Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Criticism, kiais and silly kata

Those of you who regularly read this blog will know that I don't really get into criticism of individuals. I try to focus any criticism towards an approach, offering an analysis of why I feel it is incorrect (or not optimum).

Unfortunately it is almost impossible to criticise an approach without examining an individual's performance by way of example.

In the case below I will examine such a performance, however this should not be taken as a personal criticism of the performer: she is doing very admirably within the boundaries of her chosen sport. Indeed, some of her performances (particularly with weapons such as the bo (staff)) demonstrate nothing short of jaw-dropping athleticism and dexterity, and for this I take my hat off to the performer.

My good friend Narda alerted me to this blog post which I find very apposite. The gist of the article is that criticism has real value only if it explains why something is incorrect. The mere assertion that something is lacking is unhelpful (and pointless).

So what is it that I find objectionable about the "approach" of the performer's sport - and why?

The sport to which I am referring sometimes goes by the name "Extreme Martial Arts". It features both newly designed and "traditional" forms (often karate kata), all of which are performed in a highly acrobatic and/or theatrical way. It seems particularly popular in the US where it has gained quite a following and even seems to enjoy some level of "legitimacy" in the eyes of the public.

The latter strikes me as exceedingly odd, given that the award-winning "traditional" performances have very little to do with the traditional arts they purport to exemplify - both as systems of civilian defence and as traditional art forms. And sometimes, to my eye at least, they are manifestly comical.

In respect of the latter, I think it is rather like the "sine wave" theory of ITF taekwondo; I keep expecting a child to cry out "the emperor has no clothes!" However unlike sine wave there is no "power generation" theory underpinning the performance; the affectations adopted by the performers are intended purely for "show". Consider the following performance - purportedly of the traditional Okinawan goju-ryu karate form kururunfa:

A modern (highly theatrical) competition version of the goju-ryu karate kata kururunfa

I watched this with my children aged 8 and 3 and both laughed out loud. And it is funny, no matter how indignant the practitioners of this sport may be at my observation. How is it funny?

First, and most obviously, there are the completely outrageous kiais (shouts). Many of them (in particular the one from 0:51 to 0:53) reminded me (and my kids) of someone straining on the toilet (doing what is known as the Valsalva maneuver - which you should never do by the way as this is quite dangerous and accounts for a surprising number of deaths). 1

Even when the Valsalva maneuver isn't in evidence, the kiais are downright silly, often performed with a "yeeaoow" doppler-like effect.

"Why are they silly?" I hear you ask. "That's not constructive criticism."

True. In that case, let us examine the purposes of kiais in traditional karate, and see how they accord with the use here. This should shed some light on why I feel the kiais are "incorrect" from a functional perspective. This should also give you a clue as to why I find them funny.

"Kiai" is Japanese for "spirited shout". In my view its primary purpose is to galvanise and focus your effort so as to maximise your applied force. It is not unique to karate: most traditional eastern martial arts have some sort of battle cry. And you will find it as far afield as tennis where today's players "grunt" on occasional shots. Or, irritatingly, on every shot.

The above observation about tennis raises an important issue: why is it irritating to watch tennis players like Maria Sharapova grunt on every single shot? Partly because we know, instinctively, that it is largely purposeless. It reeks of either bad habit, poor etiquette or insincerity. Shouts can only act to galvanise and focus your effort if they are used occasionally. If you shout on every single movement, no one movement is any different to another. The shout then loses its function of differentiating "special circumstances" where "extra effort" is needed. Which raises the question, if you shout on every movement, why shout at all?

Indeed, shouting on every single movement can have negative consequences. If you groove your responses so that you rely on a shout for force in each case, you may become dependent on it. The shout can become a millstone; something you must have in order to do what others do without shouting.

The above performance is guilty on this account. Kiais are so frequent and constant that they have become functionless. The performer not only kiais on every movement, but she kiais before she begins and in between movements as well. The adjacent image captures the performer in one of these "extra kiais". You will note that she is even looking off to one side.

The next issue to examine is the nature of the kiai. In order to be effective in galvanising and focusing your effort, your kiais should match the type of movement you are employing. So for example, if you are doing a pushing movement or a deeply focused thrust, your kiai should be extended. If you are doing a short snapping movement your kiai should be short and sharp. There is no magic in this; it is simple logic. If your kiai is long and your movement is short (or vice versa), you might as well not have it. It's a bit like singing a song while a different one is playing on the radio. They don't match.

Do the performer's kiais match the movements in this case? Broadly speaking, they do. However watching this performance you would be forgiven for thinking that kururunfa kata is overfull with long pushing movements and squeezing dynamic tension. In my opinion it should have hardly any. Kururunfa is a clean, light and crisp kata. See for example the performance below of my senior Gordon Foulis in 1985:

Kururunfa is what many today categorise as "kaishugata" (literally "open hand kata"). This expression is intended to imply combat-oriented, rather than conditioning, movements and techniques.

By contrast sanchin and tensho are sometimes referred to as "heishugata". This refers to katas designed primarily for conditioning. Both of those kata contain dynamic tension. This dynamic tension is not "realistic" in a combat sense, however it is essential for teaching you what, how and when to tense, and how to breathe while tensed. Kururunfa is not heishugata.

Even if you decided to train kururunfa as heishugata, you wouldn't scream constantly. You certainly wouldn't close your eyes or look away while you are shouting. The type of conditioning taught in sanchin and tensho does not require such "aesthetics".

Morio Higaonna demonstrating sanchin kata - a conditioning form that employs dynamic tension

Another (I believe lesser) purpose of the kiai is to intimidate or unsettle your opponent. Once again, to do this your kiais need to be used judiciously. If you shout all the time, your opponent will simply get used to it.

Moreover, to unsettle your opponent your kiai has to be believable. Ostensibly the kiais effected by the performer here are meant to be impressive - scary even. However their "aesthetic role" (and their corresponding absence of any other function) is obvious to me. This is not just a case of histrionics (overacting). It is more like a bad pantomime.

Fans of this type of sport might react with horror to the above statement. It is, after all, an award-winning performance on their standards. However I see their response as a conditioned one. Like the proverbial boiling frog, they have gotten used to this "overacting" through a process of gradual immersion and increase in intensity. Ask anyone outside the "industry" and it looks very odd indeed.

By contrast, traditional karate is an austere art form and system of civilian defence. In this regard it is not unlike many of the other Okinawan and Japanese arts. Karate is as unsuited to this kind of overacting as chado (the Japanese art of tea ceremony) in respect of its function as a traditional art form, or krav maga (the Israeli military system of hand to hand combat) in respect of its function as a system of pragmatic defence.

Someone might well say: "What we do is not Okinawan or Japanese, so it doesn't have to follow any "rules". It is a modern/American activity." And yet the peformer is wearing a dogi (Japanese martial training clothes) and is otherwise impliedly doing traditional karate. If it is a "modern" or "American" activity, why use a traditional art like karate as the starting point? Why not simply label it as a non-specific martial dance? I suppose a partial answer is that dressing it up like karate gives the activity some sort of "history" and "precedent". It gives the sport a level of legitimacy in the eyes of the public where otherwise people might ask: "What is all this about? Why is that woman screaming and straining?"

I have focused on kiais in this article, but this is by no means the only functional issue I have with "Extreme Martial Arts". Practically every movement is designed to satisfy an aesthetic value that is contrary to the basic principles of civilian defence. This ranges from the unecessary tension to errors in basic technique shape.

In the case of the latter I will offer only one example (since the the potential examples are too numerous to detail exhaustively).

The performer of this kata is exceptionally flexible and athletic. However her mae geri (front kicks) are performed with:

(a) a scooping action; and
(b) pointed toes.

If she were to hit anything with these kicks she would break her toes and possibly injure her ankle. But even that is a big if: her kicks are so high she might as well be fighting a giant. It certainly looks impressive as an exhibition of athleticism - and that is indeed the purpose of the display. But an art like karate is not about looking impressive. And maybe this is the genesis of the problem...

"Does it matter to you?" I hear you ask. In many ways it doesn't; there is no pressure on me to adopt the sport criteria in my own training so I don't really care if someone else does.

However there is a point where labelling this activity as "traditional" is misleading. Judged as a non-specific martial dance, the particular performance is probably outstanding. Judged as karate, the performance is dismal. It is worth pointing this out to the uninitiated and in particular to those who are interested in starting martial arts training.

Regardless, seeing this particular performance has given me a great chance to analyse "what not to do" (particularly in relation to kiais) in the context of the traditional art of karate.


1. According to Michael Largo, author of the book "Final Exits":
    "The Valsalva manoeuvre is when you hold your nose and your mouth closed when you're trying to close. What happens is it creates a baromic pressure in your heart valves that, if it's weakened in any way already, can cause immediate fainting and even fatality, so people die on the toilet. That's what happened to Elvis; it's how he died on the toilet. The King was on his throne, and he died from the Valsalva manoeuvre."
Copyright © 2010 Dejan Djurdjevic

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Punching: alignment and conditioning

Choson Ninja and the question of "conditioned" knuckles

The other day one of my colleagues at the Traditional Fighting Arts Forums alerted me to a fellow who calls himself Choson Ninja. He has a series of videos on Youtube and in this particular one he tells you about the dangers of getting "ugly" knuckles from hand conditioning.

The general thrust of his argument is correct: conditioning can lead to deformed and ugly knuckles - especially so if you are doing it incorrectly. Certainly, even moderate makiwara practice will cause you to develop callouses. How "unsightly" these are will depend on how much and how "hard" you do your conditioning.

However I disagree with Mr Choson about much of what he says in his video.

To begin with, his knuckles are not really that conditioned. Rather, they appear to be damaged from breaks. Mr Choson certainly doesn't have anywhere near the kind of callousing one gets from regular conditioning such as striking the makiwara (see the picture below of Don Buck's knuckles, which is quite standard really for many karateka I've known over the years).

What conditioned knuckles really look like. Note the callousing.

The correct knuckles for striking

More importantly, I disagree completely with Mr Choson about the notion that you should have 3 knuckles in a row when landing a punch. This is, I feel, a basic and fundamental misconception. Your first 2 knuckles should be in a row. If your third (ring) finger comes into the picture, your forearm and knuckles are no longer properly aligned (as is then clearly demonstrated by Mr Choson in the still below taken from his video). In other words, if you have 3 knuckles in a row you will have a kink in your wrist rather than a straight line from your first 2 knuckles down through your forearm.

The incorrect (Choson) alignment of knuckles/fist.

On the other hand, having only your 2 primary knuckles in a row makes your forearm line up perfectly with the striking surface: a straight line is created right through your knuckles down your forearm. You can see this (correct) alignment in the adjacent image.

When you are striking with great force, correct/optimum alignment is critical - both to land an effective technique and to ensure your own health and safety. I suggest that Mr Choson's own "damaged" knuckles are more the result of incorrect punching than any "conditioning" that he has undergone.

Conditioning your knuckles

I have always maintained that some level of conditioning is important for punching. I recall a friend of mine being attacked in South Africa and punching his way out of his predicament (he was walking home from work late one night and was accosted from the front and rear). He got away, but severely broke his knuckles. Even a moderate amount of conditioning would have averted some of this damage. The face can present a hard and sharp target, depending where and how you land your blow.

Not only is the conditioning going to strengthen your knuckles for impact, but the act of conditioning should reinforce correct alignment, further reducing your chances of injury.

One of the most basic ways I maintain some level of conditioning is through knuckle push-ups. The importance of alignment is demonstrated in the adjacent images. The top image shows how "not to do it" (note the kink in the wrist), while the bottom shows the correct emphasis on the 2 big knuckles (note the straight line through the forearm).

Wing chun

I should add that an important rider this article: the art of wing chun utilises the 2 smaller knuckles and the middle knuckle in its punches. In these punches, the last 3 knuckles are brought to prominence through a twist of the wrist in the course of a "vertical fist" punch (see the adjacent picture of Bruce Lee with Yip Man). This is something I’ve trained in extensively over the years and I can see how it works. Importantly, this is not what Mr Choson is talking about: he's using the first 3 knuckles - not the last 3.

On the whole, I don’t favour the wing chun “3 knuckle” as the “standard” method of punching, although I see it as a good secondary weapon (but that probably reflects personal preference).

Boxing and Dempsey's view

Also, a good friend of mine has pointed out the following:
    The most common argument I've heard is that the two-knuckle alignment shown in your post places the wrist in a weaker position than the three-knuckle alignment and supposedly increases the risk of injury. This is usually demonstrated by having the student face a wall with an outstretched arm and then taking turns to support his body weight by leaning against the wall: first with the fist in the two-knuckle alignment and then in the three-knuckle alignment. The idea being that the student realizes that the three-knuckle alignment is the more 'natural' of the two.

    Interestingly enough, I found the exact same exercise in Jack Dempsey's book on boxing. He too emphasized the three-knuckle landings as opposed to two-knuckle landings. There's a copy online here.
My answer to this is as follows:

A boxer's power punches have at least some element of follow-through which creates an arc. This arc exists even on the straight cross. In the arc of the follow-through, the smaller knuckles will be in prominence and will align more naturally than the 2 main knuckles.

As discussed in my article "Karate punches vs. boxing punches") I don’t favour follow-through punches for civilian defence. Rather (reflecting my karate/internal arts) background, I favour straight thrusts, which are more conservative (potentially less powerful, but less risky, as is appropriate to civilian defence goals).

Regardless of whether I am right in this respect or not, if you practise a traditional eastern martial art like karate, then the boxing fist alignment paradigm simply doesn't apply to you. If you don't like it you can always change to boxing or some similar art. But I don't think you can have it both ways.

It is important to remember that boxers have strapped hands and gloves to protect their knuckles. I don’t recommend boxing punches for ungloved (civilian defence) fighting. This is precisely how my friend broke his knuckles while defending himself. The last 3 knuckles are far more prone to breaking on power punches, especially when they are not protected by strapping and padding.

I also think that the "lean against the wall test" is misleading: most people who are untrained will find the 3 knuckle more comfortable and “natural” since the force is spread over a wider area.

Consider for a moment the knuckle push ups I demonstrate in the images above: most beginners who walk in to my class can't even do one "correct" knuckle push up. They default to the last 3 knuckles almost immediately. Some tell me they think it is impossible (until I do 50). One might say this is because the beginner's way is "more natural". However I would say it is a function of insufficient training/conditioning. Not everything we do au naturale is going to be better/more efficient/safer - otherwise rank beginners would be masters. And bear in mind that what feels "natural" to them is different to what feels "natural" to me...

Regardless of the above, note the height at which Dempsey's illustration has you holding your hand: my comments relating to knuckles are intended to apply to punches that are level with your shoulder. Once you raise your arm sufficiently it will be impossible to keep the 2 knuckles in prominence without sharply/unnaturally twisting the wrist downwards. Rather, using a straight fist and Dempsey's angle, the last 3 knuckles will automatically be the first to impact a flat target (as illustrated below).

On this subject, note that in Dempsey's illustration the alignment of the knuckles to the forearm is actually identical to that demonstrated by me in the push-up: all that has changed is the trajectory of the punch.

Finally it is important to note that the question of what knuckles you use in boxing is largely a moot point: the broad, rounded sweep of the gloves makes it almost impossible (in my experience) to put any particular knuckle in prominence. Rather, you hit with the whole surface of the glove without any thought of the underlying knuckles. The surface of the glove diffuses the blow over the entire fist and any analysis of what knuckles you are using is usually academic.

While Dempsey certainly had some important and useful things to say about fighting in general, I am more interested in reading a bareknuckle boxer's perspective on what knuckles one should strike with.


Accordingly, my comments on knuckle alignment should be taken in their context: they are appropriate to punching systems that use straight corkscrew thrusts as the default punching method - ie. arts such as karate, taekwondo and the Chinese internal arts. Arts such as wing chun (which involves a fairly unique "vertical fist" punching method) or western combat sports (such as boxing) might have different criteria.

Copyright © 2010 Dejan Djurdjevic