Okay, I don’t know what gritty is or how important it is that it be nitty, but part II of our bunkai schmunkai blog involves some things for you to ponder as you learn and practice kata. I, like many of you, am simply a student of the martial arts. The contents of this post mostly represent interpretational theories from others mixed with a few of my own personal views. I present these ideas as a starting place for your own personal exploration of the kata we are taught. As the all-knowing Yogi Berra reportedly once said “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.”
What is the purpose of kata?
Internationally known “bunkaist,” Iain Abernethy, adamantly opposes the idea that kata represents a defense against multiple attackers. I agree with him. Do kata contain techniques useful against multiple attackers? Absolutely. Do kata help you to learn balance, breathing, body weight distribution, footwork, etc. that can be applied in many circumstances? Yep. Does a kata that has the student moving in 8 different directions represent being attacked by 8 different opponents simultaneously? I personally do not promote that view. Multiple attackers are simply not going to stand idly by and wait their turn to attack as you dispatch them one-by-one. Sensei Abernethy notes that his similar conclusions are based on the 1930’s writings of Kenwa Mabuni, founder of Shito Ryu.
To me, kata represent a means for transmitting centuries-old knowledge and techniques. Analysis via repeated practice and refinement helps build a strong body, teach proper balance and footwork, and move technique toward the point of being almost reflexive. To what extent Okinawans used kata to hide the practice and transmission of forbidden arts, I have no idea. Our own dark history of slavery in the United States contains reports of slaves using song in the cotton fields to disguise the transmission of escape strategies and routes. Accordingly, I am content to accept the views of the Okinawan people regarding the marvelous culture they graciously share.
Operating on the premise that kata serve as a means of transmitting knowledge, the question then becomes “what knowledge is being transmitted?”
The Contents of the Kata Vessel
Ever been frustrated when sparring similar-ranked students because they are well versed in many, if not all, the techniques you are attempting to employ? A match becomes like a dogfight between two expert pilots. Maneuvers by one aviator are skillfully matched by counter-maneuvers by the other. Victory often ends up a function of who errs first rather than who knows some super-secret technique.
For now, put aside the imagery of two martial arts masters engaged in battle to the death using kata techniques seeming almost magical to the layperson. Instead, imagine kata as a vessel transporting techniques effective against the most common kinds of attack one would see from the general public. A whole world of analytical possibility presents itself. Huh? While techniques embedded in kata certainly would be effective against another martial arts practitioner under the right circumstances, what happens when you look at kata based responses to how a good old fashion street or bar fight might go down?
A raw, primal attack is likely to involve bear hugs, pushing, attempted throwing, grappling, grabbing, biting, spitting, headlocks etc. Try visualizing kata technique(s) against the different ways you can imagine being attacked on the street. Picture how effective different movements or combinations of movements would be in repelling the attack. “Shawn, you idiot,” you say, “That approach is useless and would take forever. There are almost infinite ways someone could attack you.” I respectfully respond, “idiot maybe, but actually not really on the rest of such assertions.”
Famed karate historian and martial arts practitioner, Patrick McCarthy, developed HAPV theory as a framework for understanding kata. HAPV stands for Habitual Acts of Physical Violence. HAPV theory posits 36 basic ways one may be attacked. While there may be endless examples of how one human being assaults another, Sensei McCarthy feels that any attack simply reflects a variation or combination of one or more of the HAPV. In what he sees as a kind of reverse engineering, Sensei McCarthy analyzes kata techniques in relationship to their effectiveness against one or more of the HAPV/common attack scenarios.
Karate demonstrations beginning with the “please grab my wrist” approach frequently elicit complaints of a lack of a realistic attack applied by a compliant partner. Criticism centers on the idea that such simple “attacks” do not occur in the real world, and never in such a docile manner. Really? Training exercises are just that … training. Slowly, speed and realism are increased as one moves towards full speed and dynamic applications of technique.
Consider. You are involved in a verbal conflict with another human being. As things start to get heated, you decide that violence may occur so you try to walk away. The aggressor then has 3 choices: (a) allow you to walk away – SUCCESS – you avoid physical conflict, (b) the aggressor immediately strikes at you in an attempt to harm you – unlikely if you leave the encounter early on, or (c) the aggressor grabs you in an attempt to keep you engaged in the conflict. Get it? The most likely method to be used by an aggressor intent on escalating the situation is to grab and hold the person who is attempting to leave the conflict. Where is the aggressor likely to grab you to keep you physically present? Your trailing arm or shoulder as you turn to move away. Similar to HAPV approaches, there may be many slight variations, but really there are a finite number of ways one can grab and restrain another. Of course, as we know from our Shorin Ryu training, being grabbed by an attacker is a gift that we will gladly accept and put to use.
Kyusho Jutsu (Pressure Points) and Human Anatomy
Other than having an excellent teacher, my study of human anatomy serves as the single most important aspect of my developing understanding of kata. I am but a tiny grasshopper (figuratively speaking for those who know me). Despite my naivete, I say with certainty that you need to research human anatomy if you are to truly understand the techniques embedded within a kata. By enhancing your understanding of the nervous, musculoskeletal, and circulatory systems of the human body, you will accelerate your understanding of the “secret” hand positions, striking patterns, and target choices “hidden” within a kata.
Sometimes we bombard our Sensei with questions based on ultimately meaningless details. “Sensei, what is the significance of wiping the sweat from your brow with your left hand on Tuesday, but with your right on Wednesday?” With the exception of such an absurd exaggeration, look at kata as containing virtually no useless movements. For example, the first thing I always consider when receiving a correction on wrist angle or hand position is “where does the correct position put my knuckles, fingertips and grip.” Perhaps you were hoping for something less obvious and more insightful. Very well. “On what pressure point, nerve cluster, artery, vein, or anatomically weak point of the body does a correctly positioned hand land and with what effect?” Am I still wasting your time?
Okay. Have you ever wondered why backfist strikes in certain kata seem to target much lower than the temple or chin? Have you have ever been told the strike is too high and needs to involve just a little bit more of a backwards bend on the wrist. Perhaps such a strike is targeting the superficial branch of the radial nerve. Look at the two diagrams of the radial nerve presented here.
It is not coincidence that certain katas or independently presented techniques teach using a knuckle or other bone to strike where the radial nerve crosses over bones “connecting” the elbow and wrist joints. Pinching a nerve between a bone and a hard object delivers fabulous sensations with interesting effects. Just think about how banging your funny bone really is not funny at all (different nerve, same concept). If you were already aware of all such things, do you know why striking the forearm point mentioned in just the right way causes your opponent’s knees to buckle?
Still find anatomy to be boring or unimportant? We know the neck and head are packed with vital target areas – no secret there. But do you know what baroreceptors are and what techniques target them?
Baroreceptors are like sensors that provide feedback to the brain on blood pressure. Striking the carotid sinus area in the correct manner tricks the baroreceptors into mistakenly telling the brain blood pressure is spiking dangerously. The brain then sets in motion a series of events designed to lower blood pressure immediately and to restore balance. The rapid drop in blood pressure, and the events associated with it, cause fainting/knock out or worse. Such strikes are very dangerous and should not be practiced except under the supervision of a qualified instructor. They are discussed here for information purposes only and to convey that kata is not simply a collection of graceful motions.
So, spend some time researching Traditional Chinese Medicine, acupuncture, and basic 21st century anatomy resource materials. Such knowledge could be extraordinarily useful to you in understanding certain parts of kata. In the example of the baroreceptors above, think of all the kata that have multiple, consecutive hand blocks. Challenge assumptions of what each component of a hand block technique might represent including what part of the technique, if any, actually represents a block at all.
When one delves into the connections between kata and anatomy, the knowledge possessed in 14th century China, and later Okinawa, is truly mind-blowing. And perhaps a blown mind is a great place to end this second installment of bunkai schmunkai. In the coming third and final installment, we will look at a schmorgesborg of practical theories for interpreting kata. Stay tuned for angles of attack, hikite, turns, and much, much more.