Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Naifunchin/naihanchi and goju-ryu

We have always taught the kata we call naifunchin (naihanchi shodan) along with the goju kata (we teach naifunchin just after saifa). Even so it is not an especially popular kata because it is so different. It really has nothing in common with the other kata (no goju kata uses kiba dachi - a horse stance where both feet point forward - but instead the kata use shiko dachi where the feet point outwards at 45 degrees). Some “shorin” schools practice naifunchin with shiko dachi and not kiba dachi - eg. Tomari te, however this might be due to the influence of Naha‑te, rather than reflecting its original form.

Despite its somewhat "strange" feeling and uniqueness, we find that it is a very useful "conditioning" kata (heishugata) and would not consider dropping it from the syllabus. But I’ve often wondered why we, as a goju-based school, should have adopted this kata.

The simple answer has always been that our instructors originally studied Kyokushinkai, then Shotokan in Japan in the 60s. Both schools practise naifunchin in a manner similar to what we do today (Mas Oyama studied his “naifanchin” directly from Gichin Funakoshi). But why did we retain this kata when we converted to goju-ryu in the late 60s? And why not naihanchin nidan and sandan – or indeed any other shorin karate form?

There appears to be some precedent for the study of naifunchin (shodan, of course) in goju schools. I keep reading references to Miyagi and naihanchi. The most recent I recall is an interview with Anthony Mirakian in Meibukan Magazine No. 4. In that interview Mirakian refers to Chojun Miyagi teaching naifanchi, and that in the 50’s he trained naifanchi with Meitoku Yagi.

I recall Russ Smith saying somewhere that naifanchi had been practised in the Seiko Higa dojo by some of the seniors.

A more primary historical source is of course the 1936 meeting of Okinawan karate masters where Miyagi was quoted as listing “sanchin, tensho and naifanchi” as fundamental kata (see Sanizoo’s translation of the minutes). However I don’t think Miyagi’s comment can necessarily be taken to mean that he taught naifanchi (at least as a formal part of his syllabus) any more than Chiban Choshin can be taken to have taught tensho. Instead Miyagi seems to have been talking about a systematic method of teaching where the teaching of fundamental kata (heishugata) should precede other kata (kaishugata).

What is clear from the 1936 meeting is that naifunchin is/was to the "shorin" systems what sanchin is/was to the Naha-te systems (eg. goju, ryuei ryu and uechi ryu) — a fundamental kata. It also seems likely that each of the masters were aware of, and could probably perform, each other’s fundamental kata.

So why was naifunchin never formally part of the goju curriculum? I'm guessing, but it might have felt incompatible in its techniques and emphasis with the Naha-te kata. However my guess is also that naifunchin was nonetheless practised (at least occasionally) by Miyagi and his students. This in turn reflected earlier times: when the Okinawans studied just “karate” and not a style of karate; when they felt free to combine kata from different teachers (and even modify them), perhaps in the subconscious realisation that each teacher, and each student, ultimately had his (or her) own “style”.

With the 20th century influence of Japanese martial schools and their strict technical “hereditary” traditions this devolved to “borrowing” only the fundamental kata of another’s school. By the 1960s when my instructors went to Japan and Okinawa even this pared-back tradition was kept alive by relatively few.

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Daoism, Buddhism and the Martial Arts

I get the impression that Daoist thought and xingyiquan-like internal arts developed largely in tandem about 600 years ago without any Shaolin/Ch’an Buddhist influence at all (ie. they are truly “indigenous” arts, much like the original Okinawa te). The Shaolin school of external arts was a later development via India, bringing with it a “second wave” of thought and a second wave of martial tradition influenced by yogic exercise and health concepts.

These spread/developed in tandem, but were not strictly related. The fact that monasteries became training grounds for various warlords may have strengthened the link between Ch’an Buddhism and the external arts. I get the feeling that initially the monasteries would have taught an “indigenous” xingyi-like arts, but that over time the Ch’an Buddhist/yogic influence conspired to evolve these arts into what we now call the “external” or Shaolin tradition. Their emphasis on pragmatic, effective exercise (cf. the somewhat theoretical and philosophical internal arts tradition) would have assisted this ‘drift’ to the external arts.

The differences are notable by comparing, say, the Cantonese martial tradition with the Western Chinese Muslim traditions: the former is heavily influenced by external Buddhist linked arts where the latter remains firmly based in xingyi type traditions (called “xinyi”) – ie. neither the Buddhist tradition nor the external arts made any significant inroad. This is a generalization of course, as is this entire potted account.

However I find it odd that even with the introduction of Buddhism and Islam, the development of Confucian thought (superimposed on the earlier Daoist tradition) managed to continue to assert an underlying influence on Chinese society and martial art tradition. I think that baguazhang and taijiquan are relatively late developments (evolving in that order) from the neo-Confucian thought that fused Daoism and Confucianism some time in the late 1700s to the mid 1800s. I think these schools of martial art were distinct from the Shaolin school both technically and in as much as they did not play a role in political/military affairs.

Nonetheless the external and internal arts were not clearly delineated in the minds of the Chinese people until quite recently – much like pagan customs and festivals became interwoven with Christian thought in Europe. They were, nonetheless, quite different and many teachers would teach both internal and external arts (as is the case today). My internal arts teacher Chen Yun Ching speaks in largely Daoist language, yet is a practising Buddhist. He will teach taiji, bagua and xingyi to one student and shaolin to another.

In some cases the martial traditions fused along with the religious/philosophical thoughts – eg. I believe that the Hakka schools of bak mei (white eyebrow) and Southern Mantis (no relation to the external mantis) schools are variants of early xingyiquan with external influences. These schools further devolved into arts such as White Crane and then Wing Chun, however by this stage the “internal” emphasis had waned somewhat, as had the Daoist connection, while the Shaolin “monk fist” (arhat) school influence increased.

I think neo-Confucianism (as expressed in, say, the I-Ching) is said to have its physical manifestation in bagua, which is said to follow (literally) the 8 trigrams and 64 hexagrams (the 8 palm changes being the base). It is bewilderingly complex in a Confucian way, just as xingyi is brutally simple and linear in a Daoist way. Having said that, it seems to me that bagua still retains much of xingyi’s core philosophy, which is why it is “neo-Con” and not “Con”!

As to the Indian origins – I am sure this has been greatly exaggerated in oral history. However yogic breathing and exercises did make their way into China with Buddhism and I am certain that their “external” pragmatism influenced the development of the Shaolin tradition. For example, people have often asked me whether yoga and taiji are similar and my reply is that they are fundamentally different: yoga is akin to karate but has nothing to do with taiji in terms of breathing, muscular tension (or lack of it), flow etc.

It is these arts and this complex mix of philosophical and religious thought that was introduced to Okinawa, principally in the mid 1800s onwards (I don’t believe the martial traditions predating this period in Okinawa were at all similar to say Higaonna’s or Miyagi’s or Itosu’s karate, despite the “36 families” at Kume village etc. Rather the available evidence is that they had an indigenous wrestling tradition and a very primitive striking art.

Where things become a little confusing is that the Okinawans clearly had their own belief systems. While heavily influenced by the Chinese and Satsuma Japanese, these traditions remained. It is for this reason that even today we have a shomen in the dojo reflecting an underlying “ancestor worship” culture, the animist traditions of bowing to the dojo etc. while Buddhist numerology heavily influences superstitions such as naming conventions (sanseiru, etc.).

I think the Daoist influence of the arts that came to Okinawa cannot be ignored. It brought or at least confirmed a culture of quietism (which I consider a later manifestation/development of Daoism – eg. texts such as the Lieh Tze) making Okinawa ripe for such things as the worlds first “weapons control” laws. At the same time the zen influence was quite strong as many Okinawans adopted the latest cultural trends from China (along with their writing, manners and customs, etc.).

It seems to me that Okinawa, like Great Britain, represents a real melting pot of religion, language and the arts and, being an island, preserves in a “time capsule” some of the earlier manifestations of these. It is for this reason that I am always surprised to find extant “karate-like” arts on the mainland. It is more common to find them off-shore in places like the Phillipines (eg. ngo cho kun or 5 ancestor fist).

I really don’t think there is much good literature on this subject. Serious sinologists are wary of martial history – it is seen as an unseemly sidestep into “chop-socky” or alternatively “new age”, yet this is an area that is crying out for serious historical and technical analysis. Academics like Alan Watts started to sound seriously loopy when they delved, however briefly, into this area.

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic

Thursday, February 12, 2009

What is "traditional"?

Lately I have become intrigued by the term "traditional". It is frequently used to distinguish martial arts such as karate or taijiquan from modern combat sports such as MMA.

At this point it seems profitable to distinguish "traditional" from what many call "classical". My esteemed colleague Victor Smith defines the latter (for the purposes of karate) as pre-1920s, the "traditional" era as dating from the '20s to the '50s and the "modern" era as dating from then onwards.1 While this is quite a useful "potted account", in this discussion I am not particularly interested in the "classical" era; there are few people who maintain that they are studying something that they know with reasonable certainty has a high fidelity to what was taught more than 80 years ago. Those who study such "classical" arts (eg. Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu - the oldest existent samurai arts school) are few and far between. The rest of us who train in "traditional" martial arts assume a level of fidelity to the past but accept that there has been some evolution, whether conscious or unconscious, from the "classical" era to the present. We don't claim to be preserving absolutely intact an art form that dates from antiquity (as opposed to, say, linguists who study nearly extinct Finno-Ugric languages, in which case the exact transmission of traditional songs is seen as the key to the preservation and perhaps revival of those languages2).

So this raises the question - what do we mean when we say we are studying a "traditional" art? What makes one art "traditional" where another is regarded as "modern"? Both might well acknowledge roots in the past and both might accept a level of "evolution". Yet when we compare MAA and goju ryu karate we have no difficulty in describing the former as a "modern" school and the latter as a "traditional" school.

Again - it is not so much that some schools are more or less "original" to what was taught 80 years ago; clearly some will be more so than others. Each kaiha (school) of goju ryu karate holds the view that it is "more like Miyagi's goju" than the the others, yet we see considerable variations between IOGKF, Jundokan, Higa's Shudokan, Shoreikan, Meibukan, Goju kai etc. - not to mention the variations in goju's sister school tou'on ryu. Who is the most "authentic"? The same debate exists in shorin ryu karate; which of Itosu's, Funakoshi's, Chibana's, Motobu's or Nagamine's student's best preserves or approximates the karate of the legendary Sokon Matsumura (acknowledged as the founder of the shorin tradition)?

Put another way, who has the most "authentic" version of a particular traditional style - and does it really matter? What point do you choose as "ground zero"? In the case of goju ryu is it the style of Chojun Miyagi just before his death? Or is it the style of Kanryo Higaonna (Miyagi's teacher)? Why not Ryu Ryu Ko (Higaonna's Chinese teacher)? What if Morio Higaonna, head of today's IOGKF, has improved upon what his teachers have taught him in some subtle way?

It seems that at some point the whole question of "tradition" (and therefore "authenticity") starts to become both ephemeral and irrelevant. Rather the issue is one of "dilution". What do I mean by this?

To answer this question I will start by making the following observation: I think it is important not to rashly excise past methods since you might "throw the baby out with the bathwater". I try to see what each kaiha/school of a particular traditional martial art does. I make an educated guess as to what I think the "original" (whatever that might mean) might have been. But regardless, I do what I think works, preserving the knowledge that was handed down to me (or that I have otherwise researched) intact - just in case my assumptions are incorrect and I've missed something important.

To me, "dilution" consists of rash excisions or changes to traditional technique made without understanding their function - resulting in loss of information/knowledge and a "poorer" version of that technique or one that doesn't work at all.

You can see this in many McDojo but also in some purportedly traditional schools too. It happens everywhere - to all of us. We are human and we can't look inside our teacher's minds. Sometimes we improve upon the past, sometimes we don't. However some schools consist of diluted stuff and little else. These are what my friend Jeff Mann describes as "punch/kick" schools. There are shades of grey in between.

It seems to me that traditional techniques in Okinawa were often dilutions of Chinese techniques. Sometimes they were improved versions. Whichever way you look at it, the Okinawans did change things. But each of them felt he or she was preserving some essence of the quan fa their art was based upon. Arts do evolve. You need only look at Su Dong Chen (a very effective full contact fighter in his day) and his "Essence of Evolution"3 to see how his own style has changed from his days with Hong Yi Xiang. I have footage of Hong doing Chen Pan-Ling's combat-oriented taiji and see subtle, but significant, differences to the art which Chen Pan-Ling taught him.

A video showing Su Dong Chen's "evolved" form of the internal arts

The issue here is not with "evolution". It is with wholesale "abandonment" of past methods. However effective modern combat sports are, they have in my view rashly excised or changed many techniques from traditional schools that are genuinely useful. They have done so without understanding their function in civilian defence (or perhaps because they were taught poorer/diluted versions themselves and rightly rejected these). I have always felt that what sport fighters do is eminently suitable for its purpose. In my experience the reverse view (that traditional methods are useful in self-defence) is often derided by sports combat practitioners.

So this brings us back to the central question: what makes an art traditional? At what point does a martial system cross the line of "traditional" and become "modern"?

Clearly "traditional" cannot refer to a static point in time since arts are constantly evolving, even at an unconscious level. If you look at the things I did a decade ago and how I do them now you'll probably see big differences (even if I am not aware of them).

Are our "traditional" Christmas celebrations ones that date from specific, static period? The answer is no. There was no "Santa Clause" as we know him until the cheery old man in a red suit appeared somewhere at the turn of the last century (some say because of Coca-Cola marketing but this is actually not the case4). Before that, the bearer of gifts we now call "Saint Nicholas" might have taken the form of an elf, goblin, fairy, group of individuals or an animal. In other places in Western Europe the entire "Saint Nick + presents" custom was absent entirely. Ditto the Christmas tree, tinsel, holly, roast turkey etc. If you went back even to the '40s you'd be surprised at how different the "tradition" was. Yet Christmas is, nevertheless, a "tradition".

I think the conundrum exists because the word "tradition" describes something that is constantly evolving, but at a specific (rather slower) rate than, say, the transition from karate to MMA. How and where one could delineate the point at which an art was "traditional" or not is difficult to say. Is American goju (as opposed to, say, Goju kai from which it is descended) "traditional"? For my purposes, it is. It is evolving at a rate that makes it identifiably a traditional system. It arguably departs from Miyagi's system as much as many mainland Japanese systems have - but in a different direction. By contrast, what is taught in MMA gyms is not remotely in the "traditional" ballpark.


1. See my quote of one of Victor's comments at the Traditional Fighting Arts Forum here.

2. Consider the Livonian language in Latvia which is close to extinction. Efforts at preserving the language focus on recording traditional songs which provide a valuable key to grammar, syntax, intonation as well as history and mythology (see this article as an example).

3. See Su Dong Chen's site Essence of Evolution.

4. See this article on Snopes.

Copyright © 2009 Dejan Djurdjevic

Friday, February 6, 2009

Kata - as a vital training tool

In my opinion kata is a very effective training tool on a multitude of levels. If nothing else, it is an excellent solo training exercise for building anaerobic and aerobic fitness. Try doing 40 seiyunchin kata in a row. Boxers do exercises like skipping and shadow boxing because they are good for fitness and coordination etc.. But skipping etc. have nothing on kata. This is because the low stances and dynamic tension in kata come nearest (in solo practice) to mimicking the tension and stress your body is under in combat. Notice I said "nearest" - nothing will replicate the stress of real fighting. Come on folks, do the challenge. Can you manage 40 full power seiyunchin kata in a row? And that is just for starters. The most I have ever done of a kata (our Fukyugata ichi) is over 300 in a row. In any event, kata does not replace kicking bags, sparring, etc. It complements it.

From a technical perspective, kata is also an important tool for grooving combinations and tenshin/taisabaki (body evasion) — particularly when you combine this with embu (2 person forms such as the ones we have included in our syllabus).

Talking about “grooving” reminds me of the old karate maxim "mizu no kokoro" which means "mind like water". This concept is found in one of our dojo kun: "a tranquil and alert mind produces reflex thought and action".

When you look at a top tennis player executing a complex series of returns you realise that he/she is not consciously "thinking" of what to do – the reaction is too fast for conscious thought. Yet at the same time the movements are effective as well as creative.

This is because the creative/lateral thinking part of the brain (generalised by many as the right hemisphere) does not correspond with the part of the brain responsible for cognitive reasoning. Yet it is precisely this part of the brain we must use in responding to a threat. You simply don't have time to think "he's about to punch me in the face, so I'll do a sideways tai sabaki with a age uke, followed by a chudan gyaku zuki/mae geri combo". Instead you respond reflexively. If you train long and hard enough, your body will groove responses which your body will utilise in its reflex response. This is partly why we use embu/2 person forms. Grooving endless repetitions of realistic taisabaki with a counter sets you up for appropriate reflex response.

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic

Kata - art or science?

Kata assembly is of particular interest to me in relation not only to its ability to summarise technical information in an aesthetic, economical and balanced manner, but also in its ability to impart essential kinesthetic prinicples to the practitioner. In other words, kata should teach you how to move (taisabaki and tenshin), breathe, tense certain muscles, balance, focus, hold or shift centre of gravity etc.

Often enough the technical information can only be effected with an understanding and mastery of the kinesthetics taught by a kata. In some respects the subtle "understanding" one derives about one's own body mechanics from practising a kata over and over again feed directly into an understanding and ability to apply bunkai from the kata. The real genius behind the design of the kata is that they can all impart this knowledge if practiced correctly and frequently.

I get the feeling that those who designed the kata did so intuitively based on their own experience and expertise. I very much doubt any scientific or pseudo scientific calculations or methodologies were employed. If they were, it was after the construction of the kata, perhaps as a justification or explanation to those viewing or performing the result.

In this regard I see the kata as being very similar to poems. If you asked Shakespeare, Wordsworth, ee cummings etc why they wrote a poem a particular way, I doubt they would say something like "the iambic pentameter provided an uplifting rhythm while the onomatopoeia and assonance juxtaposed with the formal structure to achieve the effect", although someone else studying it later might deconstruct it along those lines.

In other words, it might be interesting to analyse whether a kata employs certain biomechanical/kinaesthetic principles (or, for that matter, whether it “flows along mandalas” or “stimulates charkas” etc.), however I doubt that this was in mind of the inventor, at least in a conscious way. Genius can rarely express its method with precision, merely its result.

Perhaps this is because humans employ a lateral thinking that is quite different from the linear logic of computers. And martial arts in particular rely on lateral rather than linear response. Consider for a moment whether your response to a sudden punch is logical (ie. "I think I will use a rising deflection followed by a mawashi zuki to respond to this attack") or intuitive/lateral/instantaneous.

I don't mean to suggest that an analysis of kata along the lines suggested is a waste of time - merely that it is an exercise in deconstruction, not reconstruction.

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic

Monday, February 2, 2009

Form and formality in martial arts techniques

Cross referring the internal arts and goju has helped me discern not only a possible historical and technical relationship, but more importantly it has helped me understand the function of "formal" training, such as kata. I think that seeing how someone else does the same thing can give you a great deal of insight into what it is you are doing and why.

Ultimately we all want to effect a natural, "no-nonsense" technique. However it seems to me that many “modern” stylists have thrown the baby out with the bathwater by abandoning the "formal" aspects of traditional martial arts, not realising that these have a training purpose (not unlike the speedball might have a particular training purpose for a boxer, even though no boxer ever "hits someone like that").

I have found the Chen Pan Ling taijiquan movements generally correspond the most with minimalist, natural way of moving. Bagua and xingyi tend to have progressively greater elements of "formality" in the movement. I think the formality is not there for its own sake, but to focus attention on certain aspects that are vital in producing an effective technique (eg. tension in a particular muscle, lack of tension in another).

In my opinion karate techniques are, yet again, even more “formal” than the internal arts of xingyi, bagua and taiji. This formality can be seen not only in the basics (which many argue cannot be applied in sparring — more on this contentious subject later) but also in the tempo and “phrasing” of kata performance. For example, sometimes a kata employs dynamic tension at a particular point in a movement to prepare the body for encountering resistance.

In this regard it is interesting to note that both Chen Pan Ling and Hong Yi Xiang of Taiwan taught their arts in the following order: an external Shaolin art (comparable to karate), xingyiquan, baguazhang, then taijiquan. The justification for this methodology is that you start with less "natural" movements, but spend necessary time training in basic skills, muscle development etc. When you have become sufficiently senior you "abandon form" so that you are moving naturally - almost like a beginner, but this time with purpose and efficacy.

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic