Monday, June 30, 2008

Evasion vs. blocking with evasion

I have often been confronted with the argument from modern or eclectic martial artists that karate or other traditional martial arts are deficient because they use what I call "blocks" [ie. parries or deflections] as their primary means of defence rather than purely evasion (as in boxing).

[In relation to the effectiveness of blocks, note my article "Why blocks DO work".]

As I said recently on the forum, it seems that the above article has at least shifted the debate from "blocks don't work" to the merits of pure evasion over blocking with evasion. The modern martial artists argue that they find pure evasion, more often than not, puts them "exactly where they want to be" in order to attack the opponent, at "exactly the right moment to be there". As one correspondent wrote: "As far as I'm concerned, that's about as good as it gets." I disagree. I think it can get a whole lot better. For some reason they don't seem to think evasion WITH blocking can achieve all that and more. [Once again, remember that I use the term "block" as shorthand for "uke" which means block, parry, deflect etc.]

Necessarily your body has to move further with evasion alone than when your arms are intercepting the attack. When your arm deflects you only need move your body a little.


In a karate deflection your hands intercept the attack as close to its source as possible. Here the distance you have to move the attack (or your body) is small. The further the attack extends towards you, the more you have to either shift yourself or shift the attack. This happens with any angle of deflection: the angle is constant, but the further you travel away from the source, the greater the distance between the two axes.

Most importantly you deflect the attack before it has reached full velocity. Compare this to evasion only where you are evading at the point the punch/kick has almost reached full extension and where it is travelling at its full velocity...

Bear in mind too that your body moves much, much slower than your hands do (your hands have far more neurons and are far more dextrous - otherwise you wouldn't use them to write, draw etc.).

I'm not happy to leave out my frontline defence and rely solely on my rearguard - evasion. Rather, I use them together. This not only reduces the size of your evasive movement but also gives you a safety margin. If you use evasion only and your evasion fails you have nothing left to fall back on.

I believe deflection isn't easy in boxing because of glove dynamics, hence it is not a dominant influence on modern fighting sports which are, to a great extent, a product of the long history of Western boxing and similar arts.

And I think the art of deflection as practised in karate is just about forgotten in the mainstream nowadays because of the same influences and a lack of understanding about how and why deflection works. Yet I believe deflection (with evasion) is more effective for barekunckle fighting (again, see my blog article "Why blocks DO work").

Others will argue that when you parry one hand is "tied up". However I never see boxers hitting with both hands at the same time. Rather one hand is hitting (eg. jab), while the other is loading/preparing/chambering (eg. for a right cross). In other words, at the same time as a boxer is slipping/evading, we would use one arm to deflect, loading/chambering the other as the boxer does (but with less body movement needed so we can defend easier and counter sooner).

In a more sophisticated approach the traditional deflection feeds straight into a counter (see the adjacent picture where the block counter are really part of one flowing/continuous move).

One correspondent countered: "Proper timing/body movement would allow your initial parry to be turned into an offensive jab, with the same follow-up. Two strikes instead of one with no need for parry..." However this is also standard modus operandi in karate - particularly when you're operating at a more experienced level. The blocks or parries are generally strikes as well. In other words, this argues in favour of parrying and against pure evasion...

"But," the argument goes, "evasion has worked far greater than any parry attempts I've ever made..."

Unless you've trained specifically in the art and science of deflection, I am not surprised. It isn't just a question of "attempting" it here or there. It is a specific skill set that isn't taught in most modern martial arts. I've spent my whole martial arts career developing it. You can't just dabble and expect it to work, any more than you can expect to dabble in a bit of grappling or boxing and expect to be good at it.

What most people think of as "blocking" is the ubiquitous undisciplined "slapping away" of limbs one sees in many purported karate dojos. In this context it is easy to see why the modern martial artists have little time for deflection as a concept. This "slapping" is a poor approximation of traditonal deflection, attempted by people who haven't been instructed how to apply traditional basics in sparring. I see this "slap" fighting as a symptom of dilution of knowledge: too many karateka spend half their time imitating boxers and half their time doing air techniques. Not a good combination...

Most importantly evasion (ie. in the sense of "moving back or sideways") is a very basic approach in relation to karate taisabaki (body movement). Usually you're moving into the attack, not "evading". Hence you'll notice that in our sparring we're always in what I call the "melee" range - in close quarters, just half a step out of grappling range and half a step out of full kick range. No matter where you go, a blow can land, but at the same time you don't have to close the gap time and time again to land any of your own blows. The karate approach is very offensive, intended to put you in a prime position and teach how to handle the "melee". As I indicated above, you want to catch the attack as early as possible.

Consider by way of contrast the typical range in which boxing type evasion often occurs: The video below is of some free-style karateka doing kickboxing type sparring. I must say that it is rather good (I don't post examples just to denigrate other martial artists, so as a general rule I'll always try to pick someone who I feel has admirable technique). However it does set up a nice contrast with the type of sparring one finds in our school.

Freestyle sparring

One of the things you'll notice is what I describe as the "panic" reaction as soon as they close the gap to the "melee" range. They both start ducking and weaving quite "desperately" (as generally occurs in most "melees"). This is quite common with martial artists who spend most of their time out of range and close the gap for brief periods of heated confrontation. It contrasts quite clearly with our own sparring below where we spend almost all our time in the "melee" range and learn to become more comfortable there. Ring fighting is, in my view, largely about range fighting with the occasional skirmish or grappling: little time overall is spent in "no man's land". On the other hand, civilian defence arts such as karate concentrate on the "melee":

Muidokan sparring

Many have noted the "upright posture" in our sparring and have taken this to be a weakness. They don't see the large ducking, bobbing and weaving movements (at least, not as often). However from a karate perspective it is inadvisable to upset your posture unnecessarily.


In a ring you have one variable - your opponent. In civilian defence you might simply be unable to duck, weave, dodge etc. You might be shoulder to shoulder in a crowded nightclub, you might be sitting on a barstool, you might be lying on a surfboard waiting for a wave (as happened to one of my students) or standing between 2 parked cars. You don't know whether your attacker has a helper or whether you're going to hit an obstacle that you hadn't paid much attention to as you entered the alleyway etc. where you are being attacked (eg. a low wall). Throwing your head around in self-defence is arguably risky as you unavoidably lose some peripheral perception, particularly with the effect of centrifugal force.

Consider the adjacent snapshot of the freestyle karate fighters caught in the "melee" range - both are weaving in very large movements. For a protracted fight with one person in fixed surroundings this might be okay. But for a "strike and run" scenario, a big weave might just put your head into his (hitherto unseen) mate's knee. If the attack can be thwarted without the weave - eg. by intercepting the blow with your own hands together with a correspondingly smaller body movement - this is regarded as preferable from karate's civilian defence perspective. Maintaining more of your balance and posture are given primary importance in the "hit fast and get away as soon as you can" philosophy that distinguishes self-defence from sport. Learning to dominate no-man's land - the "melee" - is crucial to this, where sports-oriented disciplines are about lengthy tactics aimed at scoring a "win".

In other words karate is more conservative about upsetting your vertical posture (and risking being caught off-balance if your evasion is thwarted or interrupted) because it is geared at short self-defence encounters, not protracted one-on-one duels. It is about conservative movement, not about scoring a knockout. It is about defending, not winning. Sports have a different objective. In self-defence you "win" even if you don't land a blow - provided you are unharmed. Of course you might have to harm someone - badly if need be. I'm not advocating "deflecting with no striking". But the fundamental motivation is still not to "beat" your opponent, but not to be beaten. This has a subtle, but significant flow-on effect to your combat.

Then there are the inevitable arguments about "getting around your guard", etc. In other words, "isn't your reliance on your limbs for deflection dangerous". Yes it has its pitfalls. But I think you'll agree that despite our "upright posture" and lack of "head/body moving" our approach seems to protect the head fairly effectively nonetheless.

We don't train for protracted "Octagon" type fighting. For self-defence one needs to specialise in the "melee" range in order to deal with an emergency and not be dominated. Using your limbs more to catch the attack early (which is not really possible in gloved sports), and keeping your posture and peripheral vision in case of obstacles and multiple opponents (not an issue in ring fights) are a karateka's priorities. As with other traditional close quarter fighting schools, we train specifically for this "melee" range, not only in our sparring but with our embu (see below) and various "melee-type" drills (including the Filipino drill "De cadena" - also below).

De cadena - a good drill for the melee

In any event, karate does use movements like weaving and dodging - particularly when one or both hands are incapacitated but sometimes just because it is the best defence against a particular technique. Consider our seiyunchin kata embu which features only traditional techniques and note -

(a) how it keeps the fight in the "melee" range for training purposes; and
(b) uses a weave, among other defensive methods.

I happen to think that it looks much more like real self-defence fighting than any kickboxing type duel.

The seiyunchin embu, complete with traditional karate "weaving" and a constant "melee range"

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Why blocks DO work


Karate employs many techniques categorised as "uke" derived from the Japanese verb "ukeru" meaning literally "to receive". It is fashionable in some circles to deride traditional blocks as "unworkable" or "ineffective". The principal arguments in support of this proposition are that -

(1) there is little value in just "stopping" an attack - rather you should use other means to set up an effective counter; and

(2) in any event, the movements constituting traditional blocks are "too large" for practical use.

In many people's minds these criticisms are seen as unassailable. That blocks "don't work" is regarded as a fundamental truth, a basic assumption, unquestionable "fact".

Yet I am firmly of the view that the criticisms underlying this assumption are completely misconceived - it's just that no one has ever comprehensively dealt with them. I propose to do so now:

The 2 "answers" to traditional blocks

The wide acceptance that "blocks don't work" has fuelled 2 very different "answers" to traditional blocks.

The contact sports alternative to blocking

From the 70s onwards many contact sports schools have substituted boxing evasive movements such as dodging/weaving/bobbing (it was Joe Lewis who is famously quoted as saying "karate techniques from the waist up are a fraud" - he was talking principally about punches, but I've dealt with that to some extent in my article Visible force vs. applied force and I hope to deal specifically with the physics and mechanics of punching in the near future).

In the contact sports, if hands are used protectively they are held close to the face as a shield. This was initially advocated with closed fists (a la boxing - see figure 1) until the advent of ungloved fighting in the early 90s (Ultimate Fighting and MMA) when I suspect the reality of having your own fist shoved into your face was revealed as scarcely better than just taking the punch full on (again, more about the boxing vs. karate "guard" another time). Nowadays it is standard practice to hold the palms up against the sides of your head/face instead of your fists (see figure 2).

Figure 1: The boxing shield defence

Figure 2: The MMA shield defence

Revisionist "explanations" of blocking

The second "answer" to traditional blocking comes, ironically, from within traditional circles. It constitutes an entire school of thought that "there are no blocks in karate", but rather they are a hidden "code" for certain counters, be they strikes (usually to vital points (known as "kyusho" or "dim mak") or grappling moves or both.

The 2 "answers" to traditional blocks

The actual techniques described as "uke" in karate cover a wide range of defensive interceptions of attacks using your hands, forearms, thighs, shins and feet. The term "block" is actually a misnomer because traditional blocks don't simply "stop" an attack. Rather they act as checks, parries, deflections, set-ups or any number of other moves that both -

(1) neutralise an attack; and
(2) set you up to counter effectively.

Clearly the argument that "there is little value in just stopping an attack" is a purely semantic one. It is the proverbial straw man, set up only so that it can easily be knocked down. I don't propose to waste any more time on this "argument".

I will continue to use the term "block" in this article to cover "uke" partly for the reasons stated above, partly out of habit and partly because there is no one term that readily comes to mind that would encompass the concept of "uke" ("deflection" comes closer I suppose, but never mind).

The second criticism is misconceived

Now for that old chestnut - "traditional blocks use movements that are too large to be applied against real attacks".

I had a young boxer come up to me once and say this, so I invited him to throw his fastest jab. Of course, with my own guard up, I was able to deflect it easily, using a hiki uke (see the series of pictures comprising figure 4 and the video below).

Figure 3: the hiki uke

For future reference, by "hiki uke" I'm talking about the circular open-handed goju block known by some as "kake uke" - see the series of pictures comprising figure 3.

Simple physics should tell you that blocks can beat jabs. If you have your arms up in a guard your arm will only have to move about 10cm to deflect a jab. The guy throwing the jab has to move half a metre. Even taking into account your reaction time you have the advantage (provided your handspeed is similar).

A video showing hiki uke applied against realistic attacks

Figure 4: hiki uke against a jab

However my demonstration was far from persuasive. The boxer's reply was "well that isn't the same as the block you showed me before, so I've just made my point...".

Presumably he was objecting to the fact that I had "cheated" by using only a small part of the hiki uke to deflect his attack - not the full basic. He walked away, triumphant and all I could do was shake my head.

"It's all about the basics, stupid"

When people say that "blocks don't work" they are usually referring to basic techniques that were never intended to be applied literally. They are formal movements designed to groove movement along a certain plane/angle optimum to effect deflections or interceptions.

Accordingly blocks are a training method: a magnification of much smaller, subtler techniques. By magnifying a movement you can better learn about, understand and appreciate its function. Then you apply it - usually in a greatly abbreviated, or partial form.

How did that boxer suppose I developed my ability to deflect his jab - by practising funny little jabbing motions approximating my actual defence? No - the basic hiki uke has, for many years now, served me very well as a practical training tool. Thanks to the basic hiki uke I'm left with a skill which is all but absent in those who do not practice this technique. As an instructor I have tried to shortcut this method by cutting straight to 2 person application, with disastrous results. In my experience you need to learn the basic first before you apply it.

In this respect I return to one of my favourite analogies: saying blocks don't work "because no one does it like that in the street" is about as meaningful as criticising speedball training "because no one punches like that in the street". It's just another straw man.

Practising a complex movement so that you can use a part of it

However, note that I emphasised the word partial above. I did this because this feeds directly into another point concerning the young boxer. I had used only the top part of the "hiki uke" circle in my deflection. For another attack I might have used the first part of the movement, for another the "supporting" or "secondary" hand.

Two blocks for the price of one...

For the purposes of the latter, you should be aware that every basic block contains 2 movements - the primary block (a larger movement) and a secondary block (a smaller movement) in the "pullback" arm (what some people call the "crossing hand"). I am astounded as to how few karateka today are actually aware of this fact. The 2 blocks are intended to be used in concert (in transferring, trapping etc.). Alternatively the secondary block can be seen as a kind of backup if the primary one fails. Furthermore, what I have termed the "secondary" block could actually be used as the principal deflection - while the primary "block" is used offensively etc.

This article has focused on the use of the primary block only, and deliberately so: My focus here is to deal with the issue of the general principle of deflection. I have dealt with the issue of primary and secondary blocks and their use/relationship in a separate, detailed article (see Two for the price of one: more about karate "blocks"). For the time being, some of this principle is demonstrated in the general video about goju-ryu blocking below at about 1:43 to 2:09.

A video demonstrating the "primary" and "secondary" parts to goju-ryu blocks

Basic blocks are actually a collection of separate techniques

In other words, the basic block isn't "just" a tool for grooving angles of deflection. It is a "complex" movement or, put another way, a collection of related movements any part of which is capable of being applied.

The basic and applied versions become one and the same

A senior practitioner gets the same feeling executing a small movement as a beginner might executing the basic, "large" movement. Hence the senior practitioner may regard the small movement applied in combat and large movements used in the traditional block as one and the same - part of the same continuum, if you like. It is for this reason that I didn't come up with an immediate reply to the boxer: the continuum was, to me, self-evident. It was so self-evident that I hadn't consciously thought about it enough to put it into words.

Blocks are your first line of defence

My central point about blocks is: why wouldn't you use them?

It is abundantly clear to me that one's arms (and legs) are one's first line of defence - they can intercept, deflect, check parry etc., especially when they are used with evasion (see Evasion vs. blocking with evasion). They can intercept the attack before it reaches full speed. They can set you up for a striking counter or a grappling manoeuvre.

Why in Heaven's name would you abandon your first line of defence? Why would you rely solely on evasion when you can use blocks and evasion simultaneously? Why would you allow your opponent's attacks to reach full speed before trying to evade them? In what sense is it better to become a moving target rather than an intercepting missile? And in this case why can't you be both?

I remember as a child playing goal keeper in soccer and valiantly trying to dive for the ball along the goal line when facing an oncoming striker (who had passed all our defenders). The coach came up and rightly told me off: I had waited until the striker came right up to me at the goal posts whereas I should have gone out to meet him...

Relying on the "shield"

The current "preferred defence" in contact competition is the "shield" I referred to earlier (as used in MMA - see figure 2). You hold your hands on head and let them be punched rather than your face. I'm not going to disagree with this technique. It has its place. Sometimes you just can't intercept a blow, so you have to wear it the best you can. But this technique is no substitute for proper blocks.

So why don't more martial artists apply blocks in fighting/sparring?

In my view the reasons for the demise of blocking in modern martial arts are manifold:

You can't block with boxing gloves...

Modern sports history plays a big role. In gloved sports it is simply not possible to block: the gloves radically alter the nature of your options in both attack and defence. Traditional blocks are designed to be used in bare-knuckle fighting. When you put 2 big pillows on the end of each fist it can cramp your "blocking style", to say the least.

Those who have moved to ungloved fighting (eg. MMA) have predominantly done so from 2 disciplines that do not practice blocks in their traditional guise: boxing/kickboxing on one hand, and ground fighting or grappling on the other. Despite their roots in traditional forms, kickboxers (a la the greats: Benny "The Jet" Urquidez, Bill Wallace and Joe Lewis) abandoned them at the first instance because they had no role in gloved contests. BJJ practitioners might use checks/deflections of a kind in their vale tudo, but these are rudimentary and incidental to their primary technqiues: they rightly focus on their strengths, which are grappling techniques.

Traditional martial artists "going along for the ride"

But you'll no doubt comment that many traditional martial "stand-up" artists have "gone along for the ride" in dropping blocks from their curriculum. If they do practise them, they regard them with a curious, quaint affection - like the Model T Ford you might have parked in your garage next to your Mazda MX5.

For these martial artists it is getting increasingly harder to justify retaining traditional blocks. They might bring them out at the start of the class for "air practice", only to put them in the garage once the "real" action starts (ie. the sparring). They certainly don't think of their blocks as an essential, or even useful, addition to their armoury. The "running costs" are disproportionate to their "sentimental" value.

As a result it's sad to say, but most kung-fu, karate and taekwondo I see in competition looks like a generic form of "faux boxing". Different stand-up traditional martial arts (never mind different styles of the same art) become indistinguishable once they square off on the competition mat/ring. I was first struck by this more than 20 years ago when my instructor and I were watching an "all styles" contest and he lamented that one should be able, at a glance, to distinguish a kung-fu, karate or taekwondo practitioner in a contest. This is however rarely the case - right down to the "Ali" style skipping which arguably has no place in traditional Asian martial arts disciplines (more about "skipping" another time).

[As an aside, one of the few exceptions to the "faux boxing" model would be Mas Oyama's kyokushinkai karate competitions, where a distinctive style of kumite has developed independently of Western boxing. However the particular rules employed in those contests (specifically not punching to the face) also do not favour/necessitate the use of blocking.]

So what has led so many traditional martial artists to pay no more than lip service to blocks?

First, there is a lot of propaganda out there, and it can be very persuasive when put in the context of examples of very impressive boxing and grappling skills.

Historically there is also a lot of glamour associated with Western boxing: people want to "float like a butterfly and sting like a bee" just as Ali did. They want to emulate Bruce Lee's eclectic, boxing-influenced fluidity. Traditional martial arts might have been respected (at least at some point), but not being sport-focussed they offered few role models for the mat/ring which is "where the action is".

At the same time, the benefits of traditional blocking practice are not readily apparent as they require years to realise. Misunderstanding the role of basics is not difficult in this context.

However there is another, more upsetting, factor that I believe has contributed to the "bad press" suffered by blocks:

Dilution in understanding

It is my view that the rapid spread of arts such as karate throughout the world has also resulted in a great deal of dilution in understanding of traditional techniques. Some of this dilution might have occurred even earlier (eg. in the case of karate, in its transmission from China to Okinawa - see my article Karate and the Chinese arts: Part 1 and Part 2).

Put simply, many martial artists today don't use blocks in sparring/fighting because they haven't acquired the necessary skill obtained by practising them either sufficiently or correctly. In respect of the latter it is crucial to note that traditional blocks won't work if some part of the movement is incorrect or missing. Often I see the macro movement of traditional blocks is there, but the detail has long vanished or been misunderstood/reinterpreted.

Consider the following examples:

Figure 5: How not to do a chudan uke

The series of pictures comprising figure 5 shows a typical "chudan uke" from karate as performed (incorrectly in my view) by many modern karate and taekwondo practitioners.

This version relies on the assumption that the block must move sideways and then come back in. It relies on forcefully "smashing" your opponent's attack out of the way. The forearm is fixed (ie. it doesn't rotate) and the sideways "smash" is completely linear, catching the attack with the thin (weak) edge of your forearm.

The absurdity of this approach was made clear to my by one of my first students who asked how one could possibly block a punch with such a technique, the first half of which required you to move away from the attack, simultaneously creating a massive opening.

The answer was, of course, very simple (although I couldn't articulate it immediately as a young teacher - I realised when I got home, but the beginner never came back for a second lesson...).

You should never "move away" from the attack. You should go out to meet it - just like that goalie who, caught on his own, is confronted by an advancing striker...

Consider the following 2 (equally valid) alternatives to the ham-fisted approach in the series of pictures comprising figure 5:

Figure 6: the goju chudan uke

The series of pictures comprising figure 6 shows the goju-ryu chudan uke (as found in, say, the kata gekisai dai ichi). It is performed by executing a deflection at 45º to intercept the attack before it has reached its full speed, redirecting it to the side with a continuous circular action. The block manages to intercept the attack almost from beneath so that the flat (strong) edge of your forearm is the first to contact with the punch.

Figure 7: the shorin chudan uke

The series of pictures comprising figure 7 shows the shorin-ryu chudan uke (as found, say, in naihanchi shodan). This block also relies on a circle to deflect the attack, however the circle being utilised is not inscribed by the forearm moving at 45º to the body: rather the circular action creating the deflection is in the twisting forearm. Once again the flat edge of your forearm is the first to contact your opponent's attack.

This block is particularly useful when the forearm is already to the opposite side of the body (possibly from some other technique). You certainly wouldn't deliberately throw your arm out to the side (thereby creating an opening for your opponent) just to create some momentum for your block. Again, you might go out to meet the attack, in which case the technique is known as mae ude hineri uke - as found after the punch in the opening 3 moves of sanchin/sanseru/seisan/suparinpei.

A video showing the application of chudan uke

In both cases the block does not rely on brute force. There is also very little impact - contrary to the "smashing" (meeting force with force) approach taken in the misguided figure 5 "technique". Rather the circle causes the attack to "slide" past and puts you in an advantageous position.

Of course the 2 types of basic chudan uke can be combined: you can use a 45º angle circle together with a twisting forearm circle to generate an even more efficient deflection. This is seen in many of the kata - eg. seipai.

Most arguments against traditional blocks generally centre on the age uke - the rising block. It is important to note that this block is arguably one of the most basic, but even it is profoundly misunderstood. In the near future I propose to deal specifically with age uke against realistic attacks. In the interim I'll confine myself to countering at least one argument that a Western taiji "master" raised at a seminar I attended in 1989: his argument was that age uke was profoundly misconceived because it relied on blocking with the small bones of the forearm - not the flat edge. In this regard he was completely wrong, as I've explained in the video below:

An analysis of the basic age uke or "rising block"

Dealing with the revisionists

I agree that many "blocks" in kata have other meanings/uses/applications. However I think this interpretation has been highly overstated in recent years (as part and parcel of the greater drive towards finding "hidden" or "secret" bunkai - a whole "industry" seems to thrive on this stuff). Most blocks are, in my view intended primarily to assist avoiding being hit (while creating a set-up).

To paraphrase Freud, "sometimes a block is just a block".


What misleads some people is the fact that basic blocks (including those in some kata like gekisai) appear to be "large" or "impractical" movements. However this thought process involves a fundamental misunderstanding: basic blocks are training tools that contain the complete plane of deflection for a particular angle. When you apply the block you might only effect part of the basic movement. Basic blocks should not be applied literally.

I doubt I could execute a full classical hiki uke against a jab, or probably any basic block against a realistic attack. However basic blocks are necessary tools to gaining the ability to execute smaller deflections with the same internal "feel".

People often look to the destination (ie. how an expert does something) and not the journey (how he/she got there). Understanding relativity in training methods is at the heart of mastering any art form.

Remember that at its most basic level a block is just an interception of a blow using your hand, forearm, upper arm, foot, shin or thigh. A punch screaming towards your head might well be intercepted by your hand more efficiently than bobbing your head out of the way, particularly if your hand is already in a "guard" position and only has to move 10cm or so to effect a wedge or other deflection. Generally blocks are also backed up by "taisabaki/tenshin" or body evasion so that you do not rely on blocks alone (see my articles Taisabaki and tenshin - evasion in karate: Part 1 and Part 2 and Evasion vs. blocking with evasion).

In our school we most definitely use blocks as part of our arsenal - and, I believe, very effectively too.

Muidokan randori: an example of blocks applied in sparring

Our sparring does not look like boxing as we are not boxers (again see my article Randori – the function of “soft sparring” in martial arts training). Once you start to apply the karate techniques you practice (rather than be a second rate boxer who never practices boxing techniques) you might just find out how effective blocking can be...

And yes, in some circumstances blocks in kata may represent more than just the block: they might disguise locks or holds or represent pressure techniques etc. But to say that kata do not have blocks at all is, in my view, an unnecessary revision of traditional forms that unquestioningly accepts the myth that "blocks don't work". In my experience it is self-evident that they do!

The blocks/deflections demonstrated here are also very basic: I will deal with more advanced deflections at a later time. Suffice it to say that advanced deflections are also simultaneous attacks.

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Asymmetry in sanseiru


Readers of my blog will be familiar with my previous discussion concerning what have become known as cluster “H” and cluster “M” goju-ryu kata (see my article The origins of goju-ryu kata: Part 1).

Cluster “H” consists of Higaonna Kanryo sanchin, sanseiru, seisan and suparinpei.

Cluster “M” consists of the remainder.

Katas in both clusters follow a general design pattern as follows:

A — an opening sequence
B — the body of the kata, often capable of being broken up into smaller groupings, eg. B1, B2, B3 etc.
C — a closing sequence.

What differentiates the clusters in design terms is the portion I have labelled “B”:

In cluster “H” this portion is largely asymmetrical (ie. right side biased). In cluster “M” this portion — and more specifically each sub-portion (eg. B1, B2, B3 etc.) is symmetrical (i.e. techniques — including turns — are performed more or less equally on both right and left sides).

The particular asymmetry of sanseiru

In no kata is the asymmetry of cluster “H” so noticeable as in sanseiru, which features a series of 4 mae geri (front kick) and 3 yoko geri kansetsu done off the right leg, one after the other, turning anti-clockwise. The asymmetry was so palpable that I remember my teacher telling me a legend that the kata was designed by a man with a wooden leg (forced to kick with one leg only). While it is a charming legend, I haven’t heard it substantiated anywhere.

I define portion “B1” in sanseiru as beginning with the first right leg mae geri (front kick) and elbow strike/block and punch (ie. after portion “A” consisting of the opening 3 steps, breakout, leg catch and left leg mae geri). I define portion “B1” as ending with the last mae geri and elbow strike/block and punch.

I define portion “B2” as that featuring the shiko moves with the low “X” blocks (performed on the right side only).

I define portion “B3” as the sokumen awase uke ending with the double simultaneous punch. In sanseiru this portion is symmetrical.

Portion “C” of sanseiru is the 270º spin and double ko uke/uchi (back of wrist blocks/strikes).

To summarise, sanseiru kata’s design follows this structure:

A (opening sequence)

B1 (right side):

B2 (right side)

B3 (right and left sides)

C (closing move).

An “extended” symmetrical version of sanseiru

Since 1989 I have tinkered with designing a “symmetrical” version of sanseiru — at least one that was symmetrical in the “B” portion of the kata. My initial attempts were aimed squarely at the fact that sanseiru reaches a point at the end of the right side of portion “B3” where you can start portion “B” again but this time on the left side. Done this way the kata can be made symmetrical by performing portion “B” entirely on the left and then entirely on the right in this fashion:

A (opening sequence)
B1 (right side)
B2 (right side)
B3 (right side)
B1 (left side)
B2 (left side)
B3 (left side)
C (closing move).

Consider the video below:

An extended version of sanseiru

You will note that in the standard kata, after the first double simultaneous punch the performer will turn around 180º and do 2 chudan uke (chest blocks). This is the usual methodology in goju kata for changing “sides” (consider the kata shisochin after the front kick and turn, or gekisai dai ichi and ni after the first foot stamp).

In fact, after you do the turn and the 2 chest blocks I used to feel the need to do a mae geri or kick on my left leg — almost instinctively. I remember discussing this issue with my friend Martin Watts who practises Yong Chun baihe (white crane). He said his forms had a similar asymmetry. He had written to his teachers asking for permission to simply repeat portion “B” on the left side and they had told him that this was quite an acceptable means of practise. I think it is arguable that this was possibly even the intention of the designer.

What if sanseiru were designed along cluster “M” principles?

It occurred to me that cluster “M” kata don’t follow the “balancing” methodology I have adopted in the above “extended” version of sanseiru. In particular portions B1-B3 are not performed in their entirety on the right only to be repeated on the left. Rather an examination of the cluster “M” kata reveals that each B sub-portion is repeated right and left before the next sub-portion is commenced..

Now it seemed to me that the distinction between sub-portions “B2” and “B3” was largely artificial: they were too intimately connected to be divided, so with this in mind I thought that the standard methodology for cluster “M” would result in sanseiru having the following structure:

A (opening sequence)
B1 (right side)
B1 (left side)
B2, B3 (right side)
B2, B3 (left side)
C (closing move).

This is demonstrated in the video below:

Sanseiru as a cluster M kata


It appears to me that sanseiru is a kata that is so asymmetrical that it is crying out for “balancing”. While I quite like the elegance of the cluster “M” variation, my brother and I have decided to use the “extended version” in daily practice. Why? It is identical to the standard kata — with some moves repeated right at the end. Some might feel that the kata is a tad too long, however it remains quite short as far as Chinese forms go and is still well short of a form like suparinpei.

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Visible force vs. applied force

A correspondent recently wrote to me asking about our martial art. He made the comment that “It seems great but a bit lacking in power.”

I told him that if by that he meant visible force — yes, he was right. However “visible force” and “applied force” are 2 different things. Some techniques don't look "powerful" because they have a lot less "push". [For a detailed explanation of "force", "power" and the role these play in "hitting hard" rather than "pushing" see my article "Hitting harder: physics made easy".]

The front kick is a case in point. If you do it against a heavy bag you'll be tempted to hit it with more push so as to "feel powerful". On the other hand, when you kick a kickshield you can give it a resounding "crack" that your partner feels right through the shield but which doesn't move him or her more than a foot or 2. As a rule, we don't let students kick or punch the heavy bag until they have mastered the kickshield and makiwara (phone books work well) so as to develop the correct type of focus for bare-knuckle fighting. Compare the “pushing” kick to the “shock” kick in the following video:

It is a simple matter of physics that the more "push" there is to a technique (ie. the more you displace your opponent), the less you've injured him or her. Compare a hard shove that throws your opponent across the room with a sharp snapping kick to the groin and you'll see what I mean. See the following video which illustrates the targets for kicks in traditional karate using these “shock kicks” and consider whether you would be happy to take those blows...

The frames to the right illustrate the effect of the “shock kick” — note the “shaking” of the opponent, but the minimal displacement.

Most karateka have, in my view, rejected the old snapping kicks and punches of old karate which produce what is called a "hydrostatic shock" (you're 80% water). Instead they have gone for methods that are more akin to boxing. The latter is easier to understand, looks visually more impressive, and is easier to learn, so it's no surprise.

As an example, consider the frames to the left which illustrate the effect of the “push” kick on your opponent. Note the large displacement of your opponent, which is the kicker’s energy being converted to kinetic energy rather than a more destructive energy.

Boxers tend to use a more "pushing blow" mostly because of the padded glove. This makes it necessary to impart more "kinetic energy" in order to achieve the same destructive energy transfer. It's like comparing a hit from a heavy pillow to the flick from a wet towel.

From what I see of kicks in kickboxing, Muay Thai and MMA, they suffer from too much heavy bag training at the expense of shield training. The heavy bag is nothing like the human body. It has its uses (important ones), but not to develop the type of "focus" (kime) I'm talking about.

I haven't seen many people do a decent front kick in MMA — Lyoto Machida is one of the few. It's a hard technique to learn but very effective and totally under-used (see the picture to the left of Machida doing a front kick to Rich "Ace" Franklin).

On the forum Victor Smith recently noted:

"I was recently reading several interviews with senior Okinawan Shorin-ryu instructors, Iha Seikichi and Miyahira Katsuya, and in the course of those discussions they both made the same point about kicking.

“In the “old days,” the kick was never extended past the extended punch. You always kicked within the extended fist. It is too difficult to do nowadays and students just ignore this concept. Nowadays, the students often seek the easier way and extend their kicks way past their fist. This is the sport kick, but it is okay for those who do not really understand kicking.”

“Remember that in kicking, the foot itself must be tight with the leg loose. You then hinge the kick out. The kick must be chambered, then kick and then re-chambered before the foot is set down…

Miyahira Katsuya stated, “The Shorin-ryu stydent must work on retracting their kicks quickly. They must also practice kicking within an arm’s reach. This is highly important in doing good Shorin-ryu kicks. The kick does not extend out but within the length of one’s arm.”

IMO, this fully describes how Shimabuku Sensei was kicking in our video reference of his technique.

Kicking at the range of direct engagement, striking distance. Fully raising the leg and then kicking out and retracting the kick, at a very close distance."

[To see the full thread, go to the forum: here.]

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic

Reversing kata movements in application

There are one or 2 moves in goju kata where I “reverse” the direction of stepping/movement while performing bunkai (applications). I’ve often wondered whether —

(1) the kata were deliberately designed that way “as a code” (something I think is a bit overstated nowadays); or
(2) the kata were deliberately designed that way for an application I haven’t seen; or
(3) the kata were deliberately designed that way for training or symbolic purposes (eg. stepping forward on the last move in gekisai dai ichi — said to reflect the “boldness” of the kata), not for any particular bunkai; or
(4) the kata have been wrongly passed down in respect of a particular move.

Consider the following move from sanseru kata at about 7:38 in the following video of Higaonna Morio sensei.

In most kaiha it is performed as a leg catch with a step back — see the following video at about 0:48: (note however that I would personally prefer a leg catch on the other side, but the move is the same in principle).

Over the years I have found leg catch matched with a backward step is consistent with application in a dynamic context: I regularly catch my opponent’s leg in sparring. I’ve even noticed that it happens in MMA bouts etc.

However the problem with this application is that the kata is performed with a step forward at the point of the “sukui uke” or scooping block which is used to catch the leg. It is my considered opinion that it is practically impossible to catch a kick as it is moving toward you and you toward it. You’re likely to jam and break your fingers since the leg is still accelerating.

However if you step back and let the kick reach its full extension, the outward speed will be exhausted. Since snap-backs are often neglected (especially by beginners), the kick’s backward velocity, if any, is often such as to permit a catch. The logical point of a leg catch therefore seems to me to be at or near the conclusion of the outward part of the kick. To do this you need to evade the kick, meaning a backwards step of some kind — not a forwards interception. Besides, the leg catch with a step back is a common technique in the Chinese martial arts from which karate descended: consider this picture (to the left) of a technique that can be applied as a leg catch.

Tou’on ryu and some goju-ryu kaiha such as Meibukan and Goju-kai make sense of the leg catch by going right down to the ground and scooping at the ankle. While this makes sense of the step forward, I’ve always felt that any “diving attack” must be a secondary application of a kata move. It is not often I have been tempted to dive for my opponent’s feet: I feel it is a risky proposition at best. Instead, I would have thought that the primary application of the “sukui uke” or scooping block is as a leg catch.

The Goju-kai sanseru

So how can one reconcile the forward step with the needs of the “leg catch” application? Is it code? Is there another application? Is it just symbolic? Or is it just plain wrong? I’m going to discount the second and third options: there appear to be only 2 principal applications (any others would be variations) and the footwork is consist with at least one of them (albeit not my favoured application). So is it a code or is it “wrong”?

As you will see in the video embedded below, my best guess at this point is that the kata move is most likely a design compromise caused by the fact that the kata designer always intended to include both a step back and leg catch application and a step forward diving attack to your opponent’s ankle. Unfortunately the kata can’t do both at the same time, so the designer had to adopt a certain methodology to encapsulate or “permit” both applications within the movements of the kata. I feel this methodology is quite evident once you examine the kata movements closely. Loosely speaking, the methodology might be described as a “code” — although not a code in any secretive or cryptic sense. Rather it is “code” in the sense of a design (and hence interpretive) methodology, borne out of necessity. As I will note below, I don’t know whether a conscious awareness of the “code” is at all necessary for the kata to function as both an effective method of inculcating (“grooving”) certain body movements and as an “encyclopaedia” of techniques.

You will note that the scooping technique is immediately preceded by a breakout from a wrist grab — performed with a step back. However it seems to me that the step back is arguably unnecessary for the purposes of the breakout. The breakout, when done correctly, doesn’t require a great deal of strength or body movement, and accordingly the step back speaks of a certain amount of “overkill”. Could the step back have originally been done at the point of the leg scoop rather than the breakout? In other words, is it possible that the breakout was originally done first, followed by a step back with a leg scoop, followed by a forward step as part of an attack (the kicks etc. that follow)?

Clearly you could do the kata this way. It would make perfect sense of the leg catch. But if you did so, you would be robbed of the option of stepping forward with the diving attack. As much as I don’t favour the latter application, I have to acknowledge that it has its place in combat. I’ve seen grapplers applying diving attacks very effectively against “stand-up” fighters. It also flies in the face of goju-ryu tradition: no kaiha performs the kata this way. Neither does goju’s sister school tou’on ryu (which, as I have said, emphasise the diving attack to your opponent’s ankle).

With this in mind I have come to the conclusion that the kata designer chose a compromise: step back with the breakout (which might be necessary with a strong attacker) but step forward with the catch. Either way, your body is still grooving roughly the same sort of tenshin or taisabaki. Once you realise the applications you appreciate that whether you step back or forward at the exact point of the leg scoop doesn’t make a great deal of difference to the mapping of the neural pathways that enable you to apply the technique. The fact the practitioners gravitate to a step back during the leg catch, and do so unconsciously despite grooving the kata, speaks volumes of the genius of the designer. Yet the diving attack option remains.

I think that as compromises go, it isn’t a bad one...

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Kata as a conditioning tool

Many have written about the benefits and function of forms (Japanese – “kata”, Chinese – “xing”) as a means of grooving or drilling fighting combinations and, more relevantly, teaching principles of martial movement that can be carried through to combat in a more general sense. I have, in the past, also noted the importance of kata as a means of “packaging” martial knowledge – techniques, footwork, principles, etc. I can see that in the pre-written era kata would have been the primary means of preserving and transmitting such knowledge and, to some extent, this purpose is largely unchanged: kata can and should function effectively as an “encyclopaedia”.

However recently I participated in a forum discussion where the question was raised whether kata could be at all useful in modern sports combat, eg. MMA (Mixed Martial “Arts”). Inevitably strong opinions were expressed that it could not. The common view among those who train in MMA and UFC (Ultimate Fighting Competition) type disciplines is that kata is largely purposeless – an anachronism that has been superseded by more modern and effective methods of developing combat skills. This is due, in large part I think, to the lack of success that traditional martial artists had in the original UFC bouts in the early 90s and the reluctance of many to try traditional techniques and training methods in this sporting context ever since.

While I disagree with the view that traditional martial arts techniques wouldn’t work in the MMA arena (I can see many techniques that could be improved by using more traditional approaches, the front kick being one) I sought to advance the view that regardless of its technical application, kata was an excellent conditioning tool if nothing else.

I gave the example that performing full-power, end-on-end repetitions of a difficult kata such as seiyunchin was the closest I had come in solo training to the fatigue felt in sparring (I think the fatigue of real combat or MMA is much harder to replicate in any sense because you need adrenalin, fear etc., so I'm not going there nor have I ever sought to).

Nenad performing seiyunchin kata

Now why do I feel that kata is better than other solo training methods such as shadow boxing? The formality, the low stances, tension, explosive movements, the pre-arranged format (so that, unlike shadow boxing, you don't "run out of ideas" or start doing easier moves subconsciously when you get fatigued) are all factors that apply.

I have a lot of time for shadow boxing. In my view, kata is like shadow boxing, but with resistance added in the form of a compulsory "roadmap" of formality and precision (which is hard to maintain when you get tired), low stances, transition from stance to stance and difficult turns (all conditioning the tendons and ligaments as well as the muscles).

The added stress of this formality has the function of rapidly taking you above your VO2 maximum – in much the same way as “shuttle runs” do in rugby training. I have deliberately referred to seiyunchin kata because it has a high percentage of “extra load”: there are more shiko dachi (horse stances), more deep lunges, sustained fast exchanges and explosive movements.

I gave the example that at the peak of my fitness (in around 1997) I once did 40 full-power seiyunchin in a row and felt like it almost killed me. Inevitably this was misinterpreted as proof that kata was inappropriate for MMA fighting where rounds are short, sustained and rapidly take you into anaerobic respiration. However the point I was making was that, at the relevant time, I was exceptionally fit in an anaerobic sense. I couldn’t do more than a handful now before flagging in power or speed. It is also worth noting that I was able to perform shuttle runs very well at that time despite never having trained in them before – in other words kata and other traditional training methods had developed my anaerobic fitness exceptionally.

In conditioning terms, which kata you perform is important. As an example, in around 1989 I performed over 300 fukyugata ichi in a row (our version is similar to heian shodan) and I did not feel the same level of anaerobic fatigue. In other words, this was more an aerobic activity than an anaerobic one. Lately I have found that some of the "bridging" forms of Hong Yi Xiang - in particular a form called "Da Peng Zhan Chi" - are even more useful for conditioning.

A question was raised as to whether I felt kata was better than bag work. My answer is that kata provides different conditioning. I wouldn't replace bag work with kata. Bag work alone however has its limitations - if it didn't boxers wouldn't do skipping, shadow boxing, speedball, floor to ceiling ball, etc.

Accordingly I believe kata has a role as a solo conditioning tool. Partner work might provide a better means of conditioning, but not everyone has the luxury of a training partner at just the right times. Conditioning tools must also be as muscle-specific as possible, so kata (with its martial movements, albeit formal ones) has advantages over skipping, running or other callisthenics that are not martial-related in any sense.

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Muidokan embu: 2-person forms for karate


The concept of 2-person forms as an adjunct to training is not new: in China many schools develop such forms as an additional means of practising their techniques in a contextual environment and packaging their knowledge . In China these types of forms or drills are known as " dui da quan". This tradition is, by contrast, not well established in karate. In order to find 2-person forms in Japan you have to delve further afield into arts such as Doshin So’s Shoriji Kempo or to the Japanese weapons arts such as Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu (both of which use 2-person forms as their primary practice method).

[Note that Shorinji Kempo call their more sophisticated 2-person forms “embu” (meaning “demonstration”) and, for want of a better word, I have appropriated this word to describe 2-person forms generally.]

Ippon kumite vs. embu practice

The deficiencies in the standard method of practising kata bunkai (or any other specific technique(s)) in karate has been noted by such eminent researchers as Patrick McCarthy. In his article: "Sometimes you don't know how to fit in until you break out" Hanshi McCarthy writes:1

“During the years I studied swordsmanship [Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu], at the Sugino honbu dojo in Kawasaki [Japan], I gained a huge respect for how the style accomplished its combative outcomes through using highly functional two-person training drills. While delving into its origins I became deeply impressed with the way classical attack scenarios had been first identified and studied before being ultimately catalogued into individual and collective learning modules each with prescribed responses and variations on common themes. Never having been terribly satisfied with the incongruous ippon-kumite practices of karate and unable to understand the defensive “effectiveness” of kata [as traditionally taught against modern reverse punch scenarios] or how its abstract mnemonic mechanisms were methodically linked back to actual real-life fight circumstances, I always felt that something was missing in traditional karate and from this blinding flash of the obvious [BFO] I finally realized what it was.”

Hanshi McCarthy’s research, of course, led him to develop his widely respected and highly effective HAPV 2‑person drills.

During the same period my brother and I were making our own exploration the concept of 2‑person drills. This began after seeing a Shorinji Kempo demonstration at the University of Western Australia in 1987, although we didn’t look into the subject seriously until (like Hanshi McCarthy) we were inspired by the methodology employed in the Filipino arts of arnis, escrima and kali and the unarmed Japanese arts of Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu (our principal karate instructor, Bob Davies, is a direct lineage student of Otake Risuke Shihan) and, more significantly, aikijo – more on that later.

Ippon kumite (one step sparring) is certainly a valid and appropriate means of practising a technique in an isolated manner. It can be essential for learning “finishing moves” such as locks, holds, throws and other “take-downs”. But, as noted above, it has its limitations, the principal one being the lack of realism. The fact that your opponent: (a) attacks in a known, or at least highly predictable, manner; and (b) is static before and after the attack, militate against the usefulness of ippon kumite in progressing past basic study and practice.

Most ippon kumite in karate works on the principle of committed, "iken hisatsu" attacks - single punch, certain death. The attacks are very committed, and this allows the defender to perform defences suited to committed attacks. But in my experience, fully committed attacks of this kind are not that common in combat.

In other words, while ippon kumite might be useful as a starting point, it is really only the beginning of learning how to apply the particular technique. It is analogous to learning to drive by starting in a deserted car park.

The need for a dynamic context

It is my opinion that techniques need to be practised in a dynamic environment in order for them to be properly inculcated into one’s subconscious — ie. so that they become both reflexive and effective.

In fact, I am of the opinion that many applications of kata were never meant to be applied (and sometimes don’t even work) in a static environment. Consider the examples set out below:

It was aikido’s 13 count (or, in my opinion, 16 count) jo form that first got me thinking about static vs. dynamic bunkai back in 1993:

Count 2 of the kata is a jodan gaeshi (head height deflection) yet, somewhat perplexingly, there is no tenshin (body evasion) to accompany the move – either back or to any angle. I was told that instead one must “keep the forward momentum going” and “bury yourself deep into the attack” in count 1.

My confusion as to the application of count 2 quickly evaporated when, in the course of practising bunkai, a student and I inadvertently realised that whoever designed this form created it as a ready-made embu – ie. a “circular” form requiring no modification for 2 person practice.

[This information appears to be unknown to many schools that practice the same solo kata, but that have a 2 person version with a completely different “omote”, but more on this another time.]

Figure 1: a series of moves from the 2 person aikijo 13/16 count form


* count 8 involves an “open door” deflection of count 1;

* count 9 is a straight thrust over the top to the kata side’s throat depicted in the frame 1 of Figure 1);

* having no time to reverse momentum (or even alter it), the kata side’s best bet is to remain committed to the forward moment, using the jodan gaeshi to let the attack pass over the head (count 2 — see frames 1 and 2 of Figure 1);

* count 3 of the kata is then a counter strike to the head which is evaded by count 10 (see frame 3 of Figure 1), and so on...

Figure 2: a series of moves from the Muidokan gekisai dai ichi embu

Consider the bunkai of the penultimate “block/strike” combination in gekisai dai ichi:

The te osae uke (hand depressing block) is generally applied against a punch (leading or reverse) and followed with 2 punches delivered simultaneously to the floating rib or to various vital points on the abdomen.

Note however the artificial nature of the attack and that the attacker remains motionless throughout. The technique simply doesn’t work if the attacker does what he could (and no doubt would) do in actual combat - and that is move away once his attack has been deflected.

By contrast, note Figure 2 depicting moves from the Muidokan gekisai dai ichi embu: the osae uke is effected after a committed mae geri to suppress a counter that you are falling into.

Your forward momentum and the downward motion of the osae uke not only ensure an effective deflection but serve to set you up for an effective counter. This particular sequence can only really be practised in a dynamic, embu-like context. It is unlikely to be even considered via ordinary ippon kumite analysis.

Embu as a forum for learning how to cope with counters

Accordingly I think what you're really learning in embu is that practically every counter can itself be countered. You learn how to "rescue" a situation (as illustrated in Figure 2).

By contrast, if you practise a drill that leads one partner to do such a daft manoeuvre that he or she literally has no chance of defence against your counter you should ask whether you haven’t constructed a “straw man” – just to knock it down.

Incorporating embu practice into an existing syllabus

It occurred to us, as it has with many others, that embu provide a dynamic, yet safe, environment in which to apply and inculcate techniques appropriately and effectively.

However we were faced with a quandary: how could/should we incorporate embu into our existing (primarily goju-based) karate syllabus?

Clearly we could adopt or create a series of new 2-person drills unrelated to our kata (except in a loose sense). However this would not provide (at least directly or comprehensively) a dynamic environment in which to understand and practise existing kata bunkai: it would be a “layer” on the existing material (albeit a useful one). The kata bunkai study/practice would remain rooted primarily in ippon kumite.

Another issue we considered was syllabus complexity:

Kata function to “package” information in a traditional system. However as with any school we realised we already had a multitude of techniques that were not obviously in the kata. These include “omote” (an attack against which the kata defends) and certain “oyo” (extrapolations) which are highly useful and important to student development (and which might not occur anywhere else in kata).

In other words, the kata were not the repository of all the knowledge (at least not obviously). There was/is a significant number of techniques implied in / related to kata that are not actually represented in them.

Once upon a time it might have been seen as necessary to “hide” certain “secret” techniques from all but the most trusted students. However this ideology does not fit within the modern education paradigm and is certainly opposite to our school’s philosophy. Moreover such a syllabus structure is almost guaranteed to result in “information loss”, especially over a longer period of time.

In the case of our dilemma, adding yet a further “layer” of unrelated 2-person drills to this background would simply have exacerbated the existing “problem” of syllabus complexity, such as it was.

Rather, it was (and remains) our view that to be effective in preserving and imparting knowledge a syllabus needs to be structured coherently, logically and, above all, as economically as possible.

The importance of kata-related embu

Accordingly while we, like Hanshi McCarthy and others, became convinced that embu could “bring karate to life”, we wanted something more specific than this:

We wanted our embu to bring each kata to life.

As traditional martial artists, and for the reasons stated above, we have always strived to make our syllabus entirely kata-based - ie. ideally we wanted all our knowledge to be packaged in forms without any "stray" techniques. At the same time, we didn’t want to reinvent the wheel by “redesigning” our traditional kata or replacing them entirely with “new” forms.

We had in the back of our minds that some schools (eg. Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu) teach exclusively by means of 2-person forms with no “stray” techniques/elements. Clearly we could try to do the same. The problem is that we would be running the very real risk of “throwing the baby out with the bathwater”. Designing a new martial art from scratch might or might not produce an effective system. However it can’t help but fail to take into account relevant past knowledge. And we, as humans, collectively progress in terms of knowledge by building on the work of previous generations. Even Sir Isaac Newton is said to have attributed his achievements to the fact that he was “standing on the shoulders of giants”.

Could embu and any other “stray” techniques be incorporated into our existing syllabus without creating “unrelated layers”? In other words, could embu serve to explore kata bunkai while simultaneously combining essential “stray” elements/techniques related to the bunkai? We found the answer to be: “yes”.

The anatomy of an embu

The challenge was not insignificant. How does one go about creating a form that meets all the above criteria, is economical in length (18-22 moves so that it is easy to learn) and, above all, is “circular” insofar as it creates only one new sequence (rather than 2)?

More specifically, how do you ensure that the kata’s first count defends against it’s middle count and that all the rest fit in like a jig-saw puzzle? And how do you do this, without compromising the technical base and the “essence” or feeling of the kata bunkai?

For guidance and inspiration we went first to the 13/16 count jo form and spent considerable time analysing its architecture. Later we examined closely the architecture of xingyi’s 5 elements, particularly their “constructive” cycle (which corresponds to their order in solo practice) and their “destructive” cycle (which corresponds to their order in 2 person practice).

What we ended up with was the realisation that while 2 person forms might involve some sophisticated mathematics in terms of their architecture, their manifestation is ultimately a giant, 3-dimensional game of “rock, paper, scissors”. Consider for example that xingyi’s 5 elements have often been represented in Figure 3:

Figure 3: the xingyi pentagram

Each element corresponds to a defence and an attack. The pentagram’s perimeter, moving clockwise (in red), plots the course of the “constructive” cycle (ie. the solo form). On the other hand the pentacle (5 pointed star), moving anti-clockwise plots the 2 person version.

Figure 4: the aikijo 7 point star

Figure 4 shows aikido’s 16 count form as a 7 point star using the same methodology:

Taisabaki and tenshin: the foundations of embu

We discovered that the key to moving from one point in an embu “star” to another lay in understanding the nature of the body movement (taisabaki) and evasion (tenshin) employed in each kata bunkai. In short, body evasion inherent in bunkai is the foundation of embu since it will determine where you are placed relative to your opponent for the next attack or defence.

The subject of taisabaki and tenshin is, in itself, a mammoth one and not one which can be dealt with comprehensively in the context of this article. Suffice it to say that there are 8 or so principal angles of evasion (10 if you include up and down – more if you include compound movements such as weaving). There are also multiple ways in which those angles can be attacked (ie. stepping, lunging, stepping and pivoting, stepping and turning etc.) Then there is also the question of what stances are used, where weight is distributed at a particular point, and so on.

Accordingly we started the embu process by distilling the essential taisabaki or tenshin that forms the base of the bunkai of each kata. We then used this with techniques in the kata and those that are commonly taught alongside the kata in the course of bunkai or “omote”.

Consider the gekisai dai ni embu:

Figure 5: a series of moves from the Muidokan gekisai dai ni embu

The tenshin/taisabaki used in this embu included the standard 45° back into sanchin and 45° back into shiko dachi used with a variety of bunkai for this kata.

You’ll notice that directly after an attempted ashi barai, the person on the right in Figure 5 evades a front kick by using the 45° shiko evasion. Other tenshin/taisabaki used include the “open door” movement (forwards and back) and the sideways neko ashi dachi.

Our gekisai embu are fairly basic because the tenshin/taisabaki is basic in that kata. However these are necessary because you are, at that level, just learning the art of evasion. Our gekisai 2 embu is noticeably more advanced than the gekisai 1 embu. If you look at the seiyunchin one you'll see more realistic attacks (like those HAPV addresses) and more realistic defences, so that the embu does look more like fighting with the more sophisticated kata.

What I see embu doing is training you to apply your kata bunkai in sparring/fighting. I think this aspect is sorely missing in karate; most people do their kata and basics, then jump around doing faux boxing moves. There is no "bridge" between pre-arranged and free sparring.

The result and its fidelity to the original kata

Performed by one person an embu looks not dissimilar to the kata it is based on – the techniques are all there but the embusen (pattern) and sometimes the sequence differ (sometimes significantly). However most importantly we have endeavoured to retain the same “feel”.

This is diametrically opposite to many of the “standard” 2-person kata developed by Seikichi Toguchi, one of Chojun Miyagi’s students. The kata side is virtually identical to the kata, while the “omote” side is a completely new sequence. In other words, it is a literal superimposition of attacks on the kata template. In my opinion karate kata were never designed to be 2 person forms. From my perspective a drill that tries to force a kata into this mould is a “flawed” and inefficient training tool.

I say "flawed" but I don't mean this in disrespect. Everything is flawed. We have tried to improve the technology through a systematic and scientific approach based on my experience. I feel our drills are an advancement on Toguchi's, although I appreciate some may view this as controversial. I admire Toguchi's contributions greatly, but to assume that development should cease with the masters of old is, to me, absurd.

Hironori Otsuka, in his book 'Wado-Ryu Karate', wrote:2

"It is obvious that these kata must be trained and practised sufficiently, but one must not be 'stuck' in them. One must withdraw from the kata to produce forms with no limits or else it becomes useless. It is important to alter the form of the trained kata without hesitation to produce countless other forms of training."

Accordingly, while the embu are derived from existing kata they necessarily depart from their structure, retaining only the essence. This is consistent with the theory that new training drills must have an added dimension or else they are simply a pointless variation of an existing sequence.

Embu vs. “omote”

As I have said, an advantage of embu is that they do not comprise "2 further kata" - ie. we don't have 2 additional sequences to learn – the kata movements and the “omote” (attacking/other side). Rather, we have just one in addition to the traditional kata, which remains unaltered.

The aggressive and defensive moves in the embu are all from/related to the kata. Neither side is more "aggressive" or "defensive" - you deflect a technique and counter, your opponent deflects your technique and counters etc. using principally the kata moves. If you look closely many of the kata techniques are responses to other techniques from the same kata: just like xingyi's 5 elements which are capable of being used against each other.

Why yakusoku kumite doesn’t fill the “gap”

Why wouldn’t some form of yakusoku kumite provide the necessary “dynamic” environment? For example many karateka practise a kind of kumite where —

(1) “A” initiates an attack or series of attacks;
(2) “B” defends against those attacks and performs a series of counters;
(3) “A” defends against those counters and performs a series of further counters that finish the sequence.

Some have argued that this type of training is sufficiently dynamic in that it allows for a “responsive” form of kumite.

Yet it is my view that the need for a truly dynamic environment is largely unaddressed:

the first and last moves are not in a dynamic environment (i.e you are not applying a techniques mid-fight except at move (2)). Move (1) starts things from nothing. Move (3) encounters no resistance (in the form of a deflection or further counter). In fact, “B” stops his/her participation at move (2)!

This is not to say that yakusoku drills are not useful. Like ippon kumite, they provide a forum for practising certain moves that cannot be included in continuously flowing embu, eg. finishing moves. However, “B” is undeniably grooving a passive response at point (3). He or she is “learning how to lose” at least to some extent (refer to my earlier comments about learning to deal with counters).

By contrast, every technique in an embu can be performed in a continuum. You can cycle through the entire flow drill once or twice or more so that all the techniques have been performed in a dynamic environment at least once - including the "opening" move.

In yakusoku drills the first and last moves are always just that - they are never "in the middle".

How to make yakusoku kumite “continuous”

However what if your yakusoku drill were cleverly designed so that the counter in point (3) were capable of being defended against by the techniques comprising point (2)?

(1) attacks (3)
(2) attacks (1)
(3) attacks (2)
(1) attacks (3)
and so on...

Both sides could then go “hell for leather”. Same techniques, same emphasis, same sequence, but one side doesn’t “stop” or “give in”. One side isn’t being trained to “lose”.

Figure 6: a diagrammatic depiction of 3 point embu

What we have above is a basic 3 point embu that can be set out diagrammatically in Figure 6. You will see that just like the 5 and 7 point stars, it has both a “constructive” (red) and a “destructive” (blue) cycle. This is in fact a visual representation of “rock, paper, scissors”.

3 point embu are very common in, say, arnis/escrima/kali (eg. box pattern single stick, de cadena trapping drills, etc.). I have found these to be refreshingly pragmatic, if not essential in weapons. Why not karate?

By comparison our embu comprise 5 to 10 point drills – mostly to try to get all of the “essential” bunkai into one package.

Does the defence of each attack condition people to “be thwarted”

No. Both partners are doing their best to win. You don’t “let” your partner thwart you in the embu: if he or she doesn’t thwart you, you can follow through with your own (successful) attack. Nor is it the case that the techniques are designed to "allow” you to be thwarted: every technique is responded to with the best available defence offered by the kata (or failing that, the simplest defence).

Again, you should not assume that some counters have no defence. In my opinion this is not true, unless your tactics are absolutely useless and you have put yourself in a real “fix”. Embu teach you good tactics and, just as importantly, how to deal with having your own attacks thwarted.

Figure 7: “Pao quan” – one of the 5 elements demonstrated by
Master Chen Yun-Ching and Dan Djurdjevic

I first appreciated that no counters are “invincible” in the context of xingyiquan’s 5 elements: I once performed a counter with one of the 5 elements and thought my position was unassailable, only to find my opponent “pulling a rabbit out of the hat” with another element. Before I had knew it I was facing an “invincible” counter myself.

The “too many kata” dilemma

But aren’t the embu just “extra kata”? Don’t we have enough already? The answer to the first question is yes, if you define kata as a sequence of moves that one person may practise (a sensible definition).

But while we are, in a sense, "adding kata", the sequences are directly derived from the classical kata, so they are more an exploration or variation of the existing forms. This is an attempt to ensure not only that knowledge is not lost, but that development (and knowledge dissemination) is enhanced.

Embu for grappling techniques?

We call our 2-person striking/kicking drills “embu”, however we also have our grappling methods packaged in the form of what we call “kata tuide” drills. These can be practised both standing and on the ground. By contrast our tuide drills are “lock flows” rather than mutual exchanges. The examination of these drills is however outside the scope of this article and requires separate analysis.


Accordingly each Muidokan embu is really a collection of bunkai practised in a continuous, dynamic context.

It is not exhaustive of bunkai. Rather it is a circular sequence that can be practised solo or as a 2 person form and that –

(a) is built on the essential principles of evasion and body shifting inherent in the bunkai; and

(b) applies the principal techniques that are in the kata, implied by the kata or against which the kata defends; and

(c) teaches the student the principles of counterattack and dealing with counterattacks.

Embu practice does not replace ippon kumite, yakusoku kumite, or any other pre-arranged or free sparring. It should be ancillary to these activities.


1. See:
2. "Wado-ryu karate” by Hironori Otsuka Rising Sun Productions 1997 ISBN: 0-920129-18-8

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic