Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Nanba Aruki

For the able-bodied, walking seems like the most natural thing in the world. We learn to walk at such an early stage in our lives that I assumed the process of walking, with opposite arm swinging to leg, was due to some kind of biological programming. In other words, I assumed that our walking style was nature rather than nurture.

Then I read about nanba aruki. Now I realise that the way in which we walk is nurture rather than nature. It only feels natural because we have been doing it for so long!

Nanba aruki is a style of walking in which the same arm and leg are moved at the same time. The centre of gravity is lowered and the legs remain slightly bent with the torso relaxed. The left arm moves with the left leg and the right arm with the right leg. The centre line of the body acts as a pivot as the person takes small steps forward in this manner, landing on the ball of the foot first.

Here's some Nanba walking:

Nanba aruki was a style of walking that would have seemed very natural to the Japanese during the Edo period (1603-1868).  It is thought that the word nanba means 'difficult place' and aurki means 'to walk'. So one interpretation of nanba aurki is to walk away from a difficult place. In other words nanba walking was designed to get you out of a trouble or do difficult jobs more easily.

The bushi walked in this style and farmers tending the fields used a variation of it. It is difficult to walk in a sodden paddy field in the usual way so the farmers adopted a stance with the right leg and arm forward and shuffled forwards in this semi-sidewards position, pushing the hoe in front of them. This variant of nanba walking (where the same leg and arm remain in the front) is called hitoemi and essentially means to move the body along a single line as one mass. Hitoemi is used extensively in many sword arts as well as in bojutsu and other weapon arts.

The principles of nanba aruki are inherent in the classical Japanese martial arts including karate, aikido, jujitsu and kobujutsu. This style of movement is more energy efficient, less fatiguing and quicker than the more Western (sport/athletic) way of moving and suits martial arts in particular. The centre of gravity is kept low and centred; and the upper and lower parts of the body remain unified all the time. In the Edo period, samurai messengers and couriers (hikyaku) would travel between Edo and Kyoto (310 miles) in as little as 6 days running in nanba aruki :- that's 50 - 60 miles per day, carrying a load!

In martial arts the principles of hitoemi and nanba aruki are used in tai sabaki, most of the stances and kamae positions (same arm and leg forward) and oi zuki (step through punch). In the skillful practitioner this principle of movement allows concealment of the transfer of body weight because the torso remains relaxed and movement starts with the hips, projecting energy in a horizontal plane. The rotational movement around a central axis means the body can move as a whole and allows increased speed with little muscular effort.

Here's a video of some karate nanba:

 In Japan, nanba aruki fell out of favour during the Meiji restoration when Japan wished to adopt all things Western. People were taught and encouraged to walk with opposing arms swinging. Many martial arts became sports focused and adopted Western patterns of movement. Karate adopted the gyaku zuki (reverse punch) which actually aligns more with the boxing or kick-boxing techniques and is counter to the principles of classical karate and nanba aruki. Many people lament the introduction of western style sports principles into classical martial arts as they consider it to be a distortion and erosion of the essence of the art.

What do you think? Does your art utilise the principles of nanba aruki or have you adopted the western 'sports' way of moving?

Further reading:

Bookmark and Share

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

Friday, 24 September 2010

What do you wear under your Hakama?

I have just received my new hakama! This is the first time I've ever owned such a garment. And what a strange garment it is. I need to wear the hakama in my kobudo class when training with the bokken. Up to now I have just trained in my gi but I will have to wear the hakama at my grading in December so I thought I'd better buy one so I can get used to it. A lot of people have told me it takes a lot of getting used to!

I tried it on and was quite perplexed by a few things: Firstly, how do you tie it? It has two lots of ties, one at the front and one at the back. Secondly, what do you wear underneath? That may sound a little like asking a Scotsman what he wears under his kilt, but honestly I have no idea. You have to wear something because there are large vents either side. I can't imagine wearing my gi pants underneath - surely that would be too bulky and too hot? Do I wear shorts, big bloomers or what? Thirdly, what is that little hard plate at the back for?

I managed to find an answer to my first problem, how do you tie it?, in this YouTube video:

Okay! Now I just need to practice all that.

I had a look around some forums to see if there was anything about what people wear underneath the hakama. Apparently, a lot of people wear their gi pants or cut-off gi pants. Some wear cycling shorts or ordinary shorts. Traditionally  a kimono is worn under the hakama but I think this is when it is being worn ceremonially.

According to Wikepedia the spoon shaped plate hanging at the back of the hakama is called the hera and slots into the obi, keeping the hakama in place.

Just out of interest the pleats of the hakama have a symbolic meaning: There are seven pleats, five at the front and two at the back, and they represent the seven virtues of Bushido: the five at the front represent- Jin (mercy), Gi (righteousness), Rei (etiquette), Chi (intelligence), and Shin (trust).  The back pleats represent the virtues of Makoto (loyalty) and Chu-kou (allegiance). The front pleats are also arranged asymmetrically, in keeping with Japanese aesthetics.

So now I know all about the hakama. However, I still want to know - What do you wear under your hakama? (Or gi)?

Bookmark and Share

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Barefoot Care

A while back (April 09) I wrote a post called karate Feet in which I talked about the problem of getting cramp in my feet. I concluded in that post that my cramp problems most likely stemmed from a combination of dehydration and weak muscles in my feet.

Though I suffer from foot cramps less often than I used to I still suffer from various foot problems. My current problem is a severe splitting of the skin on my big toe. This was caused by 'bouncing' or 'pulsing' on the balls of my feet during a lengthy (1.5hrs)  kumite training session last Saturday. The backward and forward motion of bouncing can cause a lot of friction on the balls of the feet and underside of the toes. If the skin is already dry or cracked then the repetitive bouncing action eventually shears off the skin causing the split. This is what has happened to me. It didn't bleed and no skin came off (such as when a blister bursts), it just split!

This has made me realise that it is time to start taking more care of my feet. Though I keep my feet clean and my toe nails clipped, I have to admit I don't do much else to look after my feet. Let's face it, with all this barefoot exercise my feet take a lot of punishment.

So I had a look around some 'Foot care' websites and 'Barefoot exercise' websites and have put together a few tips for exercising and caring for the feet:

Exercises to strengthen the feet:
When anyone starts any barefoot exercise for the first time, be it martial arts or barefoot running, the feet need to be strengthened and conditioned for the rough treatment they will be subjected to. Though barefoot practices are ultimately thought to be better for foot, ankle, knee and hip health; years of wearing cushioned shoes makes the muscles, ligaments and tendons in our feet weak and out of condition. To get the benefits of barefoot exercise we therefore need to gradually improve foot strength. Here are four simple foot exercises that you can do (source:

Toe Fans: While seated, lift your feet up to a comfortable height. Spread all ten toes out as wide as you can and hold for a slow count of 15 before you relax. Repeat 3 times.

Toe Grip: Place a pen or pencil on the floor. Use your toes to grab and lift the pen/pencil off the floor. Hold for a slow count of 10. Repeat 3 times on the one foot before repeating exercise on the other foot.

Up High: Stand up tall and on the transverse arch, just like when you need to reach that top pantry shelf. Walk 30-40 paces before taking a 5-10 second rest. Repeat 3 times.

Heel Walk: Transfer your body weight on your heels. Lift the toe/front of your feet up high and press into the ground with your heels. Walk 25-30 paces before taking a rest for 10 seconds. Repeat 3 times.

I don't see why these exercises can't be built into a warm-up.

Skin care for the feet:
The aim of skin care for the feet is to achieve tough but callus and blister free skin that is also free of fungal/viral infections such as athletes foot, warts/verrucas and ringworm fungus. Most of the problems we get with our feet are actually caused by our shoes - ill-fitting shoes cause calluses, bunions, corns, heel spurs etc, whilst enclosing our feet in poorly ventilated shoes makes us more prone to incubating foot infections. So, it follows that going barefoot will cure/prevent most of the problems!

The biggest problem for newbies to barefoot exercise is having soft skin on the soles of the feet that is prone to drying out, blistering or splitting, particularly if training is done on a hard surface rather than on padded mats. The problem is made worse if the feet are subjected to severe friction and shearing forces as they may be when 'bouncing' during sparring practice. Split or damaged skin is then prone to picking up infections.

Here's my top ten tips for keeping feet in tip top condition:

1. Avoid shoe related foot problems by wearing well fitted shoes made from breathable fabrics.
2. Go barefoot at home whenever possible or wear very open, flat shoes such as flip flops.
3. Keep feet clean, dry between toes and keep toe nails short.
4. Clean feet immediately before and after training with baby wipes.
5. Wear flip flops in changing rooms and when walking to/from training area.
6. Moisturise feet every day to keep skin supple.
7. Toughen the soles of the feet by walking barefoot on increasingly rougher surfaces but avoid stepping on objects that may break or damage the skin - you are aiming for thicker more leathery soles not dry, cracked,callus prone ones!
8 Check feet regularly for signs of skin damage or infection.
9.Do not toughen skin with surgical spirits
10. Get more serious problems such as bunions, heel spurs or severe calluses treated professionally.

Now I need to start practicing what I preach! Do you have any foot care advice?

Bookmark and Share

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

How do you teach 'Do' in the dojo?

Karate is often described as being a 'Do' art, a Way of life, not just a means of self-defence or sport. Most martial arts have a 'do' side and a 'jutsu' side. Practitioners of karate-jutsu are very much focused on applied karate: the development of karate as a realistic and effective fighting system. Practitioners of karate-do use karate as a means of improving the self through the development of positive character traits, the elimination of ego and the unity of mind, body and spirit. A karate-do practitioner may also look at how this self-development can be applied to other aspects of their lives.
This does not mean that karate-do practitioners are not interested in learning effective applied karate or that karate-jutsu practitioners do not develop any of the mental or spiritual aspects of a martial Way, but their focus may be different. In fact, you may argue that you can't become an effective 'fighter' without developing some of the deeper mental/spiritual states associated with the 'do' side of the art; or that you won't develop the desired mental states without hard training and developing the practical application of fighting techniques.
How do you teach someone the 'do' aspects of karate in a dojo? Can you teach this? It is easy to see how you can teach the practical side of karate - how to block and punch, how to kick, how to escape from grabs or defend from various attacks. But how do you teach the higher mental states such as zanshin, mushin or kime? Are these just the consequences of years of hard training or do they require acquisition through more conscious, active means?
Take kata for instance. Some people refer to kata as moving meditation. It has been said that all martial artists should learn to meditate in order to develop focus, mental clarity and mind-body unity. Well we don't meditate in our dojo so does kata practice count as meditation? People's attitude to kata practice varies enormously. For some people it is just about learning a pattern (a 'dance' mindset); for others it's about perfecting the pattern for competition (an 'aesthetic' mindset); for others it's about learning fighting techniques ('practical/applied' mindset) and only for a few does kata seem to be about mind-body unity (a 'do' mindset) and can therefore be considered meditational. In other words it doesn't matter how you teach kata, it's how you learn it that matters.
What about kihon practice? Does that teach the 'do' aspects of  karate? I have often thought that standing in lines doing constant repetitions of punching and kicking in front of a 'critical' instructor who makes constant corrections is not just physically exhausting but is a test of the spirit too. One competes with oneself not to slow down or give up - to put the same effort into the last punch as the first. Is forging the spirit in this way intentional on part of the teacher or is it a 'side-effect' of this teaching method?
My more limited experience of training in a jujitsu club is that this repetitive training to the point of exhaustion is not in their teaching repertoire. Teaching is much more pragmatic and technical in nature. Does that mean that jujitsukas don't have a mental/spiritual dimension to their training? I find that hard to believe, after all, the samurai (the original jujitsukas) had highly honed mental focus and clarity of mind when going into battle.
Perhaps the 'do' aspects of a martial art are taught through the dojo rules and observance of etiquette? The emphasis on bowing and showing respect, the honouring of your partner's technique and working cooperatively with each other for mutual benefit. Perhaps insisting on this type of behaviour helps to hone the positive character traits required in one who 'seeks the Way'.
I can't help thinking that perhaps the onus is more on the student than the teacher. Perhaps only those that seek the Way will actually find it.....
So, is it possible to teach student's about the 'do' aspects of karate or other martial arts within the dojo? Do you actively do this in your dojo? How do you teach it?
Bookmark and Share

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

Monday, 13 September 2010

My first nunchaku grading....

It must be the grading season or something because I've just graded for the third time in 4 months. This is one of the problems of training in two different clubs:- their grading schedules aren't aligned to each other, so you get no gradings for months and then three in quick succession. I did my first bo grading in June, followed by my 1st kyu grading in karate in July and on Sunday I did my nunchaku grading!

This nunchaku grading has sort of snuck up on me. Two weeks ago my instructor reminded me that I only had two more lessons before grading and then realised he hadn't taught me the manipulation kata! Suddenly the pressure was on, for both him and me.

I managed to learn the basic bones of the kata in one (intensive) session and practiced like mad at home. By the time the next lesson came I was able to do the kata in a passable way so we worked on improving some of my technique - I was holding the batons in the middle rather than towards the ends, I wasn't throwing my arm out straight or high enough with the strikes and I was a bit confused about some of the transitions between the different strikes. With these ironed out I was able to practice intensively at home again. I also managed to fit in an extra Tuesday lesson, so by the time of the grading my nunchaku kata was,well, okay.

The grading itself was short and sweet (about 10 mins) but had the usual array of problems. Some of the things I had prepared to show the grading officer did not necessarily coincide with the things he was expecting to see; not to mention me mis-hearing what he had asked for and showing him something else!

Things got off to a less than perfect start with the blocks. He asked for a rising block, I told my partner to kick me and did a downward block - doh!! "No, a rising block Susan". Sorry! I then got my partner to do a hammer fist strike and did the correct block. Inside and outside blocks were fine...on the right hand side. Nobody told me I had to do them left handed as well, at least not until the grading officer requested it. This proved extremely tricky! I managed to reverse the inside block in a passable manner but the outside block eluded me (but I think I managed to fudge it).

Moving on swiftly.....The grading officer then asked for a wrist lock and this went okay. The arm lock was next..."That's another wrist lock Susan, I want to see an arm lock". Well that was what I had practiced as an arm lock. I don't actually know any other arm lock techniques at the moment so I wasn't sure what to do next. "Just apply the cord further up the arm near the elbow and it will be fine," he said. So I did what he said and he seemed satisfied. Phew!

Next up was the wrist throw, followed by the head and hip throw. They went fine. Then it was two strangulation techniques. They went okay as well. Finally it was the manipulation kata.....would all the intensive training pay off? Or would my hand keep failing to catch the baton? Would I forget the sequence of strikes? I had just one chance to find out.......

I started off with single forward strikes (left and right), followed by foot return strikes, then overhand strikes where you catch it behind your back, followed by those strikes that you catch under your armpit, then underhand strikes caught at the front, finally double forward strikes followed by figure of eight strikes. Well, apart from fumbling once or twice to catch the baton I have to say it went okay!  His only comment was that I was a bit stiff and needed to sway a bit more with the batons.

The last item on my syllabus was to explain the history of the nunchaku. I had prepared my little speech about this but he didn't ask me. I have been told before that if the grading officer misses something out - don't remind him! So I didn't.

Finally we were all called back onto the mats to hear the results. Due to the slight problems in the early part of the grading I had mentally prepared myself to hear the words 'pass with credit'. But, what I did right must have been done pretty well because I heard him say 'Susan, nunchaku level one....pass with honours.' Wow!

Bookmark and Share

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Some karate teaching conundrums....

Last night our karate classes started to get back to normal following the summer holidays. Since numbers drop off quite significantly during the summer, Sensei decided to combine the junior and senior classes together for six weeks. This meant that I didn't do any teaching at all over the summer though I did get to train with the students that I'm normally helping to teach.

So it was with a little bit of trepidation that I returned to the junior class last night to assist with teaching. About twenty students turned up, mainly young children and just a few adults; this is quite a large class for us.

Sensei had clearly planned to keep me very occupied and after a warm up allocated me six young white belts to go through their first kata. They were all reasonably familiar with the kata and I think Sensei is assessing their readiness for their first grading. With that in mind I set about helping them to fine tune some of the moves, particularly the 'look, prep, turn' bits which are often performed a bit sloppily in early kyu grades.

I find it incredibly difficult to watch more than one or two people at a time, especially when I'm trying to examine details so I decided that after we had run through the kata all together a couple of times, I would take them in pairs to watch whilst the other four practiced alone. I was then able to pick up more easily  which ones actually knew the kata independently and which ones were just copying and following the crowd! So although each child (and one adult) got some individual attention from me and hopefully benefited from that; I was also aware that the children who were left to practice alone soon became more interested in talking and playing together, so their time was not spent as productively as it could have been. Would I have been better to have kept them in a single group and just kept going through the kata with them altogether (which would keep them all occupied the whole time but made it more difficult to spot the ones that were 'hiding' behind others) or was it better to do it the way I did?

My next task was to take the red and white belts through a sanbon kumite exercise in pairs using an age uke block. There was an odd number of students so I had the problem of what to do with the 'odd' person. The choices are to partner the student myself, which then makes it difficult to watch what everybody is doing but gives the 'odd' student a good experience; or have one group of three students, which makes life easier for the teacher but not such a good experience for the student! I chose to partner the student myself and tried to watch the others as much as possible. Fortunately the students were familiar with the exercise and I was pleased with how well they did it, however I think if it had been a completely new exercise for them then my choice would have been the wrong one. What do you do when you have an odd number of students for a paired exercise?

My last task was to take the whole class for a sparring exercise. This was basically just getting them in pairs and getting them to practice bouncing correctly on the balls of their feet, switching stance, moving off line a bit, maintaining a guard and keeping the correct distance from their partners. With such a large group it's hard to know who to watch first. I think one of my problems is that I feel that I should try and give everyone some individual attention and that is not always possible with a large group. Sensei suggests leaving the adults to get on with it once they know the task - learning is their responsibility, and to focus my attention on the children. I think this was sensible advice.

Obviously adults must take responsibility for their own learning and be relied upon to practice alone or with a partner but my last question is:- to what extent should children be expected to take responsibility for their own learning, is it reasonable to expect young children (6-9yrs) to practice alone or should their learning be supervised at all times so that they remain occupied?

Bookmark and Share

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

Friday, 3 September 2010

Karate and the Sword....

I am currently reading a very interesting book by Mabuni Kenei (son of Mabuni Kenwa - founder of shito-ryu karate) called Empty Hand. I came across a very interesting section on the influence of the sword on the development of karate.

Now, I don't know about you but I don't tend to associate the use of the sword with karate. I associate it more with Japan, Samurai and jujitsu. It is not an Okinawan weapon. However, according to Mabuni Kenei, the philosophy and strategy underpinning Shuri-te style karate comes directly from the Jigen style sword techniques.

Shuri-te karate was developed and perfected by the 'Master of the fist', Matsumura Soken (1800-1896).  Shuri-te is widely believed to be an amalgam of native Okinawan te and Chinese kempo and both Matsumura and, before him, his teacher Sakugawa 'Tode' Shungo (1733-1815)  travelled to China to study Chinese kempo. However, Matsumura, who worked as a bodyguard and administrator at Shuri castle, was also sent to the Satsuma province on mainland Japan where he learned the Jigen sword technique.

The Jigen sword technique is different to other sword styles in that it only has one kamae position - hasso no kamae. In this position the sword is held pointing up to the sky with the elbows positioned at shoulder level and standing sideways on to your opponent. The swordsman then steps through with the back leg towards the opponent, swinging the sword down with great speed to cut the opponent diagonally from the neck through the chest and exiting the body underneath the opposite arm, accompanied by a loud kiai.

The aim of the Jigen technique is to kill with the first strike. Sound familiar? Training is aimed at performing this cut at increasingly faster and faster speeds until it is lightening quick. The highest level of perfection was called flame cloud. The speed of a flame cloud cut was one rin. In modern methods of measuring speed one rin equates to performing the cut in 0.00075 seconds! Masters of the Jigen technique were said to be able to, '... cut raindrops falling from the roof three times before they hit the ground.'  Training to achieve these speeds, which required a lot of mental concentration, was done using a wooden sword to hit a wooden block diagonally from left to right with a loud kiai. This training technique was called 'hitting a standing tree'.

Matsumura achieved flame cloud and became a Master of the Jigen sword technique.

Matsumura was highly influenced by his Jigen sword training and it was he who introduced the basic principle of 'kill with the first strike' into karate. It was also Matsumura who invented the makiwara striking post, based on the 'hitting a standing tree' technique, in order for the karateka to practice improving speed and mental tenacity with punching.

In karate the arms are often said to be our weapons. Master of the sword, Nakayama Hiromichi (1869-1958) said, '....the karate fist is definitely a sword.'

In my kobudo classes one of the weapons that I study is the bokken and I can attest that the principle of movement needed to perform a quick sword cut is the same as that needed to perform a rapid punch in karate - a combination of 'hard and soft' to achieve the whipping motion needed to generate speed. But then I shouldn't be surprised by that if karate striking techniques have been influenced by the sword...

Empty Hand - the essence of budo karate by Kenei Mabuni. Ed. by Carlos Molina.

 Bookmark and Share
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.


Related Posts with Thumbnails