Thursday, November 11, 2010

Guide For TMA Newcomers - Part 2 - Man this Kata is Hard

In most martial arts schools and always in a TMA dojo, you will learn kata. Kata is a set of pre-arranged movements that incorporate strikes, blocks, kicks and other elements of your style. You can get overwhelmed when you first see a kata demonstrated at full-speed by your instructor or senior students. Others, like Sanchin, seem deceptively easy at first. I remember thinking about Sanchin, "Hey, you just walk slow, throw some strikes, rinse and repeat and you're done". That was wrong.

In Uechi schools, you will learn kata Sanchin first, and throughout your training. As you progress through the ranks, there will be new dimensions taught and self-discoveries for you. Most instructors will then teach you katas Kanshiwa and then Kanshu. They do look difficult, but as you focus and practice more it will all come together for you. What is the best way to learn a kata? Everyone has different methods to learn them. The following ones help me with learning my katas.

Keep a notebook. It's easy to forget the many things taught in class. Write in it after each training session. Anything that strikes you as useful, unusual or just 'cool'. Of course instruction and tips from your instructor should be recorded. With kata, breaking down the individual steps on paper can help you visualize it better when practicing it at home.

There are many kata videos on the Internet. I only recommend utilizing these as you progress in rank. There are some issues with them that can negatively impact your learning. The performer could be performing with poor technique or showing a version slightly different from what you are being taught. For example, there are plenty of Kanshiwa and Kanshu videos to watch. But none are exactly like what we learn in my school. If you are having trouble remembering your kata's movements, then only use these to help visualize the the order of the movements; and only if the performance's basic steps are just like your kata. This can be hard to determine as a beginner.

Practice. A lot. Then some more. Practicing will help you learn and perform the movements you have visualized or written down. Once you don't have to *think* about the movements, you can work on your technique. It can be difficult at home, but try to practice in a room with a mirror or two so you can watch your technique. In my room I have two mirrors on one wall and use the reflection in a TV at the opposite end of the room. Dojos will have lots of mirrors so use them as much as you can in class.

Don't be afraid to ask questions. About anything. If you don't understand or forgot how to turn in your kata or want to know how a strike or series of moves is applied (bunkai), just ask. You'll get an answer and each one will help build your knowledge of the kata.

Implement the feedback you receive from your instructor and senior students. In TMA they will earnestly help you. The senior students were at your level not too long ago and they remember the good advice and instruction given them by their senior students. I sure do.

Try these tips and see what works for you. If you have something not included, please comment and share. I hope some of this can help you learn your kata and be a better TMA practitioner.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Guide For TMA Newcomers - Part 1 - What to Expect in a TMA Dojo

For newcomers to Traditional Martial Arts (TMA) - Welcome. I hope you have first well researched and taken some free or discounted classes at different schools. You need to do this to see if you like and are are willing to spend a good amount of your personal time with a TMA style and instructor. If not, I suggest you read this article on what to look for in a TMA school. If you see this guy, run.

What do you do after you pick a school and instructor you like? You should get some type of written or oral explanation from the instructor on expectations and specific behavior in the dojo. Follow them If you are in a respectable school, these rules are geared toward your safety, self-control, respect for everyone, and learning. If there are higher ranks of students in the class, ignore them, unless they are teaching part of the class or demonstrating with the teacher. Keep your eyes and ears on the instructor and yourself.

You are learning your new style from the teacher or sensei, so you need to focus on him or her. As you learn from your sensei, watch yourself. There should be many mirrors in the dojo. They are there for you to watch yourself when performing katas and practicing techniques.

Most importantly, go at your own pace. Never try to rush through an exercise or kata to show how fast you are. There's a 100% chance you did it completely wrong. Everyone is different and we all progress at different rates. Go at a rate you are comfortable with and can do. This is about you learning a fighting art. It is not a competition. Have some fun too.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Back Injury Update

After visiting my orthopedist I have decided to have an epidural steroid injection (ESI) as the course of action I should take for now for my back and sciatica pain. ESI is the only non-surgical treatment option that allows me to function normally for the long-term. My previous one lasted nearly two years. However, it does not and cannot address the root cause of the problem.

I have a herniated or degenerative disk that is compressing the sciatic nerve that runs down my right leg. Any pain related to the compression of or damage to a sciatic nerve is called sciatica.

Before the nerve became an issue, I just had the back pain due to my disks. I was able to knock out the pain with Chiropractic treatment. The nerve pain came a little later and Chiropractic could not treat this. I could have continued but did not see the point. The primary issue was now nerve pain and the treatment could not help me in this regard. I have a great Chiropractic doctor who admitted as much, he is a rare one who will tell you when it cannot help you. I do recommend him for normal adjustments if you are in the Vienna, VA area.

Before I initially saw an orthopedist the first time I had this problem, my primary care physician prescribed physical therapy and some muscle relaxers to help with the pain.

Physical therapy was to strengthen the core muscles in order to help support the spine. I can't really say that it helped much. However it felt really good. Especially the transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS). After massaging the back the therapists would place a TENS device with four electodes on my lower back and cover it with a heating pad. The TENS unit uses electric current to stimulate your nerves. This treatment lasted about 15-20 minutes. It felt great. But 10 minutes after I left the clinic, the nerve pain returned.

Meds are for short-term pain management and can make life easier when you are on them. But they also didn't help me much. My muscles felt really good, or not at all, but it didn't do much for the nerve pain. I did get some temporary pain relief but only used them when it was nearly unbearable. And of course you can't take these during the day without looking and feeling like you are in the Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem band. So I take some Advil as it and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) do help with the inflammation around the disks.

ESI is essentially long-term pain management and an anti-inflammatory treatment. It can be effective anywhere from a few weeks to a few years and it's recommended to have not more than three injections a year. Long-term effects (good and bad) are still under study. My first one worked for nearly two years. Other than ESI, surgery is the only option I can consider. But I am very leary of that right now and do not want to be laid up for a month or so.

I will miss the last quarter of my current Uechi-ryu training session. And contrary to a certain myth regarding Uechi Kanbun (I am not affiliated, nor familiar with, the group in the link), Sanchin is not the only position/posture where I feel no pain. Sanchin is actually very painful in this condition. With ESI, you can pretty much get back to normal/exercise in a day or two if you have no complications. I look forward to that and starting the next Uechi session in January. I am bummed as I thought I may test this session, but hey, it's my back.

I'll have an update on this later next week.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

You Never Know

Well my back has decided to act up again and I am out of karate-commission for the near future. I will see what the orthopedist comes up with later this week. 

On the flipside I am hoping to get an article from a special guest pretty soon, keep your e-feelers out for that.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Thanks for the Support!

Thanks for all the support. We cracked the Top 30 at Martial Arts Listings 'Topsites' this week!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Judging and Performing in Class

One of the class exercises I like is performing kata with your group (students in the same rank range) in front of the class and instructors. You get to put to use some of what you have learned and demonstrate technique appropriate to your level. It also gives you a whole slew of constructive criticism. Our karate-ka give a lot of good feedback. :) I like to think it's because we all strive for perfection in our karate.

One of our instructors articulated something very well that I now realize I have always subconsciously felt. When you judge, or focus on providing constructive criticism for others, you better know your own karate. Detecting technique improvements/deficiencies in performers makes you think about and better understand your own karate deficiencies. Sometimes there is a lot out of whack, other times there only a few comments; but there is always something you can use to improve yourself.

I definitely observed and learned a lot in this class. The hard part is remembering and then incorporating it all.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Arnica for Healing Bruises

One of the major parts of karate that Uechi Kanbun and other karateka-ka of his time studied was gusuri. Gusuri is the Okinawan word for medicine and Uechi's gusuri was derived from the alternative medical system he studied and traded in for 10 years in China.

Traditional Chinese Medicine is one of many categories of AMS, including homeopathy and herbalism. Traditional Medicine has been used in every culture and place from Asia to the Middle East, Europe to the Americas. It is continued in use even after the advent of our current medicine based on science. I tend to use what works for me. For example, if I have a fever, I will use ibuprofen or acetaminophen to help knock it out. But if there was an otherwise harmless plant or extraction that had the same effect, I would use it instead. It's a personal preference.

When it comes to bruises and some muscle pain I have found that ointments/salves with Arnica (Wolf's Bane), which is native to Europe, helps them heal faster that without any treatment. Arnica has been used in Europe for years and is purported to help with other ailments as well. I can't and won't vouch for these. There have been studies conducted on its effectiveness in healing bruises but none scientifically demonstrate that it works any better than a placebo. Yet it works for me.

Arnica comes in different forms and concentrations, I have not tried them all. I tend to stick with products made by Weleda, a well-known Swiss company that is a "...manufacturer of natural cosmetics, nutritional supplements and over-the-counter (OTC) drugs". Disclaimer: my mother's best friend worked at Weleda's major site in Stuttgart so we always got discounted and free samples growing up.

The website I use to buy Arnica creams has many Weleda and other products but you need to know some German - prices are in US Dollars though. See the link below for Paul'sMart Europe. You can also find it on Target and CVS sell other brand arnica products but I don't know anything about the companies or their products. You will find some Weleda products in Whole Foods but the prices they charge amount to highway robbery.

I am not going to recommend arnica but believe it can help heal bruises more quickly than anything else. You can also condition better, and more often. :)

Links used in this article:

Friday, October 8, 2010

Master Uechi Kanei Performing Sanchin

I have never really looked at the digital clips of Uechi Kanei online until recently. When I looked at this clip I thought, this is what I see all the time in our dojo from our Dans and some 1 Kyus. Granted there are some differences, but I would imagine that a lot of them are due to this clip was probably made for slower, demonstration purposes.

My Sensei, Nestor Folta, studied under the direct tutelage of Uechi Kanei for five years in Okinawa. I can see the how he learned from Uechi Kanei. I feel pretty good that we are learning Sanchin the way it’s supposed to be done in Uechi-ryu. Though I still have a long way to go.

Here then is a sample of what you may see in our dojo on any given day.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Karate in Slow Motion

I don't have much information on where this clip came from other than it is a Uechi-ryu dojo and the clip is from a BBC series called "Hai! Karate". See links for the show here and here. It's a really well done video on what you can do with Uechi conditioning. Enjoy.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Uechi-ryu Partner Conditioning

Last night was a great workout, especially the conditioning drills. I thought I’d be banged up but not one bruise in sight. J Conditioning in Uechi-ryu karate is another facet of training that leads to better protection from attacks and may help keep you in a fight longer to win or to get a chance to run away.

It’s important not to abuse your partner during these drills because you only work on conditioning certain areas of the body, and strike/kick in specific ways. It also keeps the “conditioner” from hurting their wrists, legs or feet. My technique in this drill was good at first (we exchange alternating strikes and kicks with rotating partners) but worsened as we went on. Apparently after my kicks to the thighs I was steadily moving closer to my partner instead of getting back into Sanchin. My Maai (spacing) was way off and I was using the wrong part of my leg to use to condition my partner. Luckily my partner was Master Folta so I got a good lesson out of it.

My issue with Maai was a product of me not having control over the first battle in Sanchin. I was so focused on kicking to the correct part of the body that I lost sight of my overall focus. I’ve still got a lot of work to do on my Mushin. 

I couldn't find a good picture to demonstrate this so here is a picture of Elvis Presley doing some sparring. Is that a shoken? :-)

Picture found at: Keith Matthews Kenpo Karate.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

All is in Sanchin Book Review: Meditations on Violence by Sgt. Rory Miller

All is in Sanchin Book Review
Meditations on Violence: A Comparison of Martial Arts Training & Real World Violence
Author: Sgt. Rory Miller

There are many interesting Martial Arts (MA) books on the market. I thought about first reviewing a Uechi-ryu book such as The Way of Karate by George Mattson or Karate: A Master's Secrets of Uechi-Ryu by Ihor Rymaruk. As I went through my collection, I began to think “Why do most people train in MA?”. Why do you train? That’s when I knew which book to start with.

Whatever your specific reasons are for training, they will invariably be related to violence. Whether it’s you or someone you know having been bullied, mugged or worse; or simply wanting to learn “self-defense” because of all the local news stories, it all relates to violence.

Sgt. Miller is a corrections officer with years of fighting experience in multiple situations. He does a great job of explaining the different kinds of violence, people’s perceptions of it and how we deal with it afterwards. I appreciate the fact that he states upfront that he is only telling you about his experiences and observations. Take them for what they are and remember that nothing is more important than your own experiences. That said, he does provide useful insights and training for your body and most importantly, your mind.

Many martial artists will take issue with Sgt. Miller’s assertions that MA will really not help you in an “out of the dojo” attack. That your training and mindset are perfect for the controlled environment but not when you are attacked while in a calm, normal state of mind. According to Sgt. Miller’s experience, the “perfect” fighting distance taught in some MA styles rarely happens in real life – in a parking lot, a bar, bus station or in your own home; nor are the situations that some train for very realistic.

Sgt. Rory does not offer any one MA style or ‘way’ of fighting as a solution since none covers everything one needs to know. But he does give great training advice and outlines what kind of training will help prepare you for the types of attacks you may face and the physiological and brain reactions to being attacked unexpectantly. The book categorizes violence into different types with general defenses to combat them. These include training for surprise attacks (though it isn’t really a surprise if you’re expecting it), using confidence and boredom, and knowing when to flee and use counter attacks.

I realized before starting training in Uechi-ryu Karate that it wasn’t going to make me a “kick-ass” fighter like on TV, though I expected to and have learned some great offensive and defensive tools. According to the book, part of the issue with MA is that you usually only work on certain moves and many people going into dojos get their concepts of violence from Jackie Chan and Jason Statham movies. Training with this mindset can be dangerous to yourself and your fellow students. Time and distance are crucial in a fight and the simplest counter attacks are often the most effective.

I do like Sgt. Rory’s insights on the psychological aspects of violence for both the attacker and victim, and of the “Monkey Dance”. I have no real experience in this to the degree he presents but he provoked me into learning more about it. Challenging assumptions is a large part of this book and many of the author’s assertions can be very useful. I saw myself in some of the examples and am trying to improve on the ones I feel I need to work on the most.

So how does Sanchin and Uechi fit into all of this? Opinions differ greatly but this is what I can say.

Honestly I don’t know. I haven’t reached the black belt level. Black Belt training is where you really start getting into the “hardcore” Uechi training. As a 2 Kyu in my school, we do get trained in the basics of striking hard, fast and at your opponent’s weakest area available to you. This training is similar to some of what’s advocated in this book.

Sanchin training conditions your body to at least absorb some blows and protects your core. This may give you the opportunity to quickly counter-strike, get out of the way or run. As for the rest, I will find out more as I progress.

Meditations on Violence is a fresh offering in a sea of self-defense and Martial Arts books. It consists of one person sharing his experiences and observations on the causes of, types of and combating violence. The book has generated discussion on multiple forums and blogs and deservedly so. I agree with much of what is in the book, not all, and believe it should be required reading for all self-defense /martial arts teachers and students. It provides great information, advice and examples. Most of all, it makes you question your assumptions and way of thinking.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Back to Training: Who do you Train With?

Classes started last week after a longer than normal break. Two things stuck out for me.

The first was how much my shoulders were sore the next day. I can't recall doing anything unusual except for some extra sparring drills at the end of class. These worked on covering large distance and speed. The Sanchin testing was not particularly hard either (the shoulder muscles are also tested for tightness, to check your balance and how 'grounded' you are). Spooky.

The second, and more important to me, is even with a relatively small class where the ranks are within 1-2 kyus of each other, we always seem to use the same partner for two-man drills (bunkai, Kyu kumite).

I stood back for a second to see how the dynamics work (who would seek out who) and nothing really changed from last session. This is in spite of our Sensei advocating working with different partners. Working with the same partner over and over may help you prepare for a rank promotion test, but not your overall technique or even your basic ability. It actually hurts your advancement.

These drills aren't going to necessarily help you in an actual ambush or a bar fight, but working with different partners helps you adjust and use you skill in these drills more effectively. If you work with a shorter person, you get used to his or her reach, attack speed, etc. If you suddenly have to work with a taller partner with unknown reach, attack speed, etc, you will get flustered and be more likely to screw up the drill. It's happened with me and I see it with other students too. I am going to try to break this up a bit.

Overall working with different partner types (men v women, tall v short, more experienced v less experienced) will increase your brain's ability to quickly adjust to different 'threats'. Conditioning your brain in this way can be applied to every aspect of your martial art and in life. Most importantly, you learn to react better and this alone could save your behind.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Uechi-ryu Karate vs. Working Out

As I got older and moved on from playing lots of sports like basketball and football and lifting, I gained weight. Lots of it. I did not have the time to go back to playing any team sport and time at the gym ended up being wasted by half-hearted goes at the stair climber, rowing machine, etc.

So I sat around a lot eating in front of the TV at night doing nothing. None of these ways to work out really worked for me.  There was no real incentive for me, it was like I forcing myself to go to a job that I didn’t like. I did make some progress, but it never lasted.

Uechi-ryu, and I imagine most styles of traditional Okinawan karate, really do give you a great overall workout. For example, when I perform the Sanchin, or any kata, “properly”, I am winded. These are pre-arranged movements that don’t last more than a couple of minutes.

When done properly, the practice of Sanchin will give you many benefits. These include everything from core development to efficient breathing, aerobic conditioning, flexibility, muscle toning, coordination, stamina, and overall strength training. And these are just the physical benefits. It sounds like a lot and it is.  This does not come quickly but you feel results within a month.

Additionally your mind becomes more focused on what you are doing at the present and you will become more aware of your surroundings. The military, police and self-defense industry call it situational awareness but it is more than that. It’s also an internal awareness that helps you reach your body’s potential.

Since I have been training in Uechi-ryu, I have noticed that I breathe better all the time, not just when training.  I have lost most of the weight I’ve gained since college and my stamina has increased. Without any weight training, my upper body especially has also become more defined.

The fact that Uechi-ryu is more than picking up street-fighting skills appeals to me and I can combine the different elements to make me a better karate-ka and a more fit person, mentally and physically.

This is a video of Gushi Sensei (10 Dan) performing Sanchin. It is an extreme example, but so are the hotties and studs in the NordicTrack commercials. I do have three of his DVDs, the technique is excellent and he is a great example of getting his body "only" from Sanchin and karate (he told us at a seminar that he never did any weight-training or body building). He conducts seminars around the country at various karate schools.

Note – I now do other exercises to help with my back, flexibility and aerobics. 

Sunday, August 29, 2010

How I found Uechi-ryu

I started studying Uechi-ryu in 2006 when my son, not me, enrolled in a kids class. In my school, the children's curriculum is more about focusing, listening, coordination and confidence. All of which are taken in small steps and kicks, and are measurable.  Not everyone can teach children this and keep their interest going - we were lucky. This is not a "belt factory" for kids. They must really demonstrate knowledge, some history and of course, skill.

I researched many different types of MA styles and schools and made sure to avoid McDojos. I found Uechi-ryu and for the reasons above, chose it. The school is currently run mostly through the Fairfax County Park system with classes at multiple RECenter locations. This helped reassure me that it was respectable.

Parents are encouraged to be in the dojo while the kids are training and actively participate in certain aspects of class and to help ensure their children practice some at home, including performing some of the katas with them.

I began by trying to perform the Sanchin kata with my son. After a few weeks I was hooked. Four years on (minus eight months due to an unrelated back injury) I have reached the level of 2 Kyu. This is two ranks from a black belt. It is not easy and you just don't breeze through the rank promotion tests. I have skipped ranks at lower levels but also failed my first 2 Kyu test. Failing it made me re-focus on the "Mind" part of Sanchin and I set a goal of attaining the rank of 1 Kyu in December. 

It's no guarantee, but you have to set a goal, no matter how small, if you want to reach it. Arigato.

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