Sunday, August 31, 2008

The origins of goju-ryu kata: Part 2

Continued from Part 1 of this article.

Factors that might explain the “traditional” or “standard” history of goju-ryu

There is a tendency for martial artists to venerate the past and play down innovation. It is tradition that gives legitimacy.

In goju-ryu we are told that Chojun Miyagi passed down an art form established by his teacher Kanryo Higaonna. Yet everything indicates that Miyagi was an innovator and set the benchmark - not Higaonna, however skilled and knowledgeable the latter might have been. We know that Miyagi introduced tensho, his own sanchin and the gekisai. We know he performed his kata very differently from Higaonna, emphasising dynamic tension, closed fists etc. The art of goju-ryu was named by him. He is the one who is recognized as the "founder" of the system, not Higaonna. There must be a reason for this.

The "standard" history is not backed up by any technical or historical comparison with tou'on ryu, goju's sister art. Furthermore, Fujian external quan fa systems in the mid to late 1800s typically taught 4 or 5 kata, maximum. In my view the standard history is consistent with the Chinese, Okinawan and Japanese martial culture of venerating the past and denying innovation, nothing more.

To me Ockham's razor clearly falls on the side of the "extra" kata being introduced by Miyagi, possibly after his travels in China but not necessarily because of them.

I don't think Miyagi ever made any bones about teaching his own art - he named it after all and is regarded as the founder. I don't think he necessarily told his students where certain forms came from. In this context I can see how his students might have assumed that the forms were all from Higaonna via Ryu Ryu Ko.

It might be argued that since Miyagi did not deny creating or adapting kata (e.g. gekisai, tensho, sanchin), why then would he claim that he learned all the others from Higaonna if he did not?

I don't know that he ever did claim that he learned all his kata from Higaonna, although I can see why his students might have got that impression when the dominant message in those days (and, in many dojos today) is: "train - don't question". Most of his students probably wouldn't have dreamed of asking Miyagi where individual kata came from.

Miyagi might have had multiple reasons for not putting saifa, seiyunchin, shisochin, seipai and kururunfa ("cluster M2") into the tensho/sanchin/gekisai category ("cluster M1"). For one, cluster M1 were entirely new creations. Cluster M2 most likely reflected existing Chinese and Okinawan forms (even though they might have been adapted).

Even if Miyagi did create/adapt the kata that comprise cluster M2, he probably wouldn't have wanted to broadcast this. For one thing, it would have made him seem like he was blowing his own trumpet. For another, remember that tradition gives legitimacy in martial arts. Perhaps he could publicise some creativity, but not the full extent. I'm not suggesting that he lied about the origin of cluster M2, but simply that nobody asked and he didn't volunteer.

Where and when could Miyagi have possibly picked up cluster M2?

My friend Jeff Mann once said to me:

“The idea that Miyagi picked up cluster M while in China is not convincing to me. It would mean that Higaonna spent 13? years in China and only learned 5 kata, but Miyagi visited twice, for maybe 2 months each, and learned just as many… without speaking Chinese.”

There are 2 issues here: First, is it odd that Higaonna spent 13 years in China (Tokashiki Iken argues that it was only about 3 years7) and only learned 4 or 5 kata? Not particularly if you consider that it was common for Fujian systems to teach only 4 or 5 forms at that time. Kanbun Uechi certainly returned after 13 years in Fujian with only 3 kata - sanchin, sanseiru and seisan. He said he "didn't have time" to learn the fourth and final kata, suparinpei. Note that the names of the kata are identical. And while the kata appear completely different from goju, a close analysis shows they are related. As discussed above, McCarthy's research indicates that Ryu Ryu Ko taught 5 kata at most. Even today, goju's sister school of tou'on ryu only teaches 5 kata (principally cluster "H" ).

However as noted above the cluster H kata do not appear to bear any resemblance to those taught by Ryu Ryu Ko (as discovered by McCarthy in his research), indicating either that:

(1) the person with whom Higaonna trained is not the same as the Ryu Ryu Ko uncovered by McCarthy’s research; or

(2) Higaonna never bothered to pass on Ryu Ryu Ko’s kata – preferring to take elements from them at most.

The latter is not that surprising if you consider my comments in the article "Karate and the Chinese martial arts: Part 2".

The second issue is, how could Miyagi learn 5 or so forms in China in 4 months, especially when he couldn't speak Chinese? Well in actual fact Miyagi was in China for about 2 years all told: the first time in 1915 to 1917, and again in 1936 for several months - ample time to pick up other kata even if he didn't train for a lot of the time he was there.3 But in any event, I very much doubt he did learn the cluster M2 kata in China, although it is possible: on my first 4 day visit to Chen Yun-Ching (son of the late Chen Pan-Ling) he was happy to teach me the entire taijiquan form and the 5 elements of xingyi. I didn't perform it well of course, but he was certainly happy to show me and I, as a practitioner of nearly 30 years, didn't find it too difficult to absorb enough to go home and practice until my next visit.

However I think it was more likely that while Miyagi learned a few things he was more influenced to adapt his existing knowledge. We know for example that he trained at the Kojo expat dojo, as most visiting Okinawans did. There he would have practised the rising ko uke/shotei uke and the horizontal equivalent that you find in tensho (stray techniques that do not appear in any kata, however the rising ko uke basic does appear in some of Gokenki's forms like paiho). He would have observed breathing forms like those in Yong Chun that have a similarity to tensho. It is a small stretch to consider that he would have packaged this "stray" knowledge into a white crane looking form (ie. tensho).

We know that Miyagi was taught by Ryuko Aragaki even before he went to Higaonna. We also know he was influenced by Gokenki. Apart from this, we know that after Higaonna's death he felt he was "walking along an unlit road" searching for more knowledge.4 There are many stories of Miyagi (accompanied by students like Shinzato) going to meet with particular masters to seek out any new knowledge.4 While he never found a new master, it isn't a stretch to consider that he learned the odd thing here or there.

There is also some information to suggest that at least 3 of the cluster M2 kata were in existence long before Kanryo Higaonna went to China, namely shisochin, seiyunchin and kururunfa.5

There is written record of Seisho Aragaki performing a kata named "chisaukin" at a demonstration in 1867 1. Whether this is the same kata as shisochin, we can only speculate.

Furthermore Choki Motobu makes mention of the kata seiyunchin in his book Okinawa Kempo first published in 1926 5.

Last, Mario McKenna tells me that Itoman Seijin mentions in his book Toudi no Kenkyu (1936) a kata called Hanashiro no Kururunfa. This kata is is sometimes referred to as nunfa and its opening pattern resembles the goju-ryu version.

I shall deal with these kata specifically in later parts of this article.

Gokenki’s influence on Miyagi

Gokenki (Wu Xian Gui) was a tea merchant living in Okinawa who became a good friend of Miyagi’s. He is reported to have taught white crane forms not only to Miyagi, but to many other Okinawan karate masters including Kenwa Mabuni of Shito-ryu. Surviving forms of Gokenki’s include nepai/nipaipo and a series of related kata that include paiho (of ryuei ryu), hakucho and hakutsuru.

In future parts of this article I will explore moves from Gokenki kata that appear in the cluster M2 kata – either identically or with minor variations.

For the time being it is sufficient to note that this raises the issue of whether Gokenki's kata were adopted with Okinawan influences, or whether Okinawan kata were modified to contain Gokenki influences.

Whatever the truth, Gokenki’s influence on Miyagi and others like Mabuni seems beyond doubt. I don't imagine any of Gokenki’s forms survives intact. Moreover I very much doubt that “ancient” kata such as shisochin, seiyunchin and kururunfa are faithful to their performance in the mid 1800s. The origin of the katas saifa and seipai remain a mystery, with the closest hint we have being one or 2 congruent techniques in nepai and a version of Kume village hakutsuru (more on this in due course).

Based on this I think it is far more likely that cluster M2 reflects his own synthesis of Okinawan knowledge, with influence from Gokenki/Kume village and affected by impressions gained in China. Cluster M2 certainly does not look anything like any Chinese forms on the mainland, aside from the odd stray technique, prompting Mario McKenna to argue that there is very little original Chinese quan fa in Okinawan karate (goju or otherwise) (again, see my article "Karate and the Chinese martial arts: Part 2"). Mario McKenna will also tell you that tou'on ryu looks, if anything, more Chinese than goju (ie. Miyagi's emphasis and innovations reflected a predominantly Okinawan, rather than Chinese, paradigm). 6

Did Kanryo Higaonna even learn cluster H from Ryu Ryu Ko (Xie Zhong Xiang)?

I, for one, even doubt that the Higaonna forms were all/exactly the same as Ryu Ryu Ko's (Xie Zhong Xiang's). Higaonna never claimed to be teaching a particular school of Chinese quan fa (eg. "whooping/crying crane" etc.). And certainly forms like sanchin and seisan are known to have existed in Okinawa already. Seisho Aragaki taught both. Moreover the only available information on Ryu Ryu Ko (via Pat McCarthy) is that of the 5 or so forms he taught, none of these were sanchin, sanseiru, seisan or suparinpei. Rather McCarthy's research indicates that he was a whooping/crying crane master who taught happoren/babulian, nepai/nipaipo, doonquan, roujin/lohan and qijing. Of these forms only one (happoren) bears any resemblance (and it is only a passing one) to an Okinawan kata (sanchin?). McCarthy's Chinese nepai (said to be from Xie Zhong Xiang) is clearly related to tou'on ryu's nepai, however the tou’on ryu version is attributable to Gokenki, not Xie Zhong Xiang.

An analysis of the cluster M kata

So if Miyagi did add all the cluster M kata, where did he get them from? In order to attempt to answer this question one needs to examine the cluster M kata individually...

Next in Part 3: The origins of shisochin kata

1. See Mario McKenna's article "Higaonna Kanryo and Nahate".
2. See Joe Swift's article "The Kempo of Kume Village" in Meibukan Magazine No. 6.
3. See The History of Karate: Okinawan Goju-ryu by Morio Higaonna Thousand Oaks, CA: Dragon Books, 1995
4. Bishop, M. (1989). Okinawan Karate - Teachers, styles and secret techniques. London. A & C Black Ltd.
5. Choki Motobu Okinawan Kempo, Rising Sun Productions (September 3, 1995) ISBN-10: 092012917X ISBN-13: 978-0920129173
6. See Mario McKenna’s article “So what did you think you were doing”.
7. See this article.

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Whole lotta shakin': pre-loading the hips

There is a tendency in some schools of karate today to perform a particular "hip load" on most kata techniques, sometimes known as "Yamaneryu koshi/hip vibration" after a particular school of kobudo which practises this method.

An example of this hip movement in karate can be found in the video below of Aragaki Sochin kata, performed by Aragaki Isumu, a descendent of the Aragaki Seisho and a student of the late Master Higa Yuchoku of Shorinryu:

The level of skill shown by Aragaki Isumu in using his hips is indeed high: many karateka cannot do this despite the fact that an ability to control one's hips is central to the practice of karatedo. I have certainly spent a great deal of time isolating and practising hip movement.

Yet I disagree with the particular direction taken by this school of "hip use". Why? As you might have gathered, my objection isn't to hip use per se, but its use in kata - and in particular its use for each technique. It is, in my view, contextually wrong.

To understand why I feel this way, I first need to say what I think is right with this movement. What is it good for? In short, the hip is being "pre-loaded" for each technique. It is a method of maximising "power", sometimes called the "double hip" method. That this method can produce considerable momentum is ably demonstrated by Peter Consterdine in the video below:

No one is agruing that Peter Consterdine's power generation is impressive: but what is it he is doing? By pre-loading his hip, he is not just punching from where his hip happens to be - he is opening his hip up in order to have more hip movement and hence more momentum with every strike - a bit like someone might throw their arm right back behind their head before a punch. He is loading up as far as he can.

What is impressive in Consterdine's case is that he does it fairly quickly. It is so quick you might be justified in thinking that this is something you can afford to do in every technique - indeed, even during the flow of combat. This is where I completely disagree.

That this "double hip" makes for good momentum transfer is, in some respects, a truism. But is it necessary? For a start, the hip is not the sole source of maximising momentum in a technique, as you will note from Marc "Animal" MacYoung's excellent article “Generating Power”. Hip use is just one of many ways of maximising the 2 principal variables in momentum transfer: mass and velocity. I am of the view that having a good "flow" of movement in combat is far more productive of momentum transfer than any isolated hip movement. After all, you want as much of your body mass as possible moving as fast as possible into your opponent. This requires your body to move in a fluid, seamless manner (think Muhammad Ali's "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee"), not in a disjointed "hip-shaking" fashion.

[For more on the topic of flow, see my article: "The importance of flow".]

And is this double hip even possible in civilian defence cases - or will attempts to apply it cut the flow of your movement? I susbcribe to the latter view.

Certainly one should practise a good hip load for power striking bags, pads, shields (or telephone books). I can do this precise hip movement (and others like it). It is part of hip isolation in basic practice. But should it be done in kata? And if so, in the context of blocks? My response would be a definite "No".

In my view those who have incorporated this move into kata are confusing, on one hand, a static, ideal, environment for striking a stationary object with, on the other, the dynamic environment of combat. To my mind there is no doubt that kata is a method for practising the latter; it is a flow of techniques, not a series of separate, disjointed basics. So while I like what Consterdine is doing (and he has excellent hip use/momentum transfer), I do not think this is an appropriate template for kata practice.

It is for this reason that I think it is very unlikely that you'll ever do a "double hip" in civilian defence cases. Rather your hip should be set up by a previous parry etc. - and you'll go from whatever position your hip happens to be in (rather than some ideal "power" position).

In this respect your hip use is no different from any other "loading" - eg. loading arms for punches and strikes, or legs for kicks. You should learn to move so that you end up in the right (or at least an appropriate) position. You wouldn't artificially load your hip, no more than you would interrupt a flow of movement to load your punch into a chamber. Instead, just as chambers on one arm should take place while the other is in action, so your hip should load during the preceding movement.

Accordingly this "double hip" strikes me as a "wobble" that is akin to being "wrong-footed" in sparring - it cuts against your flow of movement in an attempt to create an "ideal" power load.

Simultaneously it assumes your hip is not already sufficiently loaded for the required technique. Karate is a civilian defence system; ie. it has the central aim of "not getting hit". It is not a sport where you're looking to "win" - perhaps by scoring a "knockout punch". A civilian defence system doesn't try to maximise its power on every single technique. It focuses on safety first.

In the case of the Aragaki sochin kata demonstrated above, the punches from neko ashi dachi are akin to the opening punches in goju's seisan - they are "snap-like" punches - not full hip "power" blows. Any attempt to force them into the "power" mould misconceives their function and robs the student of practising very useful, situation-appropriate self-defence skills (ie. kizami zuki). The fact that neko ashi dachi is not usually seen as a platform for the delivery of power punches (except where it is used to lunge into zenkutsu dachi) is, I feel, supportive of, and consistent with, my argument.

Compare the opening moves of this version of Aragaki sochin with the (similar) opening moves of seisan, performed by me in 1993:

The extent of the hip "pre-loading" in some schools is even more apparent in the video below of Katsuhiko Shinzato performing naifanchi kata. Again, Shinzato is nothing if not highly skilled. But what you will note from this particular video is another significant issue that accompanies pre-loading; every move is being telegraphed...

Again, compare this with our naifunchin, as performed by my brother Nenad:

You will note from Shinzato's naifanchi that the pre-loading of one move can interfere with the power of the subsequent move (much like wave interference can result in cancellation). Consider for example that the "kagi zuki" or hook punch in this naifanchi is, if anything, being pulled back with the hip because of the hip rotation used to augment the previous block...

I also find it most disconcerting that many karateka who practise the "double hip" in their kata have sacrificed disciplined, clean basics (and hence the appropriate "flow" of movement from technique to technique) for "power" - real or perceived. That the basics suffer is clear to me from the fact that many will continue to "shake" long after the strike/block etc. has been completed. This is not only wasteful/uneconomical in terms of energy, but it is also pointless in my opinion (I have many karate and "shaking crane" practitioner friends who disagree with me here!).

One practitoner I know and admire told me that when he went to train with Morio Higaonna, Higaonna admonished him "for using his hips". I think Higaonna was admonishing his pre-loading; ie. his inappropriate or uneconomical use of hips - after all, Higaonna can't be said to lack hip use and power...

I respect my colleague's view and stand to be corrected, but to my taste this line of development is "barking up the wrong tree". I could easily perform my kata with the "pre-loading" method, having a fairly good awareness of my hips and how to use them. Yet I choose not to, nor would I get my students to inculcate this habit.

For my purposes it is most pertinent that there are no similar "shaking" movements in the internal arts - which I believe are technically an advancement on the external arts (though not necessarily more effective). The concept of hip use is there, yes. But this is integrated into a seamless continuum, as it should be in karate. Compare this to the "double hip" which cuts the dynamic flow of kata into distinct "packets"... [Again - see my article "The importance of flow" for an explanation (and examples) of exactly what I mean.]

Put another way, the internal arts do load the hip - but generally in, or just before, a parry. The hip then closes and the technique is delivered. There is no "dead" or "disconnected" time. And there is no shaking.

I have some understanding of the "shaking" principle in certain arts. However my view is that all too often it is manifested by "shaking" in the defender's body, when what is intended is a hydrostatic shock imparted to your attacker (see my article "Visible force vs. applied force").

In other words, I think that the "shaking" feeling you might produce in your opponent is often being unnecessarily produced or replicated in your own body... Hydrostatic shock techniques are indeed "internal", but the "external" shaking of the body is not.

To conclude, rather than being a development of karate, I see the "double hip" as an overemphasis (or inappropriate emphasis) of a basic theme. It is tangential at best to advanced technique, not a necessary element.

See also: "Whole lotta shakin': an addendum", "Whole lotta shakin: contextual hip use" and "The importance of flow".

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

How is MMA different from "real fighting"?

I’ve often heard it said that while modern “mixed martial arts” type tournaments (including UFC and Pride) are not real fighting, they are “about as @#$% close as you can get”.

It is certainly true that these sports (which I shall collectively label “MMA”) have a far higher level of “intensity” than many traditional martial arts. And by reference to “intensity” alone, MMA is clearly closer to real fighting than, say, a taekwondo competition. Taekwondo competition is in turn more “realistic” in its “intensity” than an aikido competition, and so on.

So the question arises – is MMA “so close to real fighting that it might as well be the same thing"?

From what I saw as a prosecutor the answer is no - not in terms of its dynamics (what actually happens, how it plays out, what tactics and techniques are used, etc.). [Note: this is very distinct from saying "MMA doesn't prepare you for defence" etc.] Let me elaborate:

In my article “Civilian defence systems” I gave the example that if in a boxing match you knew Mike Tyson were going to bite your ear you wouldn't clinch him. This is not the same as saying "biting beats grapplers" - it means that this small detail could alter the dynamics of what you do - consciously and subconsciously.

To use another (non-combat) example, if you know in advance that the police are going to be waiting at every street exit to a drinking venue, you're not going to drive home over the limit. The question won't be "how will you drive" or "what techniques will you employ to evade the police". Driving simply won't be on the agenda (unless you are an absolute idiot, but let’s leave that possibility aside).

How does this translate to what I'm saying? Subtle things alter dynamics fundamentally. How are the dynamics of a particular street fight different from ring fight? It will depend on the individual situation. There is no single answer to this. All I can say with certainty is that the very predictable start and other controlled elements of a ring fight are not there. The surface is different, there are no rules or constraints, there are no gloves (however thin you might have them in your sport), the lighting is different - all of these factors, however small, play a role. You change one variable you necessarily get a different dynamic.

It might be a psychological factor (eg. loss of temper, a different motivation - ie. not wanting to be hurt rather than "winning", a different level of awareness or an awareness of a nearby loved one.). It might be a physical factor, such as the presence of multiple attackers/weapons/obstacles or the lack of space. The list is endless. The ramifications are unpredictable. All we know with certainty from chaos theory is that there will be an effect on the resulting dynamic of how the whole fight "plays out" from start (a bit of aggro) to finish (one side being incapacitated or both sides being pulled away).

So what are the main differences? I will do my best to answer this question on the basis of my own observations of video evidence of real fighting during my years as a prosecutor. From what I've seen, there is usually no opportunity for squaring off or other preparation (if there is, this is not in the same ballpark as a civilian defence scenario). There is no “circling your opponent looking for openings” and there are no "closing the gap" issues: the gap is closed from the start.

So what of “mechanical” or technical differences (how you punch and kick or deal with attacks)? Surely once it has “started” a fight is a fight – and the methods of attack and defence are (or should be) the same?

To some extent yes – if you mean the actual "melee" part of the fight (see my article "The 'melee' - karate's fighting range"). This is the one part of any fight that is actually quite similar - from MMA through to the brief and furious interchange of karate ippon shobu competition.

However it is important to note that in MMA the "melee" part usually comprises only about 10-20% of the fight. The rest comprises squaring off, looking for openings, "gap bridging" tactics, etc. where the dynamics are fundamentally altered from “real world” attacks.

That the intensity of MMA can help prepare you for the "melee" is a truism. That MMA skills are capable of being used effectively in the "melee" is also clear.

However this is not the same as agreeing that MMA techniques are optimum in civilian defence. From my observations some “sport” techniques (like thigh kicks) are rarely used (at least with any effect) in a civilian defence context. I also don’t think combat sport evasion is useful in preference to deflections (as I have outlined in my article “Evasion vs. blocking with evasion”). On this topic, I note that most sport (or “real”) "melees" have little or no “evasion” and come down to a fierce exchange of blows – something Marc “Animal” MacYoung calls “a wildly ineffective strategy” given the option of “cutting the supply lines” through interception of attacks etc.1. Other “supply line cutting” methods which are not practised in MMA (or even in “traditional” combat sports) are outlined generally in my articles “Civilian defence systems”, “Staying in the 'melee’” and “The karate 'kamae' or guard”.

So to summarise:

How is MMA different from from civilian defence? It is different in the dynamics - a set of circumstances which, though subtle, affect what happens. Accordingly I cannot give an analysis of how a real fight will play out – it is completely unpredictable. And I consider this to be the reason that of all the prosecution videos I've seen very few looked like an MMA fight. Did they look a bit like parts of an MMA fight? Yes - they often looked a bit like the brief "melee" element of any sport fight for that matter. But whether one ought to use sport techniques (which are more about “hurting” your opponent and less about “cutting his supply lines”) in civilian defence is another story.


1. See Marc MacYoung’s article “Generating Power”.

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Changing kata

Recently a colleague posed the following question:

Do you "purists" for lack of a better term believe that the small minute changes make that much difference? If miyagi stepped here rather than there, had his foot pointed this way rather than that or whatever will actually change the bulk of what the kata was designed to teach?

An interesting question. A lot of people adopt quite a "fundamentalist" view of traditional martial arts, where I think technical deconstruction reveals a great deal of "flexibility" in terms of how particular moves should be performed.

For example in shisochin there is a sequence of 4 moves where you do a gedan barai (downward sweeping block) followed by a teisho uchi (palm heel strike).

My brother Nenad demonstrates an "entering" application of the shisochin "teisho" sequence at our 1993 festival

In all but one instance (the 3rd) the "teisho" moves are evasive in the sense that you are moving away from an attack, rather than moving in1. In this sense shisochin is quite unusual as most goju kata techniques move into an attack, not away. Even the gekisai kata move into an attack for the most part (consider the opening move which is a forward angled evasion, although the closing moves are clearly "retreating"). For that matter, a similiar technique in taiji - brush knee - reverses the arms and moves into the attack.

Which is better - entering (sometimes called "slowing the attack" - because the attack is caught before it reaches full speed) or retreating (sometimes called "speeding the attack" because the attack is allowed to reach full speed and exhaust itself)? There is room for both.

So what if you performed all of the 4 shisochin teisho uchi with "retreating" steps? Actually I often do. Why? I like it - it flows better. You can even isolate the sequence into a drill - like the happo one demonstrated below:

Conversely you do a happo comprising 4 "advancing" moves - just as you could change the 3 "retreating" steps I've referred to into "advancing" ones to "rationalise" the kata (on one view it might be considered "more consistent" with advanced gojuryu).

But would I recommend changing the kata formally with respect to the "teisho" sequence? No. Not because of any fundamentalist worship of what I've been taught - but because it is like a classic poem; not "perfect" but thought provoking. I am also aware that I haven't fully understood the intention of the designer nor the applications of the kata techniques.

I see a lot of people changing things and losing some aspect or nuance. Because the change was done rashly, history in that dojo is "rewritten" and knowledge is lost.

So I don't favour changing moves formally. But "changing" them for certain purposes or individuals - indeed, yes.

[The pictures to the above right show Nenad performing the teisho technique in free sparring.]


1. The teisho sequence is illustrated in the animated gif at the start of this article. The first gedan barai/teisho is performed after a 180 degree spin and a step back with the right leg. The second gedan barai/teisho is performed after another 180 degree spin and a step across with the left leg which corresponds with the previous retreating dynamic. The third gedan barai/teisho however involves a step with the left leg to the left (instead of utilising the previous retreating dynamic and moving the right leg back to make the 90 degree turn). The fourth gedan barai/teisho is again performed after a 180 degree spin and a step across with the left leg.

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Variations in ude tanren - forearm conditioning

For most of my martial arts career I have known (and practised, on and off) the orthodox kote kitae or "ude tanren" - forearm conditioning. An example can be found here and below:

Master Higaonna Morio and Sensei Falcone practising orthodox kote kitae

A variant on the theme can be found here.

Without wishing to go into the merits or necessity of forearm conditioning to any great extent in this article, I would like to point out that I feel some conditioning is essential for karate blocks. While I admire the conditioning of many of my goju colleagues, I prefer a slightly "softer" approach which I feel is consistent with my approach to "blocking" generally.

Accordingly I have always wanted to combine ude tanren with movements that:
(a) apply the same movement that karate blocks apply (which to my mind is more of a deflection than a hard "blocking" movement (see my article "Why blocks DO work"); and
(b) actually condition the arm with the appropriate angle of deflection of these karate deflections.

For inspiration I turned to the Naha te staple, sanchin kata and examined its movements with a view to concocting flowing drills that embody the essential punch/block combinations.

What I found is that there are 2 principal forearm deflections in the opening moves of sanchin, namely the standard goju chudan uke (chest block) and what is known as mae ude hineri uke. Both of these are demonstrated in the video below:

"Chudan uke" and "mae ude hineri uke"

At the same time I determined that there were 3 principal options in terms of combining these 2 types of deflections with strikes.

First, one could do the block/strike simultaneously - something rarely seen in karate applications. The "simultaneous" movement can be seen in the following footwork "happo" drill derived from sanchin:

A sanchin "happo" drill showing the simultaneous block/strike

This combination is easily applied to a forearm conditioning drill as is illustrated in the video below:

The simultaneous "block/punch" from sanchin kata applied as a drill.

Another option is the "rolling" block and strike shown in my hiki uke punch drill (you'll note the chudan uke version is shown right at the end):

The "rolling" hiki/chudan uke plus strike

This is, in turn, capable of being turned into a drill. Note in particular that while one side is doing a chudan uke, the other is doing a mae ude hineri uke:

The "rolling" chudan uke plus strike as a 2 person drill

The final option is to block and then strike "kizami zuki" (effectively a jab) off the blocking arm. Again, when it is combined as a drill one side will do the chudan uke, the other side will do the mae ude hineri uke. The sides should swap, but other than hand position at the start, the movement is identical. The drill is illustrated below:

The block/kizami (jab) option as a 2 person drill

Recently a colleague asked me about the distancing in these drills. It is important to note that the distancing shown in these videos is a bit extended: this is to ensure flow for the purposes of conditioning. On the other hand, you can do what we often do (especially with intermediate and senior grades) and that is bring in the range to bent elbow. This makes it far more "live" and is useful for "melee" range training. However I shall deal with such training in future articles.

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Civilian defence systems


It was in the late '80s in South Africa where I first heard my teacher Lao Tze Bob Davies describe what he taught as a "civilian defence system". At the time I paid little attention. It seemed nothing more than another variant on the term "self-defence", perhaps with some extra resonance because of its contrast with the military training undertaken by conscripts in the apartheid regime's armed forces. However over the intervening years I have had occasion to consider this term in greater detail and I am finally starting to understand its import. I now see that the significance of "civilian defence system" is two-fold. It serves to distinguish what we do from military methodology; that much is clear. But it also serves to distinguish our methodology from sports.

The dynamics of sport or military fighting disciplines are significantly different to those of civilian defence. These differences have nothing short of a profound effect on what fighting skills one should employ and how one should practise them.

In order to examine the differing dynamics of combat sport, military and civilian defence systems and their methodological consequences, I need to take a step back briefly and consider the nature and prevalence of conflict generally:

The “real” world

I’ve often heard people talk about someone having a "real fight". However what they are usually thinking of a is fight outside the pub/bar in a Western society with some person who is, "at worst", from a poorer/rougher socio-economic background. They aren't talking about a struggle to the death, such as one might encounter in a place where the rule of law and the “social contract” has completely broken down; a place where man has been returned to what Thomas Hobbes called “the state of nature” and where life has become “nasty, brutish and short”.

We see what Hobbes might have meant in places like Baghdad, Mogadishu, Sierra Leone, the Balkans and Rwanda. In each case there are countless examples of what is known in criminology as the process of “brutalisation” – a continued and direct exposure to extreme violence leading to its “normalisation” and with it the disappearance of any semblance of human empathy.

Sadly one needn’t go to a war zone to find evidence of brutalisation: Countries like South Africa and Russia have such appalling crime rates (often committed with such brutality) that they might as well be in a state of civil war if one looks at the victim statistics. And in other countries I don’t suspect you’ll find much “empathy” in a tussle with the Mafia, the Triads or any other organised crime network, for example.

Even in our comfortable Western lounge rooms this process of brutalisation is playing out – albeit on a much smaller/slower scale. It seems that as a society we are now quite comfortable about seeing extreme violence in the media, particularly in movies and video games.

Events such as MMA permitting “ground and pound” type assaults are “light” entertainment. Internet posts reveal that some particularly savage beatings in the ring are often regarded as “funny”. In one recent case Youtube video comments relating to a malicious beating of a contestant (who was already unconscious during the last 4 or 5 blows) included “lol”, “rotfl”, “I nearly wet myself” and “cool”.

Our “cooperative gene”

Thankfully, despite this trend, the bulk of humanity appears to comply (for the most part) with the terms of “the social contract”. I suspect this has always been, and will always be, the case – even if our present “lust” for acts of violence is seen as symptomatic of “civilisation collapse” of the kind witnessed during the decline of Rome (as many have argued)1. The tendency for humans to revert to living in a largely stable, peaceful society seems to be a dominant instinctive drive of our species – as is the case in respect of most “social animals”.

Violence in society (or between societies) might be inevitable, but it is nonetheless a relative aberration from the norm: Just take a look at the humming buzz of a city and witness all the countless vehicles being driven in accordance with complex rules, people passing each other like ants in a busy colony, the fact that our garbage is collected, the power is usually on, trains run more or less on time, etc. All work with a harmony and efficiency that is staggering considering how volatile and selfish we, as individuals and as a species, appear to be. Even in unstable and infrastructure-poor/neglected/destroyed places like Afghanistan, Zimbabwe and now Georgia, it is interesting to note that substantial societal cooperation persists or is re-established quickly once an immediate crisis is over.

In my view this is directly attributable to a “cooperative” gene that most of us have inherited – possibly one of the few “good” things about our biological make-up.

I feel that this is what underlies the fact that fights fuelled with real malice occur relatively infrequently in human society. Males of any species will compete for dominance by “fighting”. But, just as in the animal kingdom, “male posturing fights” seldom end with serious injury or permanent disability. It is enough for one side to submit or back off in humiliation. Speaking as a former prosecutor, fights outside bars don’t usually result in death or permanent disability, although the danger is always there.2

Grouping according to method

With this in mind I turn to the 2 principal "categorisations" of human fighting methods - namely "grappling" and "striking". I have used these labels for convenience only, since fighting methods are often not one or the other but involve some element of fusion - consider my article "Is karate a striking art?" by way of example. Of far greater interest to me is differentiation along the lines of sport, military and civilian application. However an approximate grouping by dominant fighting method is still useful for certain purposes.

“Grappling disciplines”

In the context of my above comments relating to the "cooperative gene" it is hardly surprising that almost every (if not every) culture has a popular traditional grappling discipline. It is a relatively “safe” way of determining the male “pecking order”.

Most cultural grappling disciplines are sports rather than "art" forms (although some are considered both - eg. jujutsu, judo and even aikido).

[Note that by “art” I am referring in this article to more than just a competent ability in, or mastery of, a martial skill; rather I am referring to martial practice that is done for aesthetic, moral, philosophical or other cultural (non-competitive) reasons.]

Some are or were related/used for military purposes; jujutsu was the fallback of the weaponless samurai and even today military hand-to-hand combat tactics feature a strong grappling component. However the idea of lengthy tactical wrestling match between combatants is not high on any military strategists’ agenda – when have you heard of a battlefield littered with one-on-one groundfighting matches?

"Grappling" disciplines can also be used effectively in "civilian defence" – quite apart from sport or military use. Certainly arts like jujutsu and Chinese qin-na are practised today principally for this purpose in much the same way as “striking” arts like karate and gung fu. I shall expand on the role of grappling in civilian defence in due course.

“Striking disciplines”

Like grappling disciplines, the striking variety are old as humanity. I include both unarmed and armed disciplines in this group, since both involve an element of “striking” an opponent. Most weapons striking disciplines have their roots in military application, although some relate to duels / prizefighting / blood sports (fencing might be an example). For unarmed striking disciplines it seems to me that the reverse is likely to be true.

At some point it appears that certain striking disciplines were elevated to “art” forms. In some cases they serve a function as both an art and a form of civilian defence (eg. karate) however this is relatively rare: such arts principally exist in China, Okinawa and Japan and to a lesser extent India and southeast Asia (possibly for related, complex cultural and historical reasons). Elsewhere they have evolved into dance forms (eg. capoeira or Morris dancing).

Most striking disciplines are too goal-directed to be called “arts” – they are usually connected with (often archaic) military technology, or sports. And yet some "non-arts" have nonetheless been absorbed into the broader “cultural mileu” as as a means of civilian self-defence - examples of this might be the Filipino martial systems of arnis, escrima and kali. Direct and effective, the modern incarnations of the Filipino systems are descended from military strategies (used in local warfare and against the Spanish), but are today principally seen as a method of community self-defence - a purpose avowedly shared by many of the striking arts discussed above and indeed many grappling disciplines.

With the exception of a few examples like western fencing, striking sports are usually not seen as a “genteel” or acceptable pastime for the mainstream3, and are often associated (rightly4 or wrongly) with the seedy underworld (and this is despite the recent attempted popularisation of “white collar” boxing/kickboxing/MMA/Muay Thai).

In other words aside from the obvious traditional eastern striking "defence" systems (Shaolin gung fu, taijiquan, karate, taekwondo, silat, arnis/escrim/kali etc.) and a few other odds and ends (eg. Brazil’s capoeira, and arguably Canary Islands’ juego del palo), most western striking disciplines remain instruments of either war or blood sports – they were not, and are not, intended for practise in mainstream civilian society.

Civilian defence

How civilian defence systems came to develop is the subject of much conjecture. For example the banning of weapons in Okinawa is often cited as the impetus for the development of karate, however there is little, if any, historical fact to support this assertion.5 Rather karate appears to have simply developed in tandem with similar arts on the Chinese mainland, perhaps in response to common religious or philosophical trends that were otherwise absent in, say, Europe. Indeed there are many cultures with no history of structured, community "self-defence training" despite an obvious need (often a greater "need" than, say, the relatively peaceful island of Okinawa6).

Whatever the reasons, that striking and grappling systems adapted specifically for civilian defence came into existence in the far east at least at some point in the 18th century is a matter of historical fact.

What primarily distinguishes these systems from their military and sports-related cousins is that they have had (and continue to have) a fundamentally different root motivation, ie. the avoidance rather than the infliction of harm. This is reflected in such sayings as Gichin Funakoshi’s famous quote “karate ni sente nashi” or “there is no first strike in karate” or for that matter in the fact that virtually every xing, kata, pattern or other “form” I have studied in a traditional Chinese, Okinawan, Korean or Japanese martial art begins with a defensive move. While the same cannot be said of the non-art disciplines like arnis7, they have, to a certain extent, absorbed a similar philosophical credo and have become closely aligned with Chinese gung fu.

This different motivation results in very different training, techniques and tactics as we shall see below.

Distinctions between civilian and military defence

What civilian and military defence share is that there is ultimately no restriction as to technique. In other words anything goes, including so called “dirty” tactics like biting, gouging, scratching, the use of weapons or the use of permanently disabling / lethal techniques – provided the circumstances warrant the use of those tactics.

In warfare a soldier faces not only the relevant Geneva convention, but also his/her own army’s “rules of engagement”. But it would be fair to say that the constraints in war are far fewer and differently directed than any use of force in civilian society where the “rules of engagement” are very strict indeed. Your response has to be appropriate and necessary, otherwise you face prosecution yourself.

Civilian defence systems will typically give you a wide range of destructive skills, including “drastic measures”, however they don’t give you instructions on when to use those skills. You have decide that yourself by reference to society’s laws and values. We civilians aren't usually pyschopaths who don't care about hurting others. Most of us are empathetic human beings (ie. we carry the “cooperative gene” and we haven’t been “brutalised” to a point where this instinctive empathy is completely subsumed). So we are reticent about biting, gouging eyes, stabbing or doing other “drastic” things. The law tends to view such acts very dimly because it reflects society’s “cooperative” values. You can get away with “drastic measures” only if they constitute “reasonable force”. As a prosecutor I noticed that people who maimed others in bar brawls (a bitten off nose would be just one example) were viewed very poorly by juries - even if they were acting in self-defence.

By contrast, after almost 30 years of martial training I am occasionally still taken aback by methods employed in military off-shoot disciplines like the Israeli krav maga or Russian systema (or for that matter my own native Serbian arts as compiled in the svebor system of Professor Bata Milosevic8). People describe how “brutal” and “devastating” the techniques are. I know what they mean. It can be disquieting to be shown how to slice someone’s bicep tendon with a knife, only to follow it up with an upward stab into the kidneys. Effective – yes. Reasonable or even necessary in most civilian defence situations – unlikely.

It is true that civilian defence arts often have techniques that are, to the say the least, unpleasant. I remember a potential beginner watching me teach bunkai (applications) of the goju-ryu kata saifa (involving a knee to the groin and later a twisting of your opponent’s head) only to say afterwards that she did not want to be party to such wanton violence. Yet however “brutal” civilian defence arts are, military disciplines take it to another level – as they should. The goal is, after all, to neutralise the enemy. In civilian defence the goal is to use “reasonable force” for protection only.

Accordingly the difference in root motivation between military and civilian defence produces very different results, even if the technical and tactical methodology is sometimes similar “on paper”. However, the root motivation extends further in its effect: it changes the focus and method of preparation. Some of this is technical or mechanistic — a military discipline might inculcate particularly brutal responses in set drills. Or these drills might be “attack” based, rather than “defend/attack”.

Of far greater significance however is the military emphasis on “battle hardening” – often at the cost of life or limb. For example, Professor Milosevic recounted to my brother and me how he accidentally came across a traditional Serbian fighting method because of the consequences of its training methodology. A casual conversation with a doctor in rural Serbia revealed that ancient battlefield techniques using long handled, small bladed axes still continue to be practised in remote mountain areas. Apparently the doctor had had routinely treated mountain shepherds for wounds inflicted by practice fighting with axes until 'first blood'!8

In war, battle hardening is essential. Even if there are casualties or other consequences to the preparation, these are tolerable (up to a point) if the “military machine” is going to be better prepared. Put bluntly, individuals are expendable both in war and war preparation – the interests of the “machine” are paramount. This is fundamentally different to civilian defence methods where the individual is the focus of protection.

Distinctions between civilian defence and combat sports

Criticisms of traditional civilian defence systems don’t tend to come from military disciplines and their offshoots. Rather they tend to come from the sport arena where skills are said to be “proven” or “pressure/resistance tested”. In the 1970s and 80s they came largely from kickboxing (for example Joe Lewis, a former heavyweight world champion, is famously quoted as saying that “karate techniques from the waist up are a fraud” – mainly because they didn’t work in a gloved context). In the 1990s this criticism arose principally in the context of the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) matches where BJJ (Brazilian jujitsu) grapplers demonstrated their superiority over most of the “stand-up” fighters (ie. those who practise what I’ve called unarmed “striking disciplines”). In the 2000s this criticism arises predominantly from MMA (Mixed Martial Art) practitioners (who practise an eclectic mix of grappling and striking sport disciplines – none of which is an “art” as I have used the term in this article).

In the sports context it is often taken for granted that traditional or other civilian defence methods don’t work unless they can be proven in the ring. Now I’ll admit that there is a certain attractiveness to this argument. On one hand you have your average suburban civilian defence practitioners who train twice per week and only occasionally engage in contact. On the other you have athletes who train with far greater intensity and constantly encounter hard contact, both in training and in the ring.

However I feel that the comparison is misleading: Most sports fighters who readily spring to mind are professional or semi-professional, training intensively for specific competition events. They have little in common physically and psychologically with the suburban civilian defence practitioners. Instead it would be far more interesting to compare a suburban civilian defence practitioner with a mirror of him/herself – training twice per week in sport techniques. But even then – what would we be comparing? The sports practitioner might win in a ring match, but would he/she be better prepared for civilian defence of the kind he/she is actually likely to encounter?

It is also important to bear in mind that many people choose to practise civilian defence systems not out of ignorance or stubbornness but because it suits their goals and personalities. They might simply not be interested in combat sports.

This line of argument is often summarily dismissed, the underlying assumption being: a ring confrontation is, for the most part, indistinguishable from a street attack. [For information directly on this topic see my article: "How is MMA different from 'real fighting'".]

Why do I disagree with this assumption? For a start, there is that troublesome little thing called “rules”.

The effect of “rules”

The immediate response to this is that “the rules are so few that they might as well not be there at all.” Wrong. Few does not equal none. In my experience altering even one small rule changes the dynamics of a ring fight quite substantially.

It is important to note that I’m not saying: “but for the rules, I would beat a sports fighter.” I’m saying that training for a sport requires you to spend a great deal of time dealing with dynamics that do not arise in the street. And the corollary to this is that they do not specialise in dealing with some of the dynamics that do.

I mentioned above that what military and civilian defence systems have in common is that there are no “barred techniques” – only variable threshold levels where the use of certain techniques will be permissible. In the appropriate circumstances anything goes in either military or civilian defence. The only thing that differentiates the 2 is when something will be considered “permissible”. Even then, the penalty is not a “disqualification”. In other words, you don’t “lose” because you “cheated”. You might “win” – but potentially face a subsequent penalty later (be it court or a court martial).

Consider the UFC fights, particularly in the 1990s when there were very few rules – just “no biting, no gouging, no scratching”. There were no rounds and no weight divisions. You’d think that would be pretty much as near to the “real world” as you can get... But leaving aside things like the ring “one-on-one” dynamics, let’s examine the few rules that did exist and their impact:

As I’ve said, the early UFC bouts were overwhelmingly dominated by grapplers who were adept at protracted tactical bouts on the floor. No one disputes that they were, and are, superb athletes and fighters – among the best in the world in any discipline. However, were these bouts “de facto street encounters”? I can safely say that in my years of prosecuting I never saw surveillance video of an assault that looked like a UFC bout. In one of the “bar-room brawl” cases where the protagonists did end up on the floor, one had his nose bitten off. It seems he was in a mount position using BJJ skills to avoid being dislodged and put his face a little too near his “victim”...

This example has often led to a vehement response – often heard in grappling schools. It goes something like this:

“Bites are no answer to grappling. Not only can a grappler also bite you, but he’s going to be in a better position to do so. Anyway, biting only serves to create a small window of opportunity that can be exploited by someone who has some basic grappling skill. If you don’t have that skill your bite will only give your attacker more incentive to kick you’re a$$.”

Again, initially an impressive argument. Except that it sets up a straw man:

My point is not that biting is an answer to grappling – just that it changes the dynamics of the fight. For example, if you knew Mike Tyson was going to bite your ear, you would be less likely to clinch with him. Similarly, if both parties are going to bite, you're going to see a lot less of the prolonged tactical “gameplan” of a BJJ fighter. Ditto for all the other “forbidden” techniques – eg. eye gouges and scratching. The dynamics change even more drastically when you enter into the equation weapons and multiple assailants.

No one can persuasively argue that grappling isn’t a useful skill – or that you can dismiss a good grappler with just a bite or a scratch. But at the same time one shouldn’t confuse a grappling sport – which, in the main, does not deal with the variables mentioned above9 – with civilian defence. One discipline, while teaching highly useful skills, nevertheless spends an inordinate amount of time preparing you for a gameplan that, for a variety of reasons, is rarely played out in “real world” attacks against civilians. The other discipline attempts to focus squarely on defending against such attacks.

It is interesting to note that since the ’90s some “minor” rule changes (rounds, weight divisions etc.) have been imposed on UFC and similar “almost no rules” contests like MMA (I say “minor” because they hardly compare with adding boxing gloves, banning grappling etc.). I believe that these rule changes have had a significant flow-on effect on the dynamics of such contests – for example, prolonged grappling matches no longer occur with any frequency, and grapplers don’t dominate anywhere near as much as they did (although grappling skills are still used). Many would argue that the change in dynamics is due to a greater degree of cross-training of the participants and I can see that this is partially true. But in my opinion the rules have led to an undeniable, and fundamental, change to the dynamics of the sport – changes that I, for one, would not have envisaged.

Before I leave the subject of grappling sports I wish to address the common argument advanced by practitioners of those disciplines that “90% of fights go to the ground”. First, I don’t know where this statistic comes from. As I said previously, I certainly haven’t seen too many “grappling matches” on surveillance video. Second, if they do go to the ground it is usually because someone has been hit – and he/she falls. Third, as I have highlighted above, this observation, if true, doesn’t address real issues of armed assaults and multiple assailants (for example, my brother recently grappled a home invader into submission only to be confronted by an accomplice wielding a big piece of wood).

Perhaps what this statement addresses is the truism that when 2 men square off to determine dominance (what is known colloquially as “a bit of biffo”) they will inevitably go to the ground. Why? In most cases neither is seriously intent on harming the other and they default to a “less injurious” mode of combat. As I’ve mentioned before, this is more a reflection of the “cooperative” nature of human society than it is a sign of “real world” combat.

”Transplanting” sport techniques

From my discussion of grappling sports it should be clear that I don’t think their methodology can usefully be transplanted “holus bolus” into civilian defence systems. However this is not the same as saying that individual techniques cannot: some might require modification, others will be useful “as is”.

I suppose it won’t surprise you to hear that I have a similar view with respect to striking combat sports – albeit to a lesser extent. I have also foreshadowed this in many of my previous articles:

You’ll note from my article on “Chambering punches” that the ubiquitous “right cross” from combat sports is largely absent from civilian defence systems. Why? Put simply the latter is concerned less with landing a “knockout blow” and more with not being hit. Accordingly it prefers straight thrusts, being more conservative about “telegraphing” movements and leaving openings. It is this conservative approach that underlies the emphasis in civilian defence systems on stopping techniques at a pre-determined point.

In my article on “The karate ‘kamae’ or guard” you’ll see that traditional civilian defence systems prefer the old bare-knuckle boxing guard to modern glove-based/derived versions because it feeds into traditional “blocks” (ie. deflections) and what I call the “melee” range (more on this below).

Recently a correspondent on an internet forum advanced the theory that if one wants to learn how to defend against grapplers, one should do so from grapplers. Clearly it is wise for civilian defence skills to be tested on grappling specialists, and indeed useful information can be gleaned from them. But adopting their entire methodology for stopping grapplers (in preference to your own civilian defence tactics) makes little sense to me. The primary skill of grapplers is in grappling – not in the “stand-up” skills of evasion and deflection. Since takedown and other grappling attempts are, to my mind, nothing more than a species of attack, and since civilian defence arts specialise in deflection with evasion of attacks, I see no reason to prefer the methodology of a system for which this skill is, at best, ancillary. After all, grapplers spend most of their time getting into grapples, not avoiding them. For more on this topic, see my my article “Keeping grapplers at bay”.

Of course, in my articles “The ‘melee’: karate’s fighting range” and “Staying in the melee” you’ll see my well-worn arguments that civilian defence systems specialise in dealing with the distance in which most street attacks occur – the range where you are in prime position to punch or be punched; where half a step out puts you into a full kick and in half a step to elbows, knees and then a bit closer to grappling. As I’ve said, this is where most attacks on civilians start and finish, so this is where civilian defence systems invest their effort. Unlike ring/arena sports, civilian defence rarely, if ever gives you the opportunity to “square off and circle” your opponent.

My articles on “Evasion vs. blocking with evasion” and “Why blocks DO work” give a comprehensive outline of why civilian defence arts prefer deflections/parries/checks (commonly and perhaps erroneously called “blocks”) in conjunction with traditional evasion, where striking sport disciplines invariably default to “pure evasion” – eg. bobbing, weaving, ducking etc. Put simply, deflections work, but not when one is wearing gloves. And civilian defence operates in unpredictable surroundings (crowded bars, between parked cars, dark alleys) where it may not only be impossible to “bob, duck and weave” – it might invariably compromise your balance and hence your safety through excessive movement from the vertical plane. Civilian defence arts put a premium on keeping your balance, for reasons of escape if nothing else. They are not interested in protracted tactical games for “scoring”. They are interested in defence. While your arms are in use for “blocking” it is true that they are, to some extent, restricted from “scoring” – but this reflects precisely civilian defence priorities and goals.

Lastly you’ll note from my article “Visible force vs. applied force” that civilian defence strikes and kicks are radically different from those of striking sports; they are geared for generating “hydrostatic shock” with bare knuckles/hands and kicks – not a “pushing” force that is necessary in most gloved punches and that has invariably spread to sport kicking techniques (perhaps through the unquestioning adoption of boxing training methods such as the heavy bag – suited to training the "pushing" blows used in gloved sports but not necessarily optimum for kicking). They are geared towards this “hydrostatic shock” because they specialise in generating as much momentum transfer (impulse) as possible using the conservative, defence focussed counters I have referred to above.


Civilian defence systems are fundamentally different from military systems and combat sports. They don’t share the same goals, so it is hardly surprising that they don’t share the same methodology. Where both military and sport combat disciplines have some level of “exposure” in terms of their effectiveness, civilian defence arts have no ready forum where this can demonstrated. But does this mean that they are functionless?

All I can usefully do is point out the logic behind civilian defence systems – why and how they can and do work. In short, I can offer an explanation of their (often misunderstood) role. And this is a very different role from that played by military and sport disciplines. Pointing out that civilian defence systems don’t work on the battlefield or in the sports arena does not affect this role.

Sure, some civilian defence systems are bound to be more effective than others when it comes to their use in defence (as opposed to health, fitness or artistic expression). Few people who start taijiquan classes do so with the aim of learning “quick self-defence skills”. Instead they learn the art because it suits their age, physique and interests, and assists their pursuit of better health (fostering and protecting health are, after all, closely related). Taijiquan techniques can be used in civilian defence, but this is not high on most practitioners’ agendas. Then there is always the truism that the value of your defence skills depend heavily on your instructor – regardless of his or her fighting discipline.

In the end, the techniques in sport and military are not that different from those in the civilian defence arts and many practitioners of fighting disciplines are conversant with every variation. As the late Shihan Jan de Jong said to me on the subject of BJJ in the early ’90s (after hosting a seminar with a prominent instructor of that discipline): “It is jujutsu. There is nothing new.”


1. Consider for example David Walker’s view as reported here, in particular his partial attribution of decreasing US power and influence to “declining moral values and political civility at home”. While I am on the topic, it is interesting to note that a link between the “decline in civic virtue” and the collapse of the Roman Empire was posited by Edward Gibbon in his book The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, first published in 1776.

2. Consider the number of “one punch deaths” recently reported in our local media.,21598,24076056-5017004,00.html

3. Traditionally French savate was held to be a “gentleman’s art” — see However I see this as akin to describing boxing as a “sweet science”...

4. Consider the report by the New Jersey State Commission of Investigation report in December 1985 which “confirmed so serious an intrusion of organized crime into boxing that, were the same mob presence to afflict such other professional sports as baseball or football, it would constitute a public scandal.” (see

5. For a brief account of karate’s origins, see

6. Shoshin Nagamine wrote in the preface to his book "The Essence of Okinawan Karate" that when Napoleon (then in exile on the island of St Helena) was told by 2 Englishmen about their visit to the island of Okinawa he was shocked to hear that they carried no weapons and had no interest in war (Tuttle Publishing, 1998 ISBN 0804821100, 9780804821100). I've read elsewhere that during that particular naval visit the English officers noted that Naha's prison held only one person - an elderly woman who had been causing trouble, but I can't recall the source! If it's true it makes a mockery of the Okinawan obsession with self-defence.

7. See for example the the philosophy of Modern Arnis, founded by the late Remy A Presas.

8. See the following article.

9. Pure sports grapplers sometimes argue that they are equipped to deal with “forbidden techniques” like biting and gouging. But in my experience they aren't; I've done some sports grappling – biting, gouging etc. are not taken into account. Why? They are so drastic that they are not really contemplated, perhaps because of the “cooperative” element of society to which I refer above. Instead they are dismissed with verbal “theoretical” arguments of the kind grapplers so often profess to loathe. While most martial artists (grappling or striking) do little to guard against bites, for example, I can’t help but observe that grapplers spend significantly more time in the “biting range”. Any self defence system must address these sorts of issues at least to some extent. Small issue does not equal “no issue”. And for grapplers this need is significantly more urgent.

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Why are my karate punches more like boxing punches when I hit shields and bags?

These questions were once put to me by a Shotokan karateka:

"I would just like to ask your opinion. When I use the kick shields, the kick take the same form on the shields as they do in fresh air. However, whenever I use the focus mitts or bag. I seem to use more of a boxing style punch.

By this I mean. jabs, straight right/left, and hooks. Now I know we can call them kizami-zuki, gyaku-zuki and mawashi-zuki. But its the way in which I strike the pad. Using the shoulder, plenty of hip and up on the balls of my feet. Also I breath through my nose. I feel very comfortable in striking this way and I can hit the pads/bags quiet hard.

However, this is contradictory to the way I train and teach karate punches. Shoulders down, using the back muscles. Same hip movement, but heel down pushing to the floor. And breathing through the mouth.

We do have access to makiwara. The Goju-ryu boys use these all the time. I have used one in the past, only for a short while. I do not use one now because I cannot give it the time and commitment it requires."

The longer I train, the more I see that karate and boxing punches are quite the same (accepting of course that they are used with very different tactics). The jab is just a kizami zuki where you retract your punch. Remember that the speed of retracting the arm does not affect the outward speed.

As I've noted in my article "Chambering punches", the "cross" punch is just what I call a "kosa zuki" (ie. a jodan gyaku zuki that starts from a high chambered position and passes through the hypotenuse of the triangle relative to your opponent). Note that the pullback hand can be palm up at the hip or palm down next to the ear or anywhere on an arc between the two positions. While it is arguable that this technique does not exist in karate, it is a very small adjustment to the standard karate punch, moreover it is hinted at in many kata postures and chambers in both karate and its Chinese ancestor arts.

As I have discussed in my article "Visible force vs. applied force", the main difference between karate and boxing is that karate punches concentrate on bare knuckle fighting. This involves more focus kime and less "push" effect/follow through (which is necessary when fighting with gloves). By way of analogy, the difference between boxing and karate is like the difference between being hit with a pillow or being flicked with a wet towel. How you fight depends on what weapons (in this case gloved or bare hands) and blocks (none for boxers) you have to fight with. This is also why boxers keep their gloves close to their face whereas karateka (like the bare knuckle boxers of old) keep their fists well away from their own face in a kamae (guard position) (see my article "The karate 'kamae' or guard".

Keeping your back heel on the floor isolates the punch (ie. it enables you to practice it in isolation). Lifting the heel makes it feel more powerful because you are throwing your whole body in, but it disguises how powerful your punch is alone. If you want to develop your punch, try to get the same effect by not lifting the heel. Remember also that a fully committed punch (body and all) is dangerous unless you land it convincingly. People don't stand there like a punching bag/pad does. Every attack leaves an opening. If you overcommit you leave a bigger and more dangerous opening, and risk overbalancing. In the end it's all a matter of degree. Practice both controlled punches and occasionally go "all out" on the bag for power practice.

There is nothing wrong with breathing through the nose. In fact it is dangerous to get into the habit of breathing out through the mouth on every outward thrust. This not only sets up a rhythm for your opponent but it may mean that you end up unable to punch with full effectiveness mid breath or while inhaling.

Karate punches should utilise a rounded shoulder (although again, this does not mean turning the body and overcommitting). Punching with square shoulders is, in my view, a result of overemphasis on aesthetics. Think of your shoulder positioning in push ups and you'll see your shoulders are slightly rounded across the upper back. If your shoulders are completely "square" with the body it becomes impossible to do the push up. Chinese 'internal' artists talk about the importance of keeping a rounded "C-back". The Chinese say that not having a a C-back "cuts off the chi". For that matter, think of a good boxer; his/her back is always rounded when his arms are up.

The reason hitting the bag/shield etc with "boxing style" follow through punches feels more powerful is because you have more "push effect" to your punches and hence the results are more visible. Remember that the shields are similar to boxing gloves in that they are hard to focus through. Bare knuckle punches however are focused to create a hydrostatic shock in the opponent. This means that the energy transmitted into the opponent will be used destructively with less wasted on moving or pushing the opponent. If you don gloves it is very difficult to create that hydrostatic shock. You have to resort to punches that necessarily utilise more "push" effect. However these punches are necessarily less economical. Remember that the further your opponent is pushed by your blow, the less your energy was expended on destructive force. As an extreme example, contrast a simple push with the palm of the hand with a focussed slapping blow (kaisho uchi) to the side of the head that doesn't push back the opponent at all - which one is more destructive? Even in boxing the best knockout blows drop an opponent on the spot with a concussive blow rather than knock him across the ring.

Seisan kata, featuring 3 "retracting" kizami zuki

The reason makiwara practice is useful is because it trains focus (kime) for bare knuckle fighters, ie. a destructive hydrostatic shock blow. You cannot punch the makiwara effectively if you resort to a pushing/follow through punch. The best makiwara punch hits the makiwara with a resounding thwack, while the makiwara recoils from the punch and snaps back to the knuckles half a second later. You don't necessarily need a makiwara for training punches. Telephone books held an inch or so from a tensed stomach are equally effective. You can tell a focused punch the moment you hit the book. What's more, the punch is exactly the same as the one you use in air punching.

A telephone book punching drill

You will see that attempting to jab at a telephone book will, in beginners, produce a very poor effect because most of the energy of the punch is pulled back or reabsorbed into the puncher with the snap back. That's why we start with a basic thrust. Later we practice kizami zuki with a snap back when sufficient focus is developed to impart the energy fully before the punch is retracted. As I said earlier, the retracting speed doesn't help the outward speed. And as for the problem that he might grab you arm, well that's where your Chin-na comes in. In Goju Ryu we certainly use this to our advantage.

A video showing "pushing" vs. "shock" kicks

There is a reason that kicks and punches are different. Legs are larger and heavier and up to 3 times as powerful as your arms. You simply don't need to develop your focus as keenly on your kicks in order to be effective. What's more, the subtlety in your hand techniques is difficult to duplicate in your lower limbs (that's why we don't all write with our feet). This is why kicks are useful in stopping a charging attacker in his tracks whereas punches are better suited to focused "shock" strikes (think of the slap example above). Lastly, whenever you kick you are compromising your balance in the worst possible way and hence leaving the biggest opening. The fastest possible snap back is essential for beginners. Later they learn thrusting kicks when they have more stability and skill.

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic