Is Joint Pain Interfering With Your Training? And What Can You Do About It?

It is very important to look after our bodies, especially those of us who put extra duress on our bodies with regular training.  However, many people develop joint problems throughout their martial arts careers and simply assume that it is the price we pay for training and/or getting older.  But although some training methods can be damaging, there are other things that we should look at too as I’ve learned from my own personal experience of consistent knee problems.

Although I’ve had some knee injuries caused by training, my knees actually got a lot worse during an extended period when I was out of training due to domestic issues (very long story).

Did you realise that our feet were not designed to walk on a completely flat surface.  But what do we walk on all day (indoors, at work and on the roads); then go and train on in bare feet?   Yes, flat surfaces!

The reason that our feet have an arch in them is that back in our cave man ancestry our feet were designed to walk on earth, sand, muddy fields and so on, where the foot would sink in slightly and the arch would be supported.  However, without well designed footwear, we often have no support in our arches at all these days.

On average most people take 8,000 – 10,000 steps per day.  This is a high demand on a foot that is not properly supported.  As each foot contains 28 bones, it is not surprising that some thing is going to start moving around.

This lack of support in the arch can often lead to it collapsing.  In itself that is quite innocuous.  However, a collapse arch causes the foot to pronate (most of the foot twists inwards, whilst the heel turns the other way to compensate).  When you walk, as well as your foot going from heel to toe, it also rolls from rear outer edge to front inner edge.   This in turn causes the bones of the legs to re-align in order to compensate (knees tend to turn inwards).  Over a period of time the muscles, tendons and ligaments will actually re-adjust themselves too and take up new positions.  Then when you train, muscles that have become overly strong on one side will start pulling your knee joint to that side, whilst the weakened muscles on the other side are unable to balance it.  Tendons and ligaments that have been pulled out of place will rub against the bones, especially when doing fast kicks or deep stances.

This is what happened to me.  When I first started training again after a long break, I was not sure that I’d be able to continue due to constant pain in my knees.  Fortunately the problem was not too severe in my case.  If left unchecked, pronation can also go on to effect the hips and spin, as they adjust to compensate for the mis-aligned legs.

Women in particular are vulnerable.  I don’t know why, possibly it’s due to woman’s shoe fashions, possible the effects are made worse by carrying extra weight during pregnancy, but I’m guessing here.

So if you think this may be a problem that is affecting you, what can you do about it?

You can start by going to see  an osteopath or chiropractic.  They can check whether or not you are pronating.  If you are, then you may be recommended to use orthotics.  These are inserts which are placed inside the shoes, which support the arch and restrict the heel from rotating.  It is a slow process, but after a while your foot should become accustomed to this new corrected position.  This will of course reverse the procedure described above and the rest of the body will start to realign and correct itself.

orthoticMy knees are still far from perfect, but they have made a very notable improvements due to orthotics.  My ability to kick and go lower in my stances are much better than when I first returned to training.

Being naturally flexible and fastidious about technique, I was noted as a good kicker in my younger days.  But I could hardly kick at all on my return to training.  Now I can kick reasonably well most of the time.  For the first hour of training I usually feel quite good.  Sometimes if I go over that I start to get sore knees, but I am able to train and I know that I’ll be able to for many years to come.  It’s a slow process, but martial arts are for life.  So if you are having joint or back problems which effect your training, then I seriously recommend that you get your structure checked.

Many people turn to supplements when they have a joint problems, but if the the joints are not aligned correctly then you are throwing your money away.  Don’t get me wrong, some supplements can be very good and I use them too.  But the most important thing is to correct the structure first to prevent further damage.  Then you can look to repair the damage that has been done before.

Many people often have to face the stark choice of whether or not they give up the training that they have loved for many years, and it’s a horrible choice to have to make.  I know, I’ve had to consider it; but I always look for a way to solve my problems.   If you know anybody who you think can be helped by this article, then please pass it on to them.  Don’t just assume that it comes with age, because sometimes it doesn’t have to.

Kousaku Yokota’s Interactive Cyber Dojo

Many people do online classes, but these are usually pre-recorded videos.  If you have questions, you have to type them in on your key board and wait on the teacher getting back to you. And if you don’t fully understand their answer, you have to send another question and wait again.

Shihan Kousaku Yokota

Furthermore, the teacher can’t actually see how you are doing things yourself, so can’t pick up on fine details that you may not even know to ask about.

This is why I was quite intrigued when I heard about Shihan Kousaku Yokota’s idea for an Interactive Cyber Dojo.

So what is an Interactive Cyber Dojo?

I’m glad you asked me that!

Basically, it’s a lesson over Skype with video, one on one with Shihan Yokota himself. A private lesson with a genuine Japanese 8th Dan, author and direct student of Asai (10th Dan) himself . . . . . well I just had to give this a go.

My first hiccup was that I did not have a webcam on my PC. No problem, I borrowed my daughters Apple Mac, and we were off.

The lesson was on the kata, Junro Shodan. This is a kata created by Master Asai and is part of Asai Ryu version of Shotokan Karate. It is not in other versions of Shotokan, so this was of particular interest to me.

Master Asai introduced the Junro series for a couple of reasons. One reason being to put more emphasis on the Neko Ashi Dachi (Cat Stance). This stance was widely used in Shorin Ryu which was the main forerunner to Shotokan, but has been almost completely replaced in most Shotokan Katas by the longer Kokutsu Dachi (Back Stance). Master Asai felt that we should bring it back as it is a very practical stance from a combat point of view which we have nearly lost due to standardisation of Katas, largely for competition purposes.

Master Asai also felt that when it comes to spinning techniques, most Shotokan katas have a heavy bias to only spinning clockwise and wanted to address this imbalance. You can check out the Junro Shodan for yourself below:-

Master Asai is considered by many to be the greatest Shotokan teacher and practitioner that ever lived. This is why very many Shotokan Karateka from other organisations and lineage’s have been interested in learning his katas. Unfortunately many of these people do not have access to a dojo which practices the Asai Ryu version of Shotokan.

After a student in New York persuaded Shihan Yokota to try to teach him over Skype from California, Shihan Yokota realised that he could use this method to reach and help many other Shotokan Karateka (and other styles if interested) from all over the world. Those interested in learning Asai Ryu Shotokan and the Junro series of katas no longer had to be limited by physical location.

So having made the appointment, Shihan Yokota, he sent me the Youtube link to Junro Shodan (above) along with a step by step pictorial schematic so that I could prepare myself in advance. For a few hours before my class, I went through the kata, learning it from the video. By the time it came to the class, I was still far from perfect, but more or less had the sequence of movements. Throughout the class, Shihan Yokota corrected my stances and movements and picked up details that I would never have got from following the video alone.

As I reflected afterwards, this was a fantastic way to learn. Had I attended a seminar to learn this kata, firstly I would not have received the link to the video and step by step guide. OK, I could have used my initiative and Googled it, or searched it on Youtube, but you can never be quite sure how truly authentic the version displayed will actually be.

Had I gone to a seminar, I might have had to travel for several hours to get there and back. This time was much better spent pre-learning the kata from Youtube.

Furthermore, had I been at a seminar, I would have been one of many, moving at the pace of the rest of the class; rather than having one on one attention for an hour from an 8th Dan and the class moving at the right pace for me and me only.

Being at home, I was a bit limited for space and often had to shuffle around a bit to fit in all the movements. However, I felt that all the other advantages far out-weighed this minor disadvantage. As far as I’m aware, nobody else is doing this. I’m sure many will follow, but for now I believe that it is unique.

So how much does this one-on-one with an 8th Dan actually cost?

Well if you were meeting face to face, then the standard rate would be $150 per hour. However, through Shihan Yokota’s Interactive Cyber Dojo, it is a very reasonable $29.99. When you consider that sometimes you can pay almost as much to attend seminar and be one of about 50 or more people with no one on one, this is a really good deal. Plus you have no travel costs, no parking charges, no food or drink to buy while you’re out and being via Skype there are no extra computer/telephone costs either. For many people, this is actually cheaper all round then going to a seminar. I personally think that Shihan Yokota is being a bit cautious and setting his rate a bit low, so I’d recommend that anybody who is interested should book in quickly before he catches on and puts his rate up.

Do Our Training Methods Damage Our Bodies?

We so often hear that martial arts are good for our health and well-being, but is this always the truth?  I would say in the main . . . . yes.

However I do feel that there are exceptions.  All to often you hear of the more mature warriors amongst us having hip or knee operations.  Many (who are not professional teachers) have to give up training all together.  So if martial arts are a lifetime study (as is often said) how come the people who are left training over the age of 50 is such a small percentage.

Funakoshi, who introduced Karate from Okinawa to Japan, said in his latter years that the Karate being trained at that time in Japan was very different to the Karate of his youth.

The Karate that Funakoshi would have learnt in his youth in Okinawa would have had a very strong emphasis on combat effectiveness.  It also had a strong emphasis on health.  Many masters were originally introduced to Karate training in their childhood because they were sickly children and Karate was seen as one of the best ways to improve their health.

So what happened to Karate after Funakoshi introduced it to Japan in the 1920’s?

At that time, having relatively recently been forcibly dragged out of centuries of isolation, Japan was modernising very fast.  As such the Japanese saw the modern weapons imported from the West as the way to go and saw the old martial arts as obsolete except for physical and character development.  Furthermore, Japan’s militaristic character at that time, especially during the build up for the war, meant more emphasis on toughening up and strengthening up quickly, rather than looking to the longer term health.  Physically gruelling training was good for the spirit!

Emphasis on real combat was not really necessary in traditional martial arts as Japan was far more focused on how to use the newly found power of guns, warplanes and battleships.  The subtleties of Okinawan karate would be dumbed down to make it more acceptable to Japanese popular ideas of the time.  A more physical emphasis was required.  Dumbing down also made it easier to teach to large classes.

Funakoshi focused on teaching in Universities which meant introducing Karate to the higher strata of Japanese society (hence more respectability for Karate).  It also meant that as Karate was now being taught to relatively large numbers and as students left University and moved on, they did not form the deep relationship that the Funakoshi and his peers would have formed with their masters, so the transfer of knowledge would not have been quite so deep.

Unfortunately many of Funakoshi’s top students lost their lives during the war.  By the end of the war, Funakoshi was in his late 70’s and although still training himself, was getting a bit old for regular teaching, so to a certain extent the surviving students had to work it out for themselves.

Furthermore the occupying American’s banned martial arts training.  During the war, the Japanese had displayed a ferocious fighting spirit which for obvious reasons the Allies wanted to curb.  The Japanese had to make a case that Karate was not a real martial art, but more a way for self development.  As such, they got permission to train.  However, traditional weapons like the Bo, Tonfa, Sai etc were dropped from the syllabus as the Japanese realised that they would really be pushing their luck to ask permission to train weapons (of any kind) as well.  Karate was dumbed down even further.

With Funakoshi’s influence diminishing and most of his most knowledgeable students gone, Shotokan began to evolve (or devolve depending on how you look at it) into a forceful system with a heavy emphasis on the physical side.  This led in part to the stances becoming longer and deeper placing more stress on the lower body joints.  If you look at any photo’s of Funakoshi demonstrating technique, he is always in a fairly high stance.  Shotokan was mainly derived from Okinawan Shorin Ryu (created by Yasutsune Itosu).  If you go to Youtube and search for “Shorin Ryu kata”, you’ll see that most of their movements are done in a higher stance than modern Shotokan.

Just compare the Shorin Ryu and Shotokan versions of the same kata below:-

Shorin Ryu

Shotokan

A large group wanted to hold competitions which Funakoshi vehemently opposed.  However, after Funakoshi passed away in 1957, the movement to introduce competition went full throttle ahead and the first All Japan Championships were held that year.  Again the emphasis on being fit, strong and athletic grew with the short term goal of winning competitions rather than longer term goal of life long health.

Okinawan Karate was would have expected most fights to be at relatively close range (which is how most real fights are) so it would have geared its techniques that way.  But the new competition fighting where neither fighter was allowed to grab their opponent necessitated a longer range of fighting.  This in turn necessitated being able to take long steps, to cover relatively large distances.  This again creates more stress on our bodies and joints as we get older and was absent from the original Okinawan Karate.

High kicks (which had barely existed in Okinawan Karate) become much more common place, putting even more stresses on the body (especially hips and knees).  Again if you watch Shorin Ryu kata on Youtube, you’ll see less emphasis on kicks.  Furthermore, you won’t find Side Snap Kicks anywhere.  In Shotokan kata where we use a Side Snap Kick, Shorin Ryu uses a Front Kick).  Not only that, but the Shorin Ryu Front Kick is usually no more than groin height.

Side Snap Kick is one of the most difficult kicks of all for people who have hip and knee problems.  It is also not nearly as practical as a Front Kick in most real combat situations.  So why did Side Snap Kick replace the Front Kick in so many Shotokan katas and why did it end up usually being done at head height rather than groin height?

Well at that time, the Japanese had very little understanding of bunkai (fighting applications of the kata).  Not only that, most of them were not really interested either.  Kata competition was becoming very popular too and that was the driving force.  Kata had to look good.  The head height Side Snap Kick looked much better than the mid level Front Kick.  Many techniques performed in Neko Ashi Dachi (Cat Stance) in the Shorin Ryu kata were changed to a much longer deeper Kokutsu Dachi (Back Stance) in Shotokan kata.

Much of this has improved over the years and many branches of Shotokan has change quite radically even in the time that I’ve been training.  When I first started, we had to keep the back leg straight when performing any technique in Forward Stance.  This put pressure on the lower back and hips.  Now the back leg is slightly bent, relieving the pressure.  This and many other modifications have greatly improved the way that we train today.  In many ways many schools of Shotokan have become much “softer” in their training (and I softer as in how technique is performed, not as in “taking it easy”).  However, many still train the old way and many styles (Japanese & Korean) which are derived from Shotokan still bear some of those old hallmarks.

Training can be great for health, but if you are not careful, it can be damaging to your body, especially hips, knees and lower back.

Martial Arts: Fighting Spirit Vs Technique

Sometimes you see in martial arts forums and/or magazines, debates on what is most important in training; focusing on pure technique or developing a fierce fighting spirit?  Everybody seems to have an opinion and as the old saying goes . . . . opinions are like a**e holes, everybody has one.

So I though I’d add mine to the mix as well.  Opinion that is.  Obviously both are very important and nobody will get far without a certain amount of both.  However, as for which is most important . . . . . . I would say that depends on what stage of your training you’re at.

For beginners, I would say that more emphasis should be placed on technique.  Good technique is the foundation to traditional martial arts.  It is the basic building block on which all else is built.  People often argue that pure basics are unrealistic in a real fight.  I would agree.  However, when you build a house, the first thing you do is dig a great big hole and fill it in with cement.  This is your foundation.  When the house is built, you don’t actually see the foundation, but without it the house will fall down.

It’s the same with fighting skills.  When you fight or spar you take short cuts and you seldom see pure basics being used, but without good basics the techniques that you do fight or spar with will be limited.

I do think it is good to do some reality based scenario training (see the video’s in my post below) early as well, as that does teach the student tactics to deal with the raw aggression and pre-fight stage when somebody is trying to pick a fight with you.  This form of training can yield very quick results, particularly at overcoming any likelihood of “freezing” in a confrontation, so I don’t really feel that you need to do a lot of it.  Also, it should be separate from technique training, at least in the early days.

To learn good techniques takes time and is best learnt in a relaxed environment.  Learning under pressure tends to hard wire results into your brain very quickly, hence bad habits from early training can become hard wired and be difficult to remove later.

However, when the student becomes proficient at their techniques, then you can bit by bit build up the pressure and intensity.  But by this time, there should be a good foundation in place.  This can of course be done through several different methods:

  • Sparring is the most obvious as the student is on the receiving end of random attacks and has to react to them as they happen.
  • Even pre-arranged sparring can be intense.  When you are partnered with somebody who is fast, powerful, accurate and they come in at you with full intent (and you have to wait for them to initiate), it can requires full attention.
  • Kata/patterns/forms or even basics can be used too if you really visualise an opponent in front of you.  The body’s nervous system does not know the difference between what is real and what is imagined (that’s why you heartbeat goes up and you jump at a scary movie, even when you brain knows that you’re safely snuggled up on your sofa).
  • More reality based (scenario) training, though now you can involve more technique.

This is particularly good at the approach to 1st Dan, when the balance can shift in favour of emphasising the spirit a bit more than technique.  Throughout the kyu/kup grades the techniques have been emphasised, but when the student goes for their Dan grade, they really need to show that they have the will to fight for it (mentally as well as literally).   It is often said that it is harder to live up to a black belt than it is to earn it, as a black belt is supposed to be courageous, confident and an example to others.   Somebody who folds under pressure (no matter how technically competent) cannot really be held up as an example.

Besides, martial arts are not only there to teach us to take the physical knocks of the Dojo (or even a street fight), they are also supposed to teach us to take the mental and emotional knocks of life itself.  That certainly requires great spirit.

However, as you continue to progress, (especially as you get older), you should learn to relax both physically and mentally under pressure.  This means switching back to focusing more on technique again.  I would say that by the time you’ve passed 2nd Dan or above, you should be accustomed to being place under pressure and rather than continuing to meet it with a “GRRRRRRR” mentality, you should be looking to casually evade, become deceptive, learn how to incapacitate using the least amount of your energy as you can.

Why?

Two reasons.

Firstly, martial arts are a lifetimes study and if you want to keep training as you get older, you need to consider the implications of age.  A lifetime of martial arts does not mean that you the same thing throughout your life.  A martial arts matures as the martial artist matures. Why would people in the 60’s or 70’s want to kick head height?  But without evolving into pure (and softer) technique as we move throughout our lives, then we bring forward our sell by date when we are forced to stop training.

Secondly, its a far more effective and efficient way of fighting, especially against multiple opponents.  A real fight can be exhausting, so using up all your energy fiercely and spiritedly defeating the first guy, just to find that his mates want to have a go too, is not wise.

The Gift Of “Peacocking”

This article looks at the pre-fight stage when somebody is trying to pick a fight with you.  It will not apply to a mugger or any form of “professional” street predator who is more likely to launch a surprise attack.

What is Peacocking?

Peacocking is a phrase usually used to describe somebody dressing or behaving in a manner designed to get the attention of the opposite sex.  However, from a martial arts/self protection point of view it is taken to mean how somebody puts on a display of puffing themselves up to make themselves look bigger and tougher in front of a potential opponent.  The chest is pushed out, shoulders pulled back, head held high and often jutting forward and arms often held out from the sides of the body.

The purpose of this behaviour is to intimidate the other person and to build themselves up before a fight.  Or to put it another way, it is to psych themselves up and psych the other person down.  It can however take many other forms such as pointing or shaking the fist at somebody.

Very broadly speaking the type of peacocking will depend on how confident the aggressor feels.  A very confident aggressor is more likely to keep his hands out to the sides of his body, which shows his intended victim that he is completely in control of the situation and he can take is victim as his leisure.  A less confident aggressor is more likely to have his hands between himself and his intended victim, pointing his finger or shaking his fist.  This still gives him some kind of barrier, just in case it doesn’t quite go the way he wants it to.

Why is this important

It is often said that a fight is won or lost before the first punch is even thrown.  It is also said that fighting is more mental than physical.  Both these statements are true.  If an aggressor can mentally intimidate somebody enough before they even attempt to strike their victim, then their victim is likely to hesitate, or worse still, freeze, giving the aggressor the chance to land a successful blow completely unopposed.  That gives them the upper hand from the very start of the fight.

This type of intimidatory tactic comes naturally and without any training to those with a bullying mindset.  It is very intuitive.

Defensive tactics

There are basically 2 main ways to deal with this type of threatening behaviour.  One is act very aggressively or assertively in order to deter the aggressor, the other is the act passively in order to lull the aggressor into a false sense of security, then hit him as hard as you can with a pre-emptive strike.

There are of course a number of variations on each theme and cross over tactics where you act passively first to let them get confident, then flip the switch and “go mental” to completely confuse them.  But for now we’ll stick to the 2 main tactics above.

Aggressive/Assertive

If you really do not want to fight, then acting aggressively or assertively to dissuade them might be your best tactic.  You can “go psycho” on them swearing, snarling, threatening with spittle dribbling down your chin in display of frenzy.  This might work and deter them if you do it convincingly enough.  However, if you are not convincing enough, you are laying down a challenge which they might take up to save losing face; especially if their mates (or worse still – girls) are watching.

If you can act very assertively without actually threatening them, then should they decide that you might be a bit of a handful they can back out without losing face (because you have not actually threatened them).  The key here is to make him want to back out and to make it easy for him to do so.

The video below shows an example of a training session from a FAST Defence seminar using postural and verbal skills to deal with an aggressor in an assertive manner without actually threatening him back.

Note:  Contains bad language.

(FAST = Fear Adrenalin Stress Training).

passive

By acting passively, you build up the aggressors confidence letting him think that he has a soft target.  This is best for when you believe that you are going to have to fight and that there is absolutely no way out.  When you believe that no amount of aggressive or assertive behaviour will detour the aggressor.

The more that you let him feel confident and in control, the more that he is likely to go into peacocking mode.  The more that he does this, the more open he becomes to a pre-emptive strike.  As he sticks his chest out and juts his head forward, so his neck and jaw line are left exposed for a quick strike.  If his arms confidently by sides (like a Western gunfighter) to make himself look bigger, then his arms are out of the way and should be unable to block your surprise attack.

That is why I called this posting the “Gift” of peacocking, because if you get somebody into that mode, they leave themselves incredibly open to you.  If you have trained for any length of time and are confident in your abilities, then having somebody leaving themselves so open should enable you to finish the fight very quickly and efficiently.

Here’s an video example below.

Note:   Contains bad language

Summary

Of course should you ever be in that situation, then whichever tactic you use will be a judgement call at that time.  There will never be a completely right or wrong answer as there will always be so many variables and you can’t always predict accurately whether or not the aggressor will back down or not.

Either way, it is worth practicing both sets of tactic as drills.  This type of type of scenario training can yield quick results, so you don’t necessarily have to practice them over and over again so that it interferes with your normal training.  But it is certainly worth seeking out a qualified instructor and  doing some courses if your club does not normally do this kind of thing.

Truly Inspirational Karate Bunkai

Just seen this on another blog and had to share it.  It features Sensei’s John LiButti and Allan Acosta, (not sure which is which) of the U.S.Kodokan Federation demonstrating some Karate bunkai.  It just goes to show what can be done when the mind is set to it.  You can’t help but to respect this guy, what an example to all of us.