The Quest For Original Kata - Iain Abernethy

Although this post is primarily referring to Karate, I think a lot of it will also apply to other traditional martial arts that practice kata (forms/patterns) just as much.

Iain Abernethy is a world renowned teacher on the practical application of traditional Karate. I’ve trained with him several times, found him to be really good at what he does and a really nice approachable guy with no ego at all. He’s very knowledgable both in terms of practical application, the history of Karate and is a truly inspirational teacher on many levels.

So when Iain talks, people should listen and learn. Below is a recent video that he made on the Quest For Original Kata. Iain makes the case that many people often search for the original version of a kata on the assumption that it will contain the most combat effective version of the techniques (being closest to the originating Masters intention). I will admit to having been a little bit guilty of that myself in the past.

But as Iain points out, as subsequent people have learnt, progressed and become teachers themselves, they might have changed things to improve them. The old saying holds true, that we sit on the shoulders of giants. Even the originating Master may have changed it several times him/herself as with anything that anybody produces, we seldom settle for the first draft.

Also, position of a given technique might change depending on whether the practitioner was tall or short. So functionality does not just depend on it being the original version, but partly on how the given technique relates to the actual individual performing it and their environment. So without any more ado, lets have a listen to Iain!

Iain makes the point that this thinking of original version is best, probably comes from “3 K thinking” where emphasis is often put more on form of the technique, rather than function.

For non-Karate people, 3 K is:-
Kihon (basics)
Kata (patterns/forms)
Kumite (partner work - prearranged and free fighting)

I’d respectfully like to add a bit to Iain’s reasoning. Many of us have long since become aware that much of today’s martial arts have been dumbed down. Many of today’s Masters (especially in Japan and Korea) have only really learnt to fight in competitions, NOT for the street; so their interpretations of kata applications is often seen through the filter of sport fighting. Therefore they see it all in terms of kicking, striking, blocking; with little regard to throws, locks, takedowns etc. This is particularly true of Shotokan Karate (which is my primary style so I’m allowed to say it 🙂 )! But in fairness, I don’t think we’re the only ones guilty of this.

So when people with only competition fighting experience change kata, they often do so without a real understanding of the original combative principles behind that movement. Furthermore, the kata has been changed to make them more aesthetic for kata competition. Just watch how slowly some of the competitors perform their kata, some of the functionality is lost just by the enormously long pauses between movements (put in purely for dramatic effect)!

Add to this, that it is alleged that Giching Funakoshi (who introduced Karate from Okinawa to Japan) stopped teaching throws and locks etc out of respect for Kano Jigoro; who was the founder of Judo. Kano was high up in the Ministry For Education and his support was very important to Funakoshi.

So taking these factors into account as well, it’s little wonder that people look back to earlier versions of kata. So my own outlook is that by all means look to earlier versions, but we don’t have to (as Iain says) go back to the very first original version.

How To Generate More Punching Power Using The Chest & Lats

I’ve always been a stickler for detail in many areas of my life. But that attention to detail has helped to understand martial arts much better and to be able to analyse the movements and applications in a lot more depth.

This is why I do these videos from time to time to try to help others. In the video below, I look at using the chest and lateral muscles to help generate more punching power. Most traditional Eastern martial arts keep the shoulders down, relaxed and engage the lats, whilst Western fighting systems like boxing and kick-boxing tend to raise the shoulder and turn it into the punch. In the West, broad shoulders and a narrow waist is seen as a powerful build. So if big shoulders is powerful, it would seem sensible to use them and turn them into the technique.

Yet in the East, big hips are more often seen as a powerful build and this is reflected in their fighting systems focusing on moving the hips/waist to generate power.

When we’re scared or stressed we tend to hunch (raise our shoulders). This is why prolonged stress often causes tension & stiffness in the shoulders. When somebody confronts and threatens us, it’s a normal to feel scared and stressed (hence hunching). Also, if something comes towards you head fast and unexpectedly, it’s a flinch reaction to raise our arms, including the shoulder too. We instinctively feel safer that our head is more protected by hunching the shoulders upwards.

All these factors make it very counter-intuitive (especially to Westerners); to relax the shoulders and keep them down. It also feels more vulnerable at first too. So I’ve put together the video below to explain why we keep the shoulders down and what the benefits are for us. Many of you will already be doing this as it is part of good technique anyway; but if you teach, it may help you to explain to your students why we do it this way rather than just do it because I said so. That in turn will hopefully help them to achieve the results faster than just telling them. If you find this video useful, please share and comment below.


Are Traditional Martial Arts So Formal & Stylised So As To Become Obsolete?

One thing that traditional martial arts are often accused of, is being too stylised and formal to be effective in the chaos of a real street free-for-all. Those precise movements, the deep stances, the big long steps, the pulling back of the reaction hand, the pre-arranged exercises; all we’re told won’t work in the melee of a messy fight where an uncooperative partner is trying to hurt us! So many of these critics have got a “I know of a black belt who got beat up” story. We are seen by many as being not effective and even obsolete!

Yet most of these traditional martial arts go back to times when they were a matter of life or death, not scoring a point. So how come these arts that people once used to rely on to save their lives are now held by many in such low regard?

Dumbing Down Of Martial Arts

Well first of all, lets just imagine that you’ve been taught the most perfect self protection system in the world. It’s been taught in small select groups and you were lucky to be selected to learn it. Then you decide that you want to teach it to the world. So off you go.

But after a few years, people who have only learnt part of your system move away and set up their own clubs, teaching an incomplete system.
Then some years later, your students want to test themselves, so they develop it into a sport. Oh yes, they introduce a lot of safety rules. Some become fantastic athletes, but they focus on winning points in competitions rather than on how to actually defend themselves on the street.

Traditional Kung Fu

Then some of your students who have trained in other styles which they also haven’t learned fully, then they decide to set up their own version of your martial art.

Then some people find that they can make a lot of money from it so they simplify it to teach to larger audiences. They realise that the best market is teaching to kids, so even more safety methods (more dumbing down) have to be introduced as the children are not mature enough to learn the nastier applications that can actually maim or kill an opponent.

Before you know it, your art (and all the sub-versions of it) has spread all over the world with millions of practitioners. Hundreds of thousands of them are apparently now black belts! But most of them do not actually train that closely to how you originally taught! Worse still, a number of these new black belts have actually lost fights to experienced street fighters, bringing your system into disrepute.

So what has this fantasy got to do with today’s martial arts you ask?

Well, that is exactly what did happen to our martial arts.

With the dumbing down of many arts, simplification to teach to large audiences and very young audiences, conversion to sport and sometimes just money-grabbing teachers; it’s little wonder that some black belts got beaten up. Besides, statistically it’s bound to happen anyway. With hundreds of thousands black belts about, some of them are bound to get into fights at some point. And by the laws of averages, some are going to lose.

There are of course many many stories of martial artist, even low grades, successfully defending themselves; but of course those stories don’t get told by our critics.

Gichin Funakoshi’s 20 Precepts

Gichin Funakoshi

I have written before how martial arts training, especially basics and kata/forms/patterns simultaneously train us on a number of different levels. This includes body mechanics, self awareness and of course an actual fighting application.

Now is should be understood that most traditional martial arts start by focusing on learning the correct body mechanics and correct body structures to generate and transfer power into an opponent (the form of the technique). These movements focus on a lot of detail and accuracy of movement so that we learn to connect everything internally and move our whole body as one complete unit. Then we should learn how to apply these techniques in a sensible and free-style manner under pressure (the function of the technique).

I’d like to refer to 2 of Gichin Funakoshi’s 20 Precepts.

“Beginners must master low stance and posture, natural body positions are for the advanced”.

Funakoshi expected us to start with the formal stance to learn the body mechanics (form), but he realised that we would not necessarily be able to defend ourselves in those low stances and postures under pressure and did not expect us to even try to; hence the natural body positions as we advance.

“Practicing a kata is one thing, engaging in a real fight is another“.

Funakoshi is telling us that although we strive for perfection of movement and accuracy in our kata, in a real fight accuracy and perfection are just not going to happen. As with the stances, we strive for perfection to learn the body mechanics, structures and internal connection when we practice our kata (form); but in a real fight, you either have those body mechanics, structure and internal connection or you don’t. In a real fight, is not the time to worry about such things. All you need to focus on defending yourself (function), not worrying about things such as is your back foot in the right position or not!

The Problem With Many Traditional Martial Arts Today!

Sadly, this last step of applying the technique in a realistic and free-flowing manner is often overlooked. Too many traditional martial arts clubs and associations never move beyond that first stage of trying to perfect every movement in low postures and stances with all the fine detail and think that is how they are actually supposed to fight.

MMA Fighter

That’s why people in MMA and Reality Based Martial Arts often have a grim view on our arts. The sad part is that a lot of the time, they are right as so many traditionalists focus on form rather than function and never move on to properly learn the function.

These people have serious limitations to their self defence capabilities. Unfortunately, many of them do not even realise this limitation and don’t even know that applying the function can be very different to the formal practice of the technique.

Traditional Martial Arts Applied Correctly For Self Defence

Ironically, from an actual self protection perspective the technique itself is not really that important. As well as a functional fighting application, techniques teach us principles of movement and combat. It’s how we apply those principles of movement and combat that counts; not how we apply the technique itself. When we understand that, and stop trying to defend ourselves with the same accuracy of technique that we perform our kata and basics with, then are training much more like the original masters intended. Then we have a very functional self protection system.

I personally believe that long term, traditional martial arts are the most effective form of self protection, when trained this way. You get the best of both, the dynamic body mechanics and internal connection, and the practical way of applying it.

It just takes a small change in thinking, but it can make a big difference in our effectiveness.

Improve Your Kicks - By Starting At The End And Working Back!

Learning (or even teaching) kicking can be difficult as with some kicks we move in ways that we would not naturally move. It can take considerable training. Front kicks are relatively easy, but kicks such as the side thrust kick or round-house kick (also known as turning kick) take a lot more learning.

It can be difficult to learn, especially if you don’t really know for sure what it’s supposed to feel like at the end of the kick. No amount of instruction can give you that “feeling”!

So what if you could find a way of getting the feeling of the end of the kick first; then work back so that you know exactly what you are aiming for at the start of the kick?

Checkout the video to see how you can do this:-

If you found this useful, then you might like to look at the 10 Kicking Tips download available on the Resources Page.