John and Elaine Johnston have started up their own blog which will be well worth checking out. Sensei John Johnston is a 6th Dan Shotokan Karate and the people who he has trained with reads like a “who’s who” of early UK Shotokan Karate. He has competed at high level when it was much rougher than today’s competitions and has also done a lot of door work.
His wife, Elaine is a 2nd Dan and has an interest in psychology and Yoga, so she also bring her own unique insights into the mix as well. This will make it a very well rounded martial arts blog.
Sensei Johnston was also Geoff Thompsons first martial arts instructor and was one of the main influence of Geoff, teaching him that Karate needs to be adapted to make it work on the streets. Geoff Thompson said of Sensei Johnston:
“John was and still remains probably the greatest influence to my development in martial arts, taking me through all those vital fundamental lessons, offering me (free) private lessons when he saw my potential; he even brought my suit and belt for me when I didn’t have enough money. He is a great influence and great friend and a powerful presence in British martial arts. Without John I would not in any way be doing what I am doing today and I am very grateful to him for that, and I highly recommend him and his instruction to anyone looking to fast track their martial arts”.
The blog is called Adaptive Karate Blog and already has a few postings on it. Please take the time to check it out from time to time.
Having recently attended the Traditional Shotokan Karate Association (TSKA) Residential Course (12th – 14th May), I thought I’d share my experiences with you.
Being my first time at the TSKA residential course, I wasn’t completely sure what to expect, though it was well recommended by my club-mates. So I turned up with high expectations and I have to say that I was not in slightest bit disappointed. The 3 main instructors for the course were Sensei Pete Manning 6th Dan, Sensei John Euden 5th Dan and my own instructor, Sensei Paul Mitchell 5th Dan.
Despite the 3 Sensei’s each having their own unique approach, each of them was very practical in their application to teach the art as an effective form of self defence rather than sport or just looking good.
Sensei Pete Manning began with basics, making it clear that not only are our basics the foundation on which all Karate is built, but that as Dan grades it is our responsibility (not only to ourselves, but to those we teach) to make sure that we keep our standards high and don’t get lazy.
As we had guests from other Shotokan Karate associations, Sensei Manning also made it clear that although some of the coming course content would be different from what some people had seen before, it was still within the Shotokan system. He explained that although some people train to a very high technical ability, they sometimes limit themselves to the grading syllabus which is not always the most effective method for surviving a real life street self defence situation.
This came into play later in the course when Sensei Manning took us through Jitte kata and it’s bunkai. The sequence of Age Uke’s (Rising Blocks) near the end of Jitte which are often explained simply as blocks to straight punches are clearly ineffective in that application. Firstly, why would you block one opponent, then turn to block somebody else. As Sensei Manning pointed out, what would the first opponent do after he’s been blocked then you turn your back on him to block somebody else. Of course they’re going to continue their attack.
Secondly, he explained that if you think our basics blocks (Rising Block, Outside Block, Inside block, etc) are just blocks, then try using them in sparring! Have one person attack with any basic techniques and the defender can only use full basic blocks (no parries or evasions). The defender will simply not stand a chance.
Instead, the Age Uke sequence at the end of Jitte was practiced as circular punches and elbow strikes which we used against focused mitts. Emphasis was also placed on using centrifugal force. I reminded myself as we practiced that Karate is largely based on Kung Fu (especially White Crane) which primarily relies on centrifugal force, rather than the linear force that most Karateka have become so familiar with. Despite the earlier emphasis on technical basics, with this exercise we were encouraged to use more natural stances, in particular the heal of the back foot could come off the floor rather the technical version of our basics where the heal stays down.
I reflected as we trained that although the methodology was a bit different between the technical basics and the applied version, they both had commonality. The technical version teaches us to rotate the hips (thus the erect spinal column) very fast. The applied version still used a rapid hip/spinal rotation, it just took it a bit further in more free flowing manner. Although some Shotokan Karateka may not have experienced this methodology before, I thought of the famous Funakoshi quote, “Learn various stances as a beginner but then rely on a natural posture”.
We also covered some releases from grabs, as well as some slightly unconventional (but nonetheless effective) strikes and take-downs from the opening sequence of Jitte.
Sensei Paul Mitchell continued on a similar theme with a combination of 2 crosses, upper cut and a devastating swinging back-fist strike. Again we used natural stances and centrifugal force. Emphasis was placed on striking right through the target. To do this we had to leave out the usual kime which Shotokan usually relies on. Sensei Mitchell reminded us that Funakoshi said that if you study the past to begin to understand the present. Whereas most Karateka think that looking back is to look at Okinawan Karate; Funakoshi (being Okinawan) would have looked back to Chinese martial arts on which the Okinawan Karate was largely based. The combination Sensei Mitchell had us doing was from a Chinese martial art, Chen Tai Chi. It nevertheless fitted in hand in glove with Shotokan, filling in some of the practicality gaps in Shotokan’s arsenal,when only trained on a technical level.
In later sessions, Sensei Mitchell took us through more conventional Shotokan punches, focusing on Gyaka Zuki (Reverse Punch) and Kizami Zuki (Extended Punch) with Suri-Ashi (Sliding Step). After solo practice to refresh the technique, we partnered up and used focus mitts to make sure that the techniques were delivering enough real power.
Sensei Paul Mitchell’s last session drew largely from his knowledge of Tai Chi and for those who hadn’t seen it before it was quite mind-blowing. Ki (Chi in Chinese) is internal energy and would have been a very important concept for the Okinawans as their martial arts were largely based around it. Many Westerners do not believe in Ki/Chi and that’s fine, but it may have have been how Funakoshi would have trained.
Several evasions and takedowns were practiced which relied on complete relaxation so that we could use ki energy. Although as Karateka we think we know how to relax in our technique, this session took it to a whole new level. This session was not really something that could be taken away and used in isolation as the concepts take years of practice, even for Karate Dan grades. However, it did give the students a taste of the higher levels and concepts of martial art that is waiting for them should they choose to follow that path. For anybody who would like to understand it a bit better, Sensei Mitchell is in the process of writing a book which will be worth looking out for once it is published.
Sensei John Euden was probably the most classical in his approach, but nevertheless just as practical in his application. His first session started with the kata Senka. This kata he explained was created by Master Asai, and although it is not taught in all Shotokan associations it is nevertheless a Shotokan kata. He recommended that we take it away and practice it to help keep it alive. For the uninitiated, Senka has a lot of spinning/circular movements, utilizing centrifugal force, so again fitted in with an overall theme.
Later we did some slightly unconventional combinations of basics which tested us mentally as well as physically. I was glad to see that I was not the only one who struggled a bit with them. We then partnered up and practiced various striking and blocking combinations which took even more concentration (especially if you didn’t want to get hit). This was great training for reactions and building speed.
Later we practiced sequences of blocks and strikes, leading into take-downs, wrist locks and arm locks. Some of these locks were excruciatingly painful, which in some strange way did seem to delight Sensei Euden 🙂
During some of the sessions with other instructors, several times we heard yells of pain coming from the intermediate grades that Sensei Euden was demonstrating on as he taught them alongside us.
Other highlights of the residential included the beach training and the party. The beach training has become a tradition now. The soft sand makes it ideal for practicing take downs and throws learnt in the other sessions without getting too many bruises, though the wrist locks still hurt just as much. You may get the odd mouthful of sand, but it does teach you when to keep your mouth shut!
Then somebody came up with the bright idea of going into the sea and training. OK, this was not a new idea and is also part of the tradition. So we went in up to about our wastes and practiced some punches and blocks. Some people, with encouragement from Sensei Mitchell, ducked themselves right under. I will admit that I didn’t quite find that such a good idea, though several around me seemed to think that it was. Oh well; maybe I’ll man up enough to do it next year!
The party on the Saturday night is another annual tradition. There was a BBQ, buffet, quiz, live singing and of course a bar. One of the highlights was a hilarious dance display provided by an alcoholically liberated individual, which really deserves to end up on Youtube. Overall it was a very good party where it was great to meet and mix with Karateka from other clubs around the country.
It appears that hangovers at Sunday morning training is another tradition, but I’d better not say too much about that!
To conclude, all 3 of the Sensei’s taught in an open, friendly, approachable but very professional manner and with a good sense of humour. The course was fun, informative and hard work. It also had a good social side to it and it was a pleasure to mix with like minded Karateka from other clubs and even other associations. I would not hesitate to recommend it to anybody and fully intend to go back again in the future.
I have featured Sensei John Johnston, 6th Dan Shotokan Karate a few times before. I’ve published an interview with him, done a write up of a private class that I’ve been privileged to have with him and he’s been my “Featured Martial Artist” in one of my newsletters.
This course is another opportunity for interested martial artists to spend three hours studying the analysis of Shotokan Karate’s massive potential as a method of dealing with realistic acts of violence. Many martial artists tend to spend the majority of their time training in grading related material and as such do not develop enough realistic Martial skills. My Sensei, Paul Mitchell 5th Dan, has devoted much of his 30 years training studying practical martial Arts and he is happy to pass on his knowledge to any interested party regardless of style or discipline. All grades welcome however juniors are required to be minimum 4th Kyu/Kup unless training with a parent.
It is on Sunday, 27 May, from 11:00 until 14:00.
Adults £15.00, Juniors £12.00.
The Venue is the Sports Centre, Wells Blue School, Wells, Somerset, UK (please bring a packed lunch).
To book your place please e mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone 01749 670105
Going back further in Okinawan Karate history before Karate was introduced to Japan, they had the interesting concept of Shu-Ha-Ri, which I have discussed before. However, to recap:
Shu: means that you copy your master as closely as possible, to learn his techniques in as much detail as you can. Ha: means that once your technique is up to a good standard, you have the freedom to make subtle changes to suit your own physique and experiences. Ri: means that you have mastered the techniques to the extent that they are a natural part of you. At this point the student may transcend the master.
This is not a far cry from Bruce Lee’s famous quote: “Absorb what is useful, reject what is useless, add what is specifically your own.”
The “Ha” part in particular tells us that it was expected for the advanced student to adapt their Karate to suit themselves. Although there is a certain amount of leeway for us to do this today, we are still in the main confined to what our seniors tell us is our style. We are not free to change our kata’s to do (for example) a Front Kick rather than a Side Snap Kick which we might struggle with. Can you imagine the masters of old raised with the concept of Shu-Ha-Ri, insisting that their student continue to do a technique that damaged their joints, simply because it was always done that way? If you want to train in the traditional manner, rather than a “traditional style”, then maybe you should consider making little changes to suit your own body.
To quote Matsuo Basho a haiku poet, we should progress: “Not by blindly flowing the footsteps of the old masters, but by seeking what they sought”
There are a number of examples of Shu-Ha-Ri in modern martial arts. I hope martial artists of other styles will forgive me for focusing on Shotokan Karate, but it is the style that I’m most familiar with, (though I’m sure other styles have similar examples).
Those of us who have trained in Shotokan Karate over the decades have instinctively known (especially in the early days) that something was missing. Not just in the unrealistic bunkai that was taught to us by our Japanese masters, but sometimes technically in the art. We would see films or read magazine articles about masters doing great feats with seemingly no effort, yet we were encouraged to put more and more effort into our training (overly exhaling and tensing to create kime) as we progressed. That seemingly mystical ability to generate masses of power with little effort, derived from pure technique which we thought we would attain as we progressed, seemed to become more elusive as we rose through the grades. Very few senior Sensei in those earlier days seemed to be able to show us anything except more of the same. As my former Sensei, Graham Mead used to say, “ We were ending up with 2nd & 3rd Dans who were really just very good brown belts”.
However, over the years things have gradually changed and mainly for the better. Sport science has obviously shown that fast movement requires relaxation rather than more tensing. The emphasis on deep stances has relaxed (though Shotokan stances are still deeper than many others). Little things like bending the back leg slightly in Zenkutsu Dachi (front stance) relieves the tension on the lower spine and hips has replaced the straight back leg which was common years ago.
These all help to reduce the damage to our bodies that many early practitioners suffered from.
The availability of many other martial arts have allowed exploration to fill the gaps and bring some of the answers back into mainstream Shotokan.
Master Hirokazu Kanazawa, 10th Dan and founder of the Shotokan Karate International, also studied Tai Chi. When he taught around the world he would often have Tai Chi seminars alongside the Karate seminars. His Karate has become much more softer and more relaxed than most others and he has inspired many Shotokan practitioners of all associations to take up Tai Chi (including me).
The Late Master Tetsuhiko Asai, 10th Dan, lived and taught in Taiwan form many years. During this time he also studied White Crane Kung Fu, Dim Mak (critical nerve points) and Qi Gong. He placed great emphasis on relaxation and using the body like a whip. He was the founder of the Japan Karate Shotorenmei and brought his own special influences to bear on the Shotokan world.
These influences along with many others have led Shotokan Karate to become very varied depending on which association or instructor you train with. Some versions are quite relaxed like the original Okinawan Karate making it a healthy art to practice, whilst others are still quite stiff like the early post war Karate which can be damaging.
Taekwondo too has also changed significantly over the years and now has many variations. Some associations for example have introduced a sine-wave movement into their step to also create a more relaxed manner of moving.
Please add any other examples below of how any martial art has been adapted to make it healthier to train.
A lot is written these days about how the basic blocking techniques in Karate/Taekwondo are not really “blocks”, but close quarters strikes, releases from grabs/holds, joint locks etc. It is often pointed out that though we practice these “blocks” against straight punches, the creators of Karate would not have been facing that type of attack. So we have “blocks” that don’t really work, practiced against techniques that we are not likely to be attacked with. They only really work with a compliant partner with a pre-arranged attack. The true meanings of these techniques have definitely been dumbed down in mainstream Karate/Taekwondo, yet many instructors are researching and uncovering much more workable applications for these same techniques.
So why is it that so many instructors who challenge the conventional wisdom of how these “blocks” should be applied, yet still teach these techniques in blocking drills against straight punches, despite the fact that they know full well they won’t work when applied this way in a real situation?
Is it simply for because it’s part of the art so we have to do it even though we know that it won’t actually work in reality?
Is it just to allow students to pass gradings (with unworkable applications)?
It probably is partly because it’s an accepted part of the art and part of the grading syllabus. But having said that, these basic blocking drills do still have some useful and practical functions with which to develop our Karate/Taekwondo.
Firstly, there is the reason for which much of the dumbing down started in the first place. That is that it is taught to children and you don’t want to teach then to break arms and legs then have them use it in a playground brawl. But what about adults who want to be able to use it in a real self defence situation against a mugger or rapist?
Well if we take for example an upper rising block (age uke), which works much better as an attack to the neck or under the chin then it does for blocking a straight punch. If this is done full force, smashing the forearm upwards under somebody’s chin whilst pulling them down at the same time with the other hand (hikite), then you could feasibly break their necks and kill them. You obviously can’t do it full power and would always have to pull the technique when practicing with a partner. Practicing it against a straight punch however, always allows you to practice and apply the technique full power against a moving target with an whilst being put under pressure of somebody coming at you fast and powerful (miss and you get hit). You can use your opponents arm as a substitute head which you can hit as hard as you like without the fear of damaging them.
There is some limitations within this principle as I’m sure that some will argue that blocking the forearm is not a realistic substitute for striking the head. However, the mind is a very powerful tool and if you keep focused on what the real intention/target should be, then it can still be an effective training method. Besides, you can still practice against the head as well (as long as you pull the technique) as there is no reason not to practice both ways.
It is also a convenient tool to teach a sense of distancing and timing. When these techniques were created, they were designed by warriors for warriors who would have probably had a keen sense of timing and distance already. But most of us who train today can’t really describe ourselves as warriors, so it is a useful exercise for us to learn these skills early in our martial arts training.
So I’m in favour of keeping these practices. Even though we know our blocking drill will not work as such in a real situation, they do teach us things that are useful building blocks in our journey through the martial arts. We just have to keep our mind focused on what the end objective really is!
I have recently received an email from the editor John Cheetham informing me that the article has been well received and forwarding a letter from a reader. I thought this letter raised some interesting points.
I have therefore responded to this letter and asked John Cheetham’s permission to reproduce the letter and my response here on this website. John has kindly agreed, so here below is the readers letter:-
Dear John, I read your magazine (issue 111) with great pleasure, as always! Time over time you manage to find interesting aspects and triggerdiscussions that are of great value. I thank you for that!
In issue 111, the article by Charlie Wildish especially caught my attention! Even though I am just a humble 1st kyu, I have often thought about thismethod of whipping the techniques. I found it to be very fast, and also I felt as if it took less energy toperform.
However, I was only really able to perform this somewhat successfully with a Gyaku Zuki (Reverse Punch). I have not really been able to apply the whipping effect inother techniques. Therefore, I wonder if you could ask Charlie to go intomore detail of how to apply this for other techniques, including kicks.
The other thought that comes to my mind is that of possible injury duringtraining.
First, I am thinking about how easily I could hurt my own joints due to thefact that I am performing such extremely fast movements with less tension on my muscles. What I am trying to say is that it is probably very difficult tofully control the movements and the stopping point (moment of impact) every time. So I fear for my elbow.
The other worry that I have is with respect to injuries due to possibleblocks that are performed against my whipped technique. In order to performthe whipping effect, I have to keep my arm ( e.g. Gyaku Zuki) extremely relaxed. I hate to imagine, what a hard block, such as Soto Uke would do to my arm and elbow at that point (i.e. before I maximize the tension at theend).
Maybe these are stupid questions, but as, I too, am getting older, I amcontinuously thinking of ways to train healthily. As you get older, every injury takes longer to heal, and coming back after a pause of training due to injury gets harder.
If you don’t want to publish this, I would be very grateful to hear yourthoughts on this via Email. And also, maybe you could forward my questionsto Charlie?
Thank you and best regards, Frank Kretzschmar (Bad Soden, Germany)
And my response to Mr Kretzschmar:-
Dear Mr Kretzschmar
Thank you for the positive feedback about my article.
Starting with hand techniques, you should be able to apply the whipping feeling to techniques other than Gyaku Zuki (Reverse Punch). The main points are:
Focus on generating movement from the hips.
Keep the torso as relaxed as possible so as to allow the hips to slightly lead the shoulders, thus creating the wave effect through the body (the wave culminates in the whip).
Keep the hand/arm from moving as long as possible until the “wave” reaches the shoulders, then the hand will feel like it is being thrown rather than having to thrust it forward.
One of the easiest techniques (other than punching) to feel the “wave” is Age Uke (Rising Block), so maybe focus on that for a while till you have it, then put it into other techniques.
Kicks can use the whip too, but it is a bit more difficult. As power comes from the hips, it helps to pull the foot in as close as possible to the hip before releasing it to the target, (hence the emphasis on raising the knee).
Creating the wave through the body is about sequence. You will probably have to practice this slowly if it is not coming easily; but first raise the knee and bring the foot in as tight to the hip as possible without creating too much tension. Then move the hips/foot as one unit, then release the foot when the hip nears the completion of its movement. If you’re interested, I have actually produced a DVD which might help you understand this a bit better at: http://bunkaijutsu.com/store/
This is just brief overview (which I might expand on later).
I understand your concerns about the lack of muscular tension to protect your joints, but ironically you are less likely to damage your joints this way. With this relaxed technique, the joints actually open up lightly letting more fluids in which actually keep them lubricated. This is a Tai Chi principle. When somebody uses too much kime/tension, they actually pull the 2 sides of the joint together which more likely to create wear and tear. It also makes for a less efficient punch as the fist is actually being pulled slightly back by your own muscles rather than releasing all of the energy forward into the target.
The other factor is that when you have good structure, the reaction to impact is easily absorbed by the body’s skeletal system as the bones are in the correct alignment. For a fuller explanation of this, please see my article at the back of SKM Issue 110.
As for hard blocks like Soto Uke (Outside Block), the original function of this technique was not to block straight punches. Just try sparring with a club mate for a while where one can only do straight punches and the other can only do classical blocks (Soto Uke, Uchi Uke, age Uke etc). You’ll find that the blocks simply don’t work. On top of that, in a real self defence situation, you are more likely to be attacked by swinging haymakers rather than straight punches. The creators of Karate centuries ago (who had to fight for their lives, rather than points) would not spend so much time creating “blocks” that don’t work – to defend against attacks that are not likely to used.
Therefore (coming back to your question), the only time you’re likely to be blocked with a full Soto Uke (Outside Block) is when you’re doing pre-arranged sparring when you can if you deem necessary brace yourself as you know when its coming. Having said that, even without using the whip technique, the arm should still be relaxed when moving (only tensing on impact) and the Soto Uke should intercept it before it reaches that impact (or its too late – you’ve already been hit). Therefore, with respect, you should be used to being blocked with your arm relaxed.
I do not think that you are asking stupid questions at all. Quite the opposite, as we get older we are wise to take our age into account, it would be stupid not to 🙂 I am luckily that my own Sensei, Paul Mitchell, is very aware of this subject. One of his sayings is “young people should use the full dexterity of their bodies, older people should do it properly”. An example of what he means by this is that high kicks are good for youngsters to develop their bodies, but not effective for self defence, so older people should keep their kicks to a practical height (doing it properly for self defence).
I hope this answers your questions to your satisfaction.
Please leave your own feedback below if you found this useful, or if you would like to add your own knowledge to my answer. I always welcome input from others.