My mother always said I had a charmed life—not necessarily in the sense of extreme luck such as winning the lottery, but more in the sense that I’m presented with fortunate circumstances that allow me to make the best of any situation.
I feel especially charmed when it comes to people. I’ve always been fortunate to find people who seem to be willing to invest in me.
This has been extremely influential in my pursuit of the martial arts.
I know wholeheartedly that I would not be as successful in the martial arts if it weren’t for those who took the time to challenge, teach and encourage me. I value them especially because I know I am an imperfect human being. When I feel, I feel strongly, and on more than one occasion when my passion gets the best of me I’ve challenged them in return, often with great bluntness and sometimes without courtesy.
But, this is, of course, the nature of the student-teacher relationship. It is not simply an exchange of knowledge; it’s more than that.
It’s a mutual dialogue built on trust and friendship.
It’s camaraderie that helps us find our way through the twists and turns that the martial arts and life throw at us along our path.
And, very often, it is a test of wills.
With that said, I would like to take the time to recognize those who have helped me in my most recent martial arts journey: The Martial Arts Muse.
In October, The Martial Arts Muse exceeded my goal of 10,000 views within the year. I strongly believe it would not have been as successful if it weren’t for those who encouraged me to be a little bit better than I was the day before.
My Australian-based instructor is the Director of the IRKRS and head Sensei of Koryu Uchinadi. Sensei McCarthy has probably forgotten more than we will ever learn. Many of the concepts and ideas I touch on in my blogs I learned through my experience training with him and those who are a part of the IRKRS. He is the central hub through which I could find a community of like-minded individuals in which to share my point of view.
Renshi Mike Coombes is the head instructor of Hatsuun Jindo Martial Arts and a Sandan in Koryu Uchinadi. Although he might be unaware of it, many of our conversations have served as inspiration for my writing. Through our conversations, I’ve learned that the issues that I once thought unique in my own sphere are actually shared amongst others in the martial arts community. This emboldens me to continue my writing in the hopes to inspire others to overcome the challenges we sometimes face in the martial arts.
Renshi Cody Stewart is a Godan in Koryu Uchinadi and the YouTube personality of KU Quick Tips. I don’t think anyone challenges me as much as he does. It is because of this he is my favourite person to postulate theory with. I feel he adds equilibrium to my writing by asking the right questions, so I may come to my own conclusions. And he is also a savagely meticulous editor. Without his help I would certainly have much less to say with far more grammatical errors.
My dear husband, Josh is always the first and last to see my writing before I officially post it. A martial artist and writer himself—and a far better one, at that—I turn to Josh during my greatest insecurity in search of support. Whenever I ask him to read my work, he always has the right answer, “It’s good. I like it!” This is the little push I need to finally press the “Post” button and gives me the courage to expose what are sometimes intimate thoughts on the art I so very much love.
My students and those I train with are my greatest muses. I feel a strong emotional investment in those I work with, both at my home dojo and in the Toronto KU study group.
As I mentioned before, when I feel, I feel deeply, because of this I feel their successes and failures, optimism and frustration concerning training as if I was experiencing it myself. They not only give me something to write about, they give me someone to write to. Many times, I’ve written blogs with specific individuals in mind. I don’t know if they’ve always read them, but like a message in a bottle, even if it doesn’t reach its intended destination, if it reaches and resonates with someone, it’s worth it.
You, the reader
I don’t know who are, but I am constantly pleasantly surprised and humbled that you chose to visit The Martial Arts Muse. I sincerely appreciate the time you take to read what I have to say. As a female martial artist, it’s not uncommon for me to experience a greater amount of questioning and interruption when expressing my opinion on the martial arts; it’s easy to feel like my voice isn’t heard or, at least, doesn’t hold the same value as if it comes from my opposing gender. The Martial Arts Muse has served as a means to overcome this and is an unimpeded way to shed light on issues that many of us are sometimes afraid to address.
I am sincerely grateful for everyone’s support this year. My life as a martial artist is truly charmed. I feel beholden to you.
So, you went for your next belt and you failed!
But, just because you failed, doesn’t mean you should lose sight of your purpose; rain, after all, is just a falling cloud. . .
And, everything that falls can rise again!
I mean, we’ve all been there. You don’t know what went wrong. . .
Maybe. . .
You were truly ready, but just choked—mentally unprepared.
Maybe. . .
You think you’re better than you actually are—a hard truth.
Maybe. . .
You worked hard, but just didn’t pay enough attention to the details—damn those details!
No matter the reason, your following actions should be the same. . .
1. Listen, REALLY Listen.
In my experience, students fail to pick up on the specifics of a lesson because they perform what they perceive to be the right thing and focus more on pleasing the Sensei rather than actually listening to what’s being asked.
The conversation usually goes like this. . .
Sensei: I’d like you make your stance wider, so that you have a better base for. . .
Student: (Cuts off Sensei, changes stance slightly). Like this Sensei!?
Sensei: No, not quite. I’d like to see you have your…
Student: (Cuts off Sensei, makes stance even more wrong). LIKE THIS SENSEI!?
Sensei: No, I want you to put. . .
Student: (Cuts off Sensei, stance incomprehensively wrong). LIKE. THIS. SENSEI!?
Sensei: (Mental face palm). No.
So, really listen to what the Sensei is trying to tell you, let it sink in, then try, try again.
2. Remember it’s about the journey, not the destination.
A Zen Proverb says, “When you have one eye on the goal, you only have one eye on the path.” The point it’s trying to make is that one should give their full attention to the steps to achieve the goal, not on the goal itself.
I’ve had many students ask about belts, usually concentrating on what they need to know to receive one or when and where the “test” will be. Yet, if they just focused on the things they need to work on to reach their goal, they would achieve it as a natural consequence of following each step of their journey.
I know we’ve all heard this and it usually gets across. . . Until we have to be graded, that is.
It’s not only true in class, but during the grading as well. When you focus on each step and not the result, you’ll find that your nerves melt away.
3. “Train Hard, Suck Less”
This saying was coined by my Calgary-based teacher, Sensei Cody Stewart. Simple and almost crude in its phrasing, its meaning is of great value. When you train, “train hard” to the best of your ability and with your full attention. And, “suck less”, a humble expression of success, is both an act and a result of your focus and work ethic.
Although there are many paths to success, remember that failure is a key part of the learning process.
In reality, as my first Sensei once said, “There’s no failing in karate” as long as you’re always progressing. And as long as you’re always moving forward, that is success, no matter the belt you wear.
So, just keep training!
Have you ever watched your Sensei choose one individual over and over again to be his Uke and thought, “Why not me!?”
In any seminar or class, you’ll find the head Sensei will consistently pick the same individuals to work with when demonstrating techniques. I think many of us would love to “volunteer as tribute” and feel the glory of being at the front of the dojo with your head Instructor!
But, there are many reasons why some people are chosen more than others.
From time to time, an individual is chosen because of their size. A Sensei may choose the largest person in the room—usually to prove a point about technique vs. strength/size.
Sometimes an individual is chosen because of flexibility, so that the Sensei can execute the full extent of an armbar or leg lock without the individual tapping.
But usually, one is chosen as a demonstration Uke because they’re amongst the best in the room.
You would think that letting the teacher hurt you would be easy, that any dumbie can do it!
But, not just any dumbie, a very skilled dumbie. . .
To be a good Uke and especially an Uke for demonstrations, you literally have to know what you’re getting yourself into. By that I mean you have to be familiar with many, if not all, the possible positions the Sensei may put you in, sometimes without the Sensei even telling you what she/he will be applying. So, unless you have a crystal ball with you, you either have to have superb body awareness and biomechanical knowledge or completely memorized the curriculum.
The Sensei, like Goldilocks, is looking for someone that is not too hard or too soft.
They’re looking for an individual that will
- Comply and restrict at just the right moments and with just the right intensity
- Nothing (and I do mean NOTHING!) is more annoying to a head Sensei than a Uke who anticipates a technique and gives an unrealistic reaction, like moving before the technique was actually applied, OR actively resists when the Sensei is demonstrating. The key here is to respond, not anticipate, the Uke must have a complete understanding of the intent of every technique that they are subject to and respond accordingly with enough resistance for the demonstration to run smoothly and realistically.
- Set a good technical example when they return a technique
- The Uke must know how to receive, counter and execute techniques with the same speed, power and skill as the Sensei applying it. If the Uke does not adequately perform a technique, the lesson the Sensei is trying to teach could be lost and the entire group could end up doing the technique, counter or sequence completely wrong! (No pressure or anything!)
- Most importantly, make the head Sensei look good!
- As an Uke, it is your responsibility for the demonstration to look as good as your body will physically allow because when you are asked to present with the Sensei (especially at a seminar), you have become a representative of that Sensei, an extension of their name/style.
The Uke must do all of this while being submitted to various degrees of pain, being put in the most awkward of awkward positions and essentially getting the crap kicked out of them!
So, the next time you ask “Why not me!?” remember we often overlook the skill of the Uke. Instead, concentrate on the small details the Uke demonstrates because getting the crap kicked out of you isn’t as easy as you think.
“A lethal weapon of self-defense, Ryukyuan kobudo evolved through the application of combative principles to a myriad of domestic objects that were readily available for use as weapons.” – Hanshi Patrick McCarthy, Ancient Okinawan Martial Arts
Kama Seminar: April 31st – May 1st
At Sensei Darrin Johnson’s seminar, hosted by Renshi Mike Coombes at Hatsuun Jindo Martial Arts, students from around the Greater Toronto Area were introduced to one of the classical Okinawan weapons, kama.
Kama Kata: Koryu No Nicho Gama
Koryu No Nicho Gama has a unique embusen, like that of an asterisk. Because of this, it also has intricate foot work, literally keeping you on your toes. It utilizes all possible sides of the weapon, which demands one be very familiar with all the ways to handle this tool. Also, this particular kata is far more physical than one might expect from a Kobudo form, including jumps and quick movements from kneeling to standing.
No Koryu Uchinadi-based seminar would be complete without applications. Sensei Darrin left his audience in awe with his innovative applications using the kama, which included joint locks, chokes, tegumi and even throws.
The kama shouldn’t just be looked at as a weapon meant for cutting, but rather like a sharp extension of the hand, that can be used to assist in any type of hooking motion, such as an arm drag.
The blunt edge of the kama and the butt of the handle can both be used for striking vital areas.
Modern Western tools can be used in the same fashion as the kama, like a hammer or small axe.
Sensei Darrin is a big proponent of the idea of “Human Ryu,” the universal style. Because all human beings have two arms, two legs, a head and torso, we’ll all move in similar ways and produce power in the same way whether we are empty-handed or armed.
Throughout the seminar, this was the number one theme. Sensei Darrin emphasized this point by comparing karate and weaponry to other sports. He explained that the body mechanics a shot-putter would use to build centrifugal force is the same as when rotating to strike in the kata.
Sensei Darrin above all else is an excellent communicator and draws on historical context to assist in the teaching process. Studying weaponry, such as the kama, helps us to build a better understanding of where our art comes from and the context in which it was developed, while also helping to have a greater understanding of body mechanics.
It’s better to have a tool and not need it than need a tool and not have it.
This point summarizes the necessity of adding grappling to our fighting repertoire. And as I mentioned in the first part of this series based on my learning experience with Sensei Paul Lopresti, grappling is a common aspect of self-defence overlooked by many karate practitioners. I find this especially frustrating because so many kata techniques are applicable on the ground, as illustrated in my previous discussion of kokutsu dachi and knee on belly position.
Another standing technique found in karate and other striking arts is the hiza geri (knee). If someone is properly executing a hiza geri with all their body weight moving into the technique and the hips driving forward, one can very much see the mechanical similarity of the hips in shiko-walk.
The shiko-walk is a common grappling technique used in a double leg take down or the knee cutter guard pass to kesa-gatami, in which you press your knee onto the inside of the opponent’s thigh.
With that said, Sensei Paul spun further applications of hiza-geri through his presentation of a ground drill of his own creation, completely committed to the bottom position, called Ura Ne-Waza. Based on my understanding, the creation of the drill was a critique of common grappling practices. Most BJJ clubs teach grappling from a superior top position and rarely address ways of being successful while on one’s back.
The inspiration for ura ne-waza was one of Sensei Paul’s female students. She constantly found herself on her back against bigger opponents—the type of opponent a woman is most likely to find herself against. With ura ne-waza, students can protect themselves against larger opponents by using various restraining techniques and submissions, like the guillotine or kimura, from their back.
One position in the drill is called “knee in guard,” which uses the exact same body mechanics of a standing knee strike or shiko-walk.
In this position you stick to the opponent’s body by:
- Under-hooking the left arm with your right arm and grabbing the opponents right wrist with your left hand
- Pressing your left knee into the crevice of the elbow and bracing the bottom of the left foot on the right side of the opponent’s hip.
In doing the “knee in guard” position, you prevent the opponent from attempting a series of punches towards the head. It also acts as a potential transition into a multitude of submissions, such as omo-plata or the kimura.
Through these controlling positions, I learned that as the opponent struggles like prey within a web, you have a better sense of where they will turn next and can capitalize on their position.
Also, the hip rotation used to generate power in all striking techniques, strongly emphasized in Koryu Uchinadi Kenpo Jutsu, is another way to create space to escape holds and to transition into other submissions on the ground.
For example, in transitioning to the guard when the opponent is in a mount, explosive hip movement is paramount to accomplishing an escape. This movement is comparable to expanding into any standing striking technique. The feet plant on the floor as the arms push the opponent’s knee out, and one side of the hip drives forward while the other side retracts back, just like a gyaku-tsuki.
Furthermore, the strength of hip and core rotation is a necessity for all transitional movements. The ability to interweave a series of movements, such as how you move into your arm bar or your kimura from the guard, determines your success. Whenever there is movement, there is potential for space, and with space comes the potential for the opponent to escape or counter your efforts.
As I learned while going through Sensei Paul’s arm bar and kimura series, knowing how to create and limit space is fundamental. In the arm bar and kimura sets, Sensei Paul taught several different ways of getting into these techniques. The web of fighting starts when we are given several different options from a single position. In doing so, we learned to recognize specific situations that could allow us to transition from the guard to our desired submission. As we moved from the guard to our submission, we integrated a hip swivel to adjust angles and isolate the joint we were attacking, necessitating that we rotate our hips just like in our usual standing practice.
Throughout the seminar, Sensei Paul not only demonstrated his understanding of the body mechanics of ground techniques, but also demonstrated his ability as a teacher and coach. Sensei Paul taught individuals of varying backgrounds, such as BJJ, wrestling and karate. He explained techniques in a way that could be understood by individuals of any martial arts background. He is both patient and intellectual in his approach to teaching a group or an individual.
I feel we benefitted the most from Sensei Paul’s instruction in two ways. The first was through rolling. At the end of the seminar, we were given the opportunity to experiment with the variety of techniques we learned via two-minute grappling sessions. While rolling, we were told to go at different intensity levels, for example 60 percent, so everyone could practice in a safe and fun manner.
The other opportunity we were given to gain knowledge was to ask questions. In Sensei Paul’s seminars, he gives everyone the opportunity to ask him about their experiences, what worked for them or didn’t work for them in the past as well as in the rolling session. In this way, Sensei Paul can tweak the techniques to fit the individual style, strengths and size of the student.
Although most karate practitioners do not pursue ground techniques, their standing technical knowledge operates on the same body mechanics as ground techniques.
You can observe the connective thread between standing and ground techniques through:
- Kokutsu dachi and knee on belly position
- Knee strike in comparison to both shiko-walk and “knee in guard” position
- Hip rotation while doing a hip escape from the mount or transitioning to an arm bar from the guard
The body, of course, can only move in so many ways. We should expect that how we generate power standing can be applied the same way on the ground. Yet many karate practitioners continue to turn a blind eye to the importance of ground work and grappling, even when common sense dictates that the principles of physics and body mechanics are applicable no matter what position someone is in.
The concepts found in our standing repertoire cannot be completely understood unless we recall karate’s true purpose: self-defence. To claim the art as self-defence and not address all the Habitual Acts of Physical Violence causes many to get stuck in one corner of their web. True martial artists must explore the concepts found in their systems with a critical gaze to see how the threads of their own practices connect with all other styles.
I once heard a former student say, “I’ve paid hundreds of dollars on Karate. Spent hours of my time practicing. Working through injuries . . . and, for WHAT!?”
The only answer I could come up with is. . . something you should love.
I don’t know about anyone else, but over the short 14 years I’ve been pursuing the martial arts, my expenditure is probably in the hundred of thousands. I’ve spent hundreds of hours practicing, even through multiple injuries for no other reason than I love doing it.
So, when it came to me going to my final destination to train with Sensei McCarthy on his 2015 tour, although I felt like an old woman, there was no crying in my sleeve.
Virginia, October 9th-12th, 2015
At this event in Ashburn, Virginia, hosted by Sensei Darrin Johnson at Ashburn Martial Arts, Sensei McCarthy focused on Hakutsuru Tsuki-naka Ken [aka Chuan Xin Zhong Quan/白鹤穿心中拳 in Chinese].
Tsuki-naka is the hardest kata I’ve had to learn—not because of its length or because the techniques in it are especially difficult; there are other kata that are far more difficult in those respects (Hakutsuru and Kusanku come to mind).
I believe the reason I found Tsuki-Naka challenging was for no other reason than mental and physical fatigue.
While learning this Yong-Chun based kata I overcame the challenges that accompany excessive travel and training in three ways:
When you feel walls of exhaustion hit you, when your body hurts and your mind feels like it will burst with knowledge, concentrate on the details of your technique.
In Tsuki-naka, the movements have elements of dynamic tension and breathing, like those found commonly in Goju Ryu kata, combined with elegant and flowing movements of Chuan Fa.
It was by focusing on getting these aspects of the kata just right, as well as its footwork, that helped me to keep going even if I wasn’t at my best.
Some may recognize this as an example of meditative state of isshin, single point concentration. For those unfamiliar with this term, isshin is to encompass all of one’s being into a single moment and once that moment has passed to release it.
In other words, the salvation from my practice was more mentally intense practice.
As is commonly expected with Sensei McCarthy’s Koryu Uchinadi seminars, there were a lot of two-person drills and kata applications. This held true with our in-depth analysis of applications for Tsuki-naka.
One movement in the kata includes crossing your arms like a genie and pulling your arms in opposite directions, a solo representation of one of the chokes straight out of our Shime-waza exercise: the rear-naked choke.
Another application for a gyaku-zenkutsu dachi with a gedan barai and uchi uke, was a simple standing arm bar.
Zanshin or general awareness was key for success in working with partners while in Virginia. Working through my injuries, it was important to pay close attention to how my body was feeling and adapt my training to ensure that I could still have a great learning experience and stay safe.
Communicating with the partners I worked with was a huge factor as well. One of the best things about walking into a Koryu Uchinadi Seminar is every one is really nice and willing to adjust so that each participant can have a positive training experience.
Another way of overcoming my injuries in a seminar setting was taking the time to help others.
Once I had a good understanding of the techniques being taught, such as the takedowns, locks and chokes Sensei demonstrated, I took the time to assist participants who might need help learning many of the new techniques Sensei McCarthy introduced.
By doing this, I didn’t have to repeat the techniques as often, reducing my chances of aggravating my injury. At the same time, this helped me to gain a better conceptual understanding of the exercise at hand.
Old Woman Cries In Her Sleeve
There is a movement in many Koryu Uchinadi drills and Kata that we call old woman cries in her sleeve.
As I mentioned earlier, with my accumulated injuries and mental exhaustion, I very much felt like an old woman. And although there were no tears shed, I do feel sorrowful that my journey training with Sensei McCarthy was coming to an end.
There are so many other elements of going to seminars than just learning karate.
Camaraderie, travelling to new places, and meeting new people that you would otherwise never meet are just a few other reasons to take the time to go to seminars, not just offered by Koryu Uchinadi, but by any martial arts style.
For me, I go for the Karate, but stay for the wonderful people I meet.