How To Put The “Whip” Into A Linear Punch (Part 2)

In Part 1 of How To Put A “Whip” Into A Linear Punch, I looked at how to use the hips properly to generate a waveform motion through the body for basic punches.  Many people struggle with this because as beginners we tend to move the whole torso as one, rather than generating movement from the hips and simply relaxing the rest of the torso so as to let it flow naturally.  This puts tension into the body and takes away our power.

The method used in the first video is great for single basic techniques, especially Choku Zuki (straight punch in upright standing stance) and Gyaku Zuki (reverse punch), where we end with the hips square to front or just 10 to 15 degrees past square.  Well in this next video we take it a step further.  When you snap a towel (or your belt), you have a “pull back” just at the end of the forward movement.  We can incorporate this “pull back” to gain extra whip/snap when we perform a snap punch, or multiple techniques (e.g.  stepping punch, reverse punch or block then reverse punch).  That pull back at the end of the first techniques not only puts an extra whip/snap on the end, but also initiates the hip movement for the second technique.

Now I know that not everybody will have been taught this way, so before you watch my video, please have a quick look at this one by Master Kagawa, 8th Dan Shotokan Karate and Technical Director of the JKS.  As he performs Age Uke (rising block) you can clearly see his hips rotate fully, then just settle back slightly at the end of the movement.  This settling back (or pull back) gives that extra little “whip” on the end the rising block and can be used to initiate the next technique (which is usually a reverse punch).  So for anybody who has not seen this before (and there will be very many who haven’t), I’m not making it up.  This is nothing new, it’s always been there, its just always explained in detail.  I’ve been lucky with my teachers.

[Waveform punch Part 2]

How To Put The “Whip” Into A Linear Punch

I usually focus on the practical application of techniques on this website, but today I’m actually going to focus on technique itself.  I think this one is important, as it can greatly enhance the power of your punches and other strikes.

The Karate masters of old often taught that we should use our body like a “whip”, but this is not always easy to do, especially if you practice a predominantly linear style.  In practically all sports, power is generated from the hips, transferred to the shoulders, then to the arms/hands.  However, people often struggle to do this in linear styles.  I believe that this is because we are often taught that everything finishes together, whereas in most other activities they are taught to move in sequence.  I believe that this is partly brought about by the fact that we focus (kime) into one spot, whereas in most other disciplines (including other sports) they move through their target.  When a golfer hits the ball, he does not stop there, he moves right through it (as does anybody using any kind of racket or bat to hit something).  When somebody throws a ball, they do not stop at the instance of release, they move through that point.

Yet with a linear punch, we stop dead at the point of focus, especially in basic form.  Even in freestyle, at the point of focus we strike and retract rather than moving through, and I think this is what causes the problem for so many.  Many people end up moving the shoulder and hips together, rather than in sequence like everybody else.  The only way we can move shoulder and hip together is by tightening the muscles of our torso and locking them together.

Yet we are always told that we should be as relaxed as possible and that movement comes from the hips . . . . . . . or as some would say, the Hara (Japanese) or Dan Tien (Chinese).

If we are locking the shoulders and hips together, we cannot be completely relaxed.  Also, movement cannot be said to come from the hips (Hara/ Dan Tien) as the whole torso moves as one.

If we truly generate the power from the hips and we are truly relaxed in out torso, then the hips should move first, creating a small rotational stretch in our body as the shoulders are left fractionally behind.  When stretched, the body naturally wants to return to its original shape, so the shoulders will start to rotate as well, just fractionally behind the hips.  However, as we are not actually focusing on our shoulders and the torso is relaxed, there will be a feeling of the shoulder and arm being “thrown” by the hip, rather than having to focus on moving them and extending the arm.

Chinese circular styles seem to achieve this whip like feeling more easily as a circular techniques goes through its target and does not stop at the point of impact (unlike a basic linear punch).  Some of the modern day masters talk of a putting in a waveform motion.  The Russian martial art, Systema (The System) also talks of a waveform.  This is often compared to the standard Karate/TKD punch and advocated as being much more powerful.  However, I believe that this is because most people are not really aware of how to put the waveform into their linear technique.  Using the method described above and demonstrated in the video below, it is relatively easy to get this waveform (whip) into a linear punch.

I must put in one disclaimer however, and that is that many advanced Karateka/TKD practitioners do this naturally as they learn to relax.  However, I don’t think that most of them are actually aware of the mechanics of it, certainly very few will explain it in this manner.

When I’ve shown this before, I’ve had people say that they loved it, but had never seen anything like it in their own club.  I believe that I may have “re-framed” things a bit, but everybody should be training this way.  By re-framing it I hope to make it clearer; I am not introducing something new here.  If this concept is new to you, please give your feedback below on what you think of it.  If you have been taught this concept, but this video makes it clearer please tell me.  If you think I’m a mad Karate heretic, then say so 🙂

[Waveform punch]

Tae Kwon Do: Alternative Applications For Blocks

Most of our video applications on this blog are primarily from a Karate and Kung Fu perspective (as they are the styles that Keith and I do).  However, we thought we would do something a bit more geared to Tae Kwon Do as we did not want TKD practitioners to feel left out 🙂

But first a little background.  The applications to many Karate moves were “dumbed down” when Karate went public.  Firstly Karate was introduced into Okinawan schools to help physically prepare students for national service (and you don’t want school kids damaging each other).  Then when Karate went from Okinawa to Japan at a time when Japan was modernising very fast, traditional martial arts were seen as obsolete, except as a method for physical and character training (more dumbing down).  Then during the American occupation of Japan after WWII, martial arts were banned; so to be allowed to practice the Japanese had to claim it was more for self development and sport than for self defence and then had to practice accordingly (even more dumbing down).

Tae Kwon Do’s General Choi would no doubt have learnt this dumbed down version (as did the vast majority of Japanese masters).  However, the more it is investigated the more it is apparent that Karate’s basic “blocks” do not work well as blocks.  Yet these same “blocking” movements can be quite efficiently applied as close quarters strikes, arm locks and releases from grabs.  Although we don’t know for sure what the original intentions of the creators would have been, it is far more likely they would have been used as close quarter strikes/grappling then for actually blocking.  If they were used for blocking, then it is more likely that the block occurred at the chambered position and the completed position would have been a some kind of counter (strike/lock/etc).

To add to the confusion for Tae Kwon Do practitioners, in some versions of Tae Kwon Do these blocks were adapted to make them “more efficient blocks”.  In other words, to make them better at what they were not really meant to be used for.  In particular, the chambering position has been changed in some versions of Tae Kwon Do (other versions of Tae Kwon Do still chamber the Karate way).

However, I’m a believer that if you change a movement, you usually gain something and lose something.  Throughout the centuries, Okinawan and Chinese martial arts masters have changed their arts to suit their physiques, their environments and their own mental make up.  They gained an advantage for their personal circumstances but maybe lost something that could have favoured their masters circumstances.  So change is not necessarily a good or bad thing, as long as it can be used by the practitioner for their own personal circumstances.

Whilst the adapted chamberbing position used by some versions of Tae Kwon Do will have lost some of the original applications from its Karate roots, they will have gained some new applications.  Not better, now worse, just different.

In the video below, Keith and I look at how some the amended Tae Kwon Do chambering positions can be used for close quarters strikes and grappling applications.  We don’t claim that these would have been what the originators had in mind, we simply don’t know.  Nobody dose.  We simply believe that these are additional applications in your arsenal, for moves that you are already doing. For any Tae Kwon Do practitioners who have not seen these types of applications before, Keith and I are far from unique in our way of thinking. There are some very good books on the subjects, most notable are show below.

[Applied TaeKwonDo]

If you are interested in Tae Kwon Do specific applications, then the books below are leaders in the field:- Widgets

Shihan Kousaku Yokota’s New Book – “Shotokan Myths” (More Than Just Shotokan): Part 2

Recently I wrote about Shihan Kousaku Yokota’s new book, Shotokan Myths.  Well now it is available for purchase (details below).  I have had some private correspondence with Shihan Yokota and there was one thing in particular that he said that I consider very important and I wanted to share with everybody. With so many “reality based” martial arts and the rise of mixed martial arts, many people have questioned the effectiveness and validity of the traditional martial arts.  Many Japanese masters have been secretive or aloof and have not bothered to explain the finer points, keeping Westerns on a rather superficial level.  I’ve seen some Japanese masters teach up in Scotland, UK, where they actually pretend that they can’t speak English properly when you know full well that they can (from people who have actually visited the masters own dojo).

I have to say that I do not believe this of all the Japanese masters, but certainly some are like it.  Yet here we have a Japanese master at the very highest level who is not only wants to teach all that he knows, but is actually concerned that if he does not, that Karate will become obsolete.  As I said before, although the book has “Shotokan” in the title, it should be of interest to other styles as well, especially those with Shotokan in their lineage.

Anyway, here in Shihan Yokota’s own words (and with his permission to reproduce it):

“I want to share the knowledge so that the western karate practitioners will see the “light” so to speak. There should not be so much of mysticism about Karate. Almost all the things can be fully explained. But it was easier for many “masters” to keep them as mysterious or “secret”. The fact is many “masters” did not know the answers or have the ability (or motivation) to explain them. Many Japanese instructors are afraid to speak up as that would reveal the inability of those masters or the organizations. It has been more than 60 years since shotokan karate was introduced to the western world. I believe it is about time somebody to speak up and let the western practitioners know it is ok to ask and challenge what you read or learn from the Japanese masters. Without this quest we cannot hope to improve karate and it will end up in a museum some day. Ossu”

ISBN #978-1-4568-0709-2 (Hard cover) US$29.99
#978-1-4568-0708-5 (Soft cover) US$19.99
You can order your copy now from the publisher, Xlibris:
• Phone (Toll Free): 1-888-795-4274
• Fax: 1-610-915-0294 or 1-610-915-0293
• E-mail:
They will ship internationally (shipping charge will apply).

Extra note:  I don’t know about other countries, but shipping and handling cost quoted for posting to the UK are extortionately high.  I have asked Shihan Yokota to get Xlibris to confirm.  However, Shotokan Myths is also available from Amazon in paperback or hardcover where S & H costs should be more reasonable from there.

UPDATE: You can now get it from Amazon:-

In the UK Widgets

Shihan Kousaku Yokota’s New Book – “Shotokan Myths” (More Than Just Shotokan)

Shihan Kousaku Yokota, 8thDan Shotokan Karate is releasing a new book, Shotokan Myths, which should be available from mid December.

Firstly, I would like to say that so many other styles have spawned from Shotokan, that this book should be valuable to a far wider audience than just Shotokan Karateka.

So who is Shihan Kousaku Yokota?

Yokota is an 8th Dan with 46 years of Shotokan Karate experience. He specializes in Asai ryu karate which is based on JKA style Shotokan with some White Crane Kung Fu blended in.  He also practiced Okinawa kobudo (nunchaku, sai, tonfa, 3 sectional staff and 7 chain whip).

I have read some of Yokota’s articles in Shotokan Karate Magazine where he wrote about how a number of myths have developed over the years and become ingrained into Shotokan folk lore (and from there into numerous other styles of Karate and TaeKwonDo).  He exposes many of these myths in an intelligent and well informed manner, explaining historical, social and practical reasons why certain practices have been introduced and how they have come to be accepted as “traditional” Karate practices, when in fact many of them are relatively new to the Karate world.

So on a blog that focuses largely on practical applications (bunkai) to traditional martial arts, why would we be interested in myths and the historical/social reason surrounded their coming into being?

Well simply put, if we know what is “real” from what is not, then we can make more informed decisions.  We tend to look how to apply our katas/patterns/forms, but knowing the influences that effected them can change the application.  For example, in one article in SKM, Yokota examined the myth that all kata’s should start and finish in the same place.  This was never a requirement for the Okinawan masters.  However, when Funikoshi took it to Japan, Karate started being taught to much larger numbers of people.  There was not the same small close group of master and only a few special students.  Therefore the students had to be given a way to measure their own performance.  Having katas finish on the same point that they started gave a form of measure (for example, consistent stances length in both direction).  To achieve this, some of the katas had to be adapted.  Most Heian/Pinan kata’s today follow a capital “I” shape.  However, originally the shape of the kata was more like a double headed arrow.  For example, in Kihon kata (or Heian Shodan/Pinan Nidan/Dan Gun), after doing the 3 stepping punches, instead of performing a 3/4 turn (270 degrees) it would have been a 5/8 turn (225 degrees).   This made it difficult to return to original starting position, hence changing it to the “I” shape that is so familiar today.  Many people interpret this movement as a throw.  But knowing why the change came about, gives us the clue that we do not have to spin round quite so far to execute that same throw, actually making it a bit easier to apply!

Other changes have been made to standardize katas to make them easier to judge in competition.  Knowing these things may alter how you perceive the application that put to this movement next time you examine your kata.  This is why knowing fact from myth is important to being able to practically apply your katas.  It is not just an academic exercise in learning history (though this can be very interesting in its own right).

Yokota is thorough in his research and explanation.  I therefore commend Shotokan Myths not only to Shotokan Karateka, but to all styles that have Shotokan in their lineage.
You can now get this book from Amazon


DVD Review: Mixed TaeKwon & Skills Of Hapkido

I’ve recently had a look at 2 videos from 9th  The first is a fusion of self defense skills from two masters one Tae Kwon Do and the other Hapkido, called “Mixed TaeKwon”.

The second one is an introduction to Hapkido, called “Skills of Hapkido”.


I was particularly looking forward seeing this one as it was a fusion of the 2 styles.  Having made my own DVD, blending Karate and Kung Fu, I was keen to see somebody else doing a similar thing between different styles.  I wasn’t disappointed.  But first, their promotional trailer:-

Grandmaster Kim (Hapkido) and Master Bae (7th Dan TKD) introduce the DVD, explaining that it is aimed mainly at TKD students to emphasis the self defence aspects of the art.  The masters felt that with since TKD became an Olympic sport there is so much emphasis on sport that the original self defence aspects of the art are sometimes overlooked.  Master Kim explains that TKD has the speed and power, whereas Hapkido has the flexibility, pressure point and joint locking skills.

The DVD is well produced with step by step break down of movements.  It emphasises that the student should not just try to memorize the movements, but learn the principles behind them.  This I think is the best advice from the whole DVD as by learning the principles, these masters are giving the student the tools to go away and work things out for themselves.  It brings to mind the old saying, give a man fish and you feed him for a day, teach him to fish and you feed him for life.

I did feel however, that the DVD sold TKD a bit short.  Being a Karateka, I am aware that Karate was dumbed down when it went public.  The vast majority of Japanese masters learned the dumbed down version, which TKD was also based on.  However, many Karateka who also studied Kung Fu, Aikido, JuJutsu and others arts (or went back to Okinawa) soon recognised that the techniques in those other arts were the same as movements in their own Karate kata, but the applications were far more effective than the dumbed down applications they had been given in Karate.  Many of these Karateka have brought this knowledge back into Karate and accepted it as being the original meaning of the art (rather than being an imported part from another style).

I believe that TKD being largely based on Karate is in the same position.  The pressure point, joint locking applications are not missing from TKD, they have in many cases (though not all before anybody jumps on me) been lost or forgotten.

When General Choi took Karate back to Korea and started to formulate TKD, he would have influenced by the indigenous Korean martial arts such as Hapkido.  So for TKD exponents to look at a sister art such as Hapkido is an excellent idea for them to re-discover what should have been there from the very beginning.  Don’t look on Hapkido as something different, look on it as something that helps fill the gaps and completes your TKD knowledge.

I would recomend it, a good Christmas present if you know a TKD exponent.


This DVD is just about Hapkido and compliments the Mixed TaeKwon DVD very well.  But first the trailer:-

This follows the same step by step format as the previous DVD, with break downs, close and wide angle views, parnter and solo practice drills.  It establishes the underlying principles of Hapkido first, then these principle are used over and over again during the self defence scenarios demonstrated.  A very good introduction to Hapkido for anybody interested in the style.  Also good for TKD and Karate people who would like to explore further some of the seemingly obscure parts of their own style.

You can find out more at

Back To Basics With Al Peasland

Al Peasland (5th Dan with the British Combat Association, 3rd Dan Traditional Karate and internationally renowned teacher) wrote an interesting article on “Back To Basics”.  In this article he compares an experience he had learning to ski with how he teaches self protection.  He spent most of the time learning how to do “the plough” (position where the front of the skis point inwards, forming a triangular plough shape).

Al asked why they spend so much time in the plough position when it is not the way that they do “real skiing”.  The instructor explained that practicing the plough gives you control over the snow, when you have that, the rest of the fancy stuff can be mastered.  But without control over over the snow, the ability to ski fast, turn and (most importantly) to be able to stop; will be very difficult to learn.  When you see a good skier whizzing down a slop, skis parallel, twisting and turning around obstacles, you don’t see the plough.  Yet without learning the plough first, you would not see the speed and agility.

So (as Al explains) it is with martial arts and self protection.  Without learning the basic stances, basic techniques and sparring/drilling routines, you would not have a very a structure that you could use under pressure.

Although I am a further down the martial arts food chain than Al, I agree entirely.  People often talk of “muscle memory”.  However, muscles don’t have memory, only the brain does.  When you do a movement, any movement, or even a particular behaviour pattern, you fire a series of tiny electrical signals across the brain.  These are the parts of the brain that control that movement or behaviour.  When you repeat a movement over and over, those tiny electrical signals get stronger and the brain forms more links inside to carry the stronger signals.  This is called a “neural pathway” through the brain.  It is here, rather than the muscle that the memory of movement is stored.  The more we practice a movement over and over again, the stronger and bigger that neural pathway becomes, until eventually we no longer have to put in any conscious thought, we just fire the neural pathway and instinct takes over.

This is what we want when under pressure.  We want such strong, deeply rooted neural pathways, that we don’t need to think about how to punch/strike/kick etc.  We just want to be able to think this is it, action, and the rest just happens automatically.  The main difference between a master and a beginner is not necessarily their strength or physical prowess, it is the strength of these neural pathways, forged by years and years of repetition.

People often look for the quick fix (which is human nature).  Partly for that reason, pressure point fighting has become popular over recent years.  However, as I’ve said before, if you don’t know how to hit, if you can’t move with speed and accuracy, you will not be able to strike pressure point targets effectively.

Whatever your style of martial art, practice basics, basics then some more basics.  It is the only way to really be able to perform under pressure.  I promote the use of practical bunkai on this blog, but without good basics you will struggle to make them work.

I liken it to the foundations of a building.  The first thing the builders do is to dig a bloody great hole and fill it in with ugly cement and steel.  When the nice new shiny building is finished, you don’t see those foundations, you don’t see that hole and cement.  You only see the building on top.  But without that cement filled hole, the building would easily collapse.  So it is when you see a great fighter performing great athletic feats, breaking boards, fancy jumping kicks or annihilating an opponent.  You don’t see the years that the same fighter spent in a basic stance practicing a basic technique over and over again until he/she had a really deep foundation and incredibly strong neural pathways.

And let face it, if it was easy to learn in a few weeks, then all the muggers and predators would have done it to, so they would know what we know.  What sets us aside as martial artists is that we take the time to study and to evolve.  And in so doing we not only become better able to defend ourselves, but we become better human beings in the process.

The Humble “Yoi”

The kata’s (patterns/forms) within a traditional style often have different salutations and ready positions.  This would indicate that they have different meanings, beyond being just a salutation.  Think about it, if they were no more than just a salutation, why would they not be standardised.  Why would any style need more than one salutation which it would use on all of its kata’s/patterns/forms.

Logic would suggest that these salutations/ready positions are moves that could stop an opponent early in the proceedings, before a full blown fight breaks out.  If that does not work, then its into the kata to use techniques that will deal with a full blown fight.

The most common salutation or ready position in Karate is the “Yoi”.  The performance of the Yoi may vary from style to style, but generally the arms come up to head height (sometimes higher) then circle inwards and downwards, crossing over your center line, then back outwards, before settling just about hip height at  about a torso width apart.

Here’s our interpretation of how to use the humble Yoi against somebody who is acting aggressively, to turn the tables on them and put them in a position of disadvantage which you can exploit as you see fit.

Please tell us what you think.  Is your Yoi or salutation very much different?  Do you see the Yoi as being no more than a salutation with no practical function, or do you see it as a functional movement as we do?  Feel free to leave your opinion in the comment box below.


Kata: Training Beyond Technique

Much is debated and demonstrated about the fighting applications within kata (patterns/forms), myself included.  But not too much is spoken about the mindset, or mental approach you should take when performing your kata.  Yes we all know that we should concentrate and focus, but beyond that . . . . what?

Whilst we are learning our kata, then obviously a certain amount of our concentration will be on making sure that we get the techniques and sequence correct.  With practice we should be able to perform our kata without having to think about them very much.  So now that we no longer have to think about the movements, what do we think about?  What’s for dinner?  Going for a drink afterwards?  Or how cool we look doing this kata without thinking about it?

Well my answer might surprise some people, especially as a large part of our training is about self development and making ourselves better people.  What I think you should do when you perform a kata that  you know well is to pour all you nastiness, malevolence, viciousness and malice into your kata.  That may sound strange from somebody who believes in self development as well as practicality, but please bear with me.

Real violence is nasty, malevolent, vicious and full of malice; and performing kata (or basics) is a mental rehearsal as well as a physical rehearsal.  Thugs may not have good technique, but they are used to “training” in the “adrenalin zone”. When you have to fight to defend yourself or your loved ones, then you are entering the thugs world of real violence and you have to be able to cope with it.  Adrenalin will effect your body, your perceptions and your ability to think. Your training should be real enough in your mind that you get a small adrenalin rush each time.  Whilst too much adrenalin can be unhealthy, a regular amount at low levels is fine, plus you become more immune to it’s negative effects after a while.  You will be able to remain calmer in a crisis.

Now some people may be concerned that training with this mindset may also train a thuggish mentality.  But as soon as you finish your kata, you step up into Yamae (finish position), you go back to calm.

We train ourselves to “switch on” quickly and “switch off” just as quickly.  If somebody attacks us, we do not want to freeze in shock (which happens even to high grade martial artists).  That said, if we successfully defend ourselves and incapacitate our attacker, we do not want to jump up and down on their prostrate body or perform River-Dance on their head.  We need to be able to stop and not be carried away in the heat of an unfamiliar moment.

As martial artists we need to know when to stop for  legal and even more importantly; for moral reasons.  We need to enter the world of vile malevolence when needed and exit it just as quickly when the job is done.  However, nasty the thug may be, we as martial artists should be able to show mercy once we overpower him/her.  It is part of the Yin & Yang of training and of our development.  Its about balance in our personality.

The only way to have little or no fear of violence is to be good at it.  I am not advocating that you act in a violent manner, but when you know that you can handle yourself in most situations, you project a confidence which most predators of the human world will recognise and they will be more likely to avoid you.  Please note that I say “most situations”, as there will always be someone more experienced or better armed then you.

Most human predators mirror the animal predators.  Think of the lion, king of the jungle.  They hunt in prides, but do they for the big muscular young bull buffalo with the great big horns.


They go for the old, the young, the weak, the one with the gammy leg that can’t run properly.  Basically, for predators its about finding an easy target.  For us training is about making you a hard target, physically and emotionally.  The big fit bull with the horns does not need to threaten the lions, the lions just know.  So it is when you walk with an air of confidence, the human predators just know.

But projecting true confidence is not just about how you walk or your posture.  It’s about knowing that you are prepared physically and mentally should a conflict make it necessary.  As Bruce Lee once said in his films, “the art of fighting without fighting”.

I heard of a study years ago where they got 3 groups and tested them at throwing balls through a basketball hoop.  After recording the results, they had one of the groups practice shooting the balls at the hoop, one of the groups not practice at all; and the third group just visualise throwing balls at the hoop.  Later they tested the three groups again.  The group that practiced improved by something like 24% (if I remember right).  The group that did not practice made no improvement at all.

The amazing thing though was that the group that just visualised throwing the balls improved dramatically, with about a 23% improvement.  Visualisation achieved almost as good a result as doing the real thing.  Therefore whilst practicing kata, using visualisations of the violence and malevolence of the situation can actually help you prepare for it more than most people give it credit for (even if you don’t fully understand the bunkai).  Although good technique is important, unless you are practicing primarily for competition it should not always be your main focus.  Funikoshi said that spirit is more important than technique and he primarily taught by kata rather than kumite (sparring).

This concept may be a bit new to some people.  Whether it’s new to you or not, please leave a comment below to tell me what you think, I’d like to hear from you.

7 Questions to Enhance Your Bunkai

This is an intersting article from which is very relevant to the aims of this blog as well.  I hope you enjoy it:-

“Without bunkai (applications), kata is little more than pre-arranged dancing. The hands can be flowing in exciting and vibrant ways but if we never discover the meaning of the motion then our time would be much better spent hitting a heavy bag or sparring.

Bunkai is the key to developing useful and effective techniques preserved for us by those individuals who developed and tested them in fierce, life protection situations. Over the course of time much of the true meaning of these movements has either been lost or purposefully disguised. If your desire is to unlock some of the skills of our predecessors, you’ll need to know the right questions in order to find the best answers.

The following are seven things to ask yourself that might illuminate your kata in a different (and hopefully productive) way. These are in no particular order and are not prescriptive. Use some when you can and invent others.

eizo shimabukuro bunkai

1. Can I change the angle in which I address my opponent?

Many times during bunkai we assume that an opponent is coming straight from the front or from the sides, and that we must stay directly in front of them and try to defend. What happens if you cut a 45 degree angle during your technique? What if turning from left to right allowed you to arc around the same opponent instead of addressing a new one?

2. What came just before and what is coming right after?

When we learn kata, it generally occurs in a set cadence. Step1 – block up. Step2 – block down. Step3 – punch kiai! That being the case, our mind generally sections itself off in those little boxes. It is our job to look at what is occurring right before our current technique and right after and how the body moves from one to the next. Stringing techniques together makes for a more devastating outcome to your opponent.

3. Am I utilizing all of the technique or just the end piece?

Techniques are often more dynamic than we give them credit for. Take for example the knife hand block. When we perform a knife hand block we generally step somewhere, prep the block, and then shoot the block out. The block itself is what we use to defend against an attack, but what about all the stuff that came before it? Can’t we use that too? Can’t the body shift be used to off-balance or attack our opponent, and can’t the prep be used to either defend or attack?

4. Can I condense the number of opponents I have to face to get through my applications?

If you find yourself going through a dozen bad guys for your bunkai you may be too segmented. In order to mentally escape from a tricky technique we often dismiss the current bad guy and invite a new one in from a different direction. Worse yet, if we are using two hands at once and don’t really know what’s going on we might invite two bad guys to attack us at once from different directions. Multiple opponent training is valuable, but kata is not suggesting that GuyA is likely to kick low while GuyB punches from behind. Those scenarios are too unlikely and miss the real intent of what’s happening. Condense the number of opponents as much as possible.

5. Are my opponents behaving naturally and with likely techniques, or am I forcing them into increasingly unlikely scenarios?

Patrick McCarthy Sensei developed the acronym HAPV, or habitual acts of physical violence. The point of HAPV is to keep focused on the techniques you are most likely to encounter. Furthermore, the longer you make the string of actions done by your uke the more unlikely an actual attacker will follow that pattern. Therefore, when performing bunkai, we want our opponents acting as naturally as possible. If the opponent has to punch, step back punch, step back punch, step back block up and receive your strike, you’ve asked your uke to behave in a way they never would in real life.

6. Have I affected my opponent in a way that makes more technique work?

Let’s say you manage to block your opponent (so far so good). You then put them in a wrist lock or arm bar in order to control them. That progression seems very effective, especially after years of training, and generally works in the dojo. However, if you’ve ever come across a live opponent who is experiencing adrenaline dump you’ll know that manipulating that arm is extremely difficult. Your attempts to bar or lock it will be met with iron resistance and counter punches to your face. Always be sure to negatively affect your opponent as soon as possible, then go into more technique.

7. What is the emotional content of my encounter?

What kind of scenario is your kata taking place in? Is it a school yard pushing match? Is it a life or death home invasion? The emotional environment you place yourself in is going to alter your bunkai dramatically. Your technique may need to restrain or it may need to kill.

Mental Gymnastics

With all of these questions/problems/complications we have to address the concept of simplicity. In a real life altercation, your simplest and most effective techniques will be the ones that help you. Thinking about responses in the heat of the moment will keep you one step behind your opponent.

Why then bother with all of this business about bunkai? Shouldn’t we simply practice a series of basic, effective techniques and avoid the mental gymnastics?

The short term answer is yes. For the first 5-6 years of your training you need to become “brilliant at the basics”, as Bill Hayes Sensei would say. Without a rock solid foundation and instinctual integration of your style’s stances, punches, and basic techniques nothing else can be built firmly. However, once you do achieve that level of proficiency, you acquire the privilege of exploring your art even deeper and improving the way you go about your business.

Simple techniques practiced a certain way seem like the best option until you learn how to improve them. That doesn’t necessarily mean complicate them. Instead the goal is to find ways to improve your angle, distance, timing, striking locations, and technique progression in order to enhance what’s already been built. This style of study leads to an understanding of tichiki, or “what the hand is doing”, which can be used extemporaneously with great percentage of success”.

By Matthew Apsokardu