Saturday 26 April 2014

From Switzerland to Japan

Christa after a lesson at my private dojo.
 Our good friend Christa Lehman from Switzerland came to Aso-shi for training and to catch up. Christa has been to Japan many times to seriously study karate-do and kobudo; furthermore, she has also come to Japan for private training with me in the past. I think her example really shows a person who is not only committed to their training, but is also willing to put themselves on the line; that is, “learn by being a challenger”.

Christa has trained with me at my full time dojo in New Zealand around 10 years ago, also when I lived in Oita-ken in 2008 (click here:, and at some of the international seminars I’ve taught (twice in New Zealand; twice in Northern Germany; and once in England).

In 2005 she competed in the New Zealand Karate-Do Championships as a member of my dojo (the Christchurch Traditional Karate Team). At that tournament she placed in the women’s individual individual kumite. In 2011, she won a world kobudo championship title in Okinawa. Away from karate, Christa even attended Mizuho and my wedding in 2006!
What is so great about Christa, besides being a great person, is that she doesn’t practice budo for competition; rather, she is seeking the tradition of Japanese martial arts and simply focuses on “improving herself through culminated practice”. Moreover, she is willing to go out of her way to access top-level traditional training. This, to me, sums up the essence of karate-do training and budo in general.

Training: Our training focused on the contrast between linear and circular techniques at an extreme, and `winding up’ (essentially `tai no shinshuku’) without any unnecessary action(s). This also included basic stepping in both zenkutsu-dachi and kokutsu-dachi; however, I primarily had Christa focus on choku-zuki, gyaku-zuki and shuto-uke. We then moved on to Unsu kata, which I broken down into very small sections: to further practice the aforementioned focal points. We also practiced important oyo (applications) from Unsu, Enpi and Gankaku.
It was great seeing Christa’s movement really improve via the moderation of her koshi no kaiten (hip rotation) and cutting superfluous extra hand/arm movements out of her kata. The result was a much more strong, balanced, and `Japanese style’ kata. In particular, her improvement in the final sequence of Enpi was nice to see. By and large, kata performed in this way generates optimal movement for goshin-jutsu (self-defence). This vividly reflects the maximum that kihon, kata and kumite are one: the “trinity of karate-do”.

Christa’s also trained with Nakamura Shihan and Nakamura Sensei in Kumamoto City. I’d like to end by saying that it was an honour for me that Christa came to visit and train here in Aso-shi. Domo arigato gozaimashita Christa. Safe travels!!! Osu, André.
Training at JKA Kumamoto. Nakamura Sensei on the far right (standing). A great person and his class is always fantastic!

© André Bertel. Aso-shi, Kumamoto. Japan (2014).

Tuesday 15 April 2014

Back to white belt

Tekki Shodan Kata.
Here’s my latest daily self-training routine. I hope it finds you well. Osu, André Bertel.

(A)  Stationary practice: 1. Chudan choku-zuki (shizentai or kiba-dachi); 2. Chudan gyaku-zuki (stationary punching in both hidari and migi zenkutsu-dachi); and 3. Chudan mae-geri (stationary kicking following the format of gyaku-zuki practice or from heisoku-dachi).

(B)   Ido-kihon: 1. Kizami-zuki (jiyu-dachi) kara sanbon ren-zuki; 2. Jodan age-uke kara chudan soto-uke soshite chudan gyaku-zuki (blocking with the same arm); 3. Chudan uchi-uke (kokutsu-dachi) kara kizami-zuki soshite chudan gyaku-zuki; 4. Chudan shuto-uke (kokutsu-dachi) kara nukite; 5. Chudan shuto-uke (kokutsu-dachi) kara kizami mae-geri soshite nukite; 6. Mae-geri kara yoko kekomi, mawashi-geri soshite chudan gyaku-zuki; 7. Chudan mae-geri kara yoko-kekomi soshite chudan gyaku-zuki (kicking with the same leg); and 8. Yoko-keage ashi o kaete yoko-kekomi (kiba-dachi).

·         Repetitions: At present I am working with considerably lower repetitions in my kihon practice. Typically, this includes ‘one warm-up set of 10 slow repetitions’ followed by `30 explosive repetitions’.
Chudan choku-zuki.

Moving on from Nijushiho: After several months of focusing on Nijushiho, and extracting numerous technical gems, I have finally decided to move on to another jiyu-gata (free-choice kata). As I have said before, this formal exercise has been “extremely challenging” for me (and, consequently, very hard to maximise my strengths). This, in turn, has forced me to face my many weaknesses and better understand ‘my bodily limitations’. In sum, I believe my time focusing on Nijushiho has been very valuable and will undoubtedly contribute towards my next phase of development
My kata training updated: Probably, needless to say, the shitei-gata (Heian and Tekki Shodan) and sentei-gata (Bassai Dai, Kanku Dai, Enpi and Jion) remain as the foundation of my kata practice. The new jiyu-gata I am focusing on are Bassai Sho and Unsu.

·         Repetitions: A minimum of three for each kata; however, depending on the session, I sometimes only work on two or three kata from this list and do them many times.
Tekki Nidan... A occasional "treat" is good!

My focus at present is back on Gohon Kumite (Five-step sparring), Kihon Ippon Kumite (Fundamental one-step sparring) and Jiyu Ippon Kumite (Free one-step sparring). In particular, I’m concentrating on: (a) shisei (posture) in attack, defence and counterattack; (b) kokyu (breathing); and (c)  tachikata (stance)—namely, “more subtle transitional actions”. Technique-wise all of these points are primarily relating to jodan and chudan jun-zuki (oi-zuki), jodan and chudan gyaku-zuki, chudan mae-geri, chudan yoko-kekomi, chudan mawashi-geri, jodan age-uke, chudan soto-uke, gedan-barai, shizentai (hachinoji-dachi) and zenkutsu-dachi (shomen/zenmi and hanmi).
On the whole, this really is the beginning of a new phase of training for me. As always, and as it always should be, it’s back to white belt.

© André Bertel. Aso-shi, Kumamoto. Japan (2014).

Friday 11 April 2014

"Holistic Control"

Tobi mae-geri
 As I have always said, quantity is never a substitute for quality when it comes to technical karate-do practice; in particular, and most obviously, in kihon-geiko. However, quantity does count when top quality form is maintained. Now, here’s the problem…  If you are anything like me, maintaining high quality form is very difficult when high repetitions are executed—especially when exhaustion sets in. Moreover, “the injury issue” also becomes a significant concern i.e. – overuse strains, pressure on the joints, etcetera.

The golden question: So, how can high repetitions be `trained safely’ so that “good form is reinforced” and made second nature (intensely grooved into the subconscious)? The answer to this question can be found in one’s common-sense. Essentially, technical practices must be varied and ideally done according to one’s daily condition.  Now this does not necessarily mean that one does fewer repetitions on one day and more on the next—although, of course, it certainly might. Instead, it comprehensively means that one “controls the intensity of their training” on any given day—according to their physical (and/or mental/emotional state). I’d like to add here that controlling intensity is possible, however, duration is usually not—when you are participating in someone else’s class.
The bigger picture: This returns us to the title of this post `holistic control’ which, unfortunately, our common-sense sometimes blotches out: irrespective of how long we have trained. Accordingly, this meltdown can occur due to numerous factors; nonetheless, the most common include `competition with others’; excitement (i.e. – a charged up/spirited class where one gets `carried away’); a tough day at the office; insufficient junbi-taiso (preparatory exercises/warm-up); rushing ‘too far beyond one’s ability physical ability’; and `raising the bar too high’ etc.... 

Migi chudan choku-zuki.
Having, and more importantly maintaining, holistic control means that “we are really in touch with ourselves when we practice karate-do”. Returning to the specific issue of maintaining `high repetitions of quality techniques’, one (for example) could consciously attempt to reduce their power and increase their lightness of movement. Such focal strategies, based on concerted/conscientious self-control, can contribute towards developing the psychological regulatory skills needed to further refine one’s karate-do (i.e. - when participating in a spirited class of high reps and great intensity, “…if a karateka can `selectively block’ out certain environmental influences/stimuli, they can move according to their own condition”. In this way, they can potentially conserve energy whilst keeping up with the class and, in doing so, and maintain precise form). It is worth noting here that this skill can be significantly accelerated under the JKA rules of kata in the elimination rounds (where participants perform the shitei-gata and sentei-gata `side-by-side’). Doing well, following this traditional format, requires that the karateka present their kata “without being influenced by the person performing the same kata next to them”. In particular, this especially correlates to the waza no kankyu (rhythm of techniques), which again directly links to psychological control.

 On the whole, holistic control is essentially another way of explaining `SHIN GI TAI’; that is, the `Body—Mind—Spirit/Emotional’ connection. Each influences the other and, in doing so, impacts (to varying degrees) on our training. In turn, training influences our mind and spirit/emotions; again however, the level of positive influence is determined by our own conscious effort.

Making a full circle, I truly believe that people “…by proactively seeking holistic control…” can avoid a lot of imprudent injuries, increase their technical performance, acquire greater physical strength/endurance, become mentally sharper, and even gain more satisfaction from their training.
Lastly, putting this into practice… Next time you are in a class and your technique starts to wane (due to high reps, fatigue, taking a big hit, or any other factors), attempt to `better use’ your mental control to guide your body. If you conscientiously do this, your physical training will further transcend its bodily benefits. Taken as a whole, I hope this post underscores that “…in many ways, holistic control is what largely transforms karate into `Karate-Do’”.
© André Bertel. Aso-shi, Kumamoto. Japan (2014).

Monday 7 April 2014

The 2014 JKA Kumamoto Prefecture Championships

The JKA Kumamoto Prefecture Championships
Jodan mawashi-geri.
I really enjoyed the weekend, competing in the JKA (Japan Karate Association) Kumamoto Prefecture Karate-Do Championships. It was the first tournament I have entered in for nearly a decade, so I was very-very `rusty’. The last time I competed in men’s individual kata and kumite was in 2005 (and team kata 2006). I really have to say it was so much fun after not competing for so long; moreover, for those of you have who have entered traditional karate-do tournaments, there is nothing like competing here in Japan.
Chudan mawashi-geri to the back.
Another keriwaza... Having fun...
Above and beyond my own involvement in the competition, I was really happy to see the up-and-coming youngsters on their road to this year’s JKA All Japan Championships; also, to be able to encourage them at ringside. To see what Nakamura Shihan and Nakamura Sensei are doing with them is nothing less than awesome. The level of these young kids is outstanding. Undoubtedly, this is due to the high level training they are receiving on a daily basis. By observing this training and being regularly used to assist, I am learning so much—from an instructional perspective.

How I went... Insofar as my events went, it was a bonus for me to attain second place in the men’s individual kata. While I got the highest scores, two of the seven judges scored me extremely low. While one of the low scores was dropped, the second low score caused me to fall into the silver medal position. Based on my own performance, I think the low scores were very fair as they reflected current execution of Nijushiho: much more work to do!

In the men’s individual kumite, I lost in the first round. My opponent beat me fairly—as I wasn’t really there. To all of those who have fought me in the past, it was a typical case of my `first round jinx’… I either get defeated in the first round or `warm-up’ get to the finals… That being said, I would not have won this time, irrespective of any subsequent rounds—as my heart wasn’t in the match. I didn’t even warm-up before the match and just enjoyed it.... I played around... Accordingly, this was reflected by my use of kaiten uraken in the bout (as pictured below). Anyway, the instructor who eliminated me fought the eventual champion.  Unfortunately though, he was disqualified for excessive contact with a very nice jodan gyaku-zuki. It was just bad luck that he didn’t win through to the next round. I certainly would have given him an ippon and given his opponent keikoku (a cautioning) for muboubi (failing to rationally guard himself).

Kaiten uraken (spinning back fist)...

 Clearly, due to the excellent training of Nakamura Shihan, and Nakamura Sensei, the dojo won numerous medals at the championships. Two of the juniors won titles in both their kata and kumite events, which was irrefutably an exceptional result. More importantly, the competitors all demonstrated excellent karate-do spirit and traditional budo karate technique. Lastly, I would again like thank Nakamura Shihan and Nakamura Sensei for their excellent training; furthermore, my other team mates from the JKA Central Kumamoto Dojo. Oss, André 

© André Bertel. Aso-shi, Kumamoto. Japan (2014).
Nakamura Shihan and me after the conclusion of the 2014 JKA Kumamoto Prefecture Championships. Nakamura Shihan was one year junior at Taku Dai under my late teacher Asai Tetsuhiko Shihan... Continuing a tradition!

Thursday 3 April 2014

Wednesday 2 April 2014

Technical categories

Enpi kata practice. April 2nd, 2014.
Jiyu-kumite - JKA Kumamoto.
like ning to avoid injury" f one leg exercises.  upsOne thing I like to do, and find to be very beneficial, is “…to practice not by technical categories (i.e. – uke, tsuki, keri, uchi) but, rather, by the biomechanical and/or musculoskeletal consistencies of the various techniques”. More pertinently, this might simply be ‘an area I am focusing on’. For example, more efficiently engaging the back muscles, snapping the shoulders, hip flexors etcetera.

Ogasawara Senpai perfectly times his tsukiwaza.
What is most useful about training in this way is that one “can more tangibly link the various techniques on a physical level—as opposed to a theoretical/categorical level”. With little cerebral processing it is clear that such `category-based training’ has minimal relevance to physical training—especially after initially learning the fundamentals. E.g. - Practicing “like following `Dynamic Karate’, move-by-move, is fine at the start of one’s karate life”, but shouldn’t be ‘the be-all and end-all’. is fine at the start of one'following Dynamic Karateisingly limitedpplied, taIndeed, such categorical training seems to be stuck within the realms of theory: great for the initial stages, but without a meaningful destination if continued.
Sen no sen vs. Go no sen: opposite but interrelated strategies.
By linking techniques, by their related attributes in training, something really special happens. You get better at karate much faster… This is because you are no longer plodding through the syllabus—with the `periodic breakthrough’, but you are subliminally grooving the principles of karate-do. Furthermore, if you are an instructor, you will be able to formulate far more efficient lessons to help your students reach their individual goals.

Jodan mawashi-geri.
Some comprehensive examples: (a) Practicing `ascending techniques’ together. I.e. – otoshi enpi, fumikomi, kakato otoshi, kentsui tatemawashi uchi, sokumen otoshi uke etc; (b) Practicing all of the techniques in the kata that are applied with yori-ashi; (c) Focusing on utilising the seika tanden in linear blows; and so on.

For those wanting to really perform well—there is another major bonus—by training in this way. By isolating a certain aspect (or aspects) one can easily select/design supplementary training. For example, calisthenics; resistance training; partner drills etcetera. This, in turn, will further bolster skill development.
Heian Yondan movement 2: a variation of the rear arm (for a different application).
Ido-kihon geiko: hidari ushiro-geri.
I’d like to add here that I’m by no means a naturally gifted karateka; therefore, ‘training smart’ is utterly essential for me. Hence, the methodology generally outlined in this post, in my opinionhen self-t mmates)away from my dojo mates) imperative., is one of the best means of actively becoming (and “being”) a smart trainee.
 Needless to say, in karate-do, `the `present continuous’ is always the most important context… 

By and large, I am not saying that `going through all the techniques categorically’ is a bad thing; however, it certainly should not be the only way you train—if you really want to improve. It is imperative to also practice techniques together based on the common muscles or joints they use (or the one’s you are concentrating on), angles or trajectories in which they are applied, scenarios they might be used (in self-defence)… MAKE LINKS. The possibilities are endless, yet “…the underlying principles of `all karate-do waza’ are few”.

Ido-kihon training: hidari kizami-mawashi-geri.
© André Bertel. Aso-shi, Kumamoto. Japan (2014).