Friday, July 17, 2015

Strong technique - fluid transitions.

Not a contradiction, but rather compliment each other.

In Shotokan karate we strive for the beauty of one finishing blow technique (Todome), one of the unique aspects of our karate is kime (mental and physical focus), or how to to deliver the total energy of the whole body, in the shortest instant, to intended line of energy at impact.

Shotokan karate is known for powerful technique, at the same time when making strong kime it is easy to lose the smooth transition and fluidity. This is dangerous because if we miss or not finish the fight with one technique, than there will be a qio, space for the opponent to catch us, or at the least, we could miss the chance.
The kata stresses the importance of smooth transition after kime, most of the techniques in kata are from kime to next action, and not from kime into freestyle kamae, and this is because of the danger at the moment of kime, since if I am at good distance for my technique so is my opponent.

Strong kime does not have to contradict smoothness, moreover, properly executed kime should be the best condition and starting point for next technique.

There are 2 most important elements at the moment of kime: 1. Pressure to floor. 2. Total body contraction, in shortest time to line of technique.

Both those elements help us with force production and delivery, transfer of total energy in shortest time, shocking power.

But at the same time, pressure to floor is potential energy, and contraction is potential energy as well, since muscles are like springs.
When we make kime and deliver energy, we are recharging at the same time. The more complete the kime the better the preparation.

Using the breath, we control the pressure to floor and contraction, and using the breath, we can control when to release the energy we store within kime to next action.
The breath is the trigger, the muscles follow the breath.

One idea is to sometimes practice, not thinking of pressure and contraction for kime, but rather, think of pressure and contraction as preparation for next technique.
This kind of training will also reduce excess tension from the kime, and will make both the kime and the preparation/transition, more effective.
One of the reasons for loss of fluidity is too much tension at kime in the wrong places. Yes, contraction is an important element in kime, but it has to be the right contraction, complete, yet without excess, from the inside out, and it has to have elasticity within it, it cannot appear “stiff”. (this is a discussion for another day).
When you can make strong kime and smooth, fluid transition, your kata should be without holes, an on looker should not be able to find space to attack you in the kata.
In Tai Chi Chuan they say that at the limit of softness come hardness, and at the limit of hardness come softness, this is a great way to describe the smooth transition from time to movement and vice versa.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Mind like Ice, Spirit like Fire

This is one of my favorite Budo quotes, describing the optimal mindset for fighting/self defense. One must keep the mind calm and the spirit strong, however the mind must not be carried away by the spirit and vice versa.

The other day in class, during a timing drill I mentioned the importance of this mental mode in order to apply techniques effectively. Michael asked me after class, “how do we develop this kind of mental mode?” The answer is complex, some people are innately more calm under pressure, and some people naturally have a stronger spirit, but karate gives us tools to develop those attributes. There is no magic, but rather a process that is already built in to our training method.

Hard training makes confidence, confidence allows for stable emotions.

Mind like ice means stable emotions. When we train hard, we develop confidence in our technique's effectiveness, and confidence makes stable emotion.

It is not only hard training but how we train:
Feet make top technique, action from feet, feet are the “boss”. Through kata and basics, we learn to initiate any action from the feet and to allow the feet to “make decisions.” We follow the opponent’s rhythm with the feet, react with the feet, fake with the feet, and seize the moment with the feet.

So rather than our brain making decisions, the feet do, preventing over-information, hesitation and doubt, which in turn allows for stable emotions. Of course the feet cannot actually make decisions, but allowing the feet to react allows us to trust our feeling, intuition, and experience.

The brain is engaged but is not over analyzing and interfering which would block us from seeing information and subtle cues that are hard to see if we get stuck in details.

If a person does not have the skill of making the movement from the ground up, we cannot even begin to talk about reacting from the feet or the feet “making decisions”.
Making action from the feet is a very physical skill that sets the optimal mental mode.
Breath from low abdominals controls the body center and maximizes ground reaction forces by applying pressure and twisting to the ground. Our main power is from the body center by means of body dynamics and internal muscles action, but this power is only effective when ground reaction forces are maximized.

At an advanced level, there is only breath and intention. All the details will happen by themselves, leaving our brain free from those details that keep us busy as beginners.
In addition, the breath from the body center interacts with the feet to maximize use of ground reaction. It is really the breath that initiates the feet and allows the feet to be the “boss.” It is the breath that makes reaction and initiates our techniques.

If the breath rises to the chest, we cannot controls our body center or feet. This happens when we are over excited and lose stable emotions, but in if we can keep the breath in the center it allows us to keep stable emotions and remain mentally as well as physically centered.

It is through basic training and gradual increase of stimuli in kumite that we learn to keep our breath in the center, and our body center as the decision center.

Eyes back, is a postural direction, which has both mental and physical implications. Mentally it allows the eyes to “monitor” and “observe”, so the brain is in a “wide perception” mode rather than “narrow focus” mode. This mode allows the mind to be like “ice”, emotionally stable and calm. It also allows us to give everything to the technique, to have “no mind in the technique”, avoiding the alternative of holding back or hesitating.

Strong spirit has to be distinguished from emotions, it is will-power, determination, and commiting, giving everything in each action.
Being able to give everything in a technique is both a mental and physical attribute.
It takes specific training to teach the nervous system  to recruit maximum motor units in shortest time. In order to achieve that we need some periods of maximal speed and intensity training. We have to teach the muscles to relax in order to achieve maximal contraction, the goal is maximal rate and range of muscles contraction relaxation.

Optimal form, posture, and alignment are crucial to preventing injuries as we develop higher intensity. It is when we give all the breath that we are giving everything mentally and physically.

When we practice basic techniques we teach the whole body to cooperate to one purpose, but at the same time by coordinating the intention and breath with the outer action and muscles action we learn to give our mind away, to not hold back anything in our technique.
Learning to have our full intention, breath and muscles 100 %, is much harder than just coordinating the body.

Sensei Nishiyama used to persist on giving 100% in every technique, if you train one hour or five, six hours. If you train many hours, obviously not all your techniques will be explosive, but even when you go slow, there should be full intention and purpose in every action.

Becoming sloppy will make your spirit weak, while being present will develop a strong spirit.  
I also believe that training hard and never giving up, overcoming whatever obstacles life puts in front of us, is a big part in developing this spirit. I believe in giving everything, in the right moment, regardless of outcome.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Alignment, health, performance

The way you move and align yourself will influence weather or not you will have musculoskeletal pain as you grow older and how severe.
It is also important in how good of an athlete you will be, you cannot put yourself in weird alignments and expect optimal performance.

Dr. Shirley Sahrmann (Washington University Physical Therapy)

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Does Repetition Make Perfect?

One of the characteristics of karate training is repetitions of basics, Sensei Nishiyama used to start the class with hundreds of kizami/gyaku zuki followed by hundreds of kicks.
Some researchers believe that it takes about 10,000 repetitions in any art or sport to achieve mastery or expert level of technique.
Repetitive practice makes the difference between a world class athlete and the rest.
With each repetition we are wiring the nervous system, creating connections and patterns, and the more repetition the more myelin, which is an insulation substance, covers those pathways (Axons). Myelin allows for signals to travel faster and more efficiently through the pathways. Much like a broadband internet connection vs dial up.
The faster and more precise those signals travel through pathways, the more ability to accomplish complex tasks.
In a well train person the myelin allows the signals to travel through the pathways up to hundred times faster.
The karate person neural pathways for specific skills are turning into superhighways through repetition training.

The problem is if the repetitions are not quality repetitions, if we repeat the wrong way, we are creating the wrong circuitry, and once our nervous system is wired it will be more difficult to undo and relearn.
If one is to repetitively initiate techniques from the arms rather from feet and body center, if one is getting used to chest breathing rather than abdominal breath, or if one is consistently moving from a faulty posture, it will take a lot more effort and awareness to undo and make good techniques.
I know it from my own experience, since high school I was training 3 hours a day, doing lots of repetition, but without guidence or feedback, just imitating the form. When I came to study with Sensei Nishiyama, after the first lesson he told me to put a white belt on, and for the next 7 months, 6 hours a day, I was just correcting, undoing my bad habits, til he awarded me a black belt again.

You see if you have the best hardware, the best computer, it will function and give only as good results as the software you install in it.
Like wise, no matter how fit and athletic one is, if the quality of the patterns installed in the nervous system is low, one can never use their full potentials.
Our purpose in karate is to make most efficient use of the human body and mind, the whole body should cooperate to one direction in each technique. As sensei Nishiyama used to say: “What is the points of having 8 cylinder car if you can use only 2 cylinders? must use all 8”.

This is why understanding the theory is important, theory is like roadmap, it gives us direction and we must find a way to receive feedback.
Merely imitating the form is not sufficient, form is symbol of principles, it is meant for us to dig in and discover the underlying principles behind karate techniques, and then install those principles into our nervous system through repetitions.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Bypass the brain in karate and in soccer. Study shows Neymar is “bypassing the brain” as we teach in karate.

My good friend from Lithuania, Modestas Tursa, sent me an interesting article about the brain activity of soccer star Neymar during complex movements.
In karate we constantly talk about “bypassing the brain”, using the breath to make decisions (along with past experiences and proper wiring of the nervous system).
We stress that the brain has to be quiet during the many decisions and lot of information that we have to process in very short time.
Judgement, analyzing in intense situations when a lot of factors are involved and decisions has to be made quickly cause doubt, hesitation and conflict in ourselves.
The brain monitors, is aware of all the actions and the information, but once strategy is decided and interaction starts, the choices of action are subconscious, which is the only way to flow and be ahead of the opponent, leading the action, it is as the action is done for us.
“It is done for us” is not magic, it is experience and proper movement patterns acquired through quality training, along with the intuition we “allow” to take over by avoiding brain interference.

This low activity of the brain is beneficial to any sport when many decisions have to be made in a short time. I do not believe that in soccer quiet brain is taught systematically, but in karate the method is passed from generation to generation, we have a system by which anyone can attain this state of mind, I believe.

Brazilian superstar Neymar's brain activity while dancing past opponents is less than 10 percent the level of amateur players, suggesting he plays as if on autopilot, according to Japanese neurologists.

Results of brain scans conducted on Neymar in February this year indicated minimal cerebral function when he rotated his ankle and point to the Barcelona striker's wizardry being uncannily natural.
"From MRI images we discovered Neymar's brain activity to be less than 10 percent of an amateur player," researcher Eiichi Naito told AFP on Friday.
Naito concluded in his paper that the test results "provide valuable evidence that the football brain of Neymar recruits very limited neural resources in the motor-cortical foot regions during foot movements".

Naito told Japan's Mainichi Shimbun newspaper: "Reduced brain activity means less burden which allows (the player) to perform many complex movements at once. We believe this gives him the ability to execute his various shimmies."

Friday, July 4, 2014

Body Mechanics, but First a Little bit of Physics: By David Schames

(David Schames is my student for the last 10 years, since he was 16, very smart and also powerful, we have had  interesting discusiions about karate principles, so I asked him to put his thoughts in writing, and here is part 1)  
Nature often follows predictable paterns.  Here is a formula that describes “The Big One”:  F=ma
The equation “Force equals mass times acceleration” is useful because of a key pattern in nature.
There is no such thing as a force in nature and it cannot be measured directly with any tool.  Force is an extremely useful manmade concept to keep track of what is happening in the natural world we live in. There is a pattern in nature that when two objects interact and one changes velocity the other object changes velocity in a predictable way.  If object 1 interacts with object 2 and experiences a change in velocity, (delta V1), then object 2 will change velocity in an opposite direction proportional to the ratio of the mass of object 1 to the mass of object 2.  The change in velocity is known as acceleration, and the equation is M1 x A1 = -M2 x A2. Because of this pattern in nature, we call mass times acceleration a force to better keep track of what is happening when objects interact with each other.
The human body is designed to function in the natural world and our bodies are designed to move, and change the things around us.  The better a man’s posture is, the more able he is to move efficiently and change the world around him.  In general, our legs interact with the floor and move our body, and our hands grab things we want to move and apply force moving our center as we move the object we are grabbing.  The bigger a man is, the more he can accelerate an object he is grabbing before the object and the body is at a distance not ideal for applying force using muscles.
In karate we position our body position so that when the striking fist decelerates during a striking technique; our hands will decelerate our whole body and therefore resist decelerating itself.  We can apply force from the ground to our center pushing the center in the direction that we intend on striking. When the strike connects with a vital target on the opponent, our fist decelerates relative to the rest of our body and our muscle transfer the forces in a safe way.   
Meanwhile from the opponents perspective, the vital organ that was struck accelerates relative to the rest of the opponents body and the vital organ transfers the forces through to the rest of the body in an unsafe way causing damage.  
If the force pushing the center forward equals the force pushing the center back, the center does not change velocity and the body can stay in an ideal distance to apply force. This position is also the ideal starting position for the next move. This is what we strive for during kime.
The energy needed to stop a moving mass equals  ½ M x V^2 so if the center is moving fast, and is completely decelerated to zero velocity when the fist hits a target, then the energy delivered into the target is proportional to the mass of the center and proportional to the square of the velocity of the center.  The fist hits the target and slows down the body center over the time of the collision.  At this same time, the feet can push the floor and accelerate the body center adding more energy that is delivered into the target.

Saturday, May 31, 2014


Form is limitation, a necessary limitation, therefore ultimately we should be free of form. Being free of form mentally and physically will allow us to flow, adopt, and apply our techniques within any space, angle or instant in time, and from any starting position.
With that said, if a beginner starts training without form, they will not likely learn to use the body effectively or develop good timing.
Form is a vehicle to achieve no form, but with the principles and skills that allow one to be effective.
Ultimately, we want to be like a child who's mind and body are free from patterns, habits and preconceived idea, yet with the skills that make our techniques and timing effective.
It is true with other knowledge as well, a child mind is free and unpatterned, but once the child learn and accumulate knowledge, they grow up to becomes less flexible and more dogmatic. The engineer that is creative and able to innovate, is the one who is able to have balance between knowledge and a mind that is free and formless like a child.
I heard about interesting experiment, when preschoolers were asked to find as many uses as possible to paper clips, 98% of them perform at a level of genius, the same kids 2 years later, as they became more schooled and knowledgeble, became less creative and 2 years later even worst. 
The highest level martial artist is the one that digested the principles but keep a mind of a beginner or a child. 

Strict Form
In karate we are very strict about precise form, especially at the novice level.
The natural question arises, why are we so stubborn about precise form if it restricts you, a strict form cannot be adopted to changing spaces and time?
Of course, in reality, in real application one must be adaptable, and be able to apply techniques effectively in different ranges and angles, adapting to unexpected circumstances.
No one can use Age Uke or Gedan Barai in real sparring in the same way that we learn it in the basics, in fact, some beginner black belts with very good kata, will have hard time doing kumite, because they try to apply the techniques in a rigid way, like in the basic and kata.

What is basic form?
Best condition for the purpose, including stance, posture, technique trajectory, and line of energy which is included in the final form.
For example, we say “attack from own center to opponent center, and in between movement do not show your center”.
For blocking we say “protect your own center (don’t go after opponent’s technique)”, “minimize circle, think of a straight line with a curve, to create side line energy”.
We also have a clear standard for certain technique. For example, in Age Uke, center of the wrist should be in line with center of head, and one fist forward and up from the forehead; the elbow should be at ear level and inside the body line. In Shuto Uke, the hand travels from the shoulder to the opposite shoulder line, elbow movement is minimal and elbow points down, when elbow stops it serves as a center of action to elbow extension, and forearm snap at the elbow.

Why is precise form so important?
Remember that the purpose of karate technique, is to produce maximum force with least effort, and the whole body must cooperate to one purpose.
If Age Uke is different every time in the basics, if our imagination, mental picture of what our body is doing, or our techniques are not matching, and if the purpose of what we are doing is not clear, it will be very hard to learn to use the whole body effectively for one purpose.

The basic form is configured to give best condition of mechanical advantage, where it is easiest to learn and internalize principles such as proper sequencing, body dynamics, connection between all body segments, moving from optimal posture, breathing controls and matches technique.

In basic form we perform techniques in biggest functional range, which improves our resilience to injuries and allow us to develop control of power through the full range, and from there we can more easily develop power in shorter ranges.

The ultimate, No Form, not sloppy, do not violate the principles learned from form.
Once we digest the principles, and we “own” the technique, our nervous system is wired to move from the center out and from the ground up, and produce maximal force to many directions, we can and should break away from form and apply techniques freely according to changing circumstances, as long as we don’t violate the underlying principles that we were supposed to learn by training the basic form and techniques.
In application the same technique will be applied differently every time.
Both your mind and movement should be formless and flowing, so one can become the opponent, and apply techniques without fighting the opponent’s power.
At this level, whatever direction your intention is directed, the whole body will produce power effectively to that line.
There is no thought of form, just breathing hits target and the muscles follow.
But there are stages to get to this level.
Form is necessary as it is a mean to learn movement and combat principles transmitted through many generations, while at the same time it is a limitation if one try to use the form as is.
Be precise when you do kata, and be free and flowing when you do kumite (but without getting sloppy), the principles the kata teach us should be applied fully  in kumite.
Sensei Nishiyama told me that at the begining one should perform the kata precisely and rigidly, (rigidly does not mean stiff, but exact, without deviations). He compared it to a figure of clay that its shape cannot be changed, and as one master the underlying principles of the kata, he can make the kata his/her own, he can be free with the kata, and Sensei Nishiyama compared this to a lively, flexible doll, whose shape can be changed freely.
And then again, when one teaches the kata to a beginner, teach it in the original, strict form as has been transmitted through many generations. 

Notice in pictures below:
Techniques are as big as possible without exposing the center line of the body or disconnect body segments.
Elbow moves minimally in Uke Waza.
When elbow reaches full range, snap action starts (elbow extension and forearm twist) with elbow being action center.
Protect center line and attack from center to center of opponent.

Gedan Barai fist starts from shoulder and travels to opposite hip level, elbow moves minimally, and ends inside hip line.

Gyagu Zuki from own center to opponent's center, and in between do not show your center.
Uchi Uke - fist travels from hip to opposite shoulder, at end, knuckles at shoulder level, elbow inside hip line.
Area near the wrist is contact area.

Shuto Uchi - Hand travel from ears, than elbow through the body, elbow stops in front of the body and serves as action center to the hand which travels in a curve to make side line energy, without over exposing the body center, or lose of unity.