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”.
Many self development/spiritual teachers’ today talk about “being present” or “living in the now” (which is the same thing really). It’s also part of Zen, which is often goes hand in hand with martial arts. But what does this actually mean, how can martial arts training help you achieve it and what benefits are there for you from both a self protection and everyday life point of view?
Let’s start with what is meant by “being present” or “living in the now”? This is a big subject which many books have been written about, so this is just a short overview. Many people spend most of their time living in regret over things they’ve done wrong, things they should have done but didn’t, things that other people have done to them, missed opportunities; whatever! They are spending a lot time focusing on their past and generally feeling bad and unhappy with it.
Others spend their time daydreaming about the future (long or short term). They feel that they’ll be happy when they get home from work, finish that course they’re doing, get a better job, leave a job, when they’re married, when their divorce comes through, when they go on holiday, when they get back home and can relax; whatever. These people are postponing being happy until sometime in the future so again they are feeling bad or unhappy in the present moment. This is not to say that we don’t make plans for the future or set goals; it is to say that stay present while do actually plan and goal-set and that we don’t postpone being happy until our plans and goals are achieved!
In both cases, those concerned are focusing their attention on being somewhere other than where they are now. Either they feel that they can’t be happy because of their past or they feel they can’t be happy until some future events happen. In the meantime they are physically in the present moment though mentally they are not. As many Eastern and holistic philosophies tell us, we cannot really be content until mind and body are one (in this case, mind focusing on the present where the body is). The more you put of being happy where you are now, the more you will never be properly happy and at peace with yourself at all. This is one of the key components to the Eastern ideal of reaching enlightenment. There is of course much to it than that and this is a very simplified overview.
Being able to actually focus our attention in the present moment most of the time is actually not very easy for most people. Usually most people only manage it for short periods of time.
Martial arts are great for bringing you into the present moment! If for example you are doing pre-arranged sparring and you facing somebody of a high standard, you know that if you don’t block/parry/evade, they’ll probably take your head off. That tends to focus the mind and shut out any thoughts of that row you had with your spouse, that stressful drive home after work or how you’d like to practice you most dangerous techniques on that illegitimateson of a . . . . . . female dog . . . . . . boss of yours at work. You are purely focused on this guy in front of you with a sinister expression on face, his eyes locked into your eyes and he moves like a bull on steroids (or at least it seems that way).
Sensei John Johnson focuses his students attention on the present moment!
Everything else in the world, the past and future is shut out whilst you face this imminent threat, which you have to block and counter. The little bit of adrenalin generated helps you to move faster and the exertion helps you to produce endorphins (the brains “happy” chemicals). You are very present in the NOW and you feel good about it!
Any other form of exercise also generates endorphins which will help the feel-good factor. However, losing a goal/point/match etc simply does not have the same urgency as facing Mr Bull-On-Steroids trying to take your head off. By contrast, many people say that they enjoy jogging long distance as it allows them to get lost in their thoughts. Whilst this can have benefits too, it is not the same being forced into now (or lose your head).
Even with the basics and kata, you are required to maintain considerable concentration on both the accuracy of the movement and the intent of the technique being performed. There can be no getting lost in your thoughts here. You can get a bit distracted worrying about whether you are keeping up with your classmates or not, though you really shouldn’t bother about this. It is often said in martial arts that your main opponent is yourself, meaning you challenge yourself every time you train to continually improve. If you do this then you should be very focused in the present, examining your own techniques as you perform them and putting your full intention into every movement. Comparing yourself to others occasionally is alright as a way to measure your progress, but is not an end in itself.
All aspects of martial arts training, (whether focussing on perfecting technique or being partnered with somebody about to try to take your head off) will help you to focus in the moment. There will be times when you think, “oh no, he’s going to take my head off”, which is again looking into the future (albeit a few seconds into the future) rather than being in the precise moment. Some people will be consumed by such negative thoughts on a very regular basis. As discussed in a previous post, practicing Moksu and Mushin will help to silence these thoughts. However, training in an environment where we are constantly forced to focus on the present moment will also help us to silence those self doubting thoughts as well.
When you need to be very intensely in the present moment then it is very important to be able to silence any thoughts which by their very nature take you out of that moment. When faced by somebody about to take your head off, the precise present moment is where your attention needs to be. This is true both in training and when defending yourself from a real life assault. When you partner up with somebody who is experienced, they just seem to have an air of certainty about them. A black belt will usually only be very fractionally faster than say a brown belt. However, the black belt will usually have a far greater air of confidence and self assuredness when compared to lower grades. This is often referred to as fighting spirit, the focus of ones will and clarity of purpose with no (or at least, very few) mental distractions or doubts.
People who have achieved this level of spirit in training and/or in real life altercations will very often be a force to be reckoned with in other areas of their lives too. If they can be very present under the intensity of combat (even simulated) then they will be able to some extent to transfer this presence and focus to other areas of their lives.
I read years ago that soldiers who have been in actual combat reported afterwards that they have never felt “so alive”. That is not because they actually enjoyed the combat, but the fact they could die any second is a great incentive to intensely focus themselves in the present moment. I’m not suggesting that we all rush of and join the force and seek real combat, but our martial arts training does have some overlap with this phenomenon!
How often have you heard the phrase “before you can overcome others, you must first overcome yourself”, or “your main opponent is yourself”. If you’ve never heard these phrases, then take a long look at who’s teaching you! You should have heard these phrases before as this really is one of the most central core philosophies of doing any traditional martial art.
Whether you are looking for effective self defence, sport or simply aesthetic mastery of the art you practice you must first develop co-ordination, agility, speed, power, poise, balance and grace. From a combative point of view, the need for speed, power, co-ordination and balance are obvious; but grace? Do we need to be graceful in a fight? Many consider the very act of fighting to be very disgraceful.
However, if you execute a technique and for whatever reason the opponent deals with it and counters, you have to react exceedingly fast to defend against his counter. This kind of speed requires an instinctive reaction rather than a thought or reasoned one. If we are focusing on strength, we become rigid (the more you tense a muscle the less it can move). If we are rigid, then we cannot react very fast to an abrupt reversal in the fight and we have to hope we can absorb the punishment long enough for us to recover the initiative.
Whilst we would all no doubt agree that the ability to absorb punishment is useful, I’m sure that we would also all agree that it is not something that we should rely on as a fighting strategy. If we can move out of the way with ease and fluidity, we don’t have to absorb so much punishment and can regain the initiative much more quickly by simply not being where our opponent expects us to be. To move very quickly like this requires a high level of fluidity, and fluidity requires graceful movement! Don’t be fooled into thinking that grace lacks power, as it is quite the opposite. Grace comes from perfection of technique and perfection of technique comes from mastering the self. This brings us back to our opening paragraph about overcoming yourself before you can overcome anybody else.
This is why so many traditional martial arts place so much emphasis on drilling basics and kata, and why these are very often done before any partner activity. In the modern world where there is an upsurge in what has become known as “reality based martial arts” and the pressure testing of mixed martial arts cage fighting; traditional martial arts have become seen by many as obsolete, too stylised and more for sport or self development than for real world self protection.
Note: Reality based martial arts are often scenario based. It may include shouting, swearing, abuse and verbal threats to psychologically prepare the defender as this is obviously more real to a street confrontation. Sometimes even high grade martial artists do not know how to deal with this raw aggression and psychological pressure.
It is often pointed out that many traditional martial arts applications only work when the attacker is co-operative and conveniently attacks with a single straight punch (or kick) then freezes whilst the defender practices his counter.
These charges do hold a lot of merit. However, reality based martial arts can easily be included into traditional martial arts (and in my view, should be) and there are many people researching practical applications to replace the pre-arranged stylised attacks and counters that are still very widely taught.
Traditional martial arts however, are more technique based than scenario based and goes deeply into perfection of movement. Is this waste of time compared with learning the psychological aspects of scenario based training?
To draw an analogy, many professional dancers in the big shows, backing the world’s most famous pop stars have a foundation in ballet. Ballet is such a precise and co-ordinated art form that once the dancer is adept in it, he/she can apply that high level of control and co-ordination to almost any other form of dance.
Some of the most charismatic actors have a background in Shakespeare. Look at the authority and commanding screen presence of actors like Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. The classical background in most cases (dancing, acting, martial arts and others) gives the practitioner a deep foundation on which almost anything can be built.
Kevin O’Hagan, internationally renowned teacher of reality based martial arts and author of many books has said that traditional martial artists always pick up the reality based teachings more quickly than those who have not.
Seeking perfection of technique is not only developing us physically and mentally, but is actually very practical in the long term for building a foundation for self defence skills. Over the years I have visited many martial arts clubs. In one particular Kung Fu club, the instructor was proud to tell me that he made all his classes different every time. He did not bore his students with endless repetition. One of students agreed enthusiastically, telling me how he used to do Shotokan Karate and got bored drilling the same old basics every single class. However, this student who had done the Shotokan drilling stuck out amongst the rest and was clearly better than the other students. The repeated drilling had given him a foundation and an advantage that he had not appreciated.
I want to make clear that this is not a criticism of Kung Fu, only the way that this particular instructor taught it.
Striving for perfection, even though we know that we’ll never actually reach it, does in itself also develop a certain mindset. A mindset of wanting to make something the best it possibly can be. This has many connotations for other areas of our lives, be it school, work, relationships, driving, other hobbies, whatever!
The Japanese have the concept of delayed gratification. This is also known in the West, but is not emphasised as much. The idea is that we work at something over a period of time and delay our feeling of gratification until we have achieved it. Like a grading for example. Even going through the Kyu gradings (coloured belts) we have to wait 3 months in between each one. But when we do pass it, we have a feeling of gratification which lasts. When we get our 1st Dan the feeling of gratification is much stronger and lasts much longer. We still have a feeling of pride years afterwards as we know that we have achieved a benchmark in our training. For many of us, it even becomes part of how we identify ourselves, which along as it is not accompanied by arrogance is a good thing.
Too many people, especially in the West are very much into instant gratification, be it drink, drugs, sex, smoking, or just watching a good movie. I’m not saying that these things are necessarily bad (being a normal healthy guy myself who . . . . err . . . . likes a good movie); but if they are our only sources of gratification in life, then they will be short lived as there is not much to sustain us and maintain a feeling of fulfilment from one source/event of gratification to the next. We are therefore not really at peace with ourselves.
Having a long term goal, a long term project or training regime does give us that something to sustain us and help us maintain a feeling of fulfilment in between the other more instant sources of gratification.
There are countless things that people can work on, train for, set goals about; but few can inspire for a lifetime like martial arts. In most sports or physical pursuits people reach a peak then tend to move on as they age. Martial arts (when taught properly) can be adapted as we age and we can work on other aspects. In our youth it is good to make the most of our raw athleticism of, but as we get older we may focus on for example our timing and deception. No matter how much we know, how much we’ve trained, how much we’ve taught; there is still something else we can work on and improve however old we get.
The fact that we will never reach perfection means that we can spend our whole lifetime looking for it and rather than feeling bored we feel fulfilled the closer we get to it. This is part of where spiritual development comes into martial arts, something often referred to but seldom explained.
I haven’t covered much in the way of bunkai (applications) lately, so I thought I’d put in a few videos from Iain Abernethy, one of my favourite applied martial arts teachers. Although Iain is a primarily a Karateka, he has a following from many other systems, especially Taekwondo due to it’s Karate background.
The first sequence is from the kata Wanshu/Enpi (depending on which style you practice). It has an interesting application for the lower block which can be applied to any place that the lower block is used (not just in this Kata).
Next we look at knee attacks. High level knee attacks look good and look dangerous but have a lot of limitations, which Iain demonstrates here before showing how to make them more practical.
And we finish of with a nice bit of strangling and takedowns which appears in a number of kata/patterns.
This post looks at the differences and relative advantages/disadvantages of the a boxing punch compared with a traditional martial arts (Karate, Taekwondo, Kung Fu) punch.
Firstly, the disclaimer part
I want to make it clear that this for informational/interest purposes and is not meant to be an attack or criticism of any fighting system and is just my opinion. Anybody who can punch well is going to be a tough opponent on the street or in the ring regardless of which system they train in. Although I would argue that some systems are optimised for certain purposes (ie: sport or self defence, etc), that is not say that they are not capable of being used for other purposes as well.
Traditional martial arts have a large variety of different punches. Furthermore, within each art there can also be some differences in how they are performed, with some people sticking strictly to the traditional way whilst others have adopted more of a boxing approach. Certainly Kickboxers punch more like boxers than like strict traditional martial artists, and Kickboxing has influenced many traditional martial arts.
So for the sake of the post, I’ll be focusing on the basic Shotokan Karate extended punch (kizami zuki) and reverse punch (gyaku zuki) with the “corkscrew” twist of the forearm at the end of the punch as Shotokan is my primary style. These punches are however common to many other martial arts and are demonstrated below:
Although many styles of Kung Fu use these (or very similar) punches, some Kung Fu styles (such as Wing Chun) do not use this type of punch at all. Their method of punching is beyond the scope of this post.
Boxing fortunately is a bit more standardised without the vast array of different punches (though they do have variations on a theme). The boxing equivalent of the 2 martial arts punches shown above are the jab and cross, demonstrated below. You will see a lot of similarities:
If we look at the technical differences first, then we can examine what uses these different variations are optimised for.
Probably the most obvious difference is that the Karateka pulls their non-punching hand back to the hip, whereas the boxer keeps theirs in a high guard around the head. I’ll come back to that later, but a more important difference (in my opinion) is the way the shoulders are used. In the start position the boxers shoulders are hunched very slightly upwards and forwards, which making the chest very slightly concave, minimising any potential target areas. The gloved hands are also held much closer to the head and head is tilted forward slightly protecting the facial features more.
The Karateka on the other hand, keeps the shoulders lower and more relaxed, the chest in a more neutral position, the hands further forward and the head is kept more erect.
Part of the reason for these differences is quite simply the use of gloves (though there is more to it than that, which I’ll come to in a minute). When fighting with gloves, the hands are effectively much bigger. This means 2 relatively large gloved hands have to get through 2 other relatively large gloved hands!
When defending, you don’t really have to worry too much about blocking and parrying as you can absorb the opponents blows on your forearms and gloves! Glove to glove is not going to hurt and even glove to forearm is not going to do much damage. Keeping the head down and the chest slightly concave allows you to “hide” most of you upper body and head behind your forearms and gloves. The lower body is quite well muscled (boxers always do a lot of conditioning before going in the ring) and there is no punching below the belt!
The Karateka and most traditional martial artists however do not use gloves. So trying to absorb bare knuckle blows to your forearms will be more painful. Granted, it is still preferable to absorbing the blows with your head, but it can soon damage your resolve and weaken your guard. Rather than trying to absorb the blows of bony knuckles, the hands are held further forward to give more opportunity to block or parry incoming blows.
The hands are also . . . . well . . . . hand size, making it easier to slip a punch through somebody else’s guard, when your hands are small enough to slip in between their guard and their hands are not big enough to “hide behind”.
In Karate (and most other martial arts) competition you are also not allowed to kick/punch below the belt. However, anybody who trains for self defence must take low shots into account, hence the Karateka holds his hands lower than his boxing counterpart.
Another influencing factor is when you consider the difference between a fight and self protection. In a fight (sport or street) 2 people agree to have a go. With self protection, you do not agree to fight yet you have a physical altercation forced upon you. Even if you are severely provoked, the moment you agree to “step outside” or to “sort it out”, you have left the self protection realm and agreed to enter into a fight.
Boxing is all about fighting. It is designed as a sport where 2 people enter a ring with a referee. They will be in the same weight category and usually have a similar level of ability. As such there is no surprise attacks, sucker punches or pre-emptive strikes. They only fight when both are ready and prepared.
Many traditional martial arts have become sports and have a similar approach. However, they were originally designed for self protection where you can use (or encounter from others) surprise attacks, sucker punches and pre-emptive strikes.
The more erect position of the Karateka’s head may seem to be more vulnerable at first glance, but from a self protection point of view can have some advantages. A bully or thug will often try to intimidate with a lot of threats and abuse. They will often be “peacocking” whilst they do this (puffing themselves up to make themselves look bigger). Whilst peacocking, they actually leave themselves very open with a lot of vulnerable targets. As soon as you agree to a fight, or show any intention or capability of fighting, they will usually go into a similar stance to the boxer and close of those vulnerable targets. If you keep the head erect, the shoulders low and relaxed; but instead of making a proper stance and fists, you face your opponent with hands open/palms down, you can mask any intention that you are preparing to defend yourself. The bully is therefore more likely to keep peacocking leaving plenty of good targets. This allows you to take a nice clear pre-emptive strike to a vulnerable target and hopefully end the situation in one go.
Also, having the hands in a more forward position means that they are actually closer to your assailant. So when you do launch a pre-emptive strike to a vulnerable target, your assailant has less chance of stopping it.
Many traditional martial arts also have a whip like effect to their punches. This requires a rapid rotation of the spine, which is more easily achieved with the spine straight. This is another reason why the head is held upright. Lowering the head (like a boxer) puts a slight curvature at the top of the spine which creates a slight amount of tension in the upper body, which works against the whip effect.
Furthermore, big gloves spread out and dampen the impact (which is necessary when 2 people are hitting each other full contact for a number of rounds). So a whip like snap punch will not work quite so well for a boxer wearing gloves, so they needs to go for a more deeply penetrating punch rather than the snap/impact of a traditional martial arts punch. This necessitates more commitment of the shoulder to achieve that extra penetration.
Now this is where we come back to the traditional martial artist pulling the non-punching hand back to the hip. This is very often explained as a way to increase the power of the punch, but when you see how powerful boxers are without it, then there has to be a bit more to it. The non punching hand is called “Hikite” in Japanese, meaning “pulling hand”. It can be used to grab the opponent and pull them off balance whilst striking them with the other hand. Again, this works better with a straight spine, hence another reason for the head being erect.
Although boxing has obviously been developed as a sport, it is all about fighting. Once a situation has become a fight (in the ring or in the street, it is a very simple and pragmatic system. It is very effective, very powerful and generally speaking boxers train to absorb more punishment then most traditional martial artists do.
The traditional martial arts punch is more optimised to self protection scenarios. Having said that, many instructors are not very good at teaching self protection and teach more for sport fighting anyway!
But like I said at the beginning, this is only my opinion and there are only a few degrees of differences between the 2 types of punches anyway.
Please leave your own comments below and build on my observations.