the area, like Spencer and John, and to all the folks from around here who came out and spent the weekend sweating and learning. We had a great time (though I missed Sunday due to a rather unpleasant stomach bug) and covered a lot of new material, as well as going over earlier information in more detail. Plenty to work with moving forward, and plenty of sweat getting to it!

Saturday afternoon at the seminar.

Saturday afternoon at the seminar.

In addition to the seminar we did a fair bit of closed-door training with sifu. That is nothing too “mystical”, it is just training for those folks who are participating in our regular Feeding Crane classes and are therefore taking instruction in the system and trying to understand it more fully. Anyone who is training with the group is welcome but it is closed to visitors and non-members. In some ways it is simply a logistical issue- it is not possible to spend time working more in-depth on specific elements of the system with people who have spent only a few days learning it, regardless of their background in other arts. By closing the door we give those people who are spending the time and effort to develop within the system an opportunity for individual critique, and to see elements of the system harder to present in an open-seminar format.

All together it works out well. The weekend seminars introduce a variety of new material and training methods, stuff we worked on refining during the week, and sifu spent a lot of time in all our training going over the ji bei gong. The fundamentals. The important stuff.

I will admit that I have a limited tolerance for the approach to training that goes: “just do it 1000s of times and you will understand it and be able to make it work”. That is, I believe, nonsense. While repetition of basics is essential there comes a point of diminishing returns. There also comes a point, rather early on in my opinion, that a careful explanation of why the basics are being done, and therefore how they should be used in training, is essential. If that explanation is not forthcoming, or even worse if there is none, then I think it is time to question why, and if, the repetition should be continued.

And that is one thing I like about the Feeding Crane system. The basic movements have a clear rationale, and must be done very precisely. They are done to develop a certain, measurable, result. Once that result is achieved you start spending more time with a different set of basics, one based on the earlier set but more involved. Again, the goal is a measurable result. Once you are getting certain results with all the movements your goal is improvement of these results and maintenance of the existing results. Time spent with them is dictated by what you need to do this. It is not mystical, or mysterious, it is just hard work with a clear plan.


And this is how you use the back of your thigh to break the leg…

It is also a plan situated within a larger framework. Basic movements (I actually prefer the word fundamental as it describes their role better) are just one part of the plan. Excellent development of skill in them still leaves you hollow in the system if you are not doing your other fundamental practices. It is a system, not just power generation or nice techniques or cool kata, but a set of practices designed to support each other. All need to be developed to learn the system.

That is one thing I find interesting in the approach of some people who do multiple arts. Often they have a primary art and their secondary or tertiary arts are simply there to support that. That is a perfectly fine approach, unless you also want to be proficient in those other arts. My “favorite” is watching karate people do kobudo that in reality is karate with a tool in their hand: to me the lack of understanding of weapon use is immediately obvious in their movement. But the same goes for multiple empty hand arts. While Feeding Crane can add power to your karate, it is really a lot more than that. It is also difficult to really get the power generation that way, as some of the fundamental mechanics, like raising the elbows or lifting the shoulders, break the rules of most karate and if you are trying to keep to those rules you will get stuck. In some ways they are incompatible, and accepting that is essential to developing in both.

And that is part of what we do during our closed-door training. We work solely with a group of people who are studying Feeding Crane for itself, not as an adjunct to another art. In some ways that is really the most fundamental movement, the movement towards committing to the practice. Of course there are a lot of different ways to commit, and I think many have value. Getting a taste of another practice is a valuable experience, and can add a lot to your own practice. One can engage at a variety of levels and regardless of the level or approach, time and effort put into developing a skill deserve respect . I certainly don’t think you have to give up what you know to enter into a new practice; I know I have not. But starting with a beginner’s mind, opening up to the possibility of new fundamentals, is difficult. Making that initial movement towards seeing a new art as its own thing is, I believe, the best way to do that.

I have a beginner's mind, but ramen is the fundamental I need right now!

I have a beginner’s mind, but ramen is the fundamental I need right now!

And so open seminar, closed door training, or spending time with a teacher and friend are all fundamentals. They help create a base for continued practice and development. They help develop existing skills, improve existing relationships with material, the system, and most importantly with the people who embody those things. And, just to be clear, they are also a lot of fun! We are looking forward to the next visit already!