Thursday, January 31, 2013

How "stem cell movements" in kata morph depending on your experience


Readers will recall that in my previous article I discussed how kata comprise what I call "stem cell movements" - ie. movements of a "elemental" or "fundamental" nature, capable of morphing into any number of different applications.

In fact, this is the very essence of kata: to give you a foundation of essential motor learning and kinaesthesia. I also argued that how these movements "morph" depends largely upon the experience and skill of the student.

In this article I would like to give some concrete examples of exactly what I meant.

My video on "stem cell movements

Once again, I will be referring to the kata heian shodan (pinan nidan) to illustrate my points precisely because it is a "basic" kata - ie. one that is "easier for beginners to learn" and/or "depends less on previously acquired knowledge". While it might appear to the casual observer to be overly "formal" and "unrealistic", this is precisely because it teaches more elemental or fundamental movements - involving gross motor learning that, once acquired, will enable future, more sophisticated, motor learning.

If the kata appeared more "realistic" it would be narrowing its focus to more specific applications to exclusion of others covered by the umbrella of the "stem cell movement".

In this article I propose to examine just the "entering with a downward block" moves of heian shodan to show how they embody this "stem cell principle" - and how they "morph" to fit the student's skills as they develop over time.

The importance of a correct entry

I have already mentioned the opening move as being one which facilitates entry into your opponent. But how does this actually work? Clearly you can't just "blunder" into your opponent. For one thing, it would be lunacy to walk into a roundhouse kick with your forearm meeting your opponent's shin!

Rather, as I've previously recounted, details matter. They make the difference between success or failure. If "entry" into a dangerous, "momentum heavy" attack like a kick simply involved the type of step we use in everyday life, we'd all be martial arts masters and without any training. However that is far from the case.

In this instance, the detail the kata teaches as a precondition to entry is that which I insist upon with every single beginner, namely:

  1. First reach in with your foot (without transferring most of your bodyweight).
  2. Only then transfer your bodyweight, pivoting to face your opponent as you do so.

Why do this? For one simple reason: such "staged entry" provides the quickest method. Your body parts don't all move at equal speeds. The speed of each part depends on factors such as the type of muscle fibre and the number of neurons serving that region.

For martial purposes, your hands are going to be the fastest thing you can move - and your legs come in second. Trying to move your trunk/core along with the legs means you'll be slowed down by body parts that aren't quite as fast as your legs. So it is better to accomplish a complex task like this in linked stages. Besides, your trunk moves well enough once acceleration has already begun.

The kata of course shows the movement as if your attack has come in from the side, but the truth of the matter is that the attack is more likely to come from the front. What the kata is actually showing you is that by executing your entry almost side-on you can "wedge" your way into the attack.

Of course, as I show in the above video, you can (and, in the basic example of a kick, should) execute your "downward block" not against the opponent's shin, but instead against his or her thigh. This becomes a natural option once you execute the "staged" entry to which I refer above for the simple reason that the thigh is at the right height and distance from you as you move in (where you've almost certainly well passed your opponent's shin).

The other option is to execute the downward block as both a deflection and simultaneous strike, hitting the groin as you enter. All these things are possible. By leading with the left "block" you can then follow with a right punch (as per the kata, even though it does this part with a step - more on that next time).

What you will also note from the above pictures is that, in executing the "staged entry", you also drop the body very quickly. This means that the move doubles as a "duck", evading a powerful cross or hook by moving downwards and inwards. The "block" then functions either as just a strike or as a "back up" block to jam any future attack at the hip (ie. what Marc MacYoung calls "blocking the supply lines").

Either way, you will note that the move is teaching you to occupy the centre line and wedge your way into the attack. Why? Because this is the most effective way of dealing with circular attacks. And circular attacks (be they swinging punches or roundhouse kicks) are the most common attacks you're likely to face.

Forget the karate-style straight punches and front kicks, forget Bruce Lee side thrust kicks, forget grappling "shoots", forget boxing jabs... I can tell you as a former prosecutor that most civilian defence scenarios serious enough to see the inside of a court don't involve anything fancy: "someone taking a swing" is mostly what you get. If the fight goes on, the protagonists might get into a clinch and then start to wrestle. But the opening move is almost always a "circular" attack - usually a punch.

Jun and gyaku kaiten

Of course, what you'll note from the above pictures is that I do not do exactly what the kata does, namely time the block to coincide with the rotation of the hips into the attack. Indeed, you'll see that I've executed the block with the "reach" of my foot while my hip is turned away from the attack (then timed the hip rotation into the attack with the subsequent punch). Why have I done this? Simply because I've chosen to highlight one aspect (the entry as a "wedge") of this "stem cell movement".

This use of the hip relative to the block is known as "gyaku kaiten" - turning your hips away from the attack.

The other option is known as "jun kaiten" - turning your hips into the attack. This is what the kata shows relative to the block.

It is my view that the kata intends to transmit both options. But clearly it can only show one (relative to the block, anyway). So it defaults to the "jun kaiten". Why?

Well the simple reason is that this allows the kata to pass through a "gyaku kaiten stage" and a "jun kaiten stage" (remember that the kata teaches you first to reach in, then turn to turn your hips into the attack). This is, I believe, as close as you can get to "showing both in the same move".

And the reason why it must start with a gyaku kaiten and finish with a jun kaiten in this instance is a simple matter of biomechanics:

Given that the kata move chooses to highlight an "entry" rather than "backward evasion", gyaku kaiten must precede any jun kaiten. The reverse is true if you choose to highlight evasive tai sabaki (body movement) - ie. in that case jun kaiten must precede any gyaku kaiten.

In this regard, readers might be interested in "fukyugata ni" as practised in our school, the Academy of Traditional Fighting Arts. This kata features "evasive" body movement on a "heian shodan platform". We teach it after our "fukyugata ichi" (ie. the more standard "entering" heian shodan) for the reasons to which I refer in my previous article: beginners start by blundering in; they become wary and start to back away, then later move back to "entering". Everything in its own time!

You'll note from this video that I use the kind of "turning evasion" I demonstrate in the preceding photograph.

I demonstrate our "fukyugata ni" - which is just heian shodan but with "backwards evasion" rather than "entering" - an exercise that prioritises "jun kaiten" instead of "gyaku kaiten". We teach it after the more standard "entering" version of heian shodan, which we call "fukyugata ichi".

Modification: little knowledge and dangerous things

From the above you can start to appreciate that without understanding heian shodan as a repository of "stem cell movements" it would be very dangerous to start making any assumptions about its function. And any "modifications" based on such assumptions ultimately just lead to what I have previously called "dilution".

Now people have often had a go at me for talking about "dilution". They say I'm being condescending or that I'm placing my own "value judgment" on certain techniques. I don't believe this is strictly the case. I'm not saying "x application is better than y". I'm saying: "Look: this kata has been modified so that only x application remains instead of x, y and z." And I'm also saying that the "change" is made with extra, misconceived, elements thrown in for good measure - elements that conflict with human biomechanics.

Consider the following video by way of example:

A modified version of heian shodan that features gyaku kaiten where jun kaiten should be. To me, this is clearly a modification made without full understanding of the biomechanical issues inherent in the kata design.

You'll notice that the performer executes a gyaku kaiten in each movement. Clearly the instructor who modified this performance found (as have many karateka) that applying the literal form (entry with a jun kaiten!) is, in fact, impossible. Indeed, the instructor would have noticed that he or she invariably defaulted to gyaku kaiten when "entering". And hence the change was made.

This is fine in theory: the "worst" it does is cut down the "morph" options of the kata (ie. you've excluded any jun kaiten applications). The "best" it does is rationalise the form into a more "realistic" form.

However the problem is that the modification doesn't stop there. If it simply executed a gyaku kaiten with the "reach/entry" (as I've proposed above) it would be a formidable (albeit very "advanced") way of performing the kata. However it doesn't do that.

When I first saw this performance I was a tad mystified. I couldn't even work out what the practitioner was doing. Then I realised: he was throwing his hips one way, then the other.

If you examine the opening move in particular, you'll see that the practitioner first turns his hips into the attack, then, just before the block lands, twists his hips back into a gyaku kaiten!

I'm sorry: this is just another example of a "hip pre-load" that has been forced into a context where it doesn't fit. If you don't have the time for a jun kaiten (presumably the reason for the modification), then you don't have the time to do both a jun kaiten and a gyaku kaiten in the same space either.

Indeed, you'll note that the practitioner doesn't even perform the "double hip" in most of the moves (it is mostly apparent on the first one). He just doesn't have the time.1

You certainly don't need a hip pre-load "for the extra power": the low block in this "entering" sequence is a "wedging deflection" that doesn't require much force. To the extent that you want to add "hip power", you can do so by moving your hips from wherever they happen to be. But your main effort will be to move into your opponent as directly and quickly as possible - to catch him off guard and at the earliest possible point - before he has accelerated. Any attempt to load the hips for "extra power" will just detract from your ability to do so.

So the "extra hip turn" is neither necessary nor prudent. In fact, it just doesn't work. Period. It has been added presumably because the literal kata move is not "realistic". It effects a change based on an incomplete understanding of both the biomechanics of this technique and it's purpose as a "stem cell movement.


Accordingly it should be apparent from the above that while it might be tempting to modify heian shodan to make it "more realistic", an instructor does so at his or her peril. The kata is quite cleverly designed. Attempts to "make it better" are fraught with pitfalls. And if you proceed to effect such changes to the kata on flawed - or simply incomplete - data, then you've robbed the kata of its main purpose: to provide a lifetime of lessons.

The kata can only provide such lessons if we see the movements as "embryonic" rather than "literal"; if we look at the biomechanics inherent in each movement, understanding how and why one might choose to coordinate one's feet, hips and arms and the natural limitations on these imposed by one's tactics (eg. whether one is "entering", "backing away", "standing one's ground" etc.).

If we want to explore the permutations of a kata like heian shodan, nothing stops us from making up extra sequences - for occasional practice or even as part of a syllabus.

My own experiments in this regard started with this simple question: how would heian shodan look if it featured a retreating evasion rather than entry? It was this question (spurred by specific bunkai taught to me by my instructors) that led to the development of our "fukyugata ni" in the early 90s. This kata only became a grading requirement in addition to our "fukyugata ichi" (ie. heian shodan) in 1997.

And you'll note that we have not modified the original kata2. It remains as it is. Because it is one thing to add something. If you're wrong in doing so, you've lost nothing. But if you modify an original kata you run the risk of information loss. Understanding the role of kata as repositories of "stem cell movements" is the first step in protecting arts like karate from such information loss.

[Next time: Part 3 - why the punch is executed with a step-through.]


1. Quite apart from telegraphing and time wasting, it should be apparent from this discussion why I am so opposed to inserting extra hip twists into kata movements:

The hips can and should move to assist a given technique from wherever they happen to be, without extra movement. Whether the hips move into an attack (jun kaiten) or away from an attack (gyaku kaiten) might not be apparent from the kata move (which might be "neutral" - eg. in kata such as seisan where punches etc. are launched from a stationary posture). But to insert both jun and gyaku kaiten into each move is to "hedge your bets" without bothering to analyse which is actually logistically possible. Instead of uncovering these layers of subtlety, the "double hip" just smothers everything in an unholy gyrating mess!

2. We teach our version of "heian shodan" exactly as it was taught to us, however it was modified slightly by my instructors (hence they chose a different name - "fukyugata ichi"). These modifications include the introduction of sanchin dachi in the step through counters (from Nagamine's fukyugata ichi) along with neko ashi dachi and hiki/kake uke instead of kokutsu dachi and shuto uchi at the end. But these modifications don't impact on my present discussion - nor any other "stem cell movement" issues. And I am also quite happy with the reasons for these changes anyway!

Copyright © 2013 Dejan Djurdjevic

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Kata techniques as "stem cell movements"


I have often spoken of kata as teaching "principles" rather than "techniques". It occurs to me that one of the best ways to illustrate what I mean is by reference to the most "basic" kata in karate. Why these kata? Because even if they are less "realistic" than more advanced kata, the methodology remains the same: they achieve their effect through "principles" not through "actual technique".

In this regard it is important to note that kata are not intended to comprise "shadow boxing" routines with movements you would (or should) actually use in a civilian defence situation.

Rather kata put your body through specific movements designed to promote motor learning and essential kinaesthetic awareness.

This kinaesthesia and motor learning is central to so many different aspects of martial technique that I often compare these "fundamental" movements to to stem cells: ie. they are "elemental" movements that can be applied in umpteen different actual techniques.

"Basic" kata

So what do I mean by "basic" kata? Well essentially these are the opposite of those that contain movement I have previously described as "advanced". Regular readers will recall that I have defined this to mean “movement that is harder to learn” or “learning that relies on what has already been learned”.

Clearly a beginner can find every movement in a completely new physical discipline hard to acquire (consider a beginner learning to play a piano, golf or tennis). So practice catered to beginners should focus on the most elemental movements only – movements which, once mastered to a sufficient degree, will permit the learning of other, more sophisticated, movements. This essentially means gradually shifting focus from gross motor skills to more and more subtle and sophisticated ones.

Examples of kata that are the most "elemental" include the various "kihon" and "taikyoku" kata. However I don't propose to examine these in any detail: Not only are they fairly modern innovations, they are arguably also so "simplified" that they are relevant only to the grossest motor learning – ie. the kind befitting young children. Since this blog is geared primarily toward adult learning and has an overwhelmingly adult readership (are any kids reading this?) I propose to start my examination one level up from this.

So the next level of "basic" kata are the more "traditional" beginner kata. In the Naha te tradition these have included gekisai ichi and ni as formulated by Chojun Miyagi. In the Shuri and Tomari te tradition these have included kata such as the Shoshin Nagamine's fukyugata ichi (fukyugat ni being another name for gekisai ichi) and Anko Itosu's heian/pinan kata – in particular the simplest of these, namely the kata known as "heian shodan" or "pinan nidan".

A video where I discuss "stem cell" movements in kata

In this article I particularly want to focus on the last of these (which we practise in the Academy of Traditional Fighting Arts with hybrid elements from fukyugata ichi). For the purposes of this article I will call this kata "heian shodan" (as per Gichin Funakoshi's renaming of the form) and I will focus on movement typically found in Funakoshi's Shotokan system. Why? Because it is commonly held that Funakoshi "simplified" the kata even more than their traditional "Shorin" form. It is this "basic" movement that I wish to examine so as to show that it still teaches vital principles in the form of fundamental motor learning - even if the movements appear inherently "unrealistic".

Straight out of the "blocks": a principle to help you deal most efficiently with attacks - of all kinds

I have had many prospective students approach me over the years saying they don't want to learn such "basic" kata; they tried it once (as kids), didn't enjoy it and didn't see the point of it. They want the "good stuff".

Yet right from the first movement, a kata like heian shodan teaches you vital fundamental principles for coping with the most challenging, committed attacks. Let us consider the opening move:

The kata move involves a step in towards your opponent, followed by a turn and a downward block. Many beginners have asked me over the years what in the world this is good for. Assuming it is a defence against a low attack (eg. a kick) what possible use could it be? It seems to envisage one walking straight into a kick, with forearm meeting shin bone! Indeed, this is precisely what someone lampooned on Youtube some time ago (prompting my response article titled: "Low 'blocks' against kicks – are they ridiculous").

But on closer inspection, this isn't at all what the kata is teaching you to do. In my next article I'm going to examine exactly what is technically wrong with this "analysis" of the opening move of heian shodan. (Essentially, there are layers of subtlety in how the "entry" can "wedge" you into an attack through using the form of the kata. If you want a quick idea of what I mean, you can examine my video embedded above.)

In the meantime I'll just make the following observation:

This whole analysis proceeds on a rather "literalist" assumption: that the kata is trying to teach you a physical technique, not a principle of martial movement.

If the kata is trying to teach the latter, what is this "principle"? Very simply it is this:

Against a powerful technique (be it a kick or a cross or whatever) your best chances often lie in moving directly into your opponent - not away!

This is what some call "seizing the initiative" - which you should of course do wherever ever possible.

Forward vs. offline movement

I previously discussed how karate and other traditional martial arts often train to modify the flinch reflex. While this often involves moving your body back with arms moving out, it is equally true that one should, from an early stage, start learning proactive movement forward into the opponent. This is because, in my experience anyway, beginners often blunder forwards naturally anyway (ie. they don't actually have much of a timely "recoiling flinch" reaction at all!). Only once they have been hit a few times do they start to flinch backwards with some urgency!

So the "first" kata starts with the assumption that you can and should start teaching forward movement.

Later kata teach some off-line evasion.

And still later, the highest expression of evasion returns to movement directly into your opponent. So it is that the "first" and "most basic" kata is also the most "advanced" in many other respects: it contains lessons that are applicable right to the end of your martial journey.

I remember being told that Funaksoshi taught that "heian shodan is the only kata you need for self defence". For many years I thought this was really stretching things a bit. Surely other kata were more sophisticated – more "advanced", more "practical", more "realistic" – you name it! But I have really come full circle in this respect. Yes, other kata and techniques are going to be important, if not vital. But in terms of fundamental lessons that will remain pertinent from your first days in martial arts to your last, this kata still features one of the most important such lessons, namely this:

If you can do it, moving into your opponent is often preferable to moving away.

If you move away from your opponent, you simply delay the inevitable further attack. By contrast, moving into your opponent can be the quickest, most efficient way to neutralise an attack (assuming you have the time and opportunity to do so).

Differences between beginner and advanced training of the same movement

It is important to remember that while the principles of traditional martial arts remain the same regardless of your experience, how they are practised and applied (in class or even in the "street") will vary necessarily depending on a student's level of "advancement".

In other words, the opening move of heian shodan might well contain the general approach (entering) that both beginner and master will want to adopt. But how the beginner and master manifest this principle is going to be quite different.

[Again, I will illustrate this more in my next article!]

It is for this reason that the kata do not and should not contain a "literal" movement. To do so would buy into the myth of the value of what Bruce Lee called "rehearsed routines". I have yet to see anyone ever "pulling off" such a routine. It just doesn't happen.

So many people scoff at the suggestion that "the downward block is against a kick" for the reason that "people don't often kick in the street". But they are missing the point. Apart from the fact that "soccer-style" roundhouse kicks to the legs do occur (even as young prosecutor early 90s I remember noting that many attacks at, say, the train station involved such kicks), the actual attack is really quite irrelevant to your practice precisely because you're not rehearsing a routine.

What is being taught here is the principle of entering – nothing more and nothing less. Trying to create a "realistic scenario" was, I believe, very far from the kata designer's (I think Itosu's) mind. It was as far from his mind as teaching someone to write a complex novella is to someone instructing a child in forming letters. The student is acquiring kinaesthetic and motor skills – not rehearsing how you might apply these skills to write a story at some later point.

Accordingly, in this respect it matters little whether the student is imagining a kick or punch – or whether he or she isn't imagining any particular attack at all. The value is in learning to move into a hard and fast attack without hesitation.

The value of kick defences for learning how to "enter"

For what it's worth, a kick is particularly good for training to do this. Why? Because legs are heavy and powerful – much heavier and more powerful than any punch. If you can learn not to flinch backwards against a kick, you'll be far more likely to learn not to flinch backwards against a punch. This has been my experience as both student and teacher.

I have almost no doubt that this is precisely the thinking underlying so many "low blocks" in karate kata (particularly the more "basic" ones). You aren't learning a literal "technique": you're using a particularly "momentum heavy" attack (the kick) – one that leads to "backward flinching" more than any other – as a means of adding "urgency" or "resistance" to your practice so that you can better learn to move forward into your opponent (even when it is the last thing you would "naturally" do as an untrained person).

The kick lets you do this with relative safety (a few bumps and bruises aside). The only other way to train this is to include a level of speed, penetration and commitment to punches for which beginners (and even intermediate students) are not really ready (in terms of safety, that is).

Sadly, some senior martial practitioners I've encountered over the years have by-passed this sort of training entirely in their careers. Yes, they've done "hard dojo sparring" – but this has generally involved "faux boxing", with the practitioners defaulting to some unconscious and unrefined habits that have little to do with their basics or kata (they usually comprise the practitioners' "typical" moves – repeated year after year without any refinement or progression).

Then they go off to do some standing start "bunkai" which is applied with "realistic" scenarios but (for reasons of safety) is executed with half-hearted, slow attacks (after all, a full-speed, committed right cross isn't all that easy to control!). "Low blocks against kicks" are ignored because "they aren't realistic". Yet it seems to me that this is missing the point: your practice should groove principles of movement – and these principles can only be grooved with some sort of pressure.

You can use kicks to add that pressure in much the same way as an arnis/escrima/kali baston can add speed to movement. Put another way, you can "increase the load" of your training scientifically like Roger Bannister did when he managed to break the 4 minute mile using hill and weight training.

So the fact that you're unlikely to be attacked by a kick is irrelevant: You're unlikely to remember a single one of your "rehearsed routines" anyway. What you will remember (hopefully!) are the principles underlying your practise routines (eg. "entering", jamming/wedging the attack, countering as soon as possible and with a minimum of movement, etc.).

(For what it's worth, I have learned to block kicks as well – even in hard and fast sparring – which gives me a very different insight into the "plausibility" of such a tactic from those who haven't bothered because "it's impossible".)

What the student is really learning

So in the case of the opening move of heian shodan, the student is really learning to move into the opponent (ie. "enter") - and how to do so efficiently, effectively and safely. He or she is learning how to coordinate the step, hips and arms etc. so that everything moves with what I have previously called "staged activation of body parts" (large to small). He or she is learning not flinch: ie. to move decisively (ie. instantly converting the tendency to flinch "back" into a flinch "forwards") – no matter how "fearsome" the attack and no matter how much his or her body is screaming: "Back, back, back!"

The beginner needs to start learning the latter sooner, rather than later. Why? Because it takes many, many years to learn how to make such a radical change to your natural "retreat and cower" flinch reflex. If you're going to make it work, you have to start practising it early.

And yes, the rawest beginner might well flounder in anyway. The kata can echo this in the early stages. But it won't take too many encounters – in the dojo or in the street – for the student to become naturally wary of "entering". In my experience, after a short while the student will devolve into "backing away" despite any such training. And it is then that karate traditionally starts to teach offline evasion - often in the form of retreating 45 degrees back (or even straight back).

How does more "senior" kata teach such evasion? The answer can be found in the kata "embusen" or "floorplan" and the turns and steps. It is my view (gained from cross-referencing Chinese and Okinawan movement) that these necessarily imply offline movement – forward, backward and sideway (I won't discuss this topic here, but I invite you to read my article on this subject).

It is only when the student reaches more advanced levels that his or her body movement "offline" is reduced until it is directed straight into the opponent. The kata envisage this: movements tend to become "smaller" and more subtle as the practitioner becomes more senior (what some folks call "internalised") until there is barely any movement at all.

That is why the kata do not contain many overt "offline movements": the kata has to serve its practitioner for a lifetime – and not merely serve as a lesson that is discarded after a year or two. Kata are encyclopaedic repositories of martial knowledge – not "grade" appropriate "shadow boxing" routines.


Accordingly, you can see that even the most "basic" kata in the "traditional" syllabus are not just "beginner" kata at all. They are instead better described as "fundamental" kata: they contain lessons that serve as a solid foundation for all your martial movement – from the first step to the last along your martial journey.

In this respect, attempts to force such kata into a "strict syllabus" are almost misconceived. Traditional kata don't really follow any set order or hierarchy. They are all designed to be of use from "white belt to the grave".

I say "almost misconceived" because some kata are, in my view, manifestly "less advanced" (in terms of easier to learn first or relying on pre-existing motor skill to be learned) than others. Furthermore some (like Funakoshi's heian shodan) bear the hallmarks of at least some "simplification" for teaching high school students.

And I've previously spoken of my view that some arts are generally more "advanced" than others (again, in my previously defined sense of that expression).

So I will continue to teach kata in a particular order in most (but by no means all!) cases. Will that order be "perfect" or "optimal"? Almost certainly not. But I hope it will offer some logic and utility in terms of a syllabus structure.

In the meantime, I will know that whatever kata my student happen to learn first, each will contain fundamental principles: ones that last a lifetime.

I will continue to resist the temptation to change these kata to make the movements "more realistic" – because that is not where the "magic" of the kata lies. Rather, the magic lies in the fact that each move is a bit like a "stem cell": capable of developing into so many different movements – each pertinent to a different step along the martial journey. To narrow a move so that it reflects just one of these is to miss out on that "magic" – ie. to void the very reason kata are so useful to traditional martial artists in the first place.

[Next: Part 2: specific examples of how "stem cell movements" morph depending on a student's experience.]

Copyright © 2013 Dejan Djurdjevic