2 of the Worlds very best masters of applied traditional martial arts.
About 3 hair follicles between them 🙂
Sensei John Johnston adaptive Karate and Sensei Iain Abernethy are coming together again for another joint seminar in Derby, UK. Although they are both Karateka, the seminar is open to other styles, especially Taekwondo and Tang Soo Do which have close links to Karate.
I’ve attended courses with both of them individually as well as their last joint seminar and I can highly recommend this seminar to any traditional martial artists who want to be able to apply their art for real World self defence, not just sport.
This was a great seminar hosted by 2 world class instructors, held on the 4th May 2013.
Sensei John Johnston, 7th Dan, has worked nightclub doors in one of UK’s roughest city’s. He’s been a high level competitor (back when competitions were a bit more “Wild West”) and was Geoff Thompson’s first martial arts instructor, introducing Geoff to the concept of reality based martial arts.
With him was Sensei Iain Abernethy, 6th Dan, who has taught all over the world, authored numerous books on the practical application of Karate kata bunkai and has produced a number of DVD’s. The chance to train with both of them in one seminar was not to be missed.
There were Karateka there from numerous different styles and it was nice to see some Taekwondo guys too. I was also a bit surprised to see Jamie Clubb there. He’s not an easy guy to pigeon-hole, but if you had to you’d probably put him primarily in the Reality Based Martial Arts camp. Yet here he was training with 2 traditional Karate guys, which is a testament their practical and effective approach and application of their art.
The first session was taken by John Johnston, which looked at the use of “blocking” techniques for destabilising, disruption and striking. We started by looking at using basic blocks for covering up the head to absorb haymakers whilst moving in on an opponent and countering at close quarters.
We also looked at double blocks (simultaneous Lower Block with Inside Block, then the same on the other side), where the arms cross over each other in front of the body (as in the 2nd and 4th movements of Heian/Pinan Sandan). Rather than blocking 2 attacks simultaneously (as used to be taught by our Japanese masters), this was used to block one high attack with the top hand, then use the second hand to come up to trap and secure the attacking hand, leaving the attacker vulnerable to a counter.
Another example was taken from Heian/Pinan Godan where the attacker grabbed the wrist with a cross hand grab and prepared to strike with their other hand. The defender would move to the side, away from the attackers striking hand whist applying Uchi Uke (Inside Block) with the arm that had been grabbed. This releases (or at least weakens) the attackers hold and sets them up for a counter. At all times John emphasised that we should use whatever counter presented itself, rather than rigidly following the kata and thinking that we must follow up strictly with whatever the next kata move might be.
Numerous other examples followed with counters including releases from grabs, taking the attackers balance, striking and taking them to the floor; all taken from or set up by basic blocks.
The second session was taken by Iain Abernethy which looked at grappling and gripping drills from a Karate perspective. Iain has a lot of Judo experience as well, but is very clear on the different requirements of Judo compared to Karate/self protection.
The first emphasis was on establishing a grappling hold which would prevent the opponent from being able to strike us (not an issue in Judo). This involved placing one hand round the back of opponents head and pulling it in to you so as to prevent head-butts (and bringing in your own head in tight as well). This arm was also “inside” the opponents arm so making their arm less effective to attack you. Your opposite arm circles over the top of your opponents arm to secure it to your own body, again to neutralise it. We had to circle over the top of their arm, as they could escape much easier if we tried to circle from underneath.
From here Iain introduced drills where the person at the disadvantage could reverse the position so they they had the advantage. Then we added to the drill to block the previous move and keep the advantage and so on. It is too complex to explain accurately without the use of many pictures or a videos (which I don’t have) and would take pages to explain. So I’m going to cop out on that one. You’d have to experience it for yourself to really understand, but I can say that it was a very clever and practical drill covering an area that most Karateka/TKD practitioners do not explore.
The third session was back to John for bunkai of the Shotokan kata, Wankan. John explained that bunkai does not just mean “application” as it is often taken to mean, but it means “analysis”. We should analyse not just the different movements of the kata, but the different attacks we might face, size/strength differences that we might encounter and the environment we might be in.
He made his point quite succinctly when he called up a young lad (probably early teens) and the smallest person in the room and told the lad “pick me up throw me”. There was a pause and a silence, so John repeated he himself. This time there was some laughter as people realised the point that John was making. It is no good saying that any given application will work for everybody. There was no way that the small lad would be able to pick up and throw a big man like John, so just teaching a given movement such as a throw and a throw only would be selling the bunkai short.
We looked at the first movement of Wankan kata which is normally seen as a high X block, or raising your arms between the attackers arms when he has a 2 handed hold to your neck, then lowering and separating your own arms to break his grip. John gave us several potential uses for this movement including moving inside a haymaker and blocking with both arms and following up with a strike, or moving inside a haymaker and blocking with one hand whilst simultaneously striking with the hand nearest to the opponents head.
Other applications included stepping to the outside of a straight punch and using both arm to grab the attacking arm and apply an arm lock/take down.
At this point John told us that he wanted us to “do my job for me”. By that he meant that we should experiment and work out applications for ourselves; applications which suit our own build, size, strength and experience. In conversation with him later, we discussed how many people don’t realise that they are actually allowed to do this and wait for somebody to teach them every move. The concept of finding out what suits you, (rather than one size fits all approach) is very central to John’s teaching.
Next comes 3 rapid steps forward with the arms held up (forearms together) in front of the face, followed by a reverse block and punch. John demonstrated this as grabbing somebody by the lapels (or wherever convenient) and forcefully marching them backwards to take them off balance, then use the reverse block (see kata) to pull their leading arm to the side where it is neutralised, whilst turning their body so that they can’t use their reverse side either. They are left we no hands that they can use, whilst you have one holding and one free to punch. Again we were encouraged to experiment with this to find what worked for us best.
A few more applications followed, then back to Iain for the fourth and final session, covering throws and takedowns. This built up on Iain’s earlier session on gripping. Having gotton ourselves into a position of a good grip, we could then go for a throw or takedown. Iain explained that although throws are a good tool for our arsenal of techniques, they should always be for back up and not what we rely on. A strike or punch can incapacitate somebody much more quickly and effectively than a throw/takedown, less skill is required and there is less to go wrong.
Iain also explained how a number of throws had appeared in Gichin Funakoshi’s early books, yet they had been removed from the later editions and why the requirements of Karate/self protection throws would be different to those of Judo. We then worked our way through Funakoshi’s original 10 throws, some of which I’d never seen before. Rather than blocking a punch then throwing, we started from the gripping positions used in Iain’s earlier session.
Overall it was a great seminar bringing together people from a number of styles. Both instructors were approachable, helpful and extremely knowledgable. I would certainly recommend either of them in isolation, but together, you’ve got to go.
Further information on their up-coming course and contact details for booking are available on their websites.
I have recently been sent some excellent videos via Youtube on rules for interpreting bunkai (applications), examples of bunkai and training drills for Naihanchi Kata by Ryan Parker of Ryukyu Martial Arts, from his own Youtube Channel, The Contemplative2. Note: Naihanchi Kata in Okinawan Karate is known as Tekki in some Japanese styles.
Having previously done some Youtube videos myself with a friend who does Wing Chun where we looked at similarities between Wing Chun and Naihanchi/Tekki kata bunkai, I was taken by how these videos also had so many similarities with Wing Chun close quarters trapping/striking and flow drills. As mentioned before, Karate is largely derived from White Crane Kung Fu, whilst Wing Chun is largely derived from Snake and Crane Kung Fu, so there is a common lineage between the two systems.
In this first video, Sensei Parker looks at 2 rules for interpreting bunkai in a very straight-forward step by step manner, demonstrating how to interpret which hand is defending/trapping and which hand is striking/locking and also how to interpret what direction you should be in relative to your opponent. This is built up into flow drills, including how to maintain control of your opponent as he tries to counter your moves. I won’t try to explain it all hear as that is done so much better by the video itself. All I will say is that having done a lot of Shotokan Karate and some Wing Chun myself, parts of this video will be more familiar to Wing Chun exponents than most Shotokan Karateka!
The second video builds on the first one and goes more into “Renzoku” drills. These are not bunkai, or self defence drills, they are just drills which are designed to teach specific skill sets.
The final video goes through the Naihanchi kata and demonstrates a number of it’s bunkai. In Sensie Parkers own words:
“These are just old tapes which I made for individual students as reference material to study. They weren’t intended to impress anyone (as they were made for people I trained with many times a week). The kata is just done in “walk-through” mode without any koshi action.
The bunkai are also done pretty lackadaisically, without any speed, power, or much attention to form and are just meant to be a memory aid”.
This is something that has been discussed on my Facebook page before, but I wanted to go into more depth with it. Most traditional martial arts have been dumbed down. Karate applications (Kata bunkai) were dumbed down when the Okinawans decided to introduce it into their school system in the late nineteenth century. This dumbed down version was taught to the Japanese and from there to the Koreans.
Kung Fu too has suffered. The Chinese were at first very reluctant to teach martial arts to anybody who was not full blooded Chinese. Later it was realised that it could be quite financially lucrative to do so! However, in the main they still held back a lot from Westerners. It is known that when the legendary Master Ip Man was teaching Wing Chun to Bruce Lee, he held back some of the more advanced secrets because Bruce Lee was not full blooded Chinese. If Bruce Lee was not taught the full system, what makes any Westerners think that they have been?
So moving on to the point of this post, I want to look at the end sequence of Shorin Ryu’s Kata (form/pattern), Pinan Shodan, as evidence of how Kata has been changed by people who most likely did not understand the meaning of the moves. In particular I draw your attention to the end sequence which finishes with a Downward Block (Gedan Baria) followed by an Upper Raising Block (Age Uke).
You will notice that the performer goes into a fairly a low stance for the Lower Block, but very deliberately rises up when he performs the Raising Block. Now if he was in fact actually “blocking” a punch, then it would make sense to move his head away from the punch.
It makes no sense at all to “block” a punch by pushing it upwards, as you move your head upwards at the same time. If you don’t completely clear the attacking punch, then you are moving your head right into the firing the line. In fact you probably end up with your throat in the position where the original attacking punch was aimed, which is even more dangerous.
If this so called Rising “Block” was actually an upward strike using the forearm to smash up under the chin and into the neck (which many martial artists now accept it as being), then it makes much more sense for the whole body to rise up. One of the principles of linear Karate (such as Shorin Ryu) is that the techniques are powered by the momentum of the body movement. In this case, the body momentum is clearly moving upwards and would be a great way to power an upward strike. If you look at the above video closely again, you’ll note that as the performer executes the Raising Block, he actually steps through in a relatively low stance and only rises up at the end of step as he actually executes the technique.
The other consideration (which has been discussed many times before in very many places) is why would a Kata finish with a “Block”? It means that your attacker is still able to continue attacking you. Viewing this technique as a “strike” makes more sense as you can incapacitate your attacker and the fight/assault is over.
Now fast forward Shorin Ryu as it develops into Shotokan Karate. The Downward Block and Raising Block sequence are performed at the same level without the performer raising up as he performs the Rising Block.
So why did this change?
It changed because the Japanese did not know that this technique was actually supposed to be a “strike” and it is not in their culture to question the master. If you view this technique as a “block”, then there is no advantage in rising up as you execute the technique (in fact it would be a distinct disadvantage as mentioned above). So as with many other movements within Kata, there was a lot of standardisation. The heights of the stances were standardised so that the stances all stayed the same height throughout.
Of course many styles have been derived from Shotokan, so this is very much the norm in the majority of the Karate world today. This is why I always encourage martial artists of any style to look at their Kata/patterns/forms with a questioning mind. Also, don’t get hooked into looking for why your style is superior to others; instead look at other styles (especially your styles predecessors) to find out what has been changed and why.
The Japanese changed a lot of the Okinawan Katas because they did not understand the true meanings. The Koreans changed a lot of their patterns to make them “more Korean” (hide the Japanese influences). I don’t know so much about history of Kung Fu forms, but I do know some associations that train a very large number of forms yet barely scratch the surface of the applications.
Russ Martin, 5th Dan TKD is recognised within the Taekwondo Association of Great Britain as an expert on applied Taekwondo (the practical application of the basics and patterns). He should really be known further afield as he has a very extensive knowledge.
To better understand his own art he decided to study Shito Ryu Karate as well and has attained his black belt in that too. He has also attended seminars with many of the great names in applied pattern/kata bunkai.
In the videos below he demonstrates applications to a number of basic blocks and pattern movements, most of which will be very readily recognised by most Karateka as well.
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.
Having recently completed an interview with Sensei John Johnston, I was lucky enough to secure a private lesson with him. Having discussed his approach to realistic Karate for self defence and the Adaptive Karate that he teaches in his seminars, Sensei Johnston was keen to show me in more detail and I was very keen to learn from him. So John came down from Coventry with his wife Elaine, who is a 2nd Dan, and we had a class.
It started of with some open hand techniques in basic form including Outer Knife Hand Strike, Inner Knife Hand Strike, Palm Heel, Spear Hand and Ridge Hand. Many clubs do not place much emphasis on these techniques outside of Kata, so I was happy to see this. Also, although some of these techniques are circular in function, many Shotokan clubs/associations perform them in a linear fashion. This is probably because they are more easy to control when performed linear, and therefore better for Kata competition (for anybody who receives Shotokan Karate Magazine, this was discussed by Scott Langely in Issue 109).
Anyway, when I saw John perform them in a circular fashion, it re-affirmed to me that he was a practical man, rather than one who wanted to simply look good. After practicing them forward (with leading hand) and stepping back (with reverse hand), Elaine and I were invited to use some of them on a focus mitt. After observing us, John had two main points that he wanted to make. Firstly that the strike should go right through the target (whereas some people focus on the target itself).
Secondly, being 2nd and 3rd Dans we should be making more use of shuffling the body forward (sliding step) with the strike to put more body weight behind the target, rather than simply performing the strike in our basic stationary forward stance. This is part of where his “adaptive” principles come in. Rather than regimenting a set stance and/or step, as Elaine and I are of quite different builds, the way that we use the sliding step and the amount of penetration through the target focus mitt would be different and we had to adjust to our own physiques.
A similar exercise was carried out with kicking. After practicing basic Front Kick a few times, John explained that usually in Karate, we aim the kick to the stomach. This is not the best target as it is relatively easy to defend against and the stomach muscles are the hardest in the body. Even a kick to the groin is not such a good target as it is a relatively small target and again quite easy to defend (and very intuitive to defend against simply be bringing knees together).
John told us to use the opponents thigh as a kind of “runway”, so that the kicking foot almost “runs up the opponents thigh”. This is so as to aim for the hip joint or pubic bone. If you get the hip joint you easily collapse the opponents structure leaving him very vulnerable to any follow up attack that you like. If you get the pubic bone, it is very painful and not quite so easy to defend against as a stomach attack.
Next it was kicks against a kick shield. Starting with Front Kick, where the kicking foot was pulled back (after the kick) to the supporting foot, whilst the supporting foot rotated, so that the back was facing the opponent. From here, we were to kick again with a Back Thrust Kick. The idea is to set up the opponent, so that they think if the first kick has missed and that you have left yourself turned and vulnerable. When they try to move in to take advantage, you immediately kick with a Back Thrust Kick and they just run onto it.
Again the “adaptive” principle came into play and the Back Thrust Kick could be delivered from either leg, depending on which leg we favoured, our balance and distance to the target. John likes to give and opening technique and then you adapt to the follow up which suits you best. He will give a few examples, but then leave it to the individual to decide what suits them best (just as long as it works).
Next followed some applications from Heian Godan. Firstly the opening sequence of Inside Block followed by Reverse Punch (both in back stance). When performing the Inside Block, the reverse hand (which is usually just seen as the “pull back hand”) was the hand used to perform the actual block. The hand which is normally seen as performing the “block” was used to push the opponents arm and put them off-balance. Then of course follow up with Reverse Punch and anything else that just felt right at the time. John explained that he did not hold with the idea of one application being used just for one given attack. It has to be capable of being adapted to a range of different attacks. Hence John had Elaine and I using this application against punches from both sides and both straight and hooking punches. John explained that without this kind of versatility, you can come unstuck if you practiced an application against only one type of attack, then somebody came in with something slightly different.
We also examined the low X-Block. Typically this is explained as blocking a kick which is very impractical. John had us looking at the scenario of somebody stabbing to the body with a knife. The leading hand of the X-Block was used to block/strike the attacking arm, knocking it downwards, whilst the other arm simply used as a punch to the opponents forearm to incapacitate the arm and neutralise the immediate threat of the knife. This was followed up by whatever felt natural and Elaine and I (being very different builds) experimented with different variations.
Overall, it was a very interesting and enjoyable lesson, for which I am very grateful. Having worked the doors for many years, John is very sure of what will and what won’t work in the real world. He sees a lot of bunkai being taught which simply would not work under pressure. The hallmark of John’s methods are that they are direct, effective, and for an experienced martial artist they can be used almost instantly without having to drill them for weeks to internalise them. I would recommend John to anybody in traditional martial arts who wants to make sure that their art is practical and valid on the streets.