Discussing the importance of form

After reading a comment by Jon Law (of Epic Martial Arts Blog) in one of my previous posts, I had a look through some of the recent posts on his blog and noticed that form was being discussed, particularly with reference to the “form police”, who if I’m understanding it correctly (and Jon, correct me if I’ve messed this up!) are the group who, commenting from a traditional martial arts perspective, take pride in their high degree of anal retentivity when it comes to correct form in the dojo/training hall/etc.

Personally, I think that I tend to sit more within the “form police” than the other side of the argument. This doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the extreme effectiveness that modern styles with less emphasis on form than the traditionalists, like MMA, or styles like Muay Thai, Keysi or even Krav Maga bring to the table of martial arts in contemporary society – I’ve seen some of these at work (though not in person – only in video form), and the sheer power that these accomplish is nothing to be snuffed at.

Rather, I find the importance placed on form in traditional martial arts, especially if you have a good instructor who will also question the rational behind form in an effort to continue with their lifelong learning of martial arts, is a key point about them, and that there is a great deal of benefit to it. I’ve found the the emphasis on form is essential to learning the delicate art of control in your chosen form of martial art. Standing in funny stances with plenty of minute correction is one of the cornerstones of my road to understanding the inherent functions of my body, especially with regards to my physical disability. A lot of what I discussed in an earlier post, I believe, can be attributed to my constant drive to better my form, and the emphasis on form in class.

Being interested in Japanese society, culture and history is another reason I enjoy learning karate, and the emphasis on anal retentivity when it comes to form is something I therefore appreciate as a piece of cultural inheritance. The fusion between the Ryukyu attitude to martial arts and “traditional” Japanese budo, especially in a revisionist sense since the “birth” of the contemporary shotokan model occurred post-Meiji where the interpretation of traditional values were being adapted to meet the needs of Japanese modernisation, comes through in the way karate is taught. What some see as frustrating, I see as a reflection of this foreign culture I continue to hold an interest in, so there’s another reason why I’m a proponent of form.

Control, in and of itself, is also an important benefit derived from good form. Control in the sense of controlling the level of contact or impact (important in a self defense situation if you happen to get hauled into court I imagine, as well as sparring in class), and control in terms of accuracy. In the recent seminar I attended, I was amazed at how easily and accurately specific points on the body were demonstrated in order to maximise the effectiveness of the technique. This ensured that not only was the strength and power behind the blow sufficiently powerful, but that the total accuracy of the attack to specific nerve clusters would add even greater potency to the technique. Granted, it takes a very large amount of time and skill to get to this degree of proficiency, but it’s an important point nonetheless.

But to counter this, there should also be an understanding of the difference between form in class, and the application of your technique in a “real-world” scenario. If someone comes at you with the intent to harm you, there’s little point dropping into zenkutsu-dachi; I imagine it would be far better to shorten your stance and work from there.

Which brings the question, in the context of this example – why emphasise low stances (i.e. form) to such a degree if its not useful in a combat situation? While I don’t have all the answers, my gut feeling is that the principles remain the same – draw your power from the ground and maintain stability, and the extra conditioning you endure whilst doing proper low stances ensures a great level of application of the same techniques when in a shorter, more practical stance. Therefore, attention to form has been instrumental in enhancing your real-world combative technique.

Even in saying all of this, how I would use techniques in a self-defense scenario reveals a bit of a dichotomy – if I kicked with my real leg, there’s little point in MT-style round kicks as I lack the hip motion, so I would use front and side snap kicks or thrust kicks learned through attention to proper form. If I kicked with my prosthesis I loose muscular accuracy and control, which means my most effective technique would be to emphasise more or a MT-style kick where I sacrifice control/form for raw power.

But still, if it weren’t for the emphasis on perfecting my form from early on (and continuing to do so), I wouldn’t have the level of mastery I currently have over my body. And whose to say I still don’t have so much more to learn now that I’m on this path? I’m in this for the long run, so we’ll see where I end up.

With all this being said, I’d like to emphasise that none of this intended to disrespect any other martial art, or to call any other style “wrong” or “inferior” – I believe that we can all learn from our many varied experiences, and how one person learns a martial art may well be fundamentally different to another. Just take myself for example – how many other martial artists are out there are training with one leg; have a fascination with Japanese society, culture and history; enjoy the slow process of burning away the imperfection to remain with a perfectly formed core; and nerd it up on the internet with a blog? So, for me personally, I cannot over-emphasise that working towards perfect form is an inherent rationale behind my training. At the same time, I respect those who criticise the overly judicious proponents of the argument that form is everything because it does not fit with your attitude or approach to martial arts or self-defense.

Of course, to temper these two views is the extent to which form should be emphasised, which I’ve addressed in part. I realise that form is still a part of any fighting system (otherwise its likely that it wouldn’t be a “system”), but traditional martial arts tend to place a greater emphasis (or anal retentivity) on form versus practical application of a technique. It’s an at-times delicate balance, and while I’ll tend to slide more towards greater form, I still respect those who go the other direction, because their reasons behind their training are very likely to be different from mine. And you know what? That’s fine by me.

Wow, this was only meant to be a short blog, but I’ve rambled on for much longer than I expected!!! I can only hope I don’t change my mind on the whole form thing in a few years – anyone who wants to have a dig at my change in opinion will have a brilliant little example to ridicule me with if so by bringing up this post 🙂 See, there’s another thing – there weren’t anywhere near enough smiley faces in this blog also, so here’s another one 😛 Thanks again to Jon for writing some excellent posts on the topic and inadvertently encouraging me to write this post! Hopefully my jumbled rambling makes some sense to someone else apart from me!!!


Learning kata

I’ve been reading through some different martial arts blogs of late, inspired by some of the comments I’m getting from the wider community on my blog (super props to Black Belt Mama, as I’m pretty sure I can thank her for the recent attention!). I came across an excellent blog on BBM’s website by guest blogger Matthew Apsokardu (of Ikigai | Blogging the Martial Way) about control in martial arts (an excellent topic I’m keen to write about, but I’ll save that for another time), and from there I jumped onto his blog and read up on his post about learning kata.

Personally, I have a real love-hate relationship with kata. I’m typically slow to learn kata, and I find the initial process very defeating as I stumble through the movements. That being said, I’m sure my ultra level of unco is probably very amusing to watch, but nonetheless, it isn’t all that productive 😛

However, once I get the basic pattern down and start refining the technique, I absolutely love it. I also find that learning some of the bunkai as you go makes a huge difference in understanding what you’re doing (something emphasised by last week’s seminar), as it gives context to get a greater visualisation of what you’re trying to achieve. There’s something about getting to the heart and soul of kata that is extremely rewarding, even if I’ve only worked on relatively simple kata given the highest I’ve ever gotten to in either style of karate I’ve trained in is 6th kyu.

But back to kata – I’m currently learning heian nidan, which I’m finding to be quite enjoyable as it incorporates some very different techniques than you often encounter in your basic drills. The amount of shuto in the kata was initially a bit off-putting since my shuto is a bit rubbish (I blame my crappy stances :P), but I’m finding that by doing the kata, my shuto is gradually improving.

But to bring this rant back to some focus and Matthew’s blog, I was reading his excellent post on learning kata faster, and there are some really good pointers in there if, like me, you’re prone to temporary idiocy when learning a new kata 😛 I’ve actually picked up heian nidan much faster than I normally pick up a new kata, and I’ve found that some of the things I’ve been doing to help remember it are a lot of the principles Matthew discusses in his post. I’m going to keep it bookmarked so I can keep referring to it when I start to push beyond memorisation to technical execution of my current kata, and refer to it again when I learn my next kata following my next successful grading.

Still, I’ve been thinking – I should start throwing in more kata practice between classes, as I want to refine my technique and be able to progress at a good pace and training this only in class probably isn’t enough. We’ll see how I go.


Magic mud

So, looks like there was another good reason to hold off on training last night, as my knee started playing up again (not my fake one, the real one :P). My knee typically gives me some trouble from time to time due to the extra work it has to do in supporting my body, and I think getting up after all the breakfalls last week pushed it a little further than usual. So, I thought I’d share a secret that may be a load of hogwash, but it seems to work a charm for me.

When Wifey and I were honeymooning in New Zealand a few years back, we came across this Deep Heat kinda stuff – it’s called “Therapeutic Mud” or something like that, smells a bit like Deep Heat, but apparently uses the thermal mud from Rotorua in the mix. We picked some up while we were over there as Wifey had mangled her ankles from all the walking around we were doing (though it probably didn’t help that she was wearing boots with massive heels on them from time to time if I remember correctly ;)), and the stuff worked extremely well. So, a while back I started using the mud on sore muscles – one time after a particularly heavy weights session both my arms seized up overnight and I couldn’t bend them from the elbow. Added some mud, and in a few days they were right as rain, and in the interim it took away the immediate pain I was getting from them. I’ve also noticed it has a beneficial effect on my knee when it gets a bit achy – sometimes I’ll do it as a precaution after a heavy training session, and sometimes I do it if there’s some general aching (like last night). To be honest, I really should have used some after the breakfall training last week as a preventative act, but was feeling lazy when I got home and didn’t. Hopefully I’ll remember to do the right thing next time 😛

I’ve only ever found it in NZ, and when my folks went there in 2007 (or was it last year?), we had them bring back a couple of tubes of the stuff for us. If people are genuinely interested, I’ll take a photo of it and post some details. Like I said, it may be all in my head, but I’ve found it does wonders for me, much better than actual Deep Heat or some of the other anti-inflammatory gels I’ve used in the past.

I should also start making regular trips to the physio to try and keep the knee in good order – I remember when I first started having knee troubles back in 2004 after I fell down the stairs in our townhouse that the improvement was huge after I saw a physio who used a combination of acupuncture and ultrasound (I think it was ultra sound, my memory’s hazy :P) on my knee. Ah well, I’m sure one day I’ll get off my behind and start 🙂


Learning to walk again through karate

Normally I’d be gearing up to train about now, but I was falling asleep at my desk, so I’m home taking it easy and having an early one tonight. This will likely ensure I get paid out next week at training, but that’s fair enough 😛 Ever since I injured myself through lack of concentration due to sleepiness at training a few years back, I’m always hesitant to train if I’m feeling particularly knackered, so I err on the side of caution these days 😛 Anywho, I digress…

Today I wanted to talk about how doing karate has, for me, taught me how to walk again. This may be a bit of a misnomer, as some may think that doing martial arts was part of my rehabilitation post-amputation; it isn’t, as I had my leg amputated when I was a baby, so I learned to walk as a kid. What I’m getting at is how karate has taught me how to walk *again*.

I’ll explain – as an amputee, you compensate for the lack of muscle movement and control as much as possible. For a below-knee amputee, they utilise their existing knee to a greater degree than an able-bodied person would in order to compensate for the lack of movement you normally derive from your ankle, and the act of shifting pressure and distribution of weight you use the various muscles in your foot for. A below-knee amputee with a good gait can obtain quite a high degree of movement from mastering the use of their prosthesis and their remaining muscles – I’ve seen some footage of Ron Mann doing some work with pads and a bag, and the guy’s awesome despite being a below-knee amputee (if you’re interested in reading more, I’ve linked to his MySpace site and blog on my side panel).

For above-knee amputees, it’s a little different. We have to use our hips to compensate for the lack of a knee, and rely on our stump to pick up the remaining walking motion with our gait. I was watching on… Enough Rope with Andrew Denton a few years back, where they had an above-knee amputee and a below-knee amputee on the show talking about their conditions. It was the first time I’d heard amputees from both sides of the spectrum talk about their conditions, and I didn’t realise that above-knees had to put a higher amount of energy into their gait to achieve the equivalent movement that a below-knee would. That would explain why I look a bit unco compared to the likes of Ron!

Anywho, the preamble is meant to set up discussion on walking. So, as an above-knee amputee with a reasonably good gait for my condition to begin with, my typical method for walking was to simply plod around the place without paying much attention to how I walked, except to try and minimise the limp 😉 However, over the years I’ve found that I have gradually evolved my complete method of walking. I’m no longer plodding around – instead, I’ve learned to use my remaining leg to a much greater degree to assist me in walking. Before where I’d simply walk or plod everywhere, I now use my calf muscles, knee, ankle and all the muscles running along my foot and in my toes to walk with far more control and less tension. Instead of each stepping-phase being a case of stepping with my right foot, step with the left and try and match up as the body falls forward as fast as practical, I can now take measured action preceding the step with my prosthesis, gently arc my body over my center line, and gently ease myself into the next step.

Karate has also had an immeasurable improvement with balancing on my left leg. Walking as an amputee is kinda like walking on slits; the extra problem you get as an above knee is that your stilt has a free-swinging hinge in the middle of it, and the wrong move will see you fall over in a dramatic, if not amusing, fashion. From doing karate, I’ve gradually improved the ability to balance myself on my left leg, move my center of balance, and be able to control my body by twisting myself while pivoting on my artificial foot. The simple act of kicking with my real leg and holding myself up with my prosthesis has meant that I’ve gradually enhanced my balance as a general rule, but particularly on the fake leg.

The end result, as far as walking goes, is that I have a two-pronged attack on my previous method of walking – my control has become far greater with my real leg, and I have learned “flexibility”, enhanced balance and more control over my prosthesis, meaning that I can walk in a way that places less strain on my body while achieving a far superior gait.

So my advice for other amputees out there is to give martial arts a go – it will be hard work training your body to work with your prosthesis, but if you can stick with it, the results are not only beneficial for all the usual reasons (fitness, confidence, self defense), but it will also assist in the most basic of movements – walking.

So there we go, I’ve made a contribution that should ease my guilt for not being at training tonight 🙂


Kata applications seminar

Last night I attended my first martial arts seminar, in this case looking at kata applications from a traditional Okinawan/Ryukyu perspective. The seminar was run by Renshi Jason Grifiths and organised by Sensei, and proved really interesting and worthwhile. Renshi is a student of Hanshi Patrick McCarthy, and Sensei has told us plenty about their training and background in class, so it was awesome to be able to have a training session with him. If you’re interested in checking out some of Hanshi’s work, Sensei posted a link to some videos on YouTube – click here to check them out. I haven’t taken the time to check them out yet, but I’ll have a look over the weekend to see how the contents from the training seminar might be reflected in the videos he’s posted.

Renshi had an interesting training background – akin to the adventures of Robert Twigger (see Angry White Pajamas, which is an excellent read BTW), he trained full-time and shared a place with his training partners while living in Japan. Definitely the old-school martial arts dream, and you could see how his dedication to his art was reflected in his form and knowledge – in addition to his amazing technique and form, his knowledge of how to manipulate the human anatomy and pressure points was an eye-opener. Once again, it shows that kata applications can be directed and transformed into incredibly focused, effective and direct practical application.

But I think I’m getting ahead of myself 😛 This was the first martial arts training seminar I’d attended, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. I rolled up a little bit early, did a bit of stretching and joined in on the conversation before class started. After warming up, Renshi started on the theoretical side of things whilst demonstrating the practical application on Sensei. We then partnered up for the rest of the evening, starting out with simple drills and gradually adding additional layers of complexity to the routines. The techniques we were doing were aimed more at the higher grades given the emphasis on forms from Bassai dai and Tekki, but it was enlightening to see the way movements from various kata can be translated into practical techniques.

For the evening, the majority of the applications were aimed at demonstrating chokes, holds and manipulating the body via biomechanics. The final form which aimed to demonstrate flow kata was really cool – it reminded me of the principle of sticking hands, whereby every technique aims to develop automatic reflexes by rolling between strikes and counters dynamically, but this time within a kata framework. I personally had no idea that karate featured so much in the way of chokes, gappling, holds and counter-techniques, so it really brought home that the secret of karate is to look into the kata – whatever you miss in your basic drills is covered within kata. It was also good to hear some of the theory behind differences in styles and the premise behind some of the variations in terms of technique.

While I reckon I was a bit rubbish at the drills last night, I still found it an excellent experience, and I’ll certainly be taking the principles taught during the session and translate them into my understanding of the kata I’m working on for my next grading (I’ve already started thinking of some of the deeper meanings behind some of the techniques!). Hopefully this is a sign of things to come as I continue training and have future opportunities to attend other seminars that might be relevant or interesting to me.

Thanks to Renshi for his time and insight during the session, Sensei for organising the seminar, Mitsi for being a patient training partner during the drills, and, arguably most importantly, to Wifey for being her usual awesome self in letting me run away for another evening this week and jump around in my white pajamas for a couple of hours 😉


Companion blogs


March 2009