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?