JTKI Summer Camp
Heriot Watt Campus,
Aug 17th - 19th 2007
Course background and format
The summer camp is one of the two major UK-based courses each year in our association. It's a truly international course, attracting students from all the over the world including Italy, Germany, Norway, Iceland and even Russia. This time around the course featured Master Hidetaka Nishiyama, along with Italy's Sensei Takeshi Naito, and of course our own chief instructor, Sensei Masao Kawasoe.
Each day began with everyone together in Heriot Watt's huge main hall for a warm up. This was followed by two consecutive 90 minute classes in which students were split into three groups: kyu grades, 1st and 2nd Dan black belts, and senior Dan grades. Each group was taken by a different instructor on a rota - for example the senior group had Nishiyama and Kawasoe on day one, followed by Naito and Nishiyama on day two, and Kawasoe and Nishiyama on the third and final day.
For those brave souls wishing to advance through the dan grades, grading examinations were held on the second day after training, and before the traditional Saturday night revelry in the campus bar. It was hardly surprising then that on the final day of the course, some students were heard complaining about sore heads rather than sore muscles!
Course content and themes
What follows is a summary of the instruction given to the senior group. I must apologise if the notes for Sensei Naito's class seem a little brief. I was unable to attend training on the second day of the course, so I'd like to thank Sandie Benzie (Edinburgh Tora-Kai) for helping to fill in the gaps.
All of Master Nishiyama's classes took the form of a lecture, interspersed with brief bursts of solo and partner exercises. As Sensei himself acknowledged, it was more about grasping concepts than actual training.
The first class began with a brief history of the influences on Karate's evolution, from the in-depth one-to-one teaching style of Okinawa, to the massed, military training format of Japan in the lead up to the Second World War, and latterly the input of sports science. Master Nishiyama explained that his goal is to blend the best from each approach to training. Sports science can help improve the bio-mechanical efficiency of the style, but this must be tempered by real-world practicalities - the "budo" influence if you will.
Now the instruction moved to the foundation stones of effective karate, and these were repeated - almost verbatim - in each of the classes.
Good posture is essential for most physical pursuits, and karate is no different. Natural alignment of the spine combined with good core stability are vital to creating a good platform for both striking and blocking techniques. This was demonstrated with a very simple partner exercise: one side stands in Hachiji Dachi, with arms positioned as though after a single choku-zuki. The partner then applies pressure to the outstretched (punching) arm from various directions. It soon becomes apparent that far less effort is required to resist your partner's pressure if correct posture (including tucking in the tailbone) is maintained.
Next, it's important to recognise that the raw power behind all strikes and blocks is governed by fundamental physics: force = mass x acceleration. Given a fixed mass (your body), greater force can only be generated by greater acceleration. To get that acceleration a short, sharp movement is needed at the core to produce a snapping, whiplash-like motion in the limbs. The aim should be to start and finish the technique as quickly as possible. This is particularly important given the close range of most confrontation situations. With only a short distance to the target, it's crucial to be able generate a lot of power from a short movement, and that requires explosive acceleration from the very start of the technique.
Another way to maximise acceleration is to "use the floor" as much as possible. Kicking the rear foot into the floor at the start of the technique (alternatively described as "pressing down on the floor") generates a "reaction force" that helps to speed the technique on its way. Sensei's analogy for this was throwing a rubber ball at the floor. The harder you throw it, the higher it bounces back up.
Good breathing discipline is also a requirement for effective karate. All techniques should be accompanied by short, sharp exhalation. During inhalation, the body is more vulnerable to attack so the period of inhalation should be kept as short as possible, and ideally it should be almost passive - a rebound reaction to the effort involved in a technique rather than a deliberate action in itself. Finally, budo dictates that we should aim to conceal our breathing pattern from an opponent - if he can spot the inhalation phase, he may be able to exploit it. Sensei compared karate-style breathing to that of a singer: exhalation is all-important, while inhalation is brief and concealed.
The kiai itself can play a role in good breathing style and fast execution of techniques. Master Nishiyama said there were basically three types of kiai - a very short, sharp sound best used to accompany a block, a still short but louder sound used to accompany a full-commitment attack, and finally longer sound used for slower, techniques used to control an opponent. Equally, the kiai you produce often says a lot about your approach to a technique. A long kiai, even if it is a truly blood-curdling scream accompanied by a face that not even your mother could love, just isn't compatible with a fast powerful technique. Think about that the next time you're tempted to supplement the last rep in a set of 10 with vocal rather than physical effort!
So, you can see there was a lot of theory in Master Nishiyama's classes.
Unfortunately, this didn't sit well with the occasional brief exercises used to illustrate a point. The hall was rather cold, and it wasn't easy to sit still for 20 minutes at a time, then suddenly jump into 60 seconds of frenetic exercise without a warmup!
Traditionally Sensei Naito's first class always involves a kihon combination so long it's almost a kata. This year, it went something like this:
- From zenkutsu, step forward into sanbon zuki
- Step back age-uke, shift-back soto-uke (with same arm) and counter gyakuzuki
- Kizami-maegeri, rear leg mawashigeri, gyakuzuki, uraken
- Step back jodan soto uke, shift back gedan barai (same arm), uraken, gyakuzuki
- Rear leg mawashigeri-back, uraken, gyakuzuki
- Shift forward kizamizuki, maegeri jun-zuki
- Shift back and with the lead arm gedan barai, uchi uke and counter gyakuzuki
- Ushirogeri, uraken gyakuzuki
The challenge with such a long combination isn't simply remembering it. Actually that's not true. When you're in the class with Sensei Naito glowering and shouting at you, remembering what comes next is absolutely number one on your private "to do" list! But it shouldn't be, because hidden within the combination are a myriad of other challenges, which Sensei alludes to during the class.
First, such a long combination is a test of posture, balance and stance. Unless you finish each "unit" in a good stance, you'll have difficulty as you try to move to the next sequence. You'll have to make adjustments in weight distribution and foot position, which not only telegraph your intentions to an opponent, but also introduce moments of vulnerability ("kyo"), which an opponent could exploit.
Then, you 've got to address your breathing. One held breath may get you through a short combination, but not even a world-class free diver could get through a Naito TM combination without taking several breaths. So you have to inhale, and following on from Master Nishyama's class you should choose an appropriate moment for inhalation. If you do it at the start of a technique - during the lift phase of a kick - then you'll produce a two-step technique that is slow and easy to intercept.
Finally, you have to consider the timing and flow of the combination. Each technique should be given the same attention and completed fully, not hurriedly sacrificed on the way to a more comfortable gyakuzuki. At the same time, the combination should look like a single sequence, not a disjoint collection of ill-matching parts.
Sensei Naito's class also included maegeri exercises with a partner, and some bunkai drills for Tekki Shodan. Sadly, I don't have any details for either of these.
Over the years, Sensei Kawasoe's classes usually fall into one of two categories:
- a repetition blitz so fierce that you feel like you deserve a commemorative t-shirt, several bananas and a couple of litres of water if you make it to the end without barfing
- an extremely well structured and progressive set of exercises designed to improve a crucial area of your karate technique
Now on the first day, during the five minute break after Master Nishiyama's somewhat sedentary class, I overheard Sensei Kawasoe talking to a group of students.
"You cold huh? Soon you be very warm"
This was accompanied by a wicked grin and an almost super-villain laugh, so I thought "type number one it is, then" and promptly doubled my intake of sports drink. As it turned out though, we were in for couple of physically demanding but invaluable technical classes.
A series of rapid-fire double-hikite exercises - first in stationary hachiji dachi, then stepping forward from hachiji dachi to zenkutsu - started the first class. This served partly as a warmup, but also emphasized the need for correct posture in order to get fast, relaxed movement.
This was followed by a variation on an exercise in a previous year by Master Tsuyama, Kawasoe's own sensei. The aim of the exercise was to fire forward from a relatively high, relaxed zenkutsu dachi into oizuki, and return (step back) immediately. It sounds simple, but it's almost impossible to do correctly without a very high level of skill. Firstly, the initial oizuki has to be done as a single movement, literally a direct, fully committed thrust straight into the target. But then, the instant the oizuki is finished, the natural feeling of "springing back" from that opening thrust should be harnessed to return you to the starting position.
After watching the class for a few repetitions, Sensei noted that in most cases our oizukis were not as fast as they could be. He explained that he was getting superior speed not by thinking of thrusting directly forward, but instead by dropping subtly and kicking into the floor with the supporting leg as the technique began. Also, it wasn't possible to return quickly and smoothly without fully committing to the initial oizuki. Holding back with the idea of aiding the return actually produced an overall slower and more deliberate movement.
In order to better concentrate on executing oizuki as a sharp, single motion we partnered up and practised oizuki jodan, with the partner acting as both stationary target and observer.
The next exercise involved simple blocks, such as age soto and uchi uke, followed by a gyakuzuki - but crucially, the blocking arm was not withdrawn. The goal was to power the counter attack using the same almost imperceptible drop and kick action. Doing so required excellent posture, and crucially relaxation of all unnecessary muscles directly after the block had finished. After practising solo for a short while, the exercise was then repeated with a partner; one side was to attack with a fast, single movement oizuki as before, while the other side had to block and counter, again leaving the blocking arm in place.
This was followed by a little stretching and then several sets of maegeri-back. The pace was set so that the whole kick - including the return - had to be accomplished smoothly and quickly. Lose balance or allow your posture to drift and you wouldn't be ready for the next count.
Next, the kick was put into practice against a partner. One side stood in zenkustu dachi, with a good target-minimising kamae position, ready to block with a short, fast gedan barai. The other side then had to launch their maegeri with sufficient speed to hit their opponent before they could block. The key to success was to drive the kick entirely from the hips, and rather than lifting the knee in a deliberate "chambering" action, to extend the lower leg as the knee was rising. When done correctly, you can see the leg going out like a whip - a quick kick of the hips starts the action and the leg snaps into the target before the block can get to it. In addition to being faster, it was also very easy to deliver an unintentionally powerful kick - the hip action and extension guarantees that there's a lot of the attacker's body weight involved in the impact. Sensei Kawasoe explained that a linear, full body technique is always harder to block. Firstly, it's harder for the blocker to judge the safe distance from the attacker, and secondly it's easier for the attacker to follow the blocker if they try to sidestep. This, apparently, is one reason why traditional training concentrates so much on linear movement.
The first session concluded with a few repetitions of Kanku Sho. As in the preceding exercises, Sensei Kawasoe encouraged a more fluid, single motion for each technique. In particular, he wanted us to eliminate the deliberate two-phase prepare-and-execute movements that often accompany blocks in kata. These are an unnecessary relic of the way katas (and indeed basics) are broken down into smaller steps for teaching purposes. Higher grades should be aiming for a fluid motion. For example, and uchi uke should be delivered more like a punch that ends in a block. This makes the technique faster, more practical and also ties it to the movement of the body, increasing power.
The second class built on the first with a series of exercises utilising a subtle dropping, spring action to accelerate the technique. Starting from a relaxed, high stance, with the feet feeling lightly sprung on the floor, we had to drop and shift forward quickly while spontaneously launching a variety of techniques. Starting out with punching techniques such kizamizuki, gyakuzuki, we eventually progressed to maegeri and mawashigeri. In all cases the shift was to be short and sharp, with the technique flowing naturally from it, rather than as a deliberate two-step action. Partner exercises followed, so that we were now learning to use these attacks against a moving target.
The class concluded with more kicking practice. First up was mawashigeri-back, with the count paced so that the return had to follow on smoothly and quickly from the outward phase of the kick. This was followed by ushirogeri, in which the kick was initiated by transferring more weight onto the front leg and twisting further into hanmi. From this position, it was easier to snap the hips round and fire out the rear leg in a single motion.
And that wraps it up...
Overall, I'd have to say that this year's Summer Camp was particularly well structured. The instructors had clearly discussed what themes they wanted to concentrate on, and there was consistency across the whole course. Although there was little training in Master Nishiyama's sessions, some of his thoughts and ideas definitely carried over into the other classes and enriched them.