Monday, June 29, 2009

Can karate become taiji?

My friend Frank "Magpie" posed this question on the Traditional Fighting Arts Forum:
    "What i want to ask all you guys that do internal arts is this.

    Lets say I practiced shotokan kata like Kanku Dai, Jion, Heian etc. etc. just as slow as a tai chi practicioner practices tai chi, let's say that I breathe in for blocks and out for strikes, all movement is slomo, there is no kime or any sort of tension the whole body is relaxed.

    Would this have the same health benefits to the body as tai chi does?

    If not why not?"
Well, that's a fascinating question.

It reminds me of this video on Youtube of a karate kata in relation to which a viewer commented: "It looks like taichi". I answered: "No it doesn't."

USA Goju "Mawashi uke kata" done "slowly" - but it is nothing like taijiquan!

So you can guess that my short answer to Magpie's question is:

No - karate done slowly is not like taijiquan. The reason comes down to design, specifically in relation to the connectivity of movements.

A longer answer is to examine the design of taiji as follows:

First you should take note of what I call the "weight transfer" principle: when you perform taiji your weight is constantly shifting from one foot to the other; forwards into a blow, and backwards when you are evading.

It is often said that taiji is never "double weighted" (ie. as per the horse stance) however this is a bit of a misnomer. In fact, in taiji as in any martial art, as you transfer your weight from one foot to the other, your body will necessarily pass a mid-point where your weight is evenly distributed (albeit briefly) over both feet. The point remains however that taiji tries to minimize the time during which one is "double weighted".

This brings me to my second point which is this:

The weight transfer principle is, to the extent possible, applied to every movement; there is very little time where you are not in the process of transferring weight directly into a technique. Put another way, taiji minimizes "dead" time - something I'll elaborate on in a moment.

This is quite different to karate or most "external" arts of China. Consider heian shodan / pinan nidan after your first punch as an example (see the pictures on the left).

You have stepped into a deep zenkutsu (common to taiji) and punched with your leading arm (nothing different here per se although taiji prefers reverse counters). What is significant is that in taiji your next move would tie your weight transfer backwards with a technique (say a deflection). This deflection would happen before your leg crosses the mid line of your body and become part of that movement. Heian shodan does not do this however. It makes you shoot your leg behind you, lets your bodyweight transfer over the mid-line of your body and only then do you start to apply a downward deflection.

Now it is important to note my third point:

In any step you don't start applying any force to your opponent (in a strike or block) until you cross that mid-line. I call the period before you pass the mid-line in any step "dead" time.

The 3 main internal arts of China put a premium on avoiding this "dead" time or at least minimizing it. They each approach this task in very different ways.

In xingyi this is often done by moving the leading foot first so that you are immediately exerting force. Your follow up step then shortens the "dead" time because your momentum has built up enabling a fast step through. If you want to see how karate might look utilizing this xingyi principle, look at the video below:

I demonstrate how goju ryu might look if it applied xingyi weight transfer concepts.

In taiji the minimization of "dead" time is done through maintaining a fluid and contextually relevant transfer of weight at all times. This means that unlike xingyi, taiji flows.

Consider brush knee - a gedan (low) deflection followed by a reverse palm strike (could be a punch) as a counter (see the pictures to the right):

Note how after the first strike your weight shifts back to do a chest deflection, and only then do you move your momentum forward into your opponent with another (low) deflection and a reverse counter. Even though you move over your mid-line, you do so as part of the application of a technique or otherwise contextually so that the "dead" time is not going to be utilized by your opponent. In the case of brush knee, your "dead" time is absorbed into the chest deflection. Put another way, you use the process of the deflection as an opportunity to move towards the mid-line. Moreover your "dead" time also occurs when your opponent (who has been deflected at full extension) is withdrawing. You move with him across the mid-line and load for a second deflection - this time a downward block. By the time you perform the downward deflection and counter (they flow into one another) you are, once again, using your full body weight.

This kind of design permits a state of constant movement.

Again, compare this with the 3 forward steps in heian shodan and I'm sure you agree that without some serious redesigning, it cannot be done continuously in the same way.

The first section of Chen Pan-Ling's "99" taiji form

Doing it slowly will be... slow karate - not taiji.

So in short, taiji is designed for continuous flowing movement - one movement feeding straight into another with as little "dead" time as possible.

On this note, taij is calming/meditative precisely because you feel like you are in free-fall; the constant movement actually makes you feel like you are floating or flying. It is a hard feeling to capture; it takes years to have that level of control and skill, and even now I have times where I find it hard to capture the right feeling with certain movements. This feeling comes out of both the design and one's ability to control one's core muscles (the little stabilizing ones) that enable such precise, slow weight transfer.

Others will, in distinguishing karate and taiji, no doubt go into the theories espoused in classical writings - eg. the six harmonies etc. I find this kind of talk obfuscates (rather than exposes) the essential differences so I have tried to limit my brief account to structural design - specifically the weight transfer (since this is the primary distinguishing feature when it comes to the slow movement of taijiquan).*

[* Note that there are other relevant distinguishing features of taijiquan and the internal arts generally, however I will have to deal with these another time.]

It is possible to do karate techniques in a slow taiji way. It is possible to do karate techniques in a xingyi way or a bagua way. However the katas themselves are not designed with this "way" in mind. You would have to redesign the kata substantially in order to make, say, Jion, be "like taiji". In my experience if you try to modify a karate kata along internal arts lines you end up "building a new beast". This is usually a pointless endeavour as many of the bunkai of karate kata would necessarily be lost in any attempt to make them "taiji like" or "xingyi like" or "bagua like".

I am no stranger to designing forms, as you know. My own "nagegata" forms were designed using stray projections or throws taught to me by my teacher after his trips to Taiwan. I have put them together utilizing taiji, xingyi and bagua concepts for the weight transfer, but often using karate stances and hand movements (because of my familiarity with them - eg. hiki/kake uke from goju).

My nagegata sho or touxing chu form. Note the flow and taiji-like weight transfer principles being employed.

The first nagegata form which features taiji like weight transfer - note the flow. It is possible to perform this kata slowly like taiji if you wanted to (it isn't quite as nice a feeling though - it simply isn't designed to be taiji despite its "flow" aspect!).

My nagegata dai or touxing da form. Note the mixture of internal arts weight transfer principles being employed.

The second nagegata form which features xingyi, bagua and taiji weight transfer principles; note at around 0:13, 0:15 and 0:26 the fact that the front foot shifts forward to exert immediate force on the opponent and allow the step through with minimal "dead" time. Note from 0:16 to 0:20 how I have connected the techniques so that they follow the natural steps absorbing the "dead" time contextually.

These forms are really a product of my own karate background as well as my internal arts studies. Importantly they are not an attempt to create something new. Rather, they are my attempt to "package" techniques that have internal arts leanings. The are also not an attempt to "internalise" karate. One can indulge in little exercises as I have in the context of experimenting and exploring, but the karate kata themselves work well enough and don't require any "internalisation". Karate does not focus so heavily on weight transfer and other things that are focal points in the internal arts. Its pedagogy is quite different and if you mess with it you will invariably lose important applications as I have stated above.

So in the end there is a lot more to taijiquan than moving slowly. Rather it is characterised by the fact that it has been designed for flow. When done slowly taiji helps you develop and strengthen the many small, core, stablilising muscles that are used in the context of this flow. Karate and other external arts can be done slowly, but they will not be remotely the same in feel, function or goal.

That said, what about health benefits? I believe any martial art performed correctly is good for your health. I don't subscribe to the Eastern paradigm of qi meridians etc. so I don't think there are any specific "internal" health benefits to taiji practise.

Where taiji comes into its own is in its slow transfer of weight which strengthens your core stabilising muscles. It also puts you through a very thorough range of motion (including very low postures) which can keep you supple - all in the context of very low impact movement. The slow speed also decreases chances of injury. However taiji does not have any particular monopoly in this regard; the same can be said of any activity. While arts like karate tend to be practised in a more contact-oriented environment, there is no reason why they should be. Furthermore, a bit of sweat is good for you.

For me taiji's principal health benefit is in its meditative quality; maintaining the correct technique and the "free-fall" feeling requires a great degree of concentration that puts your brain into an alpha-wave state. Accordingly taiji seems uniquely suited to the purpose of "moving mediation". However others might disagree on this point; it is, after all, a matter of personal preference.

Copyright © 2009 Dejan Djurdjevic

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Genius and the "13 count" jo form

There is a jo form practised in aikido that is commonly referred to as the "13 count" form or drill. I do not know who created it. It was taught to me as a 16 count1 form by my teacher Bob Davies who I believe learned it from the late aikido master Ken Cottier, a direct student of aikido founder Morihei Ueshiba but also a student of Morihiro Saito who it seems created the current 13 count form.2

Near as I can tell from watching this form on the net, very few, if any, people know that it is actually a 2 person form - or more particularly, that it functions as a looping 2 person form where both sides do precisely the same sequence.

A video showing the 16 or 13 count jo form with 2 person application

On Youtube I see some people practising it with extra movements while some miss out certain movements altogether. Sometimes the movements are there, but are performed with the wrong emphasis.3 How do I know this? I feel that the kata's applicability as a 2 person set provides a litmus test.

In some schools, 2 person application of this kata takes the form of well-executed sequential bunkai but not a 2 person set as such (see below, for example).

A well-executed series of bunkai of the "13" count jo form

In other cases there appears to be a "corporate memory" that the form can be practised as a 2 person set - however the means by which it should be rendered into a 2 person paradigm appear to have been lost. In those cases it is common to see the form practised against an RNA type "opposite side". In order to achieve this "fit", the "kata side" of the form is invariably modified as well.

There is even one group that say they have "almost" worked out a 2 person continuous application of the form, but "there are slight differences between the side that goes first, and the side that follows". I admire their efforts but think they have some fundamental misunderstandings in relation to it. Once you understand the application of the form's techniques you will observe that it requires no modification at all to function perfectly as a 2 person looping set - ie. where both sides doing the same thing. It is like an elegant puzzle or a mathematics equation; there is one and only one answer.

A valiant, but in my view misconceived, attempt to apply the 13 count jo form as a 2 person "looping" set

My own teacher seemed aware of the correct 2 person application of this form because he described it as "a work of genius", hinting that it had "an extra dimension" (one which he never showed me!).

In fact, I discovered this added dimension quite accidentally in early 1997 while training with my good friend Craig Dunlop at our now defunct Carine dojo. I had devised a series of bunkai of this jo form utilising the kata moves against each other. At one point during our practise Craig remarked to me that we had just done a full circle; both of us had just completed the kata during the bunkai practise, starting at different points. Craig thought I had done this on purpose, but of course I hadn't.

Some years later I sent my instructor a video of the 2 person version of the jo form. He sent me back a smiley face.

The revelation I had concerning this form has had a profound effect on my own curriculum; for one thing it has influenced me greatly in developing our embu, all of which are based on a similar template.

What is more impressive to me about the form than simply its 2 person application is that the individual applications are so well conceived: if your attacker does x you do y but simultaenously cut off a, b and c etc. In other words, the techniques in the form head off any number of counters that might otherwise be made, necessarily narrowing the options and channelling the performers into the flow of the 2 person application.3

Accordingly I think that the creator of the form had a near-perfect understanding of the destructive and constructive cycle of the 7 essential techniques that comprise the "13 count" jo form.

I doubt the video at the outset communicates this complexity adequately; the principles are very subtle and are easily missed. However the form truly is a work of genius. It's a shame that so few people appear to be aware of the nature and extent of that genius.


1. The number of counts one uses in the form is not really important, however if one is to analyse the form by reference to the 7 point star of constructive and destructive cycles, 13 is entirely appropriate. I still call the kata "juroku" (16) because the added counts focus on some subtleties that might otherwise be missed.

2. It seems that the 13 count form as we know it was created by Morihiro Saito, a senior student of Ueshiba (see this interview). I have preserved the form exactly as it was taught to me with the exception of one small detail; at the very end of the kata there is a downward pressing deflection which I perform by moving my front leg backwards so that it becomes my rear leg, while the kata as it was originally shown to me has the front leg sweeping sideways. Both moves occur in the 31 count kata (sanjuichi) and at some point I subconsciously substituted the former for the latter. Having done so I am not motivated to change it back as it seems to work very well and ties in with a similar move in xingyi.

3. The biggest difference between most other schools' versions of this kata and how I was taught it lies in the deflection illustrated to the right.

The way I was taught, you push your right hand up the jo as you "open door", effecting a pressure on the incoming thrust and deflecting it (chudan osae uke). This makes for a very subtle manouvre that slips the attack and places you in an ideal counter position. Correspondingly, your opponent finds your counter sliding over the top of his/her thrust. Given the immediacy of your counter your opponent simply does not have time to move backwards to evade you. This leaves your opponent just one option; to carry on his or her forward momentum straight into a jodan gaeshi uke(which is precisely what the kata does - see the series of 4 pictures above showing practise of this form on an open field).

By contrast consider the more common version on the left (one to which all my students default by mistake - so I'm not surprised to see it everywhere). In this version, you move backwards and effect a circular "rubbing" (wax on/off) deflection with your jo.

This might work as a defence but it does not place you in the prime position the above chudan osae uke does. For one thing, you've moved away from your opponent and now have to close the gap. That would be okay if you needed to move away, but the chudan osae uke option shows you that you don't. You can slip the technique quite effectively by opening your hips.

Furthermore, when you move away from your opponent, there is nothing requiring your opponent to keep moving his or her momentum forward into a jodan gaeshi uke (as the kata dictates).

In short, the more common "wax on/off" movement with a backwards evasion "disconnects" the moves in the kata. This one difference is likely the missing link that prevents most aikidoka from realising the 2 person application of this form.

Copyright © 2009 Dejan Djurdjevic

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Which leads - hand or body?

Recently a colleague on the Traditional Fighting Arts forum posed this question and it gave me pause to consider.

My friend Shidokai wrote as follows:
    "How do you lead off strikes? I was never explicitly taught to lead with one or the other until I started my Daito-ryu training, and my teacher was very specific about leading with the hand and then powering with the body after. It was weird at first, as I had always naturally moved from my hips with the assumption that my hand, held steady, would be powered by that. This method actually started to make sense to me a while back, as it is slightly faster, hence why bouncy tag sparring can strike quickly without using body weight.

    I recently saw the same thing in Kelly McCann's combatives training videos, however, he throws his whole body behind the strike. In the video below he explains that it comes from the back heel, but if you watch him do the technique, he's moving his hand first."
The Kelly McCann video to which Shidokai refers is the one below:

Kely MCCann demonstrating self defence against a lapel grab. Note carefully what part of his body moves first in his counter

Indeed I have been told in my internal arts training to think of the hand leading the body - not the reverse. On the other hand you will note from my article "Telegraphing vs. staged activation" that I am a firm believer that "staged activation" is necessary to maximise the force being applied by a particular technique (in other words you work from your biggest body parts, specifically your hip, to your smallest joints (shoulder, elbow, wrist)).

So which is it? Does your hand lead or does your body?

Synchronously enough, my brother Nenad, my good friend Colin Wee, Jeremy "The Anvil" Allen and I were talking about this very topic topic during a sponsor's break on the "Martial Arts Talk Show" (on SportFM 93.1) last Sunday. Jeremy told us how the Australian Institute of Sport had determined that only about 15% of the force applied by a punch comes from your arms. About 60% comes from your hips. The remainder comes from the momentum of your whole body as you lunge or step forward. This fits in neatly with my views on staged activation. But how does it compare to Shidokai's observations? What is going on?

First I will say this: I think the hand cannot help but move when the hip starts to move and vice versa. They are, after all, connected. The hip will "finish" before the punch - which is all that matters.

In other words, it is how they end that determines "staged activation", not how they start. The hand and hip probably start together in all experienced students. Neither "leads".

It is hard to tell in the McCann video because his hips are obscured, however if you look closely you'll note that his hips have actually turned fully before the strike has landed. In other words, Kelly's hips are pretty much in the same position (ie. his torso has the same amount of rotation) in both the "mid-movement" snapshot and the "finished position" snapshot on the left. What confuses the viewer is that Kelly has moved forward (where the last 25% of Kelly's force is being applied). His level of hip rotation is however constant from mid-way through the strike until the end.

A clearer example can be found in stills taken from the video of my brother Nenad doing a gyaku zuki (reverse punch). It is a particularly apposite sequence because it is an "ideal" - intended to illustrate the very principle of "staged activation". When this video was taken I was under the impression that the hip moved before the fist. In fact, it doesn't.

You'll note in picture 1 to the right the starting position for the basic, isolated reverse punch. Note carefully the position of the hips, the shoulders and, in particular, the left fist (with which Nenad is going to punch).

Picture 2 on the left shows Nenad a fraction of a second into the punch. If you look clearly you'll note that the hip, shoulders and fist have all moved. I froze this image as soon as I practicably could after the commencement of the punching sequence. I could find no position where the hip was moving and the fist was not. They are tied together - as one would expect. It is impossible to move the hip and not move both the shoulders and the fist.

By picture 3 you'll note that Nenad's hips are fully rotated. If you doubt me look at picture 4 below. However his shoulders, elbow and fist are still blurred indicating movement. In other words, while they started together, the hip has finished first. This is unsurprising since the rotation of the hips is a relatively small movement compared to the distance the fist must travel.

In picture 4 you will, again, note how the hip is still the same as in picture 3. However in this instance, Nenad's shoulders have reached their final position (relative to picture 5). The elbow is still straightening and his fist is blurred indicating movement in the rest of the arm.

Finally in picture 5 you see the finished position. You will note a small additional turn in the hips at the end which is due to Nenad's over-turning (a matter I shall have to bring to his attention!) however this is irrelevant to the punch. The functional hip use was completed in pictures 1-3. The fact that Nenad has overturned slightly at the end is neither here nor there.

What can we make of this? The answer to the question of which leads - hand or body - is this: neither. The body starts moving as an integrated whole. However which part finishes first is very interesting. It is here that we find all the subtlety that makes for effective staged activation. Your extremities need to finish moving after your torso in order for there to be an effective transfer of momentum from you to your target.

If you find you can't quite apply the same force in the heat of combat that you might against a makiwara or bag, it isn't because you've "led with the hand"; rather it is because you haven't had the opportunity to set up an optimum load (as you can against a stationary target).

Accordingly "which leads - hand or body?" is the wrong question. The question should be "which finishes first - hand or body?". The answer is: "the body" (if by "body" we mean the larger parts of your body).

Having said all this, I must say that what body part you think of when moving in combat (ie. which body part you focus on) can be important. For everyone but the rank beginner, thinking of your fist when punching is going to be more productive than thinking of your hip. By the time you've inculcated staged activation into your movement, you won't need to "think" of your hips moving into a punch - much as you don't consciously think of moving your feet up and down as you climb stairs. Your body's kinaesthetic awareness deals with such tasks on a subconscious level. On the other hand, focussing on moving the hip first can have the effect of (a) slowing you down and (b) telegraphing your intention - particularly when you decide to use a "double hip" as discussed in my "Whole lotta shakin'" article series.

In the end, if you want to punch, just punch. The body will follow suit whether you like it or not. If you want to improve the effectiveness of your technique, pause to consider which body part is finishing it's movement first - don't worry about which part should "lead".

Copyright © 2009 Dejan Djurdjevic

Saturday, June 13, 2009

More details: inverted knife thrusts in goju

Some arguments in favour of an angled nukite in seiyuchin

I have received many responses to my article "Details, details". Some of these have offered arguments for why the ura zuki (inverted knife hand strike) should be 45 degrees relative to the front rather than point straight forward.

Essentially these arguments attempt to prove that the nukite should follow the angle of the shiko (ie. the red arrow in the adjacent picture) rather than follow the angle of your front knee (which points straight forward - ie. the green arrow).

The first reason given is that the nukite could be used to a vulnerable region on the face once the head is pulled down; the region might only be accessible by a “sideways” angle.

This can work, but as with the gojukensha saifa, I think this is creating a different beast - or perhaps just making the best of a poor body structure!

Furthermore, in my opinion the primary application does not involve a head grab; the "sukui uke" (scooping deflection) is a technique designed for wrist/forearm grabs. I make this observation based on the small "rolling wrist" structure of the deflection and many years of using sukui uke in free-sparring. Accordingly the head grab option is for me, at best, an "oyo" (extrapolation). It cannot justify the performance of the kata with a weak angle.

Other colleagues have suggested that when you move to the outside of your opponent, you should use tenshin (body evasion) which will take take you more off the angle of attack, leading to a greater angle in your nukite.

I am a great believer in using tenshin (as you will note from my article “Taisabaki and tenshin: evasion in karate”). In the case of the seiyunchin application above I tend to evade by moving slightly to the side and back (not straight back). That is the case even in my video in my previous article, although the camera angles don't show it. Yet my nukite is not even remotely lined up with my shiko (ie. the red arrow in the picture above). The reason for this is straightforward:

The angle at which you go defend and the angle at which you counter are 2 different things.

For example, consider the picture to the right:

Assume you evaded by moving sideways. I would still expect you to turn to your opponent as you're countering so that your nukite and your front knee both point at the target.

In other words, however you evade, you should respond by moving optimally into your attack. Shiko just isn't designed for sideways type moving. It is designed for this kind of "45 degree" movement relative to your opponent - ie. your shiko is at 45 degrees facing your opponent as you counter attack. You can get into that position from wherever you are after evasion. In my opinion here is simply no reason to move into your counter attack in a sideways shiko dachi (and have to deal with the contextual unsuitability of such movement and the fact that your inverted knife hand is blocked off by your body).

To summarise, the angle of evasion does not equal the angle of counter attack.

As a rule you don't want to fight sideways (I know some sports stylists will disagree, but I feel this is a fundamental point). There are situations where you are unavoidably in a side-on position (the saifa situation above is a good example). However I contend that there is nothing in this seiyunchin move that requires you to adopt a side-on posture (in shiko dachi, of all stances!). And, head grabs aside, I can't see why your strike would have to be angled in line with your shiko unless you were fighting sideways.

The difference between suparinpei and seiyunchin

Now I believe that some karateka have erroneously looked at the kata suparinpei and noted that the ura zuki in that kata (performed in sanchin) is not aimed forward, but rather is angled at 45 degrees to the front. They have then similarly angled their nukite in seiyunchin.

I happen to think the angle in suparinpei's nukite is correct. How do I reconcile this with my stand on the same technique in seiyunchin? The answer is simple; in both kata your forearm should be 45 degrees to your body. This is it's natural position and accordingly its "power" position.

If you doubt me: have your arms at your sides and bend your elbows so that your forearms raise to a horizontal position in a natural way. You'll note that your arms naturally position themselves at a 45 degree angle relative to your body.

The reason that the nukite in seiyunchin should end up facing forward while nukite in suparinpei does not is this: in seiyunchin you are in shiko with your body angled 45 degrees to the front. The further 45 degree angle in your forearm means that your nukite will be 90 degrees to your opponent who is directly in front of you (remember that 45 + 45 = 90). In suparinpei you are in sanchin facing straight forward. Your nukite is thus going to go off at a 45 degree angle relative to the front.

This is not a problem, as you will observe in the video below; because you are in sanchin you can and should get in much closer to your opponent on your counter, negating any of the issues that might arise with the seiyunchin nukite.

A video in which I discuss the angle of the nukite in suparinpei

Accordingly in my view it is erroneous to assume that just because your nukite in suparinpei does not point forward you should make your seiyunchin nukite do the same. Rather you should use your own body as a cue. The golden rule is keep your inverted strikes at 45 degrees to your body. If you do this, your strike will be in its optimum striking position. Whether an ura nukite points straight forward or not in a kata is merely a function of the angle of the stance you happen to be in at the time.

Copyright © 2009 Dejan Djurdjevic

Friday, June 12, 2009

π, Lyoto Machida and other "irrational" things

The other day I was reminiscing with a colleague about high school physics. He was surprised that I could still quote the periodic table which I had memorised all those years ago (H – He – Li, Be – B, C, N, O, F, Ne – Na, Mg – Al, Si, P, S, Cl, Ar – K... you get the picture). “Ah ha,” he countered, “but how about π (pi)?” He could remember it to 6 digits. Digging into the recesses of my memory I surprised myself:
“3.14159265358979323846264338327950288419716939937510582097494459230781640628620899862803482534271106798...” (I think that’s right – you can check it yourselves.)

That little discussion got me thinking. π is of course the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. It is an irrational number – which is to say it cannot be expressed as a ratio of 2 integers. Yes, we commonly see it rendered as the fraction 22/7. But that is an approximation only. π is a number that has unlimited decimal places; its decimal expansion never ends or repeats. I always found the term “irrational” to be wholly fitting. Here is a universal constant that we cannot even express as a fraction. It defies our everyday “logic”. Yet its existence is a matter of fact.

So how was π discovered? How does one stumble across a constant that is “irrational” in this way? The answer is, through experience; you take a circle, measure the circumference and its diameter and go from there. If you do it accurately enough, you will always have the same result: π – a constant that defies our everyday “rationality”; one that is derived experientially.

This got me thinking about the brouhaha surrounding Lyoto Machida, in particular following his bout with Rashad Evans. Many traditional martial artists are pointing to his traditional karate training as the reason for his success, while modern combat sports practitioners remain sceptical of this, to say the least.

Even though I am a traditional martial artist, I have to say that I agree with my colleague Christopher M when he said on the Traditional Fighting Arts Forum: “all this constant floating of him in the TMA community is starting to get ridiculous”.

And yet Machida does have something unique about him – something quite like π; a constant that his opponents cannot describe in their own terms but that they have experienced. To quote MMA writer Sergio Non:
    “Machida's stylistic quirks are becoming a commentary cliche in the MMA press, but that doesn't make them any less unusual or effective -- no one in MMA seems to know how to beat the karate guy. What do you do with a guy who steps back to dodge your blow, then explodes forward before you've reset yourself?”
Steve Morris has an interesting take on it. Naturally it is something he’s “been doing for years”. As he will tell you, “... this is what I’m an expert at. Anybody want to know how to beat Machida? Give me a phone call. No problem.” What is his take? Steve argues quite persuasively that it is about the strategic use of timing. It comes down to understanding, and taking advantage of, the intervals of time operating before a movement, during a movement and after a movement. In summary Steve’s position is as follows:
    “What’s important about Machida isn’t his Shotokan-influenced style of movement, but rather the sense of time that has been instilled in him. You don’t have to study Shotokan, doing the katas, etc. to acquire this heightened sense of time and distance appreciation—in fact, the style is just baggage. What Machida has got and his opponents haven’t got is the ability to sense time, appreciate distance, and read subtle cues (physical or psychological) in his opponent’s behaviour that allow him to take the initiative and keep it.”
I suspect that Steve is right that timing is Machida’s greatest strength. And I think that his shotokan heritage is overplayed. Unlike Steve however I don’t think his shotokan training can be dismissed either. It might not be the sum of Machida’s skills but it has played an important, I would say vital, role in making him into the fighter that he is. And it is precisely this element that has differentiated him from his opponents who invariably have no similarity in training background.

As Steve says: “you have to be able to move without visible preparation and with great economy”. What has given Machida this ability? For one thing, I have no doubt that this is partly a function of his many tens if not hundreds of thousands of zenkutsu dachi (forward stance) steps up and down the floor – each one watched by his sensei so that any element of “telegraph” – even a twitch of the front foot before a step-through – is “penalised” (in my case it was often with a whack from a shinai (split bamboo) sword).

Those countless hours of sweat undoubtedly also produced the requisite muscle memory and muscle strength to take advantage of timing; his explosive movement in and out of what I call the melee is highly evident of this.

The tradional stance-work Machida did might seem to be "baggage" when viewed in isolation. This traditional training might even have been “baggage” had he misunderstood its purpose and attempted to apply it literally - or had he disregarded it and defaulted to what I fondly call "faux boxing". But when it is applied properly you get something like the Machida result. There are many other skills that I believe Machida has drawn from his traditional training, but this one will suffice as an example.

But what of Steve’s comment: “Whilst it’s true that there are elements of Machida’s game reminiscent of Shotokan kumite, his recent knockouts have come from blows which bear no resemblance to Shotokan.”?

I have 2 answers to this:

First, I don’t really care if his punches are different from basic shotokan. He has adapted his style to the ring. As I’ve said, his fighting style is not the summed up as “shotokan”. Rather his shotokan has been applied properly for the circumstances. It has been adapted and complemented by other training. He has not tried to follow slavishly his karate basics – ie. he hasn’t tried to apply his formal training literally (as I’ve argued above).

Second, once you get over the lack of “literal fidelity” to his basic or formal shotokan karate techniques, you start to see that they are all part of the same continuum (see my articles "Karate punches vs. boxing punches" and "Why are my karate punches more like boxing punches when I hit shields and bags?"). As I’ve frequently argued, a boxer’s cross and a reverse punch are really quite the same. It just depends on where in the chamber “arc” you start your punch.

You’ll note from my article on chambers that I’ve used snapshots of Machida in action, showing him using a (more or less) classic chamber. It is just a bit “looser”; the essential movement is the same. As my friend Zach Zinn said on the Traditional Fighting Arts Forum:
    “... it's like all these guys think that applied Karate punches will look just like kihon lol. To me, Machida's punches look exactly like applied Karate punches if you watch he even has some hikite action.”
Where am I coming to on this? Machida’s fighting style is, in my view, not comprehensible to many of his opponents because they haven’t trained “his way”. In this respect it is quite like coming across a new irrational constant: his style exists, yet it cannot be expressed in terms normally used by his opponents. They only know it is there because they have experienced it, otherwise they might have continued to deny its very existence (before Machida the argument that "there is only one style - human" was all too common). His style seems “irrational” – a "stylistic quirk". And yet it works.

Like π, sophisticated martial arts techniques often don’t seem “rational” or intuitive until they are experienced. In Russian Systema they are fond of showing you the effects of their ballistic punches; totally relaxed and casual movements that don’t appear to have any “power” produce very surprising effects as you’ll note from the video below:

Val Riazanov demonstrating Systema Ballistic Striking

While many traditional martial artists seem quite taken with this “new” discovery (once they experience it), it is my view that this has always been part of understanding the traditional punch. My own karate instructor Bob Davies demonstrated such concepts to me (and often on me!) almost 30 years ago. You’ll note in the video below (taken in 1985) at about 1:00 how he taps my senior Sensei Simon Bolze on the torso. You’ll also note that Simon sinks a little after that “tap”. This isn’t theatre; Simon was genuinely winded even though the blow didn’t hit his solar plexus. I should know; I’ve experienced that blow many times. Rather it was a hydrostatic blow, focussed just deeply enough to momentarily “freeze” his nervous system around his diaphragm. Laoshi Bob could effect this result by hitting you pretty much anywhere on the torso. He could vary its effects depending on how deep he it, or what angle he punched etc. You have to "exprience" it to know what I mean. I've heard many a systema practitioner tell me the same thing.

The key to this kind of punching is understanding the nature of hydrostatic shock – as I have discussed in my articles “Kime: the soul of the karate punch” and “Visible force vs. applied force”. In my view, those traditional martial artists who haven’t experienced it before haven’t really been understanding their traditional punches at all.

My teacher Bob Davies demonstrating distancing with Simon Bolze; but notice his little "tap" at the one minute mark...

And so the explanations for Lyoto Machida's fighting style are coming thick and fast.

Many will claim it is pure orthodox shotokan; that it is not. It is applied and adapted shotokan of Machida’s own making. It is a product of traditional and modern combat sports training.

Conversely many will claim that Machida’s style is nothing new to combat sports and that his traditional training has nothing (or at least has very little) to do with his effectiveness. I disagree. I believe this comment is often borne of a lack of understanding of the purpose of traditional martial arts training.

Some of those who make this argument do so without any significant traditional training. For example it’s not good enough to go to a few tae kwon do classes to get a understanding of the role of stances. Just like measuring π, you have to do the hard work before you can understand the role stances play in enhancing your overall fighting skill level.

Some like Steve Morris have a background in traditional martial arts yet choose not to use training methods like kata or karate basics. Maybe they have found a more optimum way of developing things like timing. If so, good for them.

However I can say that I use traditional training for developing the kinaesthetics and muscle memory/endurance pertinent to timing, as well as many other facets of civilian defence. Accordingly I’m not surprised to see that Machida has put his traditional knowledge to effective use. Good for him.

Copyright © 2009 Dejan Djurdjevic

Sunday, June 7, 2009

"String theory": combinations and their effectiveness


In my previous posts I have dwelled principally on deflection, evasion and generally on responding to threats. However traditional martial arts techniques aren't always responsive. Often they are proactive.

In many martial schools this manifests in very fast combinations; attacks that are strung together in an impressive manner. Indeed, such "strings" are the mainstay of many traditional martial arts. The approach is to continue pressing an attack with such speed and ferocity that you overwhelm your opponent. In this respect I am reminded of a school here in Perth which used to advertise such a methodology on television with the slogan "Fight to the total destruction of your enemy"!

Southern Chinese systems (in particular the Hakka school) place more emphasis on such a methodology (eg. the chain punching of Wing Chun and the fast hand exchanges of southern preying mantis). The fact that goju ryu karate also features such "strings" of attacks arguably points to its close relationship to the Hakka schools, as I have discussed in my article "Naha te and its Chinese cousins".

It is important at this point to draw a distinction between a mere series of consecutive movements (eg. in a kata/form) and a "string of attacks" which is what I'm talking about here. Practising the former is has a very specific and potentially different use (as I have discussed in my articles "Applying forms in combat" and "The "oh sh*t!" moment: more about 2 person forms").

So how useful is it to practise a string of attacks? Is such a string ever going to be applied literally? If not, is there some other purpose for practising such strings? Before I deal with those issues, let us take a look at some examples.

Examples of attack strings

American kenpo is very good at "attack strings". Consider the video below of Paul Mills. The strings are short, sharp and very fast.

Paul Mills of American Kenpo

Another person who is particularly good at "attack strings" is my "doppelganger" Tommy Carruthers who moves through his strings with breathtaking speed:

The impressive Jeet Kune Do instructor Tommy Carruthers

Both of the above examples demonstrate fairly straightforward attack strings - ie. there are no intervening deflections or movements. The individual attacks that comprise the string are quite simple (and effective). For this reason I would categorise them as a "string of basics"; ie. strings of basic techniques such as punches, backhands, slaps, knife hands etc.

Consider however the bunkai of Taira Masaji of the Jundokan which I think provides a more complex model, verging on a responsive 2 person drill.

Taira Masaji sensei of the Jundokan demonstrating renzoku bunkai of the the kata seipai

I say that Taira sensei's drill "verges" on being a responsive 2 person drill because while there is an element of response from the "uke" (ie. the person upon whom the techniques are being applied), these responses are mostly token; no real attempt is made to thwart or resist the string of counter techniques being applied by the performer of the drill. In the end the "uke" is principally there as a target for the application of the techniques. I say this without any element of criticism; as I will discuss below, I believe this kind of drill is very useful for martial development. I merely wish to outline what it is not.

Accordingly I would classify Taira sensei's drill as a "string of bunkai" rather than a "string of basics" due to the added complexity of the interaction.

Predictive unreliability: the essential flaw of attack strings

Regardless of how you categorise them, I think the chances of "attack strings" being applied literally are very slim.

My reasoning for thinking this is that, despite the relative speed of delivery, they do not take into account the unpredictability of your opponent's response. They are applied to an opponent/partner who is not mobile and who isn't being hit with full force so there is no response even in terms of reacting to a blow. Hit a person hard in the solar plexus and he/she will likely double over; hit someone in the face and his/her head will rock back. In both cases, the person's body will shift away to some extent. This says nothing about how the person might deflect/evade your attack and counter, or otherwise interrupt your planned combination...

In my view, your ability to predict decreases sharply along an exponential curve with every blow in your attack "string". You might be able to predict with some certainty what your opponent will do when you deliver your first blow and where he/she will be after you land it. But with your second blow your chances of prediction have decreased to at best a 50/50 possibility. By your third blow the chances of accurate prediction are, in my experience, fanciful.

So does this mean that "attack strings" are worthless? Certainly not.

You should practise such strings so as to learn principles of connectivity or what I have "previously described as the process of transition. You take those principles away and apply them in much smaller "strings" as the case requires - you don't apply the literal drills you have been taught.

In Taira sensei's case, I suspect he might apply the juji nage (crossed elbow throw) at the end or perhaps the groin strike etc. However this does not diminish the value of the bunkai drill which contains all sorts of lessons about the principles of change/transition from technique to technique.

In the Kenpo/JKD case, the strings are far more "basic strike" oriented. Nonetheless, they do teach connectivity of a kind, and I would expect that one might end up applying one or 2 techniques in combination (but probably no more).

Putting attack strings into context

Having noted their potential use, I feel that there is a diminishing return in practising such "attack strings". They have a time and place, but I wouldn't put them at the centre of my curriculum. To me, combat sports focus on short combinations (thigh kick, jab, cross, etc.) against shields/bags because they have realised the unreliabilty of literally applying longer attack strings.1

So if "attack strings" are not the centerpiece of my own curriculum, what drills do I favour for inculcating an understanding of transition (ie. learning "connectivity" of techniques)? I believe the answer lies in a combination of solo and 2 person practise connecting martial movements generally - not merely attacks.

You need solo person practise to learn this transition/connectivity. A form/xing/kata etc. provides the necessary platform. It enables you to practise "connecting things" without the interruption of an opponent. You have to learn how to walk before you can run.

Nagegata sho or Touxing chu - a form I designed specifically for learning flow or transition

Once you have a good understanding of the transition from movement to movement, you apply those movements against a partner (see the video below):

Applying nagegata sho or touxing chu in class

A further method of providing a bridge between a solo form and its application lies in responsive 2 person forms. I emphasise "responsive" to contrast it with the "2 person" bunkai as taught by Taira sensei, for example. In the video below, I have packaged bunkai (applications) of the 2 gekisai kata in a manner that focuses squarely on your partner's response to your attack, making you aware that you need to be "live" even as you are landing a blow (again, see my article "The "oh sh*t!" moment: more about 2 person forms").

A breakdown of our new gekisai embu or 2 person form which focuses on response and transition

It is when you break down the 2 person form that you can experiment with "strings" of attacks. For example you can, by agreement, interrupt the flow of the drill at a specific point to enable a series of "finishing moves". Or you might do so without agreement - eg. if your partner isn't fast enough to deflect and counter your attack at a point in the drill you can continue to press on with further attacks. It is here that "strings" or combinations can come into their own.

Other problems with emphasising attack strings

However you use them, great care must be taken not to give "attack strings" too much weight; remember that one good counter will always beat a combination of 2 or 3 or more attacks. In this regard I am reminded of a WBA heavyweight boxing championship fight I watched in the '80s between South African Gerrie Coetzee and American Michael Dokes (you can see part of the fight here). Dokes was famous for his fast combinations and came out early raining punches upon Coetzee. Coetzee absorbed these and ended the fight with a single right cross.

Then there is the ethical/legal issue; should you really fight "to the total destruction of your enemy"? Perhaps this is permissible in battle (however even in war there are "rules of engagement"). In a civilian defence context, once your opponent is "down" you ought to consider very carefully pressing your attack "to his total destruction" otherwise you might end up behind bars. The law looks very dimly upon those who go "one step too far" once a threat has been neutralised or removed.


In the end, "attack strings" are good to practise; they teach you principles of connectivity and have a place in a wider curriculum of single and 2 person drills. However it is my view that they are only a very small part of learning combat skills. Behind their "impressiveness" hides the reality that an attacker never stands unresponsive to your attacks. Rather he or she will react to your every move. It is far more important (though less impressive) to spend time understanding the process of interaction between you and your opponent than it is to learn how to "rain blows" upon him or her.


1. Combat sports practitioners often extrapolate from here and assume that bunkai (and hence kata) is worthless because it is not, and cannot be, applied literally. I think they've missed the point. Learning transition is important for the reasons I've discussed in my article "Applying forms in combat". Accordingly the criticisms combat sports practitioners level at "strings" are appropriately levelled at their predictive unreliability only - particularly of attack strings.

Copyright © 2009 Dejan Djurdjevic