Sunday 23 November 2014

Correct elbow positions in ukewaza

Migi zenkutsu-dachi with migi chudan uchi uke.
The position of one’s elbows when utilizing ukewaza (reception techniques) must be fully understood, and correctly applied, whether using ukewaza for defence, attack or both simultaneously.

A good way to learn this is to learn this is from the top down: especially in a freestyle context such as jiyu-kumite or via self-defence scenario training. Have your partner attack you, and attack relentlessly (without concern of your counter offensive manoeuvre; that is, their safety); accordingly, restrict your actions to only ukewaza.

At first concentrate on (using) your hands: This is typical amongst beginners and is very difficult if the opponent is relatively strong, and aggressive. Secondly, concentrate on (using) your elbows to move your hands. This, in comparison, you will find is much more easy and, understatedly, far more effective. Of course this also equally applies to ashi-uke (leg blocks) i.e. - focusing on the knees instead of the feet. I'd like to elucidate here that I am not disregarding the imperative use of the hips, the criticality of body shifting/footwork, and so forth. Rather, this is an isolation exercise for better understanding the elbows (in the overall context of karate-do waza).

Returning to the "basic" ukewaza, which we train in a formalized context (kihon, kata and yakusoku-kumite), we quickly gain an appreciation of our elbows. From here, let's consider the five most 'standard ukewaza' of Shotokan-Ryu as established by Funakoshi Gichin Shuseki-Shihan, at  the foundation of the JKA (Japan Karate Association), namely jodan age uke, chudan soto uke, chudan uchi uke, gedan barai and chudan shuto uke.

  (1)  Jodan age uke: wrist one fist width from the forehead and forearm diagonal.

(2)  Chudan soto uke: elbow one fist width from the body and bent 90 degrees.

(3)   Chudan uchi uke: elbow one fist width from the body and bent 90 degrees.

(4)  Gedan barai: wrist one fist width above the knee and elbow one fist width from the body.
(5)  Chudan shuto uke: elbow one fist width from the body and bent 90 degrees.
Hidari kokutsu-dachi with migi shuto chudan uke.
In all cases, with the exception of shuto uke (where the sword hand is applied), the blocking surface is one's tekubi (wrist) and, 'fundamentally speaking', all of them target the opponents respective wrists and ankles; furthermore, the power of all ukewaza primarily derives from your centre; most notably, the hips. In particular, this comes from koshi no kaiten, which like all `technical categories' in karate-do can be applied via jun-kaiten, gyaku-kaiten, or a combination of the two (often referenced as 'hip vibration'). However, koshi no kaiten cannot be so easily summarised as "..there are also various degrees of rotation and appropriate usage, which differs `case-by-case'". Additionally, it involves using the seika tanden and numerous other parts of the body (and a vast array of aspects, which establish `mastery'). Needless to say, we could go on and on but, for the sake of this article, I'd like to return to the issue of one's elbows.

So where do the elbows, in the context of the `core ukewaza’, fit in relation to one's overall effectiveness? Well, besides the point mentioned above in the freestyle context (essentially controlling what the hands/wrists “do”), the distance of the elbows in relation to the torso determine leverage. In simple terms, as the blocking elbow gets further away from the body the basic ukewaza become weak. Ironically, if it comes closer to the body (than a fist width) they lose functionality/applicability.

If this point is fully expressed one can create a huge amount of power if the waist is fully applied, via the rear leg, and the shoulders relaxed (all the other aspects such as shime simply add to these points). In this way, the feeling is to attack with both your wrist and elbow as single unit. Suddenly age uke becomes a rising elbow strike; soto uke - a roundhouse elbow strike; uchi uke - a side elbow strike; and both gedan barai and shuto uke become downward elbow strikes. Again, this goes beyond various forms of enpi-uchi...

Another aspect I'd like to mention here is 'over blocking'; that is, executing ukewaza beyond the body or head. A "classic error" is chudan soto uke in, say, Gohon kumite (Five step sparring) where the defender superfluously moves. All of my students will laugh here, because you all know what I'm about to say and what I do when this happens... When someone over blocks, in Gohon kumite (or in any of the forms of Ippon kumite), I immediately punch jodan. For me, when this occurs, they have given me a huge gap of time that I can't resist capitalizing on and—much more importantly—it gives me the opportunity to give my students a `foundational lesson’... I then ask them, "…were you imagining you were also defending someone next to you?" To me this is the benefit of yakusoku-kumite because in any form of 'freestyle' "...superfluous `over-action’ is what will get one hurt in serious dojo kumite or in a match (or killed in the likes of a carjacking, home invasion and the like)".  If such key fundamental points are not second nature in one's technique, even in a basic pre-arranged context—in the somewhat `safety of the dojo’—they certainly won't be able to be applied in an unpredictable circumstance (of a serious match or in a real fight). In sum, it is obvious that "if one continues to practice in this way they are literally reinforcing very-very bad habits". But here's the good news, if you do your ukewaza correctly (adhering to proper kihon and kata) you will not over block; moreover, you will learn to use and adapt to combative variations subconsciously, which is the beauty of strictly practicing budo. I can say this with confidence from my experience in the security industry, on the door, private protection jobs, and in other occupational contexts of my former life.

Some of you reading this may be questioning the 'the elbow one fist from the body' rule mentioned in this article (in relation to chudan ukewaza); furthermore, you may be questioning the issue of techniques such as tate shuto chudan uke. To answer these questions: Firstly, yes it is true that around twenty years ago chudan uke were changed to 1.5 fist widths from the body by Sugiura Motokuni Shuseki-Shihan (i.e. – in the `Karate-Do Kata’ textbooks; however, this has recently been amended to one fist width. This is a minor difference, and 'application-wise' insignificant, but I believe is better, based on further simplification. Simplicity is what I learned to appreciate when I had to use my karate in the real world. Secondly, in the case of some ukewaza, such as tate shuto, the energy applied is different; for example, swinging the uke in an arc. This idea is consistent with muchiken-waza such as kesa shuto uchi, sotomawashi haito uchi and, indeed, various keriwaza.

Migi ashi mae hangetsu dachi with migi chudan uchi-uke.
 A critical error with basic chudan uke: one typical error that is seen by sports kata exponents is making their chudan uke too high. For example, numerous kata 'champions' perform their ryo keito chudan haneageuke (movement two of Unsu kata) incorrectly. Such 'changes' in the techniques of karate, merely for aesthetics or to make performance more easy, is clearly due to a total lack of understanding, faking power, or—in most cases—both. Essentially what they do is turn karate kata into an odd dance form. The same can be seen by their exchanging yoko keage for yoko kekomi, excessive pauses, and performing other superfluous actions. Worse than the athletes doing this are those who copy them around the world! And yes, there are legions of them. It’s what I guess can be termed ‘karate fads’ and unambiguously have no relationship with actual karate—the martial art. In saying that, this helps to identify genuine from the artificial karate.

A key indicator of correctness: "The top of the fist, or finger tips of shuto, when executing the core chudan ukewaza is in-line with the top of the shoulder (with VERY SLIGHT VARIATIONS depending on ones arm length etc.)". Keeping this in mind, with `the one fist width from the body rule', and the elbow bent at right angle: and the correct form becomes immediately apparent. This is the most effective and physiologically/biomechanically strongest position for the core chudan ukewaza... "If you have a look around you will see many sports kata `world champions' who do this incorrectly. Indeed, this is one of the numerous ways of easily separating budo karate (real martial arts karate) from fake karate, which is merely for show". While this may sound like I am repeating myself, I am, on purpose...

Last, but not least, by adhering to the correct form (and principles) of the core ukewaza one can maximize their ukewaza in un-prearranged context: whether the karateka wishes to block/cover/parry, strike, lock or apply a joint lock/dislocation. In traditional budo karate, irrespective of style, "kihon, kata and kumite are one; moreover, this is not merely an abstract idea". Hence, the techniques of real karate always reflect optimal functionality in a freestyle context. The key is to know the 'how's' and 'why's', which are often misunderstood in the greater karate world. Of course, this transcends the positions of one's elbows; nonetheless, "...such points collectively come together and literally establish authentic karate technique, which is grounded on the tradition of optimum functionality".
Kiba dachi with hidari sokumen gedan-uke.
All the very best from Kumamoto-ken, Japan. Osu, André
© André Bertel. Aso-shi, Kumamoto. Japan (2014).

Friday 14 November 2014

Italian trainee from Canada: Pietro Giordan

Pietro and I, at dinner, after his final private lesson earlier this evening. 
Pietro Giordan, an Italian 2nd Dan (who is a university professor based in Toronto, Canada), has been training at my private dojo for the last couple of days. He flew all the way here to Kumamoto for some ‘one-on-one training’.

Pietro at my dojo in Aso-shi.
The private lessons I have taught Pietro have focused on the ‘core kihon’ of Karate-Do and the aspects that underpin on-going high-level development; namely, correct koshi no kaiten (the rotation of the hips), tai no shinshuku (the contraction and expansion of the body), and junansei (softness). These three points added to “the correct position at the `pre-point’, `initiation’, `delivery’, and `completion’ (of techniques)” was covered.

Movement 14 of Enpi kata: SASHO HIDARI NANAME MAE UE (KIBA DACHI).
A particular aspect that was looked at in great depth was unsoku (leg movements) and correctly applying/”sliding” linear techniques along the chushin (centreline). From there it was possible to look at the more unorthodox techniques that I practice and teach; accordingly, this, in turn, clarified that “…in order to perform these techniques, kata, and applications (from outside of standard Shotokan) one must have solid Shotokan”. Ultimately, this culminated in the various forms of sparring ranging from Gohon kumite to Jiyu kumite (focusing their specific purposes from a `Karate in Japan’ perspective). Needless to say, special coverage of tenshin (rotational techniques) and snapping techniques (including muchiken-waza) were also addressed.It is worth mentioning that the private training included the rationale behind a number of the more common drills/exercises that I teach on international courses (and, indeed, when practice/teach in my private dojo on a daily basis). Those who have attended my classes (or seminars here in Japan and/or around the world) well know that ‘these rationales imperative to understand: so that the exercises/drills are not merely a novelty’. The key point here is that “…everything one does—in their physical training—should decisively work towards the development of effective martial arts karate”. Accordingly, it cannot be stressed enough that “in Traditional Japanese Karate-Do, the physical aim of techniques is always to achieve a single finishing blow (Ichigeki-hissatsu)”.

Lastly, a couple of formal exercises were covered, Enpi and a non-syllabus kata; however, these are for Pietro, so I won’t say anything further. I look forward to seeing his kihon, kata and kumite in the future.
Overall, I wish Pietro the very best and hope that the last couple of days of training here at my dojo will help his long-term karate development. As I say to everyone who comes to me for private training, “consume what you find useful and spit out the rest”. All I hope is that Pietro has at least gained one point that will help progress his Karate-Do and that he thoroughly enjoyed the classes. It was a pleasure to meet you Pietro! Please have a safe and enjoyable trip back to Canada. I look forward to hearing your report about training here in Japan. Osu, André.
© André Bertel. Aso-shi, Kumamoto. Japan (2014).