How a Conceptual-based Approach Will Save Karate’s Validity

So we are back from our first two Karate Culture seminars and we want to continue our pursuit to change the public’s perception of karate.  One such topic to address is the debate between learning concepts versus learning techniques.

One can argue that historically, instructors taught technique by technique forcing the student to memorize a laundry list of “moves” and applications.  However, I believe this is a modern phenomenon created as a means to maintain power (and money).  The genuine old masters spoke in analogies and proverbs.  One can reference the Okinawan Karate idea of muchimi or punching as if you’re punching through sticky rice (another interpretation would be the idea of sticking to your opponent).  You can explain muchimi to a hundred different karate students and each of them will visualize it differently.  That's the goal. 

Speaking conceptually allows the student to define the technique in his or her own image and this leads to my first point:

Distribution of Power

Concepts get rid of the dichotomy between an instructor and a student.

It reduces the power an individual has over a group of people and distributes knowledge to the masses.  It allows the students to become creators themselves and reduces the potential for mindlessly following someone else’s advice.   This doesn’t mean the student is always right, but that’s where the instructor can come in and guide the path rather than limit it.    

The second argument for a conceptual approach is that it: Increases Practicality

Your brain has only a limited capacity to memorize a list of techniques and applications.  But if you understand the concepts behind your movements, not only can you create your own techniques but also you wouldn’t have to memorize as much.  One thing we touched on a lot during our seminars was the idea of creating a muscle memory that fell back on concepts rather than combinations.  It’s very common to have specific sequences that you like to execute in sparring or in a fight.  However, imagine falling back on fundamental concepts rather than techniques.  This would allow your body to work more efficiently rather just spamming a combination that failed to work. 

Furthermore, learning concepts help to: Make Things Relatable.

Once you understand that all martial artists are limited by human movement and the laws of physics, you’ll see karate in everything.  The mechanics of opening a door, the torque of the hips in a backhand in tennis, the pivoting on the heels in Tai Chi, etc., they’re all related.  This will break down the barrier between different styles of fighting and different styles of karate.  Things stop becoming a “Judo” throw or a “Karate” chop but rather they become combative movements that everyone can learn.   

So then, how does one begin to create or discover concepts?

You have to learn to Play.

There is no winner when the goal is to improve everyone in the group.  This is where the uke-tori relationship is vital.  The ego wants to win; the ego wants to have power.  Once that is removed or reduced, you as an individual can grow and help others around you grow.  This doesn’t mean never to go “hard” or to always be compliant.  But if you’re drilling with the intent to hurt your training partner then something is off.  The more you play and allow things to happen, the more you will discover techniques and understand concepts.   

One last thing,

Concepts drive techniques, which reinforce concepts.  

Learning concepts without drilling specific techniques from those concepts will make you a theorist.  Drilling techniques without understanding why they work will make you fighter but not a martial artist.  Karate practitioners owe it to the art to have both practicality and understanding of theory.   

We hope a conceptual-based approach will help to unite karate styles towards the pursuit of knowledge and understanding. 

Why is it that BJJ schools around the planet can welcome students from any other academy with open arms yet a karate school belonging to one of the hundreds of different styles of karate hesitate to allow a guest from another dojo to join a class?

We need to come together and embrace our similarities rather than emphasize the differences.  A conceptual-approach to karate can be a catalyst towards that goal.      

The Ins and Outs of Kata and Reality

This Article of the 2nd Part of Adam Cathrall's Series on Kata and Self-Defense.  Check out part 1 here.  

Many of us will train in martial arts our entire life and be fortunate enough to never have to use it. Others may not be so lucky. There is no photo finish, gold medal or hero technique. It is generally an intense, disorienting experiences that generally never goes down like we expect it to. The factors such as how you are attacked, level of intoxication and even how well or if the other person is trained. Take a moment to list out the variables that you may run into and then really take some time to think about how truly prepared you are.

In the previous article I had discussed keeping a kata in your back pocket. What I meant is that it is not just a portable way to practice, but it is also the bunkai that you feel you can best go to to defend yourself. It could be a simple bunkai series or something more complex but it should be the effect for you. I really like to try katas on. For example, Kanku Dai is a really great kata but doesn’t really fit me very well. The techniques of Empi, Tekki, and Bassai are a much better fit for me. It isn’t that I feel that I am better at the other katas (in comparison to Kanku Dai), it is that the techniques within the kata don’t really mesh with the way I move. I suggest that you take the time to run through that katas you know and develop the bunkai from it. If you have experience in other martial arts, find them in the kata. Bunkai isn’t just limited to karate. While it is rooted in karate, if you search the kata deep enough, you can see the Jiu Jitsu, the Aikido, and even the Kobudo. Don’t limit this to any style. Keep in mind the other dynamics and experiment. I once heard an expression that when you are all out if ideas, just humor your imagination.

Let’s go ahead and take a look at how we can nurture and develop this. In the dojo talk to your sensei and the senior students and see what they say and can help with. Before and after class, grab someone who has a minute to help you try on a technique. Training time isn’t limited to class time. I like to get on Youtube and look at all sorts of martial arts. What I am really saying here is study, learn and develop. Those are the ins of kata and reality. Here are the outs; don’t ever accept one single answer on what bunkai or the meaning of a kata actually is. Block and punch is more than just block punch. If you dig deep enough, you will see. Looking at what you are doing as an absolute will take you out of the fight rather quickly. When practicing, keep in mind it’s not just the technique; it’s the rhythm and timing as well. To neglect a piece of the kata, you not only are messing up the kata but are most likely be missing out on a technique. Let me clarify; while a technique is a technique, timing is what makes it effective. Timing and rhythm are what make us martial artists as opposed to wild brawlers.

What does all of this have to do with reality? Let’s put it all together. We learn kata in class and then we take them home and study them. Since we are good karateka we go the extra mile and study them in depth. First is because it is fun and secondly, I never had the chance to cram for the real thing. I have worked security all over the world and have military experience. Unfortunately, this means that I have my fair share of fights. I have learned that decisive and deliberate movements and actions will always beat random attacks and careless defenses. By now, you are probably saying well yeah we know this already but what is your point? As I always say, the kata is a reminder of a technique, not an absolute. It adds fluidity to what you need to do, whether it be a strike or a takedown. If you can move your techniques with rhythm and what timing you can attempt to gain in a fight that may last a matter of seconds you will be much better off.

Kihon and kumite are very important, but kata is the bridge of both. Kihon develops your techniques to utter perfection as long as we practice the technique 1000 times. We can spar and realize what it takes to be in a fight and most importantly what it means to have poise and dignity. Don’t ever forget this! No matter how brutal a fight or assault may be win or lose, you must be dignified. Funakoshi has stated “Karate-do begins with courtesy and ends with rei.” Even if you do not see it coming or have to take the first punch, always be courteous and respectful. It shows those who may be a potential enemy that you are unprepared for the next attack or have inflated your ego and will be a much more prideful fall. An old samurai proverb says when the battle has ended, tighten your helmet straps. Before rei we have yoi; despite the thrill of successfully defending yourself or the tragedy of not you must be ready to be attacked again. If attacks were as simple as attack defend we wouldn’t have kata.

We also have zanshin involved with all of our karate basics. The spectrum of zanshin is vast. It can range from a state of maintaining awareness to even our kamae or posture. My interpretation of Zanshin is the point where your body becomes potential energy, the moment where your awareness and prepared body wait for the next action. Your mind should take on the task of preparing for the follow through attack aka the finisher as well as be prepared for 360 degree defense. You never know what is going to happen next but take a moment and be ready for it. Then you should return to yoi or a modified version of it. All of this is important and I am not attempting to tell someone what to do when they have to fight. I am simply trying to show how important kata is in a real fight. Even though they are two different things, they have many things in common. Now, back to yoi…during your yoi time it should be where you relax your body but keep your mind alert. Assess not only other threats but your injuries and the injuries of people around you. Maybe it is wise to call the police as well.

In the spirit of martial arts we practice, learn and develop ourselves. We also teach and inspire others. It doesn’t take a black belt to do this either. Sometimes the children that train can often inspire great things. Kata and the study of martial arts can be a very rewarding thing but can also save your life. When it comes down to applying these practices we should always remember that it is a reminder and not an absolute. One lesson I have learned the hard way is that everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face. This is why the basics are important because they are something that we know and we can do.             

  Adam Cathrall started training in Shotokan at the age of 4. He has also training in many other forms of martial arts such as Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Boxing, and Iaido.

Adam Cathrall started training in Shotokan at the age of 4. He has also training in many other forms of martial arts such as Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Boxing, and Iaido.

Kata and the Trends of Martial Arts

When I look back over the past 26 years of doing martial arts, I notice the wave of trends that have occurred. It isn’t just what is popular but it is an evolution of generations. With hundreds of years of traditions and methods changing so rapidly I often wonder what the founders would say if they got to see the martial arts of 2016. That is for another day.

I can say this: within my time doing martial arts I have seen many changes, some rather shocking, others almost cultural. From the age of four until 12 I trained in a very traditional Shotokan dojo in New Jersey in the late 80s and early 90s. The gi’s were white, the floors were wooden, and our training was steeped in tradition centered around kihon, kata, and kumite. These were the basis and the substance of our training. Intermittently we were lectured on certain philosophies and principles as well.

Many martial artists during this time had the same experience as I had. I eventually made more and more friends in school who trained in other martial arts such as American Karate, TKD and other things. Major motion pictures began a wide spread change of things. I began to notice that kata seemed like something that not many other schools did and often enough they were a much more action packed kata as opposed to the Heian katas that I was learning. Karate outside of my dojo was much more radical. As time went on fancy colorful gi’s and even musical kata came about. It was confusing to me; I felt like the karate I was learning was something very different from what karate should be. I wanted a fancy gi, I wanted to hit a punching bag and not a makiwara. I wanted the new age karate experience.

These other schools emphasized kumite and kihon. I felt strange doing kata and felt like it was of nothing but a show and a dance. Other schools used them as competition piece with little more than it being a show. It wasn’t until a profound moment in my childhood that taught me the value of kata.

It was my first fight.

At the time I was in the third grade; I was a green belt and Heian Yondan was the focal point in my training. I remember it was fast and I remember my mind racing with a million thoughts but my body took over. I did what I was trained to do. I defended myself using portions of the kata.  It wasn’t until years later that I learned about bunkai and the practical reminder of techniques other than a set standard of motion. Nonetheless, as an 8-year-old boy I knew the essence of karate was more kata than anything else. It was something that you can practice whenever you wanted. To this day I tell my students that you should always keep a kata in your back pocket; you never know when it will come in handy.

Many times I hear people say kata is good for tournaments but really has no value in a fight, meaning that it has no value to students unless it is for competition. I am slowly starting to believe that kata is now part of some martial arts counter-culture. With this I would like to look at Taikyoku Shodan. For those of us who know it, we know that it is a very simple kata that emphasizes a block and a punch from the front stance. In my opinion, it is the best kata to learn from because it is the embodiment of the spirit of karate. You block and then you step and punch. The kata also teaches us to defend against the attack and then stop the attacker. We can take that concept of this much further in order to gain a deeper understanding. Funakoshi’s Niju Kun (20 instructions) says that ‘There is no first strike in Karate.’ We look at kata as the physical reminder of technique and action as well as the philosophical reminder of why we train and the traditions in which karate has been steeped in. While kata may not be the popular trend in martial arts it is deeply rooted.

When it comes to kata we also have bunkai. For those that aren’t fully familiar with bunkai, it is the application of the techniques in the kata. I have watched many videos where they show a very simplified bunkai, something for exactly or simply what it should be (as I have been taught and love to convey that bunkai is a reminder). What looks like a strike can become grab. Changes in stances can be part of takedowns. We have many other examples to look at, the more abstract and senseless a technique may seem I encourage you to try it on for size, feel it out and see what you can do with it.

Kata (in essence) is the reminder of all that we do as martial artists. It can be seen in many martial arts if you chose to look. It is your best sparring partner and the most portable training tool that you have. When you practice kata, change the speed of it. Practice slowly, feel the movements and breath calmly. Take the time to study yourself when you do kata and ask yourself, “how does this kata fit my body? Then, practice at speed and with strength. Let the mechanics of karate flow through the kata. Most importantly, use kata to better yourself as a martial artist and as a person. Let it be your inner and outer peace and let it be something that you can also take to a fight and let it be your guide.

  Adam Cathrall started training in Shotokan at the age of 4. He has also training in many other forms of martial arts such as Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Boxing, and Iaido.

Adam Cathrall started training in Shotokan at the age of 4. He has also training in many other forms of martial arts such as Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Boxing, and Iaido.



Yes, Karate contains grappling, now what?

Things to consider:

Point 1: Try all the movements in whatever katas you practice against a partner who’s grabbing onto you (clinch range rather than from a distance).  You’ll start to wrap up limbs, push and pull their body around, etc. Things will start to make sense and bunkai will begin to manifest itself naturally.

Point 2: The island of Okinawa had an indigenous form of wrestling called “tegumi.”  This is the father of modern Okinawan Sumo or “shima.”

Point 3: All fighting arts on a higher level will gravitate towards the same conclusions when their ultimate goal is efficiency.  Efficiency in movement means using leverage, human anatomical structures for frames, the laws of physics, and putting your entire body weight behind whatever technique you’re trying to execute.

   Goju-ryu founder Miyagi Chojun Sensei with his student Miyazato Eiichi Sensei.

Goju-ryu founder Miyagi Chojun Sensei with his student Miyazato Eiichi Sensei.

 Some comments pertaining to the photo of Miyagi Chojun above. 

Some comments pertaining to the photo of Miyagi Chojun above. 

So, now what?

With those 3 points in mind, without a doubt karate by today’s standards should be redefined as an art that includes as much grappling as it does striking.  

Is this the case among karate schools at this moment in time?

Definitely not. 

Many martial arts styles and pure self-defense programs commonly teach that once an attacker throws a punch, you need to cover up and close the distance.  The typical “imagine his arm is a baseball bat” analogy comes to mind.  You want to get in as close as possible so that you don’t get hit by the end of the bat. Once you’ve closed the distance and wrapped him up, the karate techniques come out. Slipping, arm-drags, body shifting, lowering your center, sprawling, pressure points, etc., these are all moves found in kata and are a necessity once you’re in a clinch range. 

Now, let’s go back to Point 2 above. This is our contribution to this global discussion.  If the Okinawans, a farming-based island nation, were a culture that has roots in sumo and wrestling then most likely Okinawan children grew up roughhousing and wrestling amongst each other on a daily basis. 

Check out this excerpt from the famous book, Tales of Okinawa's Great Masters by Shoshin Nagamine.

book screen shot.jpg

Interesting, right?

If you belonged to a culture that has a foundation in grappling, then the fighting art derived from that should emphasize working on the lesser developed skills (striking) and mastering your already developed skills (grappling).  It seems like everyone else looking in on this island nation only saw the striking aspect of the art.     

Modern society has drifted away from a farming lifestyle but we still hear phrases like “farm-boy strength,” “old-man strength” and even “wrestler’s strength” being mentioned.  Many of us know a guy who wrestled in high school but hasn’t worked out in years yet still has freakishly strong grips.  Or the dad who grew up doing odd jobs in construction and can still beat you in an arm-wrestle without breaking a sweat.

The Okinawan youth probably experienced the same thing by roughhousing and that is what’s missing in today’s karate interpretation. 

We need to embrace the grind.

As more karate schools are opening up to the grappling aspect of karate and incorporating it into practice, don’t forget that there’s a difference between learning many different submission holds versus executing that hold in an exchange filled with muscular tension and constant physical stress.  The benefit of doing tegumi drills without striking is that you can go 100% without trying to knock each other’s heads off.  Of course you don’t want to break a limb either but flowing in a hard, slow, methodical fashion to develop that wrestler’s strength is essential for karate grappling.  Additionally, you’ll be forced to work on your breathing as well just to maintain that level of heavy tension.

Maybe your school already practices joint manipulations and submissions, are you drilling them with varying degrees of resistance?  Start grinding them out to develop that farmer’s strength.  And don’t forget, everything should be related back to kata.  At the end of the day, all combative movement can be derived from kata and without this fact grounding the art, karate would just become like any other modern fad that has forgotten its origins. 

Where do the strikes come in then? Other than actually using strikes to cause damage, they also help with your grappling set-ups and to disengage the opponent’s thought process (get their mind off of their original intention).  Rickson Gracie, the proclaimed greatest Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) practitioner of all time, followed a very basic formula as his philosophy: close the distance and clinch, takedown, work to achieve a dominant position, strike to expose the opponent then submit.    

Check out this photo taken out of Kodokan Judo written by the founder of Judo, Jiguro Kano.  The last sentence of #193 states that as the opponent tries to stab you, you should “shout and punch him between the eyes with your right fist” (sounds like karate), and then #194, “immediately take his right wrist from above with your right hand and pull it toward your right hip” (sounds like the pulling hand or "hikite" in karate). 

So you can see that even in today’s definition of a "pure grappling art" such as Judo or BJJ, there were strikes taught as a means to set up the takedown or throw. 

We have to move away from the dichotomy of striking versus grappling.  Understand that all styles aim to reach the same conclusion: efficiency, and that idea requires no stone be left unturned.  Original karate historically was rooted in grappling but most of it has been lost.  Maybe training in pure grappling styles and relating it back to kata would be the next best solution until karate itself can rediscover its foundation.  If you already practice grappling in your karate dojo, again start increasing the resistance to really develop your strength.  Karate is too beautiful an art to be reduced to just kicking and punching.  It is very complete and worth the effort to preserve in the most genuine way possible.  

Thank you.       


A Karate Practitioner's Reflection on Training in MMA

Above all things, I learned to keep my training honest. The ego is an insidious thing which will always try to cushion any failings. It is very easy to rationalise any bad habit, mistake, dumb move and so on, until you get to a point where you aren't really as good as you think you are. I recently spent four months training like an MMA fighter at London Shootfighters, and let me tell you, they keep you honest when you're sparring. Maybe it's an obvious point but hard sparring really shows you what's working and what isn't. I believe that Karate today can learn a lot from the youngest incarnation of the oldest sport in the world.

The event that had the biggest impact on me was a particular sparring session. I had only done two previously, so I was still unsure of the etiquette. The first session I was told after asking to go 100%, which I did not do. I presume that the coach guessed I wouldn't, after having seen my conservative BJJ style. I do find it difficult to let go sometimes, and find myself being overly cerebral. Anyway, on the day of this particular sparring session I was having an off day for various reasons, but I elected to spar regardless. My rationale was that this would be a good way to learn my weaknesses, bad habits, and such, little did I know that they would be communicated to me very clearly. Unfortunately it was not communicated to me that my opponent would be going in hard this time. Regardless, I put up a brave but losing fight in the first round. One of my major failings that day was leaning in with punches, being overly fixated on making contact (perhaps a habit from point fighting), which my opponent cleverly capitalised on by stepping back and kicking me in the head. Maybe on a good day I would have been fast enough dodge it, maybe not, but it was definitely a mistake which I was thus forced to address.

I really did try to follow the advice of the coach, who I have a lot of respect for, both between and during sessions but I could not help feeling that at the time I did worse the more I changed. I suppose this is often the way with changing technique for the better. After being fairly beaten up for five minutes we took a break, and I was told that I had another round. "I'm not quitting" I thought, which I later learned was something of a family trait, both my Dad (another Karateka) and Granddad (a boxer) had apparently been in the same situation.

The first half of the second round resembled the first round, however I started to wake up, landing a decent counter right, and an intercepting front kick. I was suddenly staggered by a harder throw of the same head kick that I had been taking periodically, which stunned me despite the shin-guards. I was checked over for a minute or so, given the O.K. to continue, and went back in. I had learned my lesson and finally stopped leaning, a point emphasised by the great and persistent cornering work of Michael Page, who I began to respect more and more each time I encountered him. Aided by this cornering I had something of a second-wind and came back stronger, this time keeping range with efficient use of the jab I had developed during my time there. The last minutes of the round strangely held my opponent and I on a roughly equal footing, as far as I could tell anyway. I had reached that point that in Zen they call Mushin, or "no-mind", and though stunned and bleeding thickly from the nose, was more ready than ever. Unluckily, or perhaps luckily for the sake of my well being, the round ended shortly after. I thanked my opponent for the lesson and left.

Curiously as I readied to leave the coach told me to look hard in the mirror, and said that one day I would have the opportunity to do that to someone else. I don't know the true intent of that comment but nothing could alienate me more. I am not motivated to hurt people, and the more I follow this path the less I want to.

One thing that martial artists need to understand is that you simply cannot survive a fight if you are thinking about moves. I believe that this is a tendency reinforced by practising a crystallised style, with a right and a wrong way, and a set way of doing things. Mr. Miyagi would suggest that my focus needs more focus. The fixation on performing this or that technique during a fight, thinking "I should throw this or that strike" or any variation of "I am going to do X", is a good way to get your ass kicked. A fight is an arrhythmic, dynamic, chaotic clash of bodies and minds. You must simply act and react. I cannot stress this enough: If this is all you do, you stand a better chance of getting the better of the vast majority of potential opponents. The object of training is simply to hone those reactions into something more efficient and more useful to you. Trust the organism, it breaths without your command, and it will defend itself without your command. The Zen Master Takuan Soho once wrote to Yagyu Munenori, a Master Swordsman, that if a man's mind is in his right arm, the rest of his body is useless, if a man's mind is on a target, he is undefended; the mind must be left alone, and allowed to occupy all space.

Terry Sibley started Karate at the age of 8 with the JKA in England.  He also has training in BJJ, Muay Thai, Wrestling and Boxing.  Sibley is currently finishing off a degree in Philosophy, with an emphasis in Zen philosophy.  You can check out his blog here:

The Ki Component: Internal Energy Development Strategies for Karateka

Every few years, I reach into my martial arts library and pull out The Bible of Karate: Bubishi. I re-read it cover to cover as a refresher in the core philosophies underlying karate as a martial art and a way of life.

My recent read reminded me of the book’s recurring references to internal energy development in karate training. The book recounts how the Chinese and Okinawan masters emphasized the importance of cultivating energy – ki in Japanese, qi in Mandarin Chinese – to maximize the physical, mental, and spiritual benefits of training. The Bubishi reminds us of the importance of energy development from two perspectives: increasing the effectiveness of karate technique, and fostering long-term health and vitality.

The concept of ki shouldn’t be foreign to karate practitioners. After all, the word “kiai” begins with the word “ki,” denoting the martial artist’s vocalization and use of internal energy to power a strike and – more broadly – to convey maximum focus and intent in combat.

There are many popular examples of applied internal energy in the martial arts. Okinawan Kiko (Japanese for qi kung) masters show the ability to withstand full-force strikes to their most vulnerable areas by channeling ki to those locations. Breaking experts demonstrate how to summon their ki to power through multiple stacks of boards or bricks. Aikido masters show how to keep completely unmovable – while others try in vain to lift them! – by remaining physically rooted through ki.

3 ways to Develop Internal Energy

So how can you introduce energy development into your karate if you don’t do so already? Here are three ways before, during and after training.    

  1. Before: Warm up with kiko/qi kung “tapping” – Add this to your preparatory routine. This simple technique involves gently tapping the acupuncture points that run along the arms, legs, and back in order to activate the body’s “meridians” – the channels through which ki flows. Karate kata are derived from Chinese animal styles (eg, Fujian White Crane), which feature orchestrated movements designed in large part to generate ki. Similarly, during kata, ki cascades through the body. Making tapping a part of your warm up exercises can help maximize ki flow during kata and other technique-based exercises.
  2. During: Perform a kata at Tai Chi pace – Try a kata at the same slow tempo as Tai Chi. Focus on diaphragmatic breathing as you move through the form, inhaling through the nose when chambering and then exhaling through the mouth on the strike or block. Try to eliminate bodily tension (excess tension restricts the flow of ki). Keep the body loose and flexible. Ensure that you maintain correct posture, as you may be challenged from a balance standpoint at first. Choose whatever kata you like, and try to visualize and sense the ki moving through your meridians as you slowly execute the form.  
  3. After: Practice “standing like a tree” – Zhan zhuang is the Chinese practice of standing qi kung. In this exercise, you adopt a standing pose with corresponding hand position, along with deep diaphragmatic breathing. You remain completely still … like a tree. Yet ki is streaming through your meridian “root system” and thus nourishing your internal organs. (The Chinese refer to this as “movement through stillness.”) Zhan zhuang is a great way to end a karate workout – settling the body and mind, while further fostering ki. It is essentially a meditative exercise, and breathing-focused meditation is another traditional component of the martial arts. Consider why the samurai embraced Zen meditation as part of their budo training. Their goal was to learn how to calm their minds and be completely “centered” in battle, where any loss of focus could result in instant death at the hands of a katana-wielding opponent. Meditation and energy development go hand-in-hand. One can say they’re two sides of the same coin.

Getting Started

For three years, I cross-trained in Pa Kua Chang in order to integrate qi kung exercises into my daily karate practice. Pa Kua is the internal martial art Master Chojun Miyagi studied in China, which he later incorporated into Goju-Ryu karate, as evidenced by the style’s soft, circular techniques.

Let me emphasize that I am not a qi kung expert. For those serious about learning internal energy development techniques, it’s advisable to seek out an experienced sifu/sensei who can teach you the effective and safe practices of qi kung. For those who want to learn the basics and try the tapping and Zhan zhuang practices outlined above, search the many educational videos on YouTube. There are also countless books on the subject.  

My friend and one-time acupuncturist, Dr. Richard Ming Chin, has published a new eBook, The Power of Qi Kung: Maximum Energy for Life. It’s a comprehensive introduction to qi kung by an internationally renowned martial arts expert who holds an 8th degree black belt in Shito-Ryu karate and master-level rankings in Jow Ga kung fu, and Tai Chi Chuan.

Some say martial arts training is eminently incomplete without energy development work. And, clearly, many contemporary dojos are lacking in this traditional aspect of training.

I believe that many advanced karate practitioners already know the basics of energy development. Indeed, The Bubishi sets forth the notion that energy development is inherent in all styles of karate. It follows that there are, most likely, internal energy exercises within your system. It pays to look deeply for them.

By recognizing that ki development is a key component of karate training, you can immediately begin to benefit by it.

Mark N. Clemente-head shot.jpg

Sensei Mark Clemente, Glen Rock, NJ, has been training in Goshin Kagen Goju Karate-Do under Shihan Ed DiNardo since 1998. He has additional training in aiki-jujutsu and Ch'iang Shan Pa Kua Chang.

Kata, A Complete System

It seems strange and counterintuitive that one kata could make up a complete fighting system. How could one kata, which usually takes only a couple of minutes to perform in it's entirety, be a complete fighting system? It's really not that strange. Think of how many popular songs there are that only contain three to five chords. There are thousands. It's the space between the notes and not the notes themselves that make music. Kata is very similar. It is only limited by creativity, physics, anatomy and physiology. It is the instrument, we are the musician.

    In order to look at each kata as a complete system we need to change our point of view a little bit. Shift our perspective. Many times we are taught that kata is a collection of techniques designed as defenses for specific attacks. Even if we don't hold to the view that a kata is designed for fighting ten men at once, analysis can be rather specific. He grabs my wrist, therefore, I perform this section of the kata, which is the wrist grab portion. This is too much of a micro view, not to mention being tactically wrong. We need to take a very generalized view and apply the kata techniques to the variables that we are almost 100% sure will be present.

    Some things we can be almost positive of in a conflict: the enemy will have two arms and legs, they will have two eyes, they will have functional hearing, their balance is dependent on their body alignment and structure, their joints are weaker than their bones, their neck is weaker than their skull, your hand is stronger than their fingers, your arm is stronger than their hand, and your two arms are stronger than their one arm. They will also be limited in their planes of attack. They can either come from the front, behind, to either side, and the attacks generally come either medially (down the center) or laterally (coming in from the sides). The opponent will strive to work against you.  

    There will of course always be exceptions, but in general we can expect these things. These are variables we can prepare for and are the only things we can know for sure. Everything else is luck and unpredictable, so there's no point worrying about it.

    Kata techniques are not defensive in nature, they are offensive with a defensive component. Much like keeping your guard up while punching. They are attack and defense together.     Being able to defend against specific attacks accomplishes very little. Blocking an attack doesn't stop the attacker, it only stops that single attack. You want to stop the attacker, which will end all attacks, not just individual ones. This is why all kata movements should disable an attacker immediately. Let's go back to the wrist grab example. Escaping from the wrist grab solves very little. It doesn't stop the attacker. Jabbing them in the throat, or slapping an ear with a cupped hand will usually stop the attacker and allow you to free your wrist. It can also stop another attack in progress while you do it, if done correctly. It's also easier to remember and perform than a multiple step wrist extraction. 

    The techniques are also the embodiment of principles. If the principles are used, the shape of the technique can change, but it will still work, because it's built on those principles. Think of an architect. If he understands the principles of construction, he can design any structure he wants as long as it adheres to those principles. He can build a shack or he can build a cathedral. One must understand the principles of a kata, so they are not bound by it's form, but only by it's function. This is also how you get a thousand interpretations of one kata movement that all seem plausible. It's because they are the same just different expressions. Like music, same instrument, different songs.

    Strategy is what links all of these techniques together. They compliment and build on one another to achieve a goal. It gives you a clear end to work toward, and you can ignore all other variables that don't get you closer to that goal. This is also the biggest difference between all of the kata, strategy. The strategy of one kata is different than the other. The version of Seisan kata that I practice has the strategic goal of disrupt, unbalance and knock down violently. Basically to put them on their butt, so I can make a hasty retreat, how badly I hurt them to achieve this depends on the situation. The strategy of another kata may be to break the opponent's neck and all the techniques focus on getting you to that end goal. Think of the difference between boxing and judo. In boxing the strategy is to pummel the person with your fists. In judo, it's to throw them into the ground. If you tried to throw a person by using boxing maneuvers you'd fail, just like if you tried to strike a person with judo maneuvers. Each has a specific strategy and their techniques work towards that strategic goal. You can't use one to do the other, at least not optimally.

    Let's add up these different components. A kata is a collection of principles, embodied in movement, designed to incapacitate a person, while keeping yourself protected and linked by a common strategy based on the variables that we can be most sure will be present. In other words, a fighting system. 

 This article was written by Brandon Holgersen, check out his blog here: . Brandon's approach to karate emphasizes practices only on one kata.   This is an admirable throw-back to the old ways of mastery and we respect his perseverance in sharpening his karate "blade."

This article was written by Brandon Holgersen, check out his blog here: Brandon's approach to karate emphasizes practices only on one kata.   This is an admirable throw-back to the old ways of mastery and we respect his perseverance in sharpening his karate "blade."


The Future of Karate

Karateka often discuss the past--how things were done when they started, what their lineage is, what past masters said, etc. This retrospective process is very valuable, because it provides guidance and inspiration for our own journey in the martial arts. As the proverb "On-Ko-Chi-Shin" tells us, we should "study the old to understand the new." But just what is "the new," exactly? Is it the Japanese budo approach to karate that took off in the 1950's? Maybe the aspiring Olympic sport of WKF competition karate? Or is it something else, entirely? Personally, I believe we are experiencing a Karate Renaissance, but to understand what I mean, you must understand what has led up to this moment.

For the better part of a century, karate has been on a fairly steady path toward sport-oriented training, tailored toward large groups of students. It started with the introduction of karate into the Okinawan school system, with the government's expectation that it would help prepare students for military service. That was expanded when karate was taken to mainland Japan, and taught to athletic young men whose expectations of martial arts were ingrained by exposure to competitive budo systems like sumo, kendo, and judo. They then taught that karate to Western servicemen after World War II, who took it with them and helped spread it all over the world. Certainly, there were still karateka practicing the older methods during this time, but they were not nearly as widespread. Additionally, some karateka changed the way they taught to fit this new expectation, in order to cash in on a new potential source of income, which was sorely needed after the devastation of the war.

In the 1960's and 70's, karate really began to be defined by kumite competitions, particularly in the West. Different rulesets were developed by different organizations, depending on how they wanted to approach fighting, but they were all fairly similar. This eventually split competitive karate into two camps--kickboxing, and point fighting. The kickboxing camp generally consists of fighting styles that incorporate kicks and punches, and they do not typically stop matches until time runs out or a competitor is knocked out. The point fighting camp generally emphasizes short engagements by stopping the match to award points for techniques that were landed with good technique. There are advantages and disadvantages to both, but neither is really representative of old-style karate.

These camps still exist, today, with various Kyokushin organizations bearing the flag for the kickboxing camp, and the WKF leading the charge for the point fighting camp. With all this competition going on, it's hard to get people to notice old-style karate, because it is nowhere near as glamorous. There are no medals or trophies to be won, or any other external markers of success. That said, with the success of mixed martial arts competition since the early 90's, things are changing.

Effectiveness is probably the most important aspect of martial arts. Of course, competition is still the best way to showcase effectiveness, because the glamor of it attracts attention. Even outside of competition, though, people are looking for different things than they used to. They want to be prepared for physical conflict in all its forms, and they also want to develop themselves as people. Old-style karate can provide this, but it's up to us to showcase it. People like Vince Morris and Iain Abernethy have started working toward that end, and even Okinawan masters like Taira Masaji have opened their teachings to the wider world.

Thanks to the Internet, we now have access to sources of information all over the globe, and we have the ability to share knowledge to far more people than ever before. Even now, there are websites and online forums full of karateka who are training in and promoting the old ways, while embracing the value of pressure testing advocated by MMA and "reality-based self defense" systems. In a way, this is a return to the approach of masters like Motobu Choki, who regularly tested their karate against others--not for glory, but to improve their art.

It takes a lot of dedicated time and effort to really develop the skills of old Okinawan karate, which often leads sport martial artists to dismiss it as unrealistic or ineffective. Despite this, you can watch MMA, boxing, judo, sumo, etc., and regularly see skills and techniques found in karate. MMA, in particular, is a fantastic proving ground for many karate methods, as it has the most open ruleset of any competitive combat sport. I believe that as MMA progresses, more fighters will seek to develop the skills found in the old ways--things like tactile sensitivity, limb control, standing locks, small surface strikes, balance disruption, short power, etc. When they find those things in karate, we will have an opportunity to really showcase the depth of our arts to the public.

Meanwhile, it is important that those of us who are currently practicing the old ways try to pass them on to others, and keep sharing material publicly whenever possible. Sport karate is still going strong, but I don't believe it is the future. The general public--and prospective karate students--have seen its limitations, and for the most part they are looking for something more. For now, they are looking to MMA, and its most popular components. In the future, I believe that old-style karate can make a strong case for itself. While it is not ideally suited to competitive fighting, I believe that its incorporation into competitive fighting may lead more students to it that are willing to put in the work necessary to pursue the old ways. The hard training, depth of study, and personal development involved are not for everyone, but with the world growing more connected with each passing day, I feel that there are ever more people who can benefit from it.


 This article was written by Noah Legel of , he is an avid karateka and scholar who exemplifies the idea of "bunbu ryudo," the way of the pen and the sword. Check out his website and  Youtube channel  for great karate content and very insightful discussion.   

This article was written by Noah Legel of, he is an avid karateka and scholar who exemplifies the idea of "bunbu ryudo," the way of the pen and the sword. Check out his website and Youtube channel for great karate content and very insightful discussion.   

The Poor Man’s Guide to Hojo Undo Equipment

Hojo Undo loosely translates to “supplemental exercises” and requires some very unique, often handmade equipment. However, that doesn’t mean it has to cost a fortune. Here are a few training apparatuses that can be constructed very inexpensively with purchased or scavenged materials, quite literally giving you more bang for your buck.

Chi ishi

Chi ishi are weighted levers, and sometimes called stone mallets. These are used for exercises that strengthen the hands, arms, shoulders, and chest. Rooting exercises and squatting exercises can also be done in conjunction to work the legs. When implementing these exercises, proper breathing is an important consideration. Typically, chi ishi are made of a circular concrete slab (thickness can vary) with a 1-1.5 inch diameter wooden dowel for a handle that extends roughly 24 to 30 inches. Chi ishi purchased online can cost upwards of 60 dollars and weigh anywhere from 5-15 pounds each. Keep the weight in mind if you decide to order online, as that will effect shipping costs.

Now to make these the traditional way will require concrete mix, a small round container (for molding the concrete), a few screws, and the dowel. These supplies, depending on what you may or may not already have, can cost close to 30 dollars from the hardware store. The chi ishi I made cost me a robust 0 dollars since my supplies were things I had lying about.

Materials needed:

(1) - “Antique” closet rod. My home was built in the 50s and the closets had very solid oak rods that measured 1.25 inches in diameter and roughly 48 inches long. They were no longer being used so I repurposed them. Note that you will need to drill pilot holes in one end of each piece of wood for the purpose of mounting the weight.

(2) - Ten pound standard weights purchased from the Walmart sporting goods section several years ago. Again, these were just laying around.

(1) - Old large brass cabinet hinge from leftover from a carpentry project. This took about 5 minutes of work to cut in half and already had predrilled holes for the mounting screws.

(2) - Large 1-inch construction grade mounting screws. I found these in that scrap box that every guy has in his shop. You know the one that catches all the “left over” hard ware from other projects.


The makiwara, or wooden striking post, is a flexible wooden target that provides resistance and is also used for hand conditioning. Generally, it is a hardwood post with a tapered cut to allow it to flex. The striking end is then wrapped with rope, leather, or cloth to prevent breaking the skin of the knuckles (although it does happen). Feel free to experiment with different materials as padding.  This particular build is not the traditional version of the makiwara, but it works just the same.

Materials needed:

(1) - Poplar plank from the hardware store. These can be bought in measurements of 1X6X72 for roughly 3 dollars.

Padding material- traditionally rope, leather, or cloth. In this case, I used a folded magazine. It provides a sturdy surface and enough padding to protect the knuckles. Plus it was in the trash can…….recycle!!

My process was not a scientific one. I simply cut the longest piece to the desired length (roughly 4.5 feet), the next piece slightly shorter, and what was left of the plank is merely for spacing. The cut planks were the then mounted to a stud in the wall of my shop. A carpenter could have made a much more visually pleasing finished product but this is about function. This design also takes up less space and allows me to use it indoors in case of inclement weather. The resistance of the makiwara can also be adjusted by moving the front board up and down slightly with this set up.

Nigiri game

Nigiri game, or gripping jars, are traditionally ceramic with a wide-lipped opening. Most often they are filled with sand or water and can weigh anywhere from 5 to 15 pounds each. A karateka would grab the lip of the opening and perform static holds, stances, or movement drills. The goal being to strengthen the hands, arms, shoulders, and back. Gripping jars are incredibly easy and inexpensive (rummage time!!) to make. For these, any medium sized to large plastic cylindrical container with a lid will do. Bulk condiment containers and protein shake jugs with screw on lids are popular alternatives for the original ceramic design. Shy away from glass if at all possible to avoid breakage in case you drop your jar while exercising. One important consideration is opening or lid size. You want to be able to get a good grip but you also want it to be a challenge. A recycle bin is often a good resource to run down a large jug especially those behind vitamin and supplement stores. Some restaurant chains may be willing to save a large condiment jug for you if you ask politely. As for filling the jug, sand, water, or small stones, will work fine and are all easily accessible. I chose to use sand in my jars which gives me a very hefty challenge at almost 12 pounds.

Other considerations

The intent of this article is to convey a few ideas on ways to quickly and rather cheaply construct your own hojo undo equipment. While these are my favorite, there are other apparatuses you could create as your skill level and training dictates. As with any karate training, be sure you are performing the exercises properly. Form, structure, and breathing are very important aspects of all types of physical activity, but especially in karate. The goal of hojo undo is to push the body to its physical limits to achieve a higher level of conditioning, focus, and strength.  Be safe, be creative, have fun, but most of all…..stay true to your art.

This article was written by Jeremy McLean, an enthusiastic karateka with rankings in both American Karate and Shotokan.  His willingness to be our first guest author at exemplifies the open mindset that karate needs to thrive. 

Kata: The Lonely Man’s Sensei

By Jeremy McLean

Solo training has been a taboo subject for quite some time now. Critics suggest the practice of karate is always best suited for more than one person. Partner drills, kumite, grappling skills, and conditioning in some cases lend themselves to having someone else participate. However, kata can be and is designed to be performed by one person.

One could argue that the entire spirit of karate dwells within each kata.

The idea that kata is merely exercise or robotic movements is a gross miscalculation. Kata not only provides basic movements, it also illustrates the practicality of those movements in combat situations. Kata also enriches stamina, endurance, power generation, and when done correctly, physical recovery of connective tissue. The goal of this article is to examine how we can rethink kata practice and its benefits from the perspective of personal training.

First and foremost, why would we train by ourselves? Solo training is done for many reasons but the following stand out:

  1. Supplemental training: Let’s assume that you have a dojo or club you enjoy attending and are deeply rooted in practice there. It’s always a good idea to actively pursue improving your technique and proficiency on your own time.
  2. Necessity: But what if there aren’t any quality instructors or dojos within a manageable distance from your home? With the boom of MMA gyms and “McDojos” quality instruction may be hard to come by.

Going at it alone….

One of the main components of solo training for karate is kata practice. Kata was designed to be done by the individual, requires no equipment, and minimal space. All that is really required is knowledge of the kata itself and of course the discipline to put in the necessary work. Kata in and of itself, is the soul of traditional karate.

To neglect kata makes a karateka incomplete.

Methodology for Kata Training

As with all aspects of karate training, kata is all about focus, repetition, and accuracy. Below are some methods I have found to be successful when learning a new kata and refining familiar ones. They are categorized but feel free to mix these methods in any arrangement that solidifies your learning experience.

Segmented Repetition

Segmented training allows you to break up a kata into sections, usually based on its pattern, and focus on that particular movement set to ease cognitive retention. In the broader spectrum, the intent is to add small sections of movements to each segment repetition until the kata is complete. This is the most basic method for learning a kata and could be considered a variation of the “counting” method found in most dojos.

Slow Repetitions

Running an entire kata sequence slowly allows for focus on individual stances and positions. The added benefit of holding certain stances for extended periods of time also increases muscle endurance. Cardiovascular endurance also improves through breath work while performing the kata sequences. The slow method has also proven beneficial, at least for me, for recovery in stiff knees and mild tendonitis of the hips.

Dynamic Repetitions

Once you have perfected the individual movements and their sequence kata can be practiced in a dynamic manner. Higher intensity levels, variances in speed, and timing changes will stress the cardiovascular system and challenge muscle memory. Performing kata in this manner yields quicker physical performance results. However, it is incredibly important that the integrity of the kata itself stays intact.

Correcting Errors

So how do we know we aren’t making any mistakes during training? There are a couple of handy ways to review your efforts and make improvements. The least expensive way is using mirrors to watch your positions and correct as needed. Secondly, in this the age of technology, video has become a major asset in solo training. Filming sessions and playing them back for review has been done by professional athletes for as long as video has been around. The same applies for solo training. Set up a camera in your training space, film for a while, then review it at your leisure. Be honest in your critique and compare yourself to footage of more advanced practitioners doing the same kata. You could also look to online forums and social media groups for feedback, tips, and critique.

Closing Thoughts…..

Obviously, having a club or dojo to attend where you can get active instruction is always the ideal situation. However, that may not always be available. Factors like living in a small town, restricted finances, and time constraints are all real possibilities that can limit our ability to train. Another obstacle may simply be that the discipline of karate you are interested in isn’t very popular. MMA, BJJ, kickboxing, and other popular arts usually take the forefront of modern training facilities.

With that said, karate is an individual journey that can span a person’s entire life. There are no rules saying you can’t learn on your own. Seek out legitimate information on the karate family of your choice. Read, watch DVD’s and historical videos, and consult social media and online forums for technical information. But most of all have fun and learn.

This article was written by Jeremy McLean, an enthusiastic karateka with rankings in both American Karate and Shotokan.  His willingness to be our first guest author at exemplifies the open mindset that karate needs to thrive.  

The Karate Culture Mission

We wanted to share the rationale behind the creation of this website, its complimentary Youtube Channel, and the overall purpose of the Karate Culture Movement.   

Simply put, it is a call for open communication among traditional karate practitioners for the preservation and the rediscovery of the old ways. 

We are not an organization, we are not looking for profit; we simply want to promote a culture of open-mindedness.  A return to using kata as it was meant to be: not for show, not for competitions, but for self-defense in all scenarios.      

At this moment in time, the dominant paradigm of martial arts thinking is that the sport of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) represents the truest form of combat.  

Although we enjoy MMA as entertainment, and take nothing away from the sacrifices and dedication of the athletes who put their health on the line to develop their physical and mental capabilities, we do not believe that any rule-based fighting can be considered the most efficient means of self-defense.  

Thus, our aim is to encourage the sharing of knowledge to re-legitimize traditional karate and bring it back to its original purpose.

The first step was to put ourselves into the public view through our Youtube Channel in hopes that we can be the example and lead a renaissance towards the old ways.  The public's opinion of karate is generally negative, and this is not without reason.   A quick search can reveal thousands of videos misrepresenting the art that was originally developed for pure, unarmed combat.  Modern day karate has been described as a "daycare center," "black belt factory," and "McDojo."  

We aim to change that.  

But before we can change the public's opinion, we must reform ourselves. Thus, we hope to release more videos to spread the knowledge and encourage others to share as well.  Also, we would like to travel and teach seminars as a means of helping dojos grow in their interpretation of kata which not only will help the development of their individual students but preserve the art of karate as a whole.  

Finally, we leave you with this Karate Culture Creed as a summary of our mission:

I aim to develop myself first, so that I can help develop others around me.
From my classmates, to my dojo, to the other dojos that I know, to the organization I belong to, to the style I represent, to karate as a whole, and finally to the rest of the martial arts world.  

Thank you.