Tuesday, 29 January 2013

My experiences of a taiji seminar

Last Saturday my husband and I attended a taiji seminar in Durham with experienced taiji instructor Joe Harte, whom I met and become acquainted with through my activities with the annual Marfest event last year.

We like to talk about internal and external arts and generally find our own art categorised into one of these groups without fully appreciating why or what it really means. I’m well aware that karate is categorised as an external art yet in karate we talk about (a lot) and practice (to a lesser extent) breath control, mind-body-spirit unity, altered mind states such as mushin (empty mind) and zanshin (aware mind). On the surface these seem like ‘internal’ elements yet karate remains doggedly an external art! Why? And what, therefore, is an internal art?

These were questions I wanted to answer. Joe had intrigued me with something he said last year along the lines of “…Master Huang changed this form so that on the outside it looked exactly the same but on the inside felt very different….” How can something be changed to look the same on the outside but be very different in the way it feels?

I knew the only way I was going to gain any insight into what an internal art really is was to go and experience it for myself. Having fortuitously met Joe I now had the means and opportunity to do this so I booked us onto the seminar….

Joe had warned me to dress up warm – several layers, hat, gloves, scarf etc, and wear flat shoes. “You won’t get sweaty in a taiji class,” he warned nor could he guarantee the heating would be on. Like many people I had a mental image of doing forms in a slow, relaxed way. I knew that more than that must be going on but wasn't quite sure what.

We arrived a bit late due to the adverse weather conditions- the heavens had decided to drop another 3 inches of snow all over Britain on Friday night meaning there had been very little time for the gritters and snow ploughs to get the roads clear. The class was already doing some gentle warm up exercises so we just quietly got ready and joined in at the back.

The general etiquette and atmosphere in the class was much more relaxed and informal than in a karate class – no waiting to catch sensei’s eye to bow you onto the training area or giving you punishment press-ups because you are late! In fact, no bowing (or press-ups) at all.

After the warm up exercises Joe explained that we were going to do Master Huang’s 5 loosening exercises. My interpretation was that these exercises are partly designed to help you relax your body and muscles properly and partly to start you on the path to discovering your ‘deep mind’. Joe talked us through these exercises instructing us on the external movements required and how we were supposed to be thinking and feeling on the inside, teaching us how to listen to our internal senses rather than just relying on our external senses.

We are all familiar with our external senses – sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste but not very familiar at all with our internal ones, which were defined as temperature, pressure, pain, muscle state and joint position. The idea seems to be to try and connect with the part of the unconscious mind that generally controls these senses automatically – the deep mind or Joe sometimes referred to it as the ‘body’s mind’. So as we went through the loosening exercises we were encouraged to think about the pressure experienced on our feet as our weight shifted about or about whether certain muscles were in a state of contraction or relaxation.

To aid our understanding we broke off to do a partner exercise in which one partner took the weight of the others outstretched arm (stretched out horizontally to the side). You then had to gently lift your arm a fraction from the partners hold by first contracting the shoulder muscle, then the upper arm muscles to lift the elbow and finally the lower arm muscles to lift the wrist and hand. Then you had to relax the muscles in the same order – shoulder, upper arm then lower arm, resting your arm back onto the partners hold. If you had managed to completely relax the arm it should feel heavy to the person holding it and if they withdrew their hold then your arm should drop under its own weight. When I held my partner’s arm in a relaxed state it felt like a bar of lead. When he held mine and gently withdrew his hold my arm stubbornly remained in a horizontal position even though I thought I was relaxing it. I'm clearly not in communication with this internal sense!
Joe said it takes years of training to even begin to get in touch with deep mind and exert some control over it so I shouldn't be too surprised I couldn't’ do it.

Joe then introduced us to the idea of the ‘vertical circle’, which is an important concept in taiji. This idea refers to subtle lifting and sinking of the body as you cycle through a movement. We first met the concept during one of the loosening exercises and then again when we were doing one of the forms and then again during a push-hands exercise. Experiencing the vertical circle seem to involve standing in a fairly relaxed posture with one foot forward and the weight mainly on the back foot. You then imagined your mind moving upwards and forwards in an arc resulting in a gentle shifting of your weight slightly upwards and onto your front foot. You then moved your mind down below the ground bringing more weight to bear on the front leg. Your mind then comes up again (still following the arc of the circle), shifting your weight to your back foot again. It was important to ensure you were ‘opening your lower back’ to straighten the spine (like in sanchin dache), open up the hips and drop the shoulder. Your mind then returned to your head bringing you back to a more neutral stance to complete the circle. I may have got the details of that a little wrong but that was the gist of it.

This vertical circle seemed a very important technique to help train the deep mind and to generate internal power. We did another exercise with a partner in which one partner just stood sideways on to the other with their arms folded across their chest. The other partner then touched them on their arm (from the side) with both hands (as if to push) and went through the movements of the vertical circle before releasing the energy as a push. I seem to remember the mantra for this being: touch, connect, merge and follow. The ‘pushing arms’ stay relaxed and the power comes more from the body so that the ‘pushed’ person is not shoved by the use of bicep power. Using the core muscles in this way should result in a stronger push. Being a karateka I found it hard not to shove even though I know that’s not the best way to move a heavy object, even in karate. In fact, this exercise reminded me of the wave form pushing exercise we do in karate - I’m not brilliant at that either!

We spent a short time on a pushing-hands technique, designed to increase your sensitivity to your partner’s movements but much of the rest of the seminar was spent focussing on forms, a short form in the morning and a fast ‘quick fist’ form in the afternoon. Taiji forms differ immensely from karate kata in being much longer and more fluid. I found them very complicated to follow and won’t even pretend that I remember any part of them!

Taiji is not physically demanding in the way karate is but my word is it mentally demanding. This searching within yourself to find your deep mind is difficult but fascinating and ultimately deeply relaxing. I’m starting to understand what is meant by ‘internal’ arts now and it is quite different to what I expected.

I can see why karate is definitely an external art. Even the journey to self-improvement of the budoka involves only really improving the ‘superficial’ or conscious mind through the development of character and your relationship with the outside world. The internal arts follow a much more inward journey which requires you to learn to put aside your superficial mind in order to find your deep mind. It seems that the external and internal martial artists are on very different paths – probably ones that cannot merge very easily, if at all.

If you want to find out more about the style of taiji that I experienced then follow these links:

1.   An interview with Joe Harte: http://talesofbraveulysses.com/?p=126

2.   An interview with Patrick Kelly (Joe’s teacher): http://www.gekko-taichi-berlin.de/html/interview_patrick_kelly_en.html

4.   Patrick Kelly’s website:

Patrick Kelly trained directly with Master Huang. Here’s a link to an interview with Master Huang who died in 1992: http://www.patrickkellytaiji.com/TEACHERS/huangxingxian.html

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Monday, 21 January 2013

Seipai in the snow!

I don't know about you but we've had a lot of snow this last few days (about 6 inches). It has bought the usual travel chaos and school closures but it has also created a beautiful winter wonderland!

My sensei texted me this morning to say that class tonight has been cancelled because the school where we train is shut. I texted back (half jokingly, half meaning it) that we should do training in the snow. He replied that he thought that was a cool idea and he was up for it. So I sent him a challenge that I would practice Seipai outside in my back garden if he would do something too. He texted back that he was going to do some kobudo practice outside.

Well you can't renege on a challenge with your sensei can you?

So I put my coat on and some boots and went into my back garden to practice Seipai. My son took these photos of me:

Hope the neighbours weren't watching!

It's a lot harder doing kata in boots in several inches of snow and outdoor clothes make it difficult to be snappy with your moves. However, it was very invigorating and enjoyable out in the fresh air. I went through the kata about 6 times which got me pretty warmed up despite the 0 degrees temperature today! 

I think I should do this more often, it adds a new dimension to training. 

And just to show that my sensei kept his half of the bargain (though I expect he was planning to train outside all along anyway, he's pretty hardcore) here's the photo he sent me:

Okay, now I'm challenging you to train outside in the snow and post the evidence! 

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Tuesday, 15 January 2013

When is a dojo not a dojo?

Traditional dojo environment

……when it’s a club.

I used to think that a dojo was simply the place where you did your training, whether that is a dedicated traditional dojo, a school gym, purpose built training centre or your own basement or garage. However, it seems that a dojo is much more than just the place you train.

In Michael Clarke’s book, ‘Shin Gi Tai’ ,he makes a definite distinction between a karate dojo and a karate club. He describes a club as a commercially based entity in which students pay fees and in return receive instruction in karate to a single set syllabus from which they can be awarded ascending ranks in the shape of coloured belts as they rise up the system. They can also participate in sport karate, enter competitions and collect trophies. A club may be affiliated to a higher organisation which may be the only place where a student’s black belt is recognized.

On the other hand Michael Clarke describes a dojo as a place where you learn budo.  He states that the main way in which a dojo is distinctive from a club has...

”little to do with the architecture of the place or the way people dress for training; the distinction has everything to do with the nature of the struggle going on inside each individual.”

Budo karate involves training body, mind and spirit. It is more than just learning to do karate techniques (however well you learn to do them). It is much more about learning to understand yourself.  In Michael Clarke’s words…”Without a spirited assault on your ego, the true value of karate will remain forever beyond your reach”. A “spirited assault” involves a lot of hard, physical training, self examination and reflection as well as personal reading and research.

Budo karate is individual karate, even if done in a group. Students, who will most likely have been handpicked by the Sensei based on their suitability for budo training, will not necessarily all follow the same training programme. Training will be tailored to their individual requirements and suitability (as determined by the Sensei, not the student). This is not possible with large classes of students so karate dojo typically have only a few students. 

Another main difference is that in a dojo the student is expected to take full responsibility for their own training. By that I mean they have the responsibility to turn up on time, observe the etiquette required of them, train hard, do their own research etc. The onus is on them to make progress. Any student not doing this will be asked to leave.  It would be rare for a ‘club’ student to be asked to leave for not trying hard enough or because they fail to make progress or show any understanding of what they are doing – providing they keep paying their fees.

By the criteria described above it is clear that I belong to a karate club not a dojo. Is that a problem? Is it still possible to practice budo karate in a club environment?

It would be wrong to automatically assume that all dojos are somehow superior to all clubs. There will be good and bad dojos and good and bad clubs and it will be better to be in a good club than a bad dojo. According to Michael Clarke even Okinawa has ‘bad’ dojos set up to exploit Westerners searching for the authentic karate experience.  Getting good advice about where to go is essential to avoid this pitfall if you’re planning a trip there.

A good instructor in a karate club will take an individual interest in your training and progress if you show yourself to be keen and hard working.  This will be subtle rather than overt: a willingness to chat with you after class, lending you a book or DVD, encouraging you to attend special seminars or classes, asking you for help with teaching or a grading session (this shows he/she trusts you). A positive and close relationship can develop between student and sensei in just the same way that it does in a traditional karate dojo – if you are a committed student.

I also think that it is possible to practice budo karate even if you are in a large commercial club – as long as you know what the practice of budo really entails and are prepared to tread this path alone. After all the practice of budo is an individual and lonely path by definition so it shouldn’t matter too much what environment you train in. Most good clubs will provide hard physical training and good instructors will drive you to do your best but it’s up to you whether you do so.

Every dojo will have good students (they would be asked to leave if they weren’t good) but clubs have to cope with good and not so good students (this is actually an advantage of clubs – they are inclusive and often see ‘poor’ students evolve and mature into ‘good’ students given enough time and encouragement).  I see no reason why a dedicated student in a club environment can’t achieve the same level of skill, understanding and knowledge about karate (and themselves) as a student fortunate enough to belong to one of the rare dojos dotted around the world.  The path may be less clear and contain more obstacles to circumnavigate and the student may have to look further and wider than their own club for guidance but for a dedicated student this is not an impossibility.

Club or dojo? How much does it really matter for the committed student of budo karate?

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Friday, 4 January 2013

Sport kumite – what does it teach you?

Sport kumite is a modern 20th century Japanese addition to the original Okinawan karate. For those that choose to follow a very classical budo Way of karate the sport version represents anathema to them; to others the sport version is karate. After all why learn all those techniques if you have no arena to test them in?

For me personally I tend to swing hot and cold on the validity and worthiness of doing sport kumite. I have no interest in competing and I have philosophical objections to teaching people to ‘fight’ rather than to learn to defend themselves (more on this later). However, sport kumite is a part of our syllabus and I think there are some benefits to be gained from doing it.

There are many versions of kumite in karate so I’ll just define what I mean by sport kumite: I’m talking about minimal contact point sparring with only sparring mitts and mouth guard for protection. The aim is to score points by landing a  punch or kick on one of the target areas i.e. the abdomen, head or between the shoulder blades (kicks only) whilst preventing your opponent from scoring against you. Sweeps are allowed and points can be scored by punching the opponent when on the ground.  My analysis of sport kumite refers only to this type of sparring so if you are use to a more hard core full-contact version then your list of strengths and weaknesses may be different to mine.

The problems with sport kumite:

1.       It can teach a ‘fighting’ mindset rather than a ‘self-defence’ mindset. Fighting requires two people to consent to the ‘fight’. Both are trying to ‘win’ the bout by attacking the other person. Self-defence requires a mindset that wants to avoid fighting and does only what is necessary to avoid, prevent, de-escalate, control or escape a violent situation.

2.       It can cause confusion to the student if both classical and sport kumite are being taught side by side. I found this very confusing when I was in the junior kyu grades.  Until I understood that two different types of karate were being taught I didn’t understand why in one part of the lesson I needed to keep my feet planted firmly on the floor and punch from the hip and then later on I had to be up on my toes moving around and punching quickly without pulling back to the hip first!  I cope with it now by completely compartmentalising these two different versions of karate as if they were two different arts.

3.       It does not provide an arena for testing out skills and techniques (other than sport karate skills and techniques).  It bears no resemblance to how an encounter in real life may pan out, mainly because of the rules designed to maintain the safety of the competitors which means that most of the effective techniques are taken out.

However, though I don’t feel that sport karate bears any resemblance to a real situation and has many negative aspects that doesn’t mean that there is nothing positive and useful to be learnt from it either. I’m always the optimist and generally look for positive things to take away from any aspect of my training.

The benefits of sport karate:

1.       For many people facing an opponent in a sparring bout is the first time they’ve ever been in a ‘fight’ and had to find their courage to defend themselves. Not everyone who does martial arts has a history of getting into street fights or bar brawls as a youth or has worked as a bouncer or in the security sector. Sport kumite is as close as they’ve ever been to a real fight. It can take some people a while to find their courage to spar effectively with an opponent. Finding this courage is essential if you are to have the confidence to defend yourself in a real situation one day.

2.       In sport kumite, despite the relatively safe environment and limited number of techniques in use, the fight is still unpredictable and has a random element to it. This teaches you to be very aware and focused for the whole of the fight. It teaches you to react quickly and anticipate your opponent’s next move. It teaches you to look for opportunities to strike and to recognise telegraphing by your opponent and capitalise on it. You have to keep your mind empty of extraneous distracting thoughts, stay in the moment and control your aggression so that you don’t lose control of the fight.

3.       Sport kumite also teaches you to take a punch. Even in the light weight version of kumite that we do a punch can land a bit harder than intended and wind you or land on your nose which is very painful. A kick can catch you in the ribs. When this happens you have to learn to carry on despite the pain. This comes as a shock to newcomers whose instinct is often to stop once they are hurt or stop if they have hurt their opponent. However, unless the injury is quite serious the referee won’t stop the fight so you have to learn to just carry on. You can’t afford to just stop defending yourself in a real fight when you feel pain – your attacker will just carry on.

In conclusion:

I think that when one is engaged in sport kumite it is important to recognise it for what it is – sport. A real violent encounter in the real world will not resemble a sparring round in the arena and so sport kumite cannot entirely prepare you for this event (neither can any other form of martial sport e.g. boxing, wrestling, MMA etc.). However kumite does teach some skills that are essential to good self-defence – good speed and reaction times, anticipation, focus, defending your head, carrying on after being hit etc. In fact one could question how these skills could be learnt without the random element that kumite provides. 

Never the less, sport kumite is an incomplete package, it leaves out the techniques that are essential to controlling and/or restraining an attacker – slaps, eye rakes, vital point strikes, locks, throws, joint breaks etc. It also focuses your attention on violence and attacking rather than avoidance and escape which would be the self-defence strategies of choice. 

Though sport kumite offers something useful to the martial artist it is important to be mindful of its limitations as well. What do you think about sport kumite in karate?

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