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Practical Karate and the Limits of Modern Shotokan

Gichin Funakoshi doing some Shotokan techniques during kumite

So much of modern Karate is far from practical like the traditional masters taught, especially the Karate of Gichin Funakoshi. Self-defense skills are of minor importance in many schools, and rank codes have become too important. That endangers karate students and leads to delusions. By Jeff M. Christian (Instagram: @jeffshotokan)

“A path is made by walking on it.”

Zhuang Zhou

I believe in Karate. Real karate. Practical Karate. Traditional Karate. I want to practice the Karate that Funakoshi Sensei practiced in Okinawa for practical self-defense.

The picture shows Jeff Christian the author of practical karate article.
Jeff M. Christian analyzes the limits of modern Shotokan Karate

For the most part, I love my training. I am in the dojo four-to-five times a week. I train hard, and take Karate seriously as a discipline of mind, body, and spirit. But the way many dojos operate set people up for disappointment, and even danger. Therefore, I will make four observations, and offer four solutions.

1. Practical Karate Requires Full Contact

Too much of our training in contemporary Karate lacks one key ingredient: Full contact. We punch at the air. We kick at imaginary opponents in front of us, beside us, and sometimes behind us. In kumite drills, we make some contact, but we have to be careful. We are instructed to exercise “control.” Unfortunately, “control” often means, “pull your punches.”

I had this realization recently when my son and I decided to take an introductory Krav Maga class. Krav Maga is a combatives based fighting system. Not so much a martial art as it is a way of defending by attacking. I told my son when we were finished that I would describe the experience as “Full Contact Crossfit.” Trust me when I say that I mean no disrespect in that statement; actually, I mean quite the opposite.

It was a great workout, involving full force punches into a thick pad held firmly by your partner. Knees to the pad. Punches to the pad. Full contact. Hard as you can hit. 

The Lack of Pad Training in Modern Shotokan

Now keep in mind that I have practiced some form of Karate or martial art since I was nine years old. I have grown children now, so let’s just say that I have been at this a while. But because many of my punches and kicks have been directed at my imaginary friend instead of an opponent with a thick pad, my wrists and arms were incredibly sore the next day. Despite some training with a Makiwara and a heavy bag, nothing prepared me for punching a pad a hundred times at full force.

I mentioned my sore arms and wrists to a Karate friend of mine. He suggested, “Well, you were punching the bag wrong.” I suppose that is possible, but I do not think so. I am usually careful to punch with good form the majority of the time. I think instead that I am not training enough with full contact. My suspicion is that I am not alone in this. 

Practical Karate Requires Full Force

Furthermore, we need opportunities in training with opponents attacking at full force and full speed. Obviously we cannot train at such intensity, or people are going to get injured. We have to be realistic. With gloves and pads, along with using handheld bags and pads, we can simulate the need punch with greater force. Still, the occasional bruise is to be expected. 

What if we train a couple of times a week outside the dojo to punch a Makiwara? We need to practice our kicks and punches on a heavy bag. Otherwise, we may believe that we will be able to use Karate in a self-defense situation if the need arises.

2. The Super Hero Delusion

We imagine street fights in the dojo. Our senseis show us techniques to counter punches to the face, kicks to the groin, and multiple opponents. It looks great. But in a real world situation, will these training sessions actually work?

Practical Karate is not Choreography

Rory Miller in his book, Meditations on Violence, offers the most realistic answer to that question. Unless we understand the way the mind and body freezes under stress, a thousand kumite drills will be of no use to us whatsoever. You know the drill. A training partner comes at you at medium speed, and you know exactly what he is going to do. Step forward, punch to the chin. You, in your carefully choreographed kumite technique, step back with the correctly corresponding foot. Cross your arm in front of your body while you raise it just over your head. Open your torso forty-five degrees. If you open it fifty-five degrees, that will probably work, but you should strive for forty-five.

Granted. If you practice this technique for twenty years with multiple opponents at least three times a week, it will probably work in an emergency. I want to make clear that I make this observation as someone who practices such techniques multiple times a week. My criticism is not from the outside, but from deep inside the dojo. But my concern is simple: Will it work?

The picture shows three books which were highlighted in this article. The foster a practical karate approach.
The three books highlighted in this article.

Shotokan Karateka are not Invincible

Our delusions of invincibility complicate this. We are led to believe that if you just practice enough, that you will be able to disable your opponent and walk away unscathed. We fantasize about being Bruce Lee or Yip Man, when in reality, even on our best days, we are more like Jackie Chan’s outtakes. People bump their heads, get hit by opening doors, and slip in the rain. Have you ever been in a street fight? No one walks away without getting hurt.

Even in a controlled dojo setting you are going to get bruised, perhaps cut. You may get a broken toe from time-to-time, even when you know what is coming. No one is invincible 100% of the time. I was doing sparring drills with one of my senseis recently. This sensei emphasized to me just a few months earlier the importance of deepening and extending my front kicks. While we sparred, I landed a few kicks to his midsection, even though he was supposed to be blocking me. We were not applying full force, but we were moving at pretty decent speed. He said, “Man, you are kicking deep today.” I replied, “It’s what you taught me.”

Practical Karate Knows No Delusions

I hope this illustration makes the point that even a fantastic Karate teacher has his limits. We all have off days, and we cannot possibly think that we will block every punch or kick that comes our way. Thus, the solution to the super hero delusion is to forget about it. Give it up. No amount of training is ever going to make you totally invincible. In fact, by not giving into such a delusion you are protecting yourself from future harm, and hopefully avoiding a fight that probably should have never happened in the first place. 

If, however, you find yourself in a fight, your training is going to serve you better if you have been hit, if you have been kicked, and if you have trained under stressful conditions. Unfortunately, most of us do not engage in this kind of training until we are adults. Just because you are a brown belt or a black belt does not mean you can handle every situation.

3. The Rank Delusion

A green belt has finally gained a decent understanding of kata and kihon. She is getting fairly good at the choreography of introductory kumite drills. Practices are becoming more natural for her, which is a big motivation. She keeps training for a couple more years, and finally gets her brown belt. She is on the way to her goal of becoming a black belt. But she is twelve years old, and some of the kids at school hear her talking about her karate skills. They start picking on her in the locker room after gym class. A few minutes later she walks to the nurse’s office while pinching her bloody nose after taking a solid punch from one of the other girls. “What happened to all of those drills that were supposed to keep me from getting hit? I am a brown belt, after all,” she thinks to herself. 

Rank According to Self-Defense Skills

Part of this is our fault in our dojos. Rank used to be a sign of years of dedication and training, strength and agility, athleticism and artistry. It still is in some circles. In my own dojo, you will devote five-to-ten years to get to the point where you are ready to test for black belt. But even so, many dojos no longer emphasize the self-defense side of Karate. And unfortunately, many dojos give rank according to the number of years a student has been coming to class, but not always according to true skill level. This is especially true when it comes to self-defense. We may allude to such things as street fighting techniques at times, but it is not the main focus in many dojos.

Students Want Practical Karate

Which is odd. Ask most Karate students across the levels of experience and they will usually answer the same way when asked why they take Karate: fitness and self-defense.

When I trained in Kyokushin back in the early 1990s, we had four belts: white, green, brown, black. If you wanted a green belt, you had to commit about two or three years to serious training. A green belt was a sign that you had put in your time to learn the fundamentals. You knew your basic kata, and could free spar without getting beaten to death. I think about my green belt in Kyokushin back then when I see many black belts today. Some of them do not have to go through what we went through in the 90s to get a green belt.

If you were a brown belt in Kyokushin in the early 1990s, at least in my dojo in West Texas, you were solid. Only a few brown belts populated our training sessions, most of whom you did not want to spar with because they still had something to prove. And black belts? We had three, and all three were our senseis.

Ranks vs. Traditional Karate?

I am not necessarily suggesting that we go back to such a rigorous ranking code. But I will suggest that we need to be stricter than current norms about our guidelines for rank if we expect rank to mean anything. After all, rank and belt colors are a new phenomenon when it comes to the traditional way of Karate. 

Although probably not the best business model, in order to preserve the true way of Karate-do, we should not give brown and black belts to children and young teens. That is not going to be a popular belief among many dojos, especially with so many small businesses struggling to stay in business these days. But since this is a martial art and not a mere sport, we need to take seriously the implications of Karate for the future by respecting the past. We will enhance Karate as we hold to a more challenging set of standards so that a black belt is not something guaranteed, whether by a two year contract or by the promise of merely showing up to class for a set number of years. 

The picture shows Jeff Christian during Karate class doing a Mae Geri. Jeff promotes a practical Karate approach.
Jeff Christian doing a Mae Geri.

Practical Karate Means Self-Defense

Furthermore, we need to teach more self-defense applications. Our students should be accustomed to fighting under stressful situations, no matter the rank. For children, we need to teach these things, but also the character necessary to be able to avoid fights completely. Anything we can do to stop the kind of bullying described in the opening story of this section will be a good thing. And again, that has nothing to do with rank.

In what is often called “The Master Text” in the evolution of Karate from hidden path to the way available to everyone, Gichin Funakoshi’s work, Karate-Do Kyohan, is a good place to start in order to understand the importance of the full way of Karate that includes athleticism, artistry, and a path of the spirit. And it is just that: A path, a way. “Karate-do” means, “The Way of the Empty Hand.” 

4. Karate As More Than Exercise

Along with self-defense, fitness is often named as one of the primary reasons individuals practice Karate. I am among those who give that reason. Out of all the athletic endeavors I have done, including marathon running, triathlons, hiking, and open water swimming, nothing gives me a better workout than Karate.

That said, Karate is more than exercise, more than sport. It is a way. It is a path of mind, body, and spirit.

Practical Karate Requires Understanding

Can you execute a perfect Yoko Geri? Good. 

Do you understand the Yoko Geri? Is it clear why it is not important that you can kick much higher than your torso, and why you should not lean back during the kick, regardless of how great you may look in the picture? Understanding is more than physical practice. 

Have you spent years disciplining your spirit, clearing your soul, cultivating the virtues of bushido like courage, honor, and respect? This is another matter altogether. As children in the dojo, we bow at the threshold because our senseis tell us to bow. As more seasoned karateka, we bow at the threshold because we hold in our hearts all those before us who have walked the path of Karate-do.

The True meaning of a Black Belt

A black belt is not a sign of mere physical ability after an allotted number of training sessions. A black belt is a symbol of years of dedication an individual devotes to shaping their whole person, the whole karateka. If you ever meet a black belt who is pompous, arrogant, and rude, then you have not met a true karateka. Instead, you met a person whose training derailed somewhere along the way. Status overtook the most important factor in his or her journey: Character. They forgot the first principle of Karate-do as stated by Funakoshi Sensei: “Karate begins and ends with character.” They learned to ignore the truth of the first thing we say in the Dojo Kun: “Seek perfection of character.”

In Joe Hyams’ book, Zen in the Martial Arts, he explores many topics related to Karate as more than mere exercise. His chapter “Anger without Action” makes the point far better than I can. Training in the martial arts is a process of learning self-control, of not acting out of frustration or anger. This progression takes years, even decades of practice simply to understand. Even those of us who have basic understanding of self-control admit to ourselves daily that it is an ongoing struggle. 

Practical Karate and Traditional Karate

As much as I appreciate contemporary approaches to self-defense, this devotion to the virtues and “Spirit of Karate” is a key missing ingredient in many combatives systems that are so popular. We karatekas can learn from their emphasis on practical applications. However, we must let that motivate us to preserve our roots. And while contemporary Karate has more to offer than self-defense, we admittedly may need a reawakening in a area of virtues starting with character formation.

Most of us will never be in a real street fight. That is a good thing. If we never have to “use” Karate, then what is the point of all the training? The point is the process. We enter the long journey of the whole person, and the ways we are shaped as people of Karate-do. We train our physical bodies. Our minds expand as we memorize and focus. We practice virtues in and out of the dojo. The karateka is a karateka whether he or she is in the dojo or not, whether he or she is with a sensei or not, wherever one happens to be on this ongoing path, the authentic way of Karate-do.

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Missing Links of Karate: Why We Need Traditional Martial Arts

The missing links of Karate have become a research field for a community of innovative and open minded Karateka. We link Karate back to its roots in traditional martial arts from Asia. By doing so we focus on improving Karate and bring back what the art has lost through the development of modern Shotokan and Sports Karate. Therefore, missing links challenges conventional Karate wisdom and changes perceptions. By Heero Miketta

Questioning Shotokan

Practicing Japanese Karate will always bring up the question: “Which style?” – at least from those in the know. Three decades ago an answer by Hirokazu Kanazawa made the rounds in my Shotokan circles. “Martial arts,” the old master mumbled in reply, and was not willing to discuss this any further.

It impressed me at the time, because back then I had a moment of confusion myself. I had joined the instructor team of the police in the then German capital Bonn. It was a fortunate event to be welcomed in this rather elitist circle of good fighters with all kinds of martial arts backgrounds. I was a complete rookie, while all of them had tested their knowledge in more or less realistic scenarios.

My Shotokan fell short. What I had learned was too static, too focused on the long distance, and very much tuned into the rules of competition.

Shotokan Did not Meet the Reality of Fighting nor Philosophical Depth of Asia

Not an unusual story – I have met plenty of others with similar experiences, not only from Shotokan Karate. If you listen to Geoff Thompson, British author and martial artist, he describes the same learning journey. Self defense, realistic conflict, and violence prevention always question what we have learned in the dojo.

This was not the first time I second-guessed my Karate. When I started my training in Shotokan, coming from Judo and Tai Chi, I became disappointed at first. I found a sports system featuring tournament rules instead of the deep secrets I had expected. It was all sweat, mostly on my own, walking up and down a gym, hitting thin air. No Far East philosophy, nothing of the cool mystic background I imagined.

The Two Missing Links

Two missing links gave our research community its name: The actual combat content, and the deep knowledge, the Asian ways of thinking that challenge the Western mind.

The Bleeding Edge of Modern Society

This brings us straight to the core of martial arts: The connection of body and mind. What sounds like an advertising soundbite to the ears of experienced Karateka is a bleeding edge of modern society. In our book Missing Links of Martial Arts, we chose the term “debodification” to describe what is happening to humans today: An increasingly sedentary lifestyle dominated by screentime and virtual experiences. Fitness and wellness have the character of mere duties that have to be fulfilled. Looking good, being healthy, showing positive attitude is a mere part of a “personality package,” not a source of learning and personal growth.

This betrays modern people of genuine experiences that can only be made using the body. Some people aim to fill this gap in personal growth by attending Asian health systems like Yoga, Qi Gong, or meditation. Traditional martial arts offer the same philosophy in motion, and they bring even more to the table: Conflict, fear, stress, social skills, and communication.

The Depth of the Traditional Asian Styles

Modern fitness and self defense based systems offer much less depth. While mixed martial arts competition is a fantastic sport and often underrated by Karateka (also because of the testosterone-laden scenarios of competition in the octagon), it does not regard the deeper content of traditional martial arts. Do not underestimate MMA athletes, though. Many of them come from traditional systems and practice much more than what they need in tournaments. Grappling styles like Brazilian Jujitsu offer physical and mental training, as well as holistic knowledge. Nothing, however, beats the traditional Asian styles.

Shotokan Roots in China

The roots of our Karate go back to older arts from Okinawa and China, a fact that has not only been forgotten by many who think Karate is part of the traditional Japanese Budo curriculum. But it has been hidden by Japanese masters who went out of their way to rebrand Karate from “Chinese Hand” to “Empty Hand,” simply by changing the Kanji of the name.

In our Missing Link Community, we use the original character: Ko Ryu Kara Te – old style Chinese hand. The look backwards to China and old Kung Fu styles is as important to us as the focus on modern application and usability. We avoid chitter chatter about “the street” and what is useful. We care about what we can learn for everyday scenarios that actually happen in modern life.

Chinese Martial Arts as Compendium for Modern Karate

What did we find in the Chinese arts?

Flow

First and foremost: Flow. Static stances, powerful hard movements – both can be more obstacle than help for good martial arts:

  • Nothing is static in a fight.
  • A stance is just a short moment in the context of a bigger event.
  • The entire movement is much more important than the end position of a step.
  • Low stances only make sense in the context of weight shift and power development; they have no value on their own.
  • Every technique, any combination, needs to work in a flow, and with a partner.

Nothing is more important than constant partner training. It is essential to develop mental flexibility and the ability to adapt to ever changing circumstances.

Structure

Another important issue is structure:

  • Posture,
  • stability,
  • full body movements and
  • the understanding of principles

This approach is superior to learning single techniques and executing them with maximum strength.

Movements make Perfect

Understanding – and feeling – the body and its movement makes for good martial arts. Discovering the capabilities of the own body and transferring it into work with a partner is surprisingly often neglected in Karate dojos, in favor of endless repetitions of techniques that make no sense without bunkai – the deep analysis of their meaning and usage. The external form of techniques, especially at the END of the movement, is getting much more attention than the application and the internal development of strength and power.

Traditional Martial Arts Connect Mind and Body

These holistic physical experiences create the connection of body and mind mentioned above. The body is the most important gate for emotional learning, and thus for the development of social skills, communication, conflict competence, coping with stress and fear, or in short: A life lived to the fullest.

No other physical training connects body and mind like the traditional martial arts do. The individual and their interaction with others is the main concern of our practice – and the challenges are physical as well as psychological and emotional.

The Missing Links between traditional Martial Arts and Shotokan
The Missing Links between traditional Martial Arts and Shotokan

What kind of martial arts do you practice?

So what is in a style? Why is the question, “What kind of martial arts do you practice” so important?

The Fallacy of Tribal Structures

The martial arts community as a whole has a very tribal structure. That arose surely from the way of teaching it in family structures in the past and then became a matter of national pride. Many Westerners are trying to be more authentic than their Asian teachers – so much that it borders cultural appropriation.

No Challenging of Opinions

Hierarchy and patriarchal structures in many associations are another issue. Not questioning the “master,” worshiping belt colors and double-digit dan degrees leads to an inability to challenge opinions, ask questions or be innovative.

Last but not least, styles give a level of security. To define what you are doing (and what you are not doing) gives control over your own training and a chance to measure your ability. “I have mastered this move, this kata, the rules of Shobu Ippon – I am a master now, my education is finished. I know where I am standing.” The comfort of narrow boundaries is enormous.

New Ideas Can be Challenging

We experience this in our dojos. Our ideas attract high ranked, experienced Karateka. But far too often they also put off these senior martial artists. “I have learned more in one of your lessons than in the last five years of training in my home dojo,” an experienced competition fighter told me. She was was talented, intelligent and fast. “I don’t like it,” she went on. “I will go back to my old dojo.”

Boom! Removing limits drops students into a void and leaves them confused. Our response is a sophisticated Kyu curriculum and a proper syllabus, giving beginners a scaffolding for their learning experience.

That is not the answer for advanced practitioners, though. Training with Missing Link is uncomfortable, challenging and needs engagement. That is what we face every day ourselves.

A Research Community For Karate

We see Missing Link as a research community. Yes, we build up new martial artists. But we also build up the knowledge of the community, and take on board the ideas and new impulses from experienced teachers joining us. Our ranking system is free of Dan degrees. The Okuden and Kaiden Master Levels that we use instead are not earned in a grading, but by delivering a thesis, a new idea, an own concept to the community.

A Diverse Community

This has brought an interesting mix of people to the Missing Link Community that started as a Shotokan-based venture. Soon members of our old ShoShin Projekt – a group of martial artists from different styles working together – joined the group. By now, our dojos in Germany, England, Denmark and Finland combine a colorful bunch of Karateka with a wide knowledge and the hunger to learn and discover more. The topics we care about grew beyond the narrow definitions of a style:

Missing Link offers a versatility curriculum and research.
Missing Link offers a versatility curriculum and research.

Innovative and Open Minded Tradition

What connects all teachers in Missing Link is the idea of a foundation curriculum, described in our book Missing Links of Martial Arts, and the general approach to teaching and learning, also detailed in the very same book. We feel that we have left the limits for personal development behind us in the past. But it also built a strong framework in which Karateka can feel at home if they don’t want to be restrained by an association that cares more for competition sport and purity of styles. Tradition, from our point of view, has to be innovative and open minded.

The Shotokan style is still a basis for many of our members. It has enormous values as a clean, straightforward gate into the complex world of martial arts. We call it the “Japanese garden of martial arts,” pretty and with intense focus. From this garden we want to head for the jungle, though.

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PTSD and Shotokan Karate: A Personal Journey

In recent years karate has proven to be an effective and useful part of the treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). But what is PTSD? It has been known by many names for centuries: nostalgia, battle fatigue and shell shock and more recently, a mental disorder.  But today it is classified as a trauma and stressors-related disorder. By François Lavigne

The Causes of PTSD

The exposure to situation of death or the fear of death cause it.  Its effects last long.  In some cases, becomes chronic (C-PTSD). Patients who suffers from the chronic version of the disorder may experience serious symptoms daily and often for the rest of their life.  A person with PTSD re-experiences the trauma through intrusive and recurring memories, vivid images and nightmares. Those memories cause intense reactions, such as fear, panic, heart palpitations, sweating, hyper vigilance and many other symptoms.  Moreover, it results in certain behavior traits:

  • over alertness,
  • insomnia,
  • easily irritation,
  • unable to concentrate,
  • easily startled,
  • constant lookout for possible danger, and
  • avoidance of activities, places, people and thoughts that remind him or her of the trauma.

In the case of C-PTSD, it can lead to a feeling of emotional numbness, loss of interest in day-to-day activities and social detachment. PTSD sufferers often develop other problems, such as

  • drug addiction,
  • alcohol abuse,
  • severe anxiety,
  • depression, and
  • engagement in high-risk behaviors.

As a result, PTSD creates a state of living in a near-perpetual state of fight or flight. 

Shotokan Karate as a Treatment of PTSD

The treatment of PTSD varies with the underlying trauma of the disorder.  Success also varies, depending on its severity.  Health professionals try to deal with both the underlying cause(s) and the specific symptoms. 

Here: karate comes in.  It has been shown to be quite effective in dealing with some of the most debilitating symptoms of PTSD, such as inability to concentrate, recurring memories, intrusive thoughts, anxiety and difficult sleeping.  In fact, health professionals include more often some form of martial arts as part of the management of these symptoms.  Traditional Shotokan karate, because of its emphasis on the “spirit” or “do” aspect of the discipline, suits very well to help people with PTSD.  Despite that, PTSD sufferers still face a number of challenges during training, difficulties that can undoubtedly be overcome through more awareness and dialogue within the greater Shotokan karate community. 

My Journey With PTSD

I decided to learn karate as a young man. At the time I did not know I had PTSD.  This was the 1980s and PTSD was still, for the most part, viewed as a condition affecting people who serve in the military. Not even police and other first-responders universally fit the definition yet. I suffered severe and prolonged physical abuse from early childhood into my late teens. It only stopped when I left home. I joined Minoru Saeki Sensei’s JKA Dojo in Ottawa when I was in my early twenties.  The abuse had severely impacted my self-esteem. I believed that if I learned karate I wouldn’t feel scared and a coward anymore.

I had just joined Canada’s Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP).  Karate fit naturally, since I worked in law-enforcement. I worked in counter-intelligence and counter-terrorism. I quickly found that Shotokan karate offered more than just learning to punch and kick.  The spiritual side to Shotokan, the Dōjō kun struck a chord with me and the camaraderie inside the dojo, these things taught me to look inward, to nurture inner peace. 

How Shotokan Karate Helps Me to Cope With PTSD

When I train, I leave the world behind. The voices in my head become silent and I think only about the training. It works like closing a door to a noisy room and embracing that serene feeling that follows. Over time, I came to view the dojo and my fellow karatekas as a refuge and a family. Karate wasn’t just a sport or an activity.  It was a way of life. We trained hard. Saeki Sensei has high standards and high expectations. Tanaka Sensei came every year.  Training with Tanaka Sensei was intense. Saeki Sensei and Tanaka Sensei pushed us to learn all the essential components of karate, including clarity and peace of mind.  I learnt to control my mind and my body in ways that brought relief to the chaos of my life. 

Karate never came as easily to me as it comes to some others. But then, I did not understand then that PTSD was the cause. I always felt inadequate. When Sensei looked my way, I felt overwhelming anxiety. I still often do. Examinations challenged me in particular. The stress triggers my lack of self-confidence. During regular training I did well enough but I couldn’t focus during examinations. My progress through the Kyu´s therefore was slow.  I trained for a number of years, reaching fifth kyu. 

When the Setback Happened

Then, a terrible event occurred that changed my life and took me away from karate for years. On June 23, 1985, two bombs exploded. One, in an Air India flight that had originated in Canada. A passenger plane exploded off the coast of Ireland, killing 329 people. The other bomb, on a flight that also originated in Canada, exploded at Narita Airport in Japan, killing two baggage handlers. 

331 people died because of a conflict between Sikhs and the Indian government. I felt partly responsible. As a member of Canada’s security agency, it was my job to prevent these kinds of things. At the time I worked as a desk officer with responsibility for that part of the world. I wake up every morning to the sound of 331 people screaming in my mind. It is better now. Most mornings the screams are just a whisper, but they are still there. I know it is not reasonable to believe I am responsible for their deaths. But that is how I felt – how I still feel. My job was to protect people and I failed these 331 men, women, and children and their surviving friends and relatives.

The Diagnose PTSD Takes Long Time

Like many people, who suffer from this disorder, it took years for a diagnose. The nightmares, the anxiety, the mood swings, hyper vigilance, the anger, these things made it difficult to function.  In the late 1990s I could no longer work. Then, my marriage fell apart. The health professionals diagnosed me with depression and later bipolar disorder. They prescribed numerous medications but none of them helped. 

Something inside me told me they were wrong about these diagnoses.  I knew there was something else going on. I just didn’t know what it was.  Finally in 2003, the doctors diagnosed me with PTSD. But usual treatments turned out to be useless. I had been suffering from this disorder for too long.

Difference Between PTSD and C-PTSD

There’s a difference between PTSD and C-PTSD.  PTSD sufferers have a reference point: the life they knew before the trauma. That helps them heal or manage their symptoms. Chronic PTSD sufferers, people, who like me experienced prolonged and repeated trauma from a young age, have permanent changes to the “reptilian” part of their brain, making it difficult to treat. As a result, I do not have a reference point.  Therefore, C-PTSD can only be managed not healed.

PTSD Made me Stop Karate

Rejecting pills, I started psychoanalysis. It works more effective in helping people manage conditions like C-PTSD. Part of the psychoanalytic process includes physical fitness. So I returned to Saeki Sensei’s dojo. But I faced the same problems as before, except their intensity had grown. I knew I improved, but some aspects of the training acted as PTSD triggers. I tried hard to overcome these obstacles but I did not succeed. The positive effects of training kept being undermined by the negative ones. It was on the occasion of yet another exam, which I completely botched, that I – again – left the dojo. 

Despite my love of karate, despite the peace of mind I experienced while I trained, the focus, despite training being one of the very few things that cleared my mind of intrusive thoughts and fear, there remained obstacles that made me feel like a failure.  

I never spoke of the PTSD to Sensei. I should have. But I didn’t. To others, someone with PTSD looks and acts the same. They function as long as nothing triggers the PTSD. Their behavior changes in the blink of an eye if something, a sound, an image, a word, triggers an episode. Even now, after years of therapy, there are days I can barely get out of the house. I am extremely uncomfortable in crowds, especially noisy ones.  Some images and sounds trigger terrible thoughts. Being in airports is pure hell.  Karate training seminars can be a challenge. All those people can overwhelm me and trigger intense anxiety.

How I found My Way Back Into the Dojo

For the next ten years, I never stepped back into a dojo. I managed my PTSD by keeping stress down to a minimum. I was awarded a veteran’s disability pension. My life felt to some extent, normal. I even met someone special.  My future wife, Daniela who is from Zurich, Switzerland. And so in 2014, I moved there. I also returned to therapy and again, it was suggested I get physically active. It would help with the insomnia. I mentioned to the therapist that I had trained in karate years before and he urged me to take it up again. He told me that karate, martial arts, had recently been shown to be quite helpful in managing PTSD symptoms. That’s when I found Seikukan Karate Do, and Mirjam Sensei.

Mirjam Sensei’s dojo is a haven. I am comfortable in our group. Like other dojos, we are a family of sorts. Familiar faces meeting regularly to train and learn. I can manage the PTSD there well enough. It still flares up but I can deal with it.

The Dojo is Important to Cope With PTSD

This time around, the experience is more positive. With the help of the therapy I manage much better and I feel I am making more progress now than I ever did before. When I kneel for Mokso and clear my mind, the outside world disappears and all I see, feel and hear from then on are the dojo and Sensei’s words. I focus on improving my technique, on pushing my body and mind. Also, I reach for those moments when everything comes together. I truly feel the Do and I feel at peace. Mirjam Sensei is an amazing teacher. She is very technical. She explains the techniques in detail, the importance of basics, the Bunkai. I am proud to be one of her students.

But that doesn’t mean I do not still face significant obstacles. Examinations continue to be a major problem. They are a trigger, a very persistent trigger. Recently I was in Bern for an examination. It was an unfamiliar environment with hundreds of people and I failed the examination miserably. I couldn’t think, couldn’t count to five! Nor, didn’t I understand commands. I was sweating so much I couldn’t see. My eyes were burning. It was humiliating, especially considering how hard I had worked with Mirjam Sensei and others in our dojo to be prepared for the exam. I felt I let Mirjam Sensei down. 

Will PTSD Hold Me Back From Reaching 1st Dan?

I know I am ready for my third Kyu but because of the PTSD it may well be forever out of my reach. My therapist says we can work on that trigger but there is no guarantee I can ever overcome it. I hope we can work through it because achieving my black belt in Shotokan karate is a dream and a goal I have set for myself; a way to prove to myself that the PTSD does not define me. But I may also have to face the reality that it may remain out of reach.

One thing I do feel is that lack of knowledge about what PTSD is and does it is a significant problem. No one that I have spoken to inside the local karate organization really understands how it cripples. I believe that had my examiners understood the nature of my disorder it might have made a difference in how I was judged. I don’t mean that I would have been graded differently but perhaps some accommodations could have been found that would have prevented me from experiencing a panic attack. At least then, I am sure, I could have done the examination. As it stands, its possible that PTSD now stands in my way of making any more progress. 

What I wish for!

My hope, in sharing this, my personal journey, my experience living with PTSD is that others will recognize themselves, too. That others also appreciate that Shotokan karate is an amazing and rewarding tool for managing PTSD. I hope it will lead to a dialogue about how karate can do more to help PTSD sufferers reach their goals.

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The Relation Between Kihon, Kata, and Kumite

The picture shows karateka during a seminar in malta. They did kihon, kata, and kumite.

Last week, our reader Giuseppe from Italy raised some questions about the relationship of Kihon, Kata, and Kumite. For him it seemed as if their is no direct connection between the three. Due to that he asked several questions and our author, Florian Wiessmann, answers him in this article.

Florian´s Answers

Giuseppe raised some wide spread points. Many Karate practitioners (and practitioners of other martial arts as well) ask them. So, I think it is important to answer his questions.

Kihon Stances

Karate is not a static affair. Stances are mostly just a momentarily expressions while moving (if you could just halt a movement at one point and your feet touch the ground, you have a stance). Don’t think to much about all the formal stances but more about, where your weight is distributed or how feet, knees, hips, pelvis and spine are aligned. Where the center of gravity is and how to shift your center of gravity.

And then you have the characteristics of many stances in all kind of movements, be it in your daily life or in kumite. Karate stances give us an opportunity to experience and learn correct alignment and body shifting in a structured way. In addition, take a look at classical European swordsmen – they probably have never heard of all the Karate stances and do them all the time while moving freely. Because movement and weight distribution inevitably leads to a certain structure.

Classical European fencing: The commonalities with Kendo are obvious. But when it comes to stances they intuitively apply stance like in Shotokan.

Uke Waza

As with stances, just think more about general movements and how to use both hands in a concerted way and not just about the standard blocking (and besides, uke translates to ‘receiving’ – this can be offensive as well). I recommend to experience a bit more the movements of certain uke waza in kihon. Use both hands, do not stop at the end of a technique (try a flow drill by connecting movements instead of just block & punch). Think a bit about characteristics and directions of uke waza movements. I can show you an uppercut punch I do 100% exactly as a basic soto uke. Age uke is also quite common as a kind of flinching reaction e.g. A look at self defense expert, Lee Morrison, and what he teaches as ‘flanking’. He does a quite basic gedan barai (and probably doesn’t even know the term).

Lee Morrison uses gedan barai for “flanking”.

Hikite

I’m not fond of explaining hikite for adding power to your punches but there are certainly reasons for hikite to be found in Karate practice.

An obvious explanation for hikite is already given by Funakoshi Gichin. He describes hikite as grabbing the opponents arm, pulling and twisting it, to unbalance the opponent. Of course this is not limited to grab the arm – hikite is basically bringing the grappling range into Karate practice.

Tatsuya Naka explains the importance of Hikite during Kihon clases at a seminar in Munich.
Tatsuya Naka explains the importance of Hikite during a seminar in Munich.

Hikite and Weapons

Hikite is also very present in weapon based training. Look at a bo swing, a spear thrust or a sword draw (saya biki) and what function hikite has there. Please don’t believe ‘Karate is empty handed’ or ‘I don’t carry a bo along when getting into a street fight’. Martial arts usually include weapons training, Funakoshi also included weapon training into Shotokan and being ’empty handed’ also means you have the opportunity to just grab a weapon. You might not carrying around weapons but it’s not so uncommon to be confronted with blunt- or bladed weapons or have them readily available in your environment. So, it doesn’t hurt to make yourself familiar with some basics. Moreover, beside many movement principles of weapon training translate very well into weaponless applications (and vice versa). Weapons are a great training tool for your body as well.

Hikite and Other Body Parts

Hikite furthermore helps connecting body parts. While the shoulder of the punching arm moves forward it helps that the other shoulder opens up a bit, e.g. with hikite. But, of course, this doesn’t have to be at the hip, you could also pull back your hand to a guard position. Just try it in kihon and extend one arm into a tsuki and do a tsuki with the other arm without pulling back the arm already extended. This will feel somewhat awkward, right? Or just do a hikite with one arm while the other arm just loosely hangs down. Hikite will initiate a pendulum movement in your hanging arm, if you are really loose).

A nice explanation is also seen in the following video. Hikite as shown there is about creating the necessary space to punch in an infight situation.

Kihon and Kumite

I agree somewhat that sanbon– and gohon kumite are a sub-optimal affair. You certainly need some kind of pre-arranged sparring to build up experience and confidence for free sparring. But sanbon- and gohon kumite also teaches much wrong stuff, in my opinion. Therefore, we don’t do it in my school (wrong stuff is moving back all the time, moving only back with too much a distance and not teaching how to close distances, enter the opponent or how to angle the attack and so on, only focusing on somewhat unrealistic counter gyaku zuki, nothing else, only blocking with one arm, nothing else…).

So, do pre-arranged sparring. But beside absolute beginners people probably can do better as with sanbon-/gohon kumite. This is also true for a standard block-counter uke waza approach, where people certainly could to better.

Gohon and Sanbon Kumite are just one step on the ladder to Jiyu Kumite - but necessary.
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Traditional Shotokan Karate: What is traditional about it?

By Dr. Christian Tribowski

Many masters, associations, and Karateka claim to practice traditional Shotokan. They usually do this in order to distinguish their Karate from what is called Sports Karate. A precise definition what traditional Shotokan Karate exactly means is mostly not give. The questioner is left in the dark about the “tradition” that makes Shotokan traditional most of the time. If one keeps asking what traditional Shotokan is many respondents have a tendency to use a rhetorical loophole. According to their opinion, traditional Shotokan is exactly all that, what Sports Karate is not. In other words: It is the exact opposite.

For some questioners such an answer might be sufficient because the have a vague understanding what distinguishes both types of Karate. Or they do not care much about the differences. They just want to practice.†

Definition of Traditional Shotokan?

For the community of practitioners and the art of Shotokan itself, however, a definition ex negativo is not sufficient at all. A clear understanding about the traits of Shotokan, a definition ex positivo, is necessary. Only then we will know how to

  • use and to work it out to its full potential,
  • spread its values,
  • create a common identity among practitioners,
  • attract new students,
  • show what is has to offer in comparison to other martial arts,
  • and to develop it further.

Unfortunately, the labels “tradition” and “traditional” do not help to illuminate and to  describe what Shotokan is about. Why is that? If we define the term tradition we see that almost everything can become a tradition. As the people in the Rhineland, which is the region where I life today, use to say: If you do something three times, it has become a tradition. A more precise definition can be found in dictionaries. According to Merriam Webster, a tradition is defined as:

“an inherited, established, or customary pattern of thought, action, or behavior (such as a religious practice or a social custom)”

Olympic Games: Sport as A Tradition

If we take this definition serious it has huge consequences whether we should call Shotokan “traditional”. Because sports can be and is already a “inherited, established, or customary pattern of thought, action, or behavior”. For instance, the first ancient Olympic Games were conducted 800 before Christ. Back then, they were religious rituals with strict rules and ceremonial elements. According to the definition, they were traditions.

The Olympic Games are already 2.800 years old. Therefore, they are more a tradition than traditional Shotokan.
The Olympic Games are already 2.800 years old. Therefore, they are more a tradition than traditional Shotokan.

The same goes for the International Olympic Games of the modern age. They date back to 1896. With more than 100 years of history one has to conclude that they have become a worldwide social custom. Even modern Sports Karate is already a tradition. The roots of the World Karate Federation date back to the 1960´s. Thus, it is only 30 years younger than Shotokan itself. In 2020, the WKF will introduce Karate to the Olympic Games. Sports Karate will then become a part of a more than 2.800 year old tradition of organized sports competition.

Traditional Shotokan?

Shotokan Karate, on the other hand, was developed by Gichin Funakoshi in the 1920´s and 1930´s. And he did not develop it from scratch. He recombined Okinawa Karate styles and enriched them with some new ideas. But Karate itself is much older and has its roots in China. If we were consequent we must say that Okinawa Karate is more traditional than “traditional” Shotokan Karate. †

Gichin Funakoshi is the founder of Shotokan. But he did not call it traditional Shotokan.
Gichin Funakoshi is the founder of Shotokan. But he did not call it traditional Shotokan.

To label Shotokan as traditional does not hold water. Because we must also understand that the term tradition is not a good quality indicator. A tradition might be outdated, inefficient, and harmful. Thus, we cannot conclude that every tradition is always good. Sometimes it is better to leave a bad tradition behind and develop something new. From this point of view, it is neither logically meaningful nor practically useful to say Shotokan is a traditional art.

Karate Do is the Better Term

But what is the alternative? We have already a better term at hand. It is Karate Do. Because Karate Do means a way of life and a social philosophy. Principles guide Shotokan Karate Do.  The most famous among them is the Dojo-kun. But there are even more. For instance, the 20 Precepts of Karate by Gichin Funakoshi. The first precepts states:

“Karate begins and ends with courtesy.”

One can easily agree that this precept is timeless. It is neither traditional nor modern. It has been and will always be valid. This orientation on timeless values and guiding principles is the unique feature. At the center of the label of Shotokan should, therefore, stay that it is a paradigm to make the world a better place – it is Karate Do.

Note: I have to thank Michael Ehrenreich and Thomas Prediger for the inspiration to this article.

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Shotokan Karate Philosophy – Diverse and Confusing

Shotokan karate philosophy can be confusing. While the art has a rich diversity of approaches and convictions this also leads to conflicting positions within the community. Where does this diversity come from? And how should we deal with it? An analysis by Dr. Christian Tribowski

Have you ever found yourself in a deep discussion about Shotokan Karate Philosophy? Have you ever felt torn apart between different aspects of Shotokan like bushido on the one hand and the claim to “refrain from hot blooded behavior” (Dojo kun) on the other? Has Shotokan confused you every now and then?

Shotokan Karate Philosophy: The Roots of its Diversity

If you have found yourself in such situations, do not worry. It is not because of you. It is because Shotokan is coined by conflicting claims, purposes, and notions. Since its foundation, several important personalities and groups have attached their ideas about good and right Shotokan to the art. The result is a patchwork of approaches, philosophical orientations, convictions, and practices.

The picture shows Gichin Funakoshi who was the founder of Shotokan Karate Do.
Gichin Funakoshi was the founder of Shotokan Karate Do.

For grand master Funakoshi, for instance, the civilizing and physical-educative aspects of Shotokan were more important than self-defense. His son Gigo, on the other hand, sought to develop Shotokan into an efficient fighting system. Masatoshi Nakayama, who was close to Gigo, brought sports and tournaments into the style. After Nakayama passed away, the differentiation accelerated, and an abundance of Shotokan Karate associations was found. While they all share commonalities, every grand master has left their mark on Shotokan and pushed it to a specific direction.

The Coordinate System of Shotokan Karate Philosophy

To make this confusing situation a little bit more understandable we can develop a simple scheme. This scheme emerges when we reduce the diversity to four distinguishable and ideal typical dimensions of Shotokan. These are:

  • Martial art and self-defense
  • Way of thinking and lifestyle
  • Civilizing means and social philosophy
  • Physical Education and sports
The picture shows Yoshitaka "Gigo" Funakoshi, who developed the style further.
Yoshitaka “Gigo” Funakoshi, who developed the style further

Every dimension can be understood as one pole of Shotokan. If these poles are placed in opposite directions, they create a coordinate system in which every approach, notion, and idea of and about Shotokan can be localized. Some Shotokan-Ka understand their Karate, in the first place, as a means to gain and maintain mental balance and tranquility. They are in between the “civilizing/way of thinking”-pole.

For others, self-defense and self-assertion is at the center of their Shotokan. They tend towards the “martial art and self-defense”-pole. Karateka with ambition to become successful competitors will tend towards the “physical education and sports”-pole. While all these groups belong to the field of Shotokan they have different locations within the field.

Quadrilemma of Shotokan Karate Philosophy
Quadrilemma of Shotokan Karate Philosophy

Good Diversity or Bad Confusing?

But is this situation of diversity good or bad? Is there not one specific “Do”? Is it better to have a unified approach and a coherent idea about Shotokan? Or is it better to welcome the diversity of notions and ways to practice Shotokan? Is it a pain or a blessing?

 Two answers to these questions exist. Both have different qualities and consequences.

  1. An orthodox approach, that understands the existence of different notions and approaches of Shotokan as a unsolvable and morally harmful quadrilemma;
  2. A heterodox approach, that values diversity as positive because a competition of ideas leads to new and better solutions.

The quadrilemma-approach judges the diversity as a painful situation. Ideal typically speaking: Shotokan can either be peaceful or a martial art. It can only be a sport or a superior way of life and thinking. Then, the desire to win over an opponent distorts humility and the perfection of character. Both cannot exist at the same time. The different poles will always undermine each other and stand in constant conflict. Thus, all other dimensions must be excluded in order to make one position logical coherent.

The picture shows Masatoshi Nakayama with JKA instructors. On hi left side: Hirokazu Kanazawa.
Masatoshi Nakayama with JKA instructors.

Shotokan Karate Philosophy is not Black and White

But is this a progressive and realistic solution? The quadrilemma-approach reduces the world to categories of black and white. Instead of solving the problem it retreats to one of the poles, usually to its favorite one. Reality, however, is mostly “grey”. Situations are seldom clear and human beings can be driven by several motives at the same time. One approach or dimension can also serve many purposes or have several effects.

Controlled fighting in a tournament, for instance, can be a very effective means to learn mental control and balance. To think about the civilizing aspects of Shotokan and how the martial arts could fit to them, can lead to the insight that fighting is sometimes necessary to protect other human beings and to maintain the public order. To learn how to fight can be justified through this higher purpose. In this specific case, fighting is not excluded by the other dimension. But its application is conditional and depends on the. Such an approach leads to a more realistic approach of Shotokan. But it also requires critical thinking. Because Shotokanka must learn to judge when to fight or to focus on sports, way of living, and social philosophy.

A very young Hirokazu Kanazawa during Kumite training. He coined Shotokan Karate Philosophy again in a very non-competitive and budo oriented direction.
A very young Hirokazu Kanazawa during Kumite training. He coined Shotokan Karate Philosophy again in a very non-competitive and budo oriented direction.

The Advantages of Diversity

Only with exposure to other approaches, claims, and notions Shotokan Karateka develop critical thinking and deeper insights. If there would be only one of the above-mentioned dimensions, Shotokan would be a static art. Diversity, however, can lead to a constant competition of ideas within an open discourse. That will result in a vital evolution of Shotokan. This requires also that we understand grand masters as people who have added pieces to the puzzle instead of geniuses without fail. Like Newton said: Everybody is a dwarf  standing on the shoulders of giants. Our giants are the teachings of the grand masters and the different Shotokan approaches. They help us to see further than we could without them. The diversity of Shotokan is a blessing.