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.

This message approved by Bill Nye The Science Guy!

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.

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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Beauty and The Beast: Balancing Femininity and Prowess as a Female Martial Artist

Beauty and the Beast was and is my favourite movie. I still get chills from the opening scene.

A tale as old as time, it tells the story of an unlikely romance between an intelligent, yet odd beauty and a rash, aggressive beast, that a little town, a quiet village, tries to squash with fire and pitch forks.

As a female martial artist, internally I feel this same tension between beauty and beast, the conflict between outward societal expectations of femininity and the inextinguishable aggression within.

I channel the forces of both beauty and beast, femininity and prowess, always simultaneously.

These forces are always in flux, and for each of us these ratios bend and play out in different ways.

I love physicality. I grew up watching pro wrestling. My brothers and I would act out the flying feats of Ray Mysterio and the dropping elbows of The Rock off our couch in the living room.

Often when family friends would drop by, they were surprised that I, a girl, would engage in such antics usually reserved for boys, “Wow! She jumps in there, too.”

At the same time, I loved barbies, dress up, and the colour pink.

I still love those things.

But I also loved Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Arnold Schwarzenegger movies, and Hot Wheels.

Now, as an adult, I love martial arts and the prowess it expresses.

Now, as an adult, I love make-up and the femininity it expresses.

I love the feel of executing a good heel hook.

I love the feel of wearing a good pair of heels.

Females are often pressured to think that we need to choose between the two. To choose would be to deny an element that makes us whole, an element that makes us human. And, I think when we express femininity and prowess in a way that is true and complete to our nature that that’s where true beauty lies.

Enjoyed this post? Check out “A Good Training Partner Is Hard to Find“!

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”!


A Good Training Partner Is Hard to Find

There you are. . .

At your first seminar with a big, important Sensei. . .

Once you enter the dojo, you start to size up the Karate folk around you—wondering what rank they are, how long they’ve trained and with whom.

Then. . .

The Sensei says “Partner up!”

You look around at your options and you think. . .

“That partner looks too hard. . .”

“That partner might also be too hard. . .”

“That partner looks too soft. . .”

“Ah. . . That partner looks juuuuust riiiight!”

But somebody stole them!

Suddenly, you’re paired with the 6’7” 400lb reincarnation of King Kong! Which might be fine for some things, but not necessarily the best-case scenario for learning throws or ground work, especially when you’re significantly smaller.

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Sure, you don’t always have a choice on who you partner with, but if you did have the choice, who would be the ideal partner to get the most out of your training?

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1. They’re better than you are and challenge you in the right way.

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If possible, you want to work with someone who is better than you are and can pick up on your mistakes. They won’t allow you to get away with being lazy or doing things incorrectly.  If you do something wrong, they call you on it. They know how to build you up from passive resistance to aggressive resistance.

2. They’re a similar size.

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When first learning a new exercise or principle, it’s ideal to be able to focus on execution alone without any further barriers which can arise with someone who is a lot bigger or smaller than you are. For example, if you’re working with someone taller than you, it can sometimes be hard to find the right leverage when their limbs are so much longer.

3. They are trying to learn (Not Compete!)

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They’re not trying to prove themselves, but to IMPROVE themselves and appreciate the learning process. They work WITH you through the learning process, rather than use you as means to impress the head Sensei or make themselves look good and feel better about themselves.

4. They have good hygiene

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I realize this one is a little strange. But, we all know it’s true! The last person anyone wants to work with is the guy who hasn’t washed his gi in a week, has bad breath or hasn’t clipped their finger and toenails.

5. They have fun!

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If you’re not having a good time, what’s the point? The best partners don’t just know how to work hard, but have fun and laugh at their mistakes.

This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t work with different sizes, ages and levels; there’s plenty of value in doing so and should be included in the training process, which I touch on in Lady Looks In a Mirror – Part 1.

However, in the initial learning stage of any technique or concept, especially if you have a full day of training ahead of you, it’s best to have a partner who can push you to improve in a way that is both fun and safe.

So, choose wisely!

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Dojo Disillusionment

The martial arts world attracts strong egos, big politics and more drama than a high school play.

Maybe, someone received a rank that you felt they didn’t deserve or someone of high esteem lacks what martial arts writer Dave Lowry calls “moral stamina.” Perhaps, there’s constant gossip and you hear more about the people training than about the skills you should be mastering.

Because of this, at some point, you may feel disillusioned and disheartened. You might even have the urge to quit and think “I don’t need this drama in my life. If this is what the martial arts attract, why am I still doing this?”

That is the question, isn’t it? Why am I doing this?

Japanese martial arts have been likened to a path. As many of us know, the term “do” is attached at the end of martial arts, like Judo and Kendo, that means “the way.” This suggests that the martial arts is a journey that goes beyond the cultivation of physical skill, and hones both mind and spirit.

There are many things that attract us to the martial arts when we first begin our journey. Some pursue the martial arts for self-defense, physical fitness, to avoid boredom and even just for a sense of community.

But, there’s something beyond physical reasons that makes us return to the dojo time and time again. It’s an intangible, not qualified by how hard you kick or the belt you wear.

Koryu Uchinadi Black Belt

Something more. . .

Something deeply personal. . .

Something else. . .

It’s the calm that radiates through the dojo when you’re the first and only person in there practicing.

It’s the final breath of your kata, when you know it’s the best you’ve ever done it, but bow with the knowledge it will never, ever be perfect.

It’s the effortlessness in which someone slams to the floor when you get a throw JUST right.

It is the moments that lie between aggression and tranquility. A harmonious combination of our most animal nature with our greatest serenity that paradoxically brings us into a frame of being that transcends words and our human imperfections.

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An internal stillness propelled by breath and what I call a “return to centre.”

It’s sometimes easy for our compass to become skewed in the mist of frivolous nonsense that seeps into our practice brought on by human inadequacies.

So, when you lose your way along the path, focus on the most basic of human functions, breathe and return to centre.

It’s in that moment you realize there was no trick of the light. . .

No magical unveiling. . .

And, there was no illusion to begin with.

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Being A Good Uke; It’s Harder Than You Think

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!

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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.

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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.

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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 dummy can do it!

But, not just any dummy, a very skilled dummy. . .

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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

  1. 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.
  2. 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!)
  3. 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.

AND

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!

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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.