Bunkai, Karate, Oyo, Kata Applications

Are You Practicing Bullsh!t Bunkai?

Thanks to UFC and YouTube, martial arts in the last 20 years have become a melting pot.

Image: SIPA USA/PA Images

Where once individuals would stick within the confines of a single style or club, now you see masses of martial artists cross-training like never before. Karate practitioners are no exception.

Where bunkai once consisted of simple punch, kick, block combinations, karate-ka have integrated throws, joint locks and clinching into their application practices. All of which is an example of Bruce Lee’s philosophy that “the best style is no style” and are, in fact, more faithful to the original practices developed by the “Masters” who created the kata in the first place.

By integrating these elements, many karate-ka have created creative, practical and meaningful applications and 2-person drills for the kata that karate is so well known for.

At the same time, there are many people creating their own bunkai that just completely miss the mark.

Photo by Thao Le Hoang on Unsplash

Although the intent is commendable, there are a lot of karate-ka out there designing convoluted and completely impractical kata applications.

While the movement patterns include individual techniques that may work, like rear naked chokes and hip throws, the way they enter or connect the movements are awkward and could very well lead to injury or worse if applied that way in a real-life self-defense situation, or even just with a little resistance in class.

I write this as a type of public service announcement that not all that glitters is gold. 

Just because an individual has thrown a “fancier” technique than a punch or block into their kata application DOES NOT mean that it is automatically practical in a real-life situation.

Just because a technique meets the solo-template does not mean that it will be effective in the context of a self-defense situation.

Please don’t teach bad self-defense just so the movements match the kata!

If you are gung-ho to be a part of the bunkai bandwagon, remember that creativity loves constraint.

To think outside the box, there must first be a box to begin with. Unrestrained creativity doesn’t result in art; at best, it creates an incoherent splattering of colour. Picasso, Van Gogh and Da Vinci were innovators, but they always worked within the confines of the concepts that they were applying. If you are not applying the concept that defines your art, then you are not practicing the art.

The constraints within our bunkai practices are obviously the kata itself and the laws that govern the physics of the human body.

Physics determines the effectiveness of a technique.

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At the end of the day, someone can be as creative as they like, but if they have a poor understanding of leverage and force, the techniques they present just won’t work.

But, let’s say you don’t have a complete understanding of body mechanics (we can’t all be physics majors), how can you know what’s bullshit and what’s a practical application?

Here are some signs that a person is pushing bullshit bunkai:

#1 – They always perform the application with someone smaller or an overly compliant partner.

Like sex and dance, your partner should be an active participant. If during the demonstration, the uke looks a lot smaller and weaker, or simply looks like an uninvolved meat sack, then there’s a good likelihood the instructor failed to grasp the idiosyncrasies of violence.

If they opt to use a smaller, weaker or far less experience person for demonstrating, it’s likely they rely on strength or compliance to make it work, not technique. At the same time, when someone is overly compliant in a 2-person application practice, it also fails to show the contextual premise which the applications should be based on.

Also, if the application only works against someone who is barely responding to the stimuli, then it’s a good indication that the technique or flow drill has not been pressure tested. If it hasn’t passed pressure testing, then it’s unlikely to prove itself useful.

#2 – If it looks awkward, it is awkward.

Often bunkai enthusiasts will work within the confines of a 2-person flow drill. Please remember it’s called a flow drill for a reason.

If there isn’t continuity of movement, then it’s not a flow drill. Transitions on either side should be seamless, ultimately building ease of adaptability when confronted with resistance from the opponent.

Keep in mind, if it doesn’t flow within the context of your own creation, why would you expect it to flow within the context that your would-be attacker creates?

If it’s awkward, stiff or choppy at any point, then it’s not a meaningful application practice.

#3 – They put themselves in bad or illogical positioning.

Art of War is a staple of any business, law or martial art school library. An understanding of strategy is paramount when dealing with confrontation in all its forms.

If a person demonstrating an application puts themselves in a good position, like taking the back, but then returns to the front of the opponent under their own power, then they fail to demonstrate an understanding of strategy.

There is a reason why taking the back results in extra points in competitive grappling. It’s a superior position. As the Art of War points out, “you can ensure the safety of your defense if you only hold positions that cannot be attacked”. 

#4 – The application starts with an unrealistic or an unlikely attack.

For example, if the kata application starts with a lunge punch, multiple attackers who take their turns while attacking, or an awkwardly placed grab, then they are creating an application for a fantasy, not reality.

If you watch videos of real-life situations, no one ever attacks with a lunge punch. And, when faced with multiple attackers, generally the assailants don’t take turns, but move in a uncontrolled, mob-like fashion.

Applications should be based on common attacks, like those outlined by Hanshi Patrick McCarthy in the theory of Habitual Acts of Physical Violence (HAPV). HAPV Theory catalogues 36 potential attacks, which encompasses all possible variations of violence. When developing bunkai, the techniques taught should teach ways of dealing with these HAPV in a realistic manner. Practice should begin with passive resistance and gradually build up to aggressive resistance. By doing so, you slowly create a pressure tested scenario.

Image courtesy of Hanshi Patrick McCarthy.

As martial artists, we should be students of reality. Anyone can get lucky and be successful applying a poorly executed technique, but we don’t train day-in and day-out with luck in mind. It is our duty to stick within the confines of the reality of violence, not only to ensure that we are executing the principles that dictate the nature of the art we practice, but for the safety and well-being of those who practice with us. Anything less and we’re only fooling ourselves and doing a disservice to our art and our students.

Addendum:

“Bunkai” refers to the process of analysis, whereas the extracted techniques are referred to as “oyo”. In the article, I chose to use the term bunkai to refer to both oyo and bunkai because the term bunkai is commonly (and incorrectly) used to refer to both and most karate-ka are more familiar with this use of the term.

Kata, Karate

Is This The Return of Kata?

Up until this point, Karate seems to have been having dwindling participation in recent years.

In my club, particularly amongst our kids’ classes, the numbers have steadily been going down.

It seemed that Karate was becoming a bit passé in comparison to the trending martial arts, like BJJ and Muay Thai. I suppose if a child is going to choose a martial art, they’re more likely going to want to choose a martial art that their parents enjoy on television like what they see in the UFC.

But now, we’re all in self-isolation. Martial arts that are dependent on partners (which SHOULD be all of them) are having trouble selling their art because it is so reliant on proximity with another human being.

If you’re not fortunate enough to be locked in with someone who also has a love for hitting and strangling other people for fun, what is one to do?

Kata.

Since COVID-19 has forced us all into isolation, famous martial arts practitioners, like John Danaher, have been promoting their solo drills—something karate students have been practicing since its conception.

Of the martial arts schools I’ve seen with the highest success since self-isolation policies were implemented, karate schools have reigned supreme with minimal loss in students.

Why?

Because solo templates are and have always been a pivotal part of Karate’s practice, a focus on solo practice has lent itself to an ease of adaptability in current times. Let’s look a little bit further at why.

#1 – Little Adjustment for Karate Students

Unlike other martial arts, solo practice has been a heavy focus in karate. Yes, other martial arts will use solo practice in a warm-up, but very rarely do they make it a focus for an entire class. In karate classes, you will train hours and hours of getting your body in just the right alignment, so that it will be as you train it with a partner. Because karate practitioners are already accustomed to practicing solo in the dojo and at home, there is minimal adjustment for them.

#2 – Trained To Use Imagination

Some Karate schools teach kata first, then the applications. Other karate schools teach the opposite. Whichever way they choose, because Karate has always used solo templates, they’ve always been encouraged to imagine an opponent, and different scenarios when practicing their kata. This is an ideal tool when in self-isolation.

#3 – Strong Sense of Tradition & Discipline            

Most martial arts also have a strong sense of traditions, but Japanese martial arts seem to place a stronger emphasis than others. A greater sense of tradition may lend itself to a strong sense of discipline, which is an important quality; without it, many may not be motivated enough to take the time to train at home. A sense of tradition may also promote a stronger feeling of loyalty amongst its karate students. If the Sensei says there is a virtual class, most students will follow through, simply out of a sense of commitment to their instructor and their club.

#4 – Meditation In Motion

Recently, I’ve seen an increased interest in meditation. Self-isolation may be a trigger for mental illness for some individuals, a common remedy is meditation. Kata can certainly be identified as “meditation in motion”, the focus derived from its practice and the focus on breathing, may promote the same rewards as meditating in a seated position. Kata as a holistic practice also allows for improved cardio, strength and flexibility. Because kata allows for the so many rewards, it’s easy for the karate practitioner to feel inclined to practice kata on a regular basis.

#5 – Pathways In The Brain See No Difference

The connections in your brain see little difference whether you practice a movement pattern with a partner versus during solo. Whether you practice the movement patterns on your own or with a partner, you’re still reinforcing similar neural pathways. Because, as previously mentioned, Karate Sensei teach to imagine opponents and scenarios from the beginning, it lends them the greater ability to reinforce these neural pathways in isolation, which ultimately will improve their performance with a partner.

Conclusion

More now than ever, solo practice or kata is one way martial artists can continue to build on their technique while in isolation.  But while kata offers many great rewards and should be practiced regularly, I think karate practitioners should stop to ask themselves a few questions.

  • Do you think when you did have a group of people in a room together that you used your time as wisely as you could have?
  • Could you have spent more time on practical two-person drills when you still had the opportunity?

Kata is a pivotal part of karate as a practice, and as discussed, an important tool in karate training, however, a tool that is over used, also becomes useless. For some schools, kata is over-practiced, used as a substitute for realistic, pressure tested scenarios. Although kata has it’s place, when you do have people to train with, that is the time when we should be practicing techniques and scenarios with one another.

But now, isn’t just the time for solo practice, but for self-reflection.

At this moment, it’s the world’s version of “Go to your room and think about what you’ve done!”

No matter the art you practice, also ask yourself:

  • Could I have been a more compassionate teacher?
  • Could I have been a more understanding student?
  • How could I have helped those around me, when I still could have?

The world has given us an opportunity to reflect. And, when you do, are you satisfied with what you see?

Want To Be Good At Martial Arts? It’s About Time In.

“It’s not who’s good, it’s who’s left. It’s hours on the mat. If you put in the time, natural athlete or not, you’ll be a black belt. . . You just can’t quit.” – Chris Haueter

I love this quote. It touches on so many points that some people miss when pursuing the martial arts.

“It’s not who’s good, it’s who’s left.”

There’s always going to be someone better than you.

Perhaps you get beat by the same person at every tournament, or there’s a person in your club who seems to go through rank faster than you.

No matter the situation, some people, despite their talent, often quit. Their reason for quitting may stem from boredom because they don’t feel challenged. Alternatively, those who are identified as “talented” will quit from frustration when they eventually do face something truly challenging, but lack the experience to cope.

Those of us who have to work a little bit harder to maintain our skills organically learn the patience and persistence necessary to be a life long martial artist.

“It’s hours on the mat.”

There’s just no substitute for time. Martial arts isn’t like cramming for an exam, where you have the information accessible for a little while and then lose it immediately when you don’t need it any more. What you learn needs to become a part of you and accessible in an instant at a moment of complete surprise.

At the end of the day, the mat doesn’t lie and certainly knows how to tell time.

If you put in the time, natural athlete or not, you’ll be a black belt.

In life, some of us have a head start. Some parents put their children in physical activities at a very early age, and as a result, acquire the body awareness and skill to be better martial artists than those who haven’t.

But all skills can be learned and acquired with time, no matter an individual’s starting point. Yes, for those who haven’t been exposed to movement patterns that make for a good martial artist, it will take them longer, in many cases, much, much longer. But, if they put the time and mental energy that is necessary specifically for THEIR individual success, then they will attain the skill of a black belt eventually.

You just can’t quit.

If your goal is to be the best at your craft that you can possibly be, then quitting is never an option. Perfection is an illusion, but it’s only by continually practicing that we can come as close to perfection as humanly possible. And, when our goal is to be the best we possibly can be, then there is never an end in sight, no matter the rank we have or are hoping to achieve.

Conclusion

Whether you’re a serious competitor or just pursuing martial arts as a hobby, it’s all about how many quality hours of work you invest. I don’t care how long you’ve been in a club or how many months you’ve prepaid for. Sure, there will always be outliers. There are some people out there who will just never get it and there will always be people who pick things up easily. But for all of us who lie in between, it’s the time you spend working technique and the energy you expend to master it that determines your skill and rank. . .Or, at least, it should.

Beginner’s Guide to Surviving a Koryu Uchinadi Gasshuku

At the Koryu Uchinadi North American Gasshuku, you will experience 4 – 8 hour days of physical and mentally demanding training. It will be a whirlwind of information covering everything from throws, ground techniques, weaponry, striking, “bunkai”, 2-person flow drills, and of course kata, from some of the world’s most knowledgeable and talented martial artists.

If you’ve never attended the event before, you might not be sure what to expect and you may be a little intimidated. So, I made up a short guide to help those who are new get the most out of their training and the extracurricular activities at this year’s event.

#1 – It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

8 hour long training days over 4 days is guaranteed to take its toll on you mentally and physically, so be careful not to overdo it on the first day.

My first Gasshuku, I most certainly did and I literally had a sleeve of bruises, which affected my ability to make a fist and drink a beer for the rest of the week. . .

It was quite the ordeal, specifically the beer part.

So, don’t make the same mistake I did! Remember, it’s not about showing off, it’s about learning, so take your time and move at a pace you’re comfortable with, both for your safety and the safety of your partner.

#2 – Stay hydrated.

I suppose this should go without saying, but for those who have never trained over an extended period of time before, it’s an important reminder.

The KU Gasshuku will be strenuous, at the least. To help keep you focused and healthy throughout the event, always keep a water bottle handy and try not to overdo it at the bar.

#3 – Listen!

I’ll say it a little bit louder for the people in the back. . .

LISTEN!

I mean really listen! And, by that, I mean close your mouth and open your ears!

For many of us who attend the event, we’re professional martial artists, we’re black belts, we’re teachers and we almost always take on the teaching role. If you’re attending the Gasshuku as a participant, your job, your only job, is to learn.

The key to do that is to. . .

At the Gasshuku, this is your chance to really be a student again. And, to get the full advantage of the lessons, take on the beginner’s mind, “empty your cup” as they say, and remember that in the martial arts, you’re “always a student, sometimes a teacher”.

#4 – Remember your etiquette and your hygiene.

Anytime you attend a martial arts event for the first time, scale your etiquette towards the formal side until someone tells you otherwise. Remember to bow when entering the dojo or greeting a senior student or instructor. It’s always better to lean further towards formality and tone it down when asked than to not show enough formality and be seen as arrogant or disrespectful.

In continuity with etiquette, remember good hygiene! You are going to sweat A LOT, so please make measures to ensure you have a clean gi and fight gear. Also, remember to keep those fingernails and toenails cut short. . . You don’t want to be that guy!

. . .Or, do I?

#5 – Have Fun!

Last, but not the least, have fun! At the event, we train hard and play hard. The sweat, the tears, the hangover — it’s all in good fun. Try not to take yourself too seriously and come in with a child’s mind. Don’t worry about making mistakes; that’s a part of the learning process. We’re just here to play and explore and in doing so have a better understanding of the art we love so much: Karate.

We hope to see you there!

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Title Image for Blog "Just Because You're Injured. . ."

Just Because You’re Injured. . .

Doesn’t mean you can’t participate.

With most injuries, you can still be an active participant in your martial arts community.

Recently I hurt my ribs, which restricts my participation in Karate, BJJ and Krav Maga.

But just because I sustained an injury doesn’t mean I can’t still participate in the community.

“The martial arts is a journey that goes beyond the cultivation of physical skill, and hones both mind and spirit.”

Instead of staying home from training, I grabbed my camera and took pictures of others working through the lessons.  This served my community by providing content for their social media feeds, aided in remembering the content presented, and my presence in the dojo allowed me to provide feedback to participants.

At events, I’ll often see my older colleagues grab a note pad and pen to take notes when there is a technique that doesn’t “jive” with their sore joints. In doing so, they can understand and remember the techniques so when they return to their own dojo, they can help coach those who are capable of such movements.

For those who are experienced enough, there’s always the option to help teach. Even if you can’t perform a technique in all circumstances, you can still talk someone through a movement or explain a concept aiding in the progression of those around you.

When you can’t physically perform a task, there’s always an option to make it an intellectual endeavor by taking notes and help instruct or a creative one by taking videos or photos.

But whatever you choose to do, make sure it’s in line with your goals. At the same time, always be cognizant of the limitations that injuries can have on you both physically and mentally. Some injuries can certainly take a larger mental toll than others, so do what’s best for you.

It’s easy to find reasons not to do something, but if there is will there is “the way”.

The choice is yours!

Enjoyed this post? Check out “Being A Good Uke; It’s Harder Than You Think”!

Bruising Easily, A Reflection on Martial Arts

There are girls out there who use filters on Instagram to make their face look better. I use filters to accentuate the colour of my bruises.

Martial arts and bruising

I don’t wear this palette of black, purple and blue as a badge of honour; these spots are simply a natural representation of how the martial arts affect me.

That being:

“I face enough negative experiences to give me character, but not enough to make me callous.”

The martial arts force us to confront negative experiences on a daily basis and sometimes one experience may be more intimidating than another.

With time these experiences leave a lasting impression, or in the case of my bruises, a rather large imprint.

But these experiences are usually not enough to truly hurt us. They’re just sketches of what COULD harm us; shading that is easily erased by the next time we train.

A fine example of this may be an elbow to the face while grappling. We know such a thing could happen. We know that such a thing could happen in real life. But, when it does happen unexpectedly in the safe confines of a class, it leaves a lasting impression in our mind and most certainly on our body. However, if we were to let it affect us beyond acknowledging its possibility, occurrence and surprise, we would likely never return to the classes.

Accidents like an elbow to the face, a knee to the groin and a good ol’ poke in the eye are all common. But, it’s never enough to make us leave or feel fear. If anything it naturalizes the blows we are taught to face and the pain they can inflict, and often we even laugh in the face of it. But, unlike the real threat of violence, it doesn’t leave us callous (or at least it shouldn’t if you’re in the right school).

Receiving these ink blots of the skin builds a certain type of immunity to violence; it doesn’t hold the same influence it once did.


With time it develops our character. You learn these so-called “injuries” are only skin deep, can result from both hitting and being hit, and the sight of them is no longer a cause of concern for you.

So, perhaps my bruises are a badge of honour. They prove practice. They prove force. And, as long as they only occur on my arms and legs, it proves I’m pretty damn good at blocking.

Your body is your canvas. Your training is your brush and paint. Bruising, pain and discomfort is a natural consequence of our training and with each class you paint your own masterpiece. It is a natural consequence of the art and with each lesson the image you create becomes more vivid.

Enjoyed this post? Check out “Dojo Disillusionment”!


Friction in the Dojo: How It Can Move You Forward

Friction. . .

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It can be the thing that helps drive you forward. . .

It can be the thing that slows you down. . .

As yellow belts, my friend Tracy and I had a silent competition against each other.

Our Sensei told us that the only person we should compete against was ourselves.

“Os! Sensei!”

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In lip service, like so many still do, we professed to one another and our instructors that this was always our goal, to simply be better than we were the day before.

A selfish attempt to be more idyllic than the other.

When we stood next to each other in line, our eyes would always glance to the other.

Watching, sensing, checking. . .

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“Is her horse stance lower than mine?”

“Did she do more push-ups than I?”

“Did the Sensei compliment her and not me?”

As these thoughts and insecurities arose in me, I later learned that she thought the same.

It was the unspoken friction that propelled us forward.

For everything she did well, I was committed to doing it. . .

better,

faster,

stronger,

than her.

And with that, Tracy would double her efforts in return.

In the presence of one another, our efforts were exponentiated. Our skill improved through the silent desire to be the best in the dojo, better than the other.

But. . .

One day, Tracy stopped attending classes. So, I was left  alone to to find another “Frienemy” to silently compete with.

As the years passed, there would be others. . .

Watching, sensing, checking. . .

Better, stronger, faster. . .

Wash, rinse, repeat. . .

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But, they would all eventually leave as well.

By the time I achieved my Shodan, there was no one left to compete with.

The Senpai above me were so far ahead, there was no competition there.

And, my students were not close enough yet to truly challenge me (although, I look forward to that day).

Without this traction, I could feel myself slowing down.

For the first time in my life, I had no one to compete with but myself.

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Where I once targeted my critical eye on those around me, I was now forced to point it at the one person I could neither defeat nor be defeated by: myself.

It was in that moment I understood what my Sensei was getting at when he said, “You should only compete with yourself.”

There is, of course, value in silently competing with those around you, as a type momentary motivation to challenge your physicality and fitness.

But, in the long run, you should define your success on your own terms. Each individual in the dojo has their own unique objectives. Sometimes people pursue martial arts for fitness, others for camaraderie, or just because they find it fascinating.

Would you want to compete against someone who is purely interested in the history of karate when your interest is biomechanics?

Of course not.

In this sense, it’s not so much about competing, but defining your unique objectives. Give yourself the recognition that you deserve. Observe the distance you’ve gone to achieve your goals. Have enough self-awareness to ask “Can I do better?” and to answer “I will do better”.

Now, when I step in line and look in the mirror, I sometimes see the gawky, awkward, teenage, yellow belt I once was and I wonder. . .

“Is her stance lower than mine?”

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