Friday, October 20, 2017

Application of Kata

It may be irresponsible as a novice karateka (karate student) to publish writings about martial arts. But, as writing is my best way of interacting with the world, and of processing information, I hope that humbly acknowledging that my understanding is green and limited, I may be able to offer some insights into ideas and situations that others like me may encounter. As I revisit my own experiences, it would be exciting if another instructor were able to extrapolate some useful piece of feedback which enabled them to provide some useful bit of instruction which they had not considered before.

When I write to process information I tend to use big words and complex sentence structures. My fortunate command of grammar and vocabulary in the English language helps me get closer to the most accurate descriptions I can make about what I observed and what I experience. That's not necessarily useful for people who are not usually readers.

When I write to inform or persuade, that is, when I am teaching, my diction and structure become far less complicated. I think for most people it's the other way around, but for me the ability to simplify my thoughts for the sake of communication didn't come until much later in my life. That means, if I am able to write something down simply, I have probably worked hard to process whatever concept I'm trying to deliver.

As I grew up in a complex way, I had to develop complex ways of managing my interaction with a world of experiences far beyond what was appropriate for a person of my age and developmental level. The English language offered tremendous benefits in order for me to be able to describe complex concepts as directly as possible, given how many different words and ways are available for describing any one thing.

Poetry is concerned with the economics of language, with the deliberate manipulation of diction, tone, connotation, and so on. Reading and writing poetry offered sound methods for me to learn to say more, and more directly, by saying less. Library books were free, and thank God they still are. I never would have developed this incredible communication skill had I not accessed those resources.

I'm not sure if my aptitude as a polyglot has anything to do with some sort of linguistic superpower that other people don't have. My absorption of different languages likely came about because the simplicity of fewer words and organized sentence structures offered avenues for me to conceptualize and communicate with others more easily because I simply had fewer words to work with! To this day speaking in a foreign language offers tremendous relief from the stress of trying to communicate what I'm thinking.

If you combine hearing loss, a multilingual word bank, severe isolation during developmental years, and being a highly sensitive person, you have a beautiful recipe for communication challenges. However, I have overcome those challenges one by one using therapeutic, adaptive, and educational methods. It's unbelievable how strong a communicator I am now, but still surprises me how taxing communication truly is.

Communicating in a foreign language, especially in sign language, removes a lot of that pressure because I simply don't have the vocabulary to overcomplicate things in my head before I even stop to think about them! Thank God for small favors!

In the dojo I'm almost completely deaf. I don't strain to lip read as much as I used to because I now have a better understanding of the basics. I can watch and follow with less stress, which opens up intellectual space for me to consider what moves I may need to adapt for my safety and for efficacy. That is, the only language I'm using most of the time is body language. I sometimes forget to speak when I didn't understand or I have a question, which can be a little bit embarrassing, but I have to laugh! That's not the worst problem to have, is it?

All this to say, karate, especially Goju Ryu, has rather an impressive legacy of simplifying and translating karatedo (the way of karate) with clarity while maintaining its original concepts across languages, cultures, and time. That's no small achievement!  Karatedo must survive diverse accents, egos, dialects, wars, natural disasters, economics, and time itself. Higaonna-Sensei has given his entire life to this preservation and proliferation. He is not only a martial arts practitioner, but also a teacher, a communicator, a cultural attaché, a historian, a storyteller, a curator, and an archivist. Imagine what kind of energy it takes to be all of those things? That's, of course, on top of being a husband, father, uncle, community leader, a national cultural treasure, a worldwide hero, a teacher, a friend, and a decent human being? How much does it take out of one person to put a check in every one of those boxes?

No one person could single-handedly accomplish all that, which speaks to the importance of being able to communicate with others, and more importantly, to do so with humility. I imagine that at some point early on, Higaonna-Sensei had to figure this out. It was probably hard to come by this knowledge and it probably hurt. Japan, and particularly Okinawa, carefully protect their cultural legacies of working together with others in order to achieve great things, but everybody has to decide for themselves what that means to them. Higaonna-Sensei humbled himself, collaborated with others, gave them room to work, resources, respect, and gratitude. Learning how to do that isn't easy, whether it's your culture or not.

Imagine the time and energy it would have taken in the 1980s for Higaonna-Sensei to have written out, typed up, edited, published, advertised, and defended a series of books that claimed to preserve the most fundamental concepts of a globally recognized art? Imagine the discourse, the pushback, the edits and revisions, the financial complexities, the communication barriers! Imagine having to interpret, reconcile, translate, and unify these concepts from direct observation, Fujianese, Mandarin, Cantonese, Okinawan, Japanese, English, and beyond, all while running a school and raising young children! That's not to mention maintaining his own health and training!

Communications is a multibillion-dollar business in the Information Age. Higaonna-Sensei did this work without the convenience of modern technology, within modest constraints, and without the ease of instant communication technologies.

If you ever get the opportunity to read his books, please consider these things that I'm sharing. I don't just appreciate these books because I liked Higaonna-Sensei when I met them, or because he's a nice guy, because it feels good to own collectors' items that detail ancient secrets to being a bad dude plain English, complete with photos and diagrams. I appreciate these books because they were produced under tremendous pressure, with modest resources, and they came out pretty darn close to perfectly. How exciting is that!?

Everyone has to move through their own karate journey and make it work. We have to take our abilities, the instruction of our Sensei (head teacher), the guidance of our Senpai (senior students), 

On the Balance of Kata, Bunkai, Kumite, and Iri Kumi

The first iri kumi of a martial artist with disabilities is the battle to seek and find a school and instructor who will take them on, without preoccupation for their disability, their ability, and any perceived potential liability.

At the bottom of this post is a list of people of all sorts of cool abilities. I thought about them during this post and think it will enrich this post if you check out the links.

[Image: a river bank in Japan with trees in the foreground and a stone lantern in the background. Colours are different shades of green under a mid-day overcast sun. Text in picture: "Karate becomes a sport when those who are teaching it forget that it is an art."  -Karate Viewpoints]
[Image: a river bank in Japan with trees in the foreground and a stone lantern in the background. Colours are different shades of green under a mid-day overcast sun. Text in picture:
"Karate becomes a sport when those who are teaching it forget that it is an art."
-Karate Viewpoints]

A facebook thread of friendly  "chest thumping" got unexpectedly philosophical with questions about who is practicing something martial and who is practicing art.

Loosely defined, here is what the words mean from the title of this blog post:
  • Kata - a series of movements commonly referred to as the textbooks of karate
  • Bunkai - ways to use movements from the kata in fighting
  • Kumite - "grappling hands" 
  • Iri kumi - free, controlled exchange of technique, often continuous hard contact

It was said, paraphrased, that those who do not practice iri kumi are not learning to fight, they are learning an art.

For a second, it hurt to think that, if I didn't practice iri kumi I was not practicing the martial part of the art that preoccupies my life. I am used to being told that I am some one way or another, as are most people with disabilities. But the more I thought of other martial artists with disabilities who motivate and challenge me, I became anxious about our inherent right to learn to protect ourselves by any means possible. 

Probably I will spend the rest of my life contemplating the following four questions, on and off again.
  1. Where is there room in how martial arts is defined for different people--from within and from without?
  2. Are people with disabilities who can't regularly practice iri kumi, then, only practicing an art? Is there room (and there may not seem to be) that it may also give them a fighting chance?
  3. Everyone is fighting a battle, and people with disabilities are at constant iri kumi vs. life. But so is everyone else, so how is our existence framed when viewed from the non-martial arts lens?
  4. If I didn't have so many projects already I would take time to to look through my materials and see what Higaonna-Sensei has to say directly about kata, bunkai, kumite, and iri kumi. Beliefs grow and develop over time, like it or lump it, but it will be helpful for me to keep looking both back and forward. Any particular points of interest?

I am especially grateful for every person, group, school, and organization that welcomes students of all ability levels.


People I've thought about during this post:
  1. My Sensei, who took me on and we made a plan to be safe; who requires that I (we) understand the techniques as they were written for able-bodied majority, and that I (we) find adaptive ways to perform techniques effectively at any functional level:
  2. Higaonna-Sensei, who remarked that it looked like I was having fun; who took time to make suggestions about how he would like to see kata and techniques performed.
  3. The ever-growing number of karateka with disabilities in my dojo, which we all celebrate with joy that we can be such a place where all are welcome.
  4. John Marrable-Sensei who paved the way as a Goju Ryu karateka with a visible disability and looks to be absolutely lethal:
  5. Ikkaido Federation
  6. Olando Rivera's Warriors for Autism:
  7. SuperCelu, my hero:
  8. Andrea Harkins, The Martial Arts Woman, who featured my narrative in her first anthology:
  9. Chris De Wet-Sensei, who helps me face the reality that not all experts will have the answers I need, and that I have a responsibility to find those answers for myself, which will empower me to help others grow:
  10. Michael Downs-Sensei who helps me focus on helping others grow by acknowledging both my disabilities and capabilities:
  11. Me (here I am! Hi! I did think of myself.)