Strong Foundations and a Sense of Direction
Course report by Donal Phelan – Tanden Shotokan Karate – Dublin
Donal Phelan and John Paul Donleavy successfully graded for Shodan in June 09 with Sensei Hiroshi Shirai (9th Dan) in Paisley, Scotland after a weekend course organised by TSK Scotland. In this report Donal shares his personal reflection on the weekend‘s events.
Five of us from Tanden Karate Club in Dublin, including our instructor Jerome Dupuch travelled to Paisley for the weekend course, organised by TSK Scotland’s Pat McLuskey. I travelled on Friday night, my schedule preventing me from attending the Friday evening class. Word from some of the other club members was that the Friday class had been a physically demanding session
based on the Shodan syllabus. All four club students were aiming to achieve our Shodan grading after the course on Sunday, so I was disappointed to have missed that valuable session. For each one of us, this weekend was to be the culmination of over ten years of training, and in particular the preceding twelve months of intensive class work had geared us to be ready for our first attempts at grading for Shodan. Unusually perhaps for karateka attempting the Shodan grade, none of us could be described as being in the first flush of our youths, our ages ranging from early thirties to mid-forties. Somewhere along the line for various reasons, we each had our training interrupted for some years while brown belts, and had returned to training with Jerome’s club as older students.
The main hall in the Lagoon Leisure Centre was full for Saturday morning’s junior class. After the warm-up Sensei Shirai started by looking for volunteers from the junior orange and red belts to demonstrate Heian Shodan. A few nervous young students demonstrated for him, each becoming progressively more brave as it was apparent that Sensei was nodding in appreciation at their efforts. Earlier he had corrected the children during the seiza for not sitting correctly, but it was becoming clear now that this was not an indicator of any impatience on his part.
There is an old adage that to give a man a fish feeds him for a day, but teaching him to fish can feed him for life. Sensei’s junior class might then be described as the equivalent of a fishing lesson for the junior grades as he proceeded to spend the hour giving a master class in how karate should be taught to beginners. Surprisingly perhaps the first exercise of the lesson was to practise to walk in different directions in a controlled manner. Sensei explained that it was not possible to learn the kata correctly unless you understood where you were, and where you were going. If the exercise seemed easy, Sensei was quick to correct the misunderstanding; It was not sufficient to simply walk the route in a casual way, the student must practise being “grounded” during the exercise, always ready to defend or attack, and using the hara to control the body’s movement. This was a different way of walking, and both the junior and advanced grades changed their gaits noticeably as this idea was taken on board. The walking exercise became more complex when Sensei added the requirement to walk backwards and arrive at the starting point without looking, simply by being aware of how far one had walked forward. This “walking karate” theme has appeared on a few of the Shirai courses I have attended, and it is a regular feature at his Goshindo courses, where the skills learned in the Shotokan dojo are translated into self-defence situations. At first sight these exercises seem straight-forward, but finding the right distance and timing to be effective in this situation is by no means as easy as it sounds.
Next an excellent demonstration of all the Heian kata, given by Fabio Cattaneo. Sensei encouraged the junior students to pay attention to the proper use of stances. “Without a good stance”, Sensei cautioned, “the kata cannot be strong no matter for how long you train, because stance is the foundation for the kata”. For all present in the hall that day, watching Fabio’s performance justified the trip to Paisley, and set down a marker as to how kata should be performed. It was clear how Fabio had achieved so many international competition successes! “As you progress through the levels of karate”, Sensei reminded the advanced grades, “you must always return to the Heian kata and learn to perform them at another level, with a deeper understanding”.
The senior class returned to the Shodan syllabus, this time de-constructing the tsuki-waza, ukewaza and geri-waza into shorter exercises performed in pairs. Sensei was eager to ensure that students understood how the syllabus could be translated into exercises for kumite. After the more cerebral junior class, this was starting to work up a sweat, though the hall was large enough that the air remained comfortable. Sensei made full use of his attending assistants, with demonstrations being given by Alessandro Cardinale and Marc Stevens. Fabio was called out again to demonstrate the importance of correct distance and timing in kumite, this time with Jerome as partner.
The class was running at full pace when Sensei called a sudden change to proceedings. Those of us hoping to grade the next day were unexpectedly called upon to line up. There was a nervous change in the air, as Sensei indicated that he was now going to decide who he would examine the next day. Eight students, including the four of us from Dublin, stood to attention in line for the crucial pre-grade test.
Our first attempts at the sanbon-tsuki and uke-waza sequences did not win his approval. Perhaps a competitive spirit as a result of being in a line-up of eight people was driving us to rush to the finish line, or maybe it was just our nerves, but it had not gone un-noticed. “You are going too fast, not performing the techniques properly”, Sensei warned, “... do it again on my count”. Adrenaline was pumping my heart hard, and being in my forties I was mindful that I did not want to collapse with exhaustion before this ordeal was over, but pacing myself was not an option today. Sensei encouraged us to breathe more, a sentiment that my aching lungs endorsed as I tried to conceal my tiredness. He counted us through the sequences, and I was able to regain some control over my breathing. Next the geri-waza, and after a false start Sensei counted us through once more. Then it stopped.
Sensei pointed to the two male students from the Tanden Karate Club, and announced that only the two of us would be allowed to attempt the grading the next day. It was a moment of mixed emotion, relief for myself but disappointment for our female club-mates who I knew would be heartbroken after so many years of training for this. Sensei quickly tempered my sense of relief, pointing at me with his index finger: “You”, he added with a strong sense of caution and a shake of the finger, “…will need to improve - your punches after the kicks are too weak”. I bowed to acknowledge that I understood the challenge, and moved quickly back to resume the class.
There would be just a few hours of training time available to try to convince Sensei of my merit for the Shodan, and I knew it had to start right now as Sensei was clearly watching us during the class. The class moved on to working with kumite sequences from both the Shodan and Nidan syllabuses. Now the emphasis was on distance and timing, a natural follow-on from the work done in the junior class with direction and distance. Sensei demonstrated how, during an attack, there is a point where the attacker is momentarily off-balance, and how this could be exploited by the defender. The concept was clear in the demonstration, though it proved not to be a trivial matter to apply in practice. It was in keeping with my experiences from training at other courses with Sensei Shirai that some of the learning can be applied immediately, and other aspects need to be taken away to practise for many months and years afterwards before I can begin to apply them with success. This concept of finding the point of attacker imbalance was clearly going to have to come home with me for future practise.
In the afternoon training continued, now focussing on the Heian kata and their bunkai. Further excellent demonstrations were given by his assistants, showing how the kata could be performed with a “real” attacker in the form of a training partner. Sensei stressed the need to perform the kata at all times as though it was against an attacker, as the feeling of the kata was very different.
This mental dynamic was critical to excellence in kata he told us, and raised the level of performance above that of the beginner.
On Sunday morning we arrived early again at the Lagoon Leisure Centre. The location for this course was excellent, with first rate facilities and ample free parking. The hall was large with plenty of viewing seats for those who wanted to watch rather than participate. I briefly envied the seated onlookers as nerves began to get a hold. This class was focussed on the bunkai from Bassai Dai. Over the space of an hour and thirty minutes we were shown a variety of the bunkai, which we then practised in pairs, each time starting with the opening move and working through to the current section. For this class I partnered with my club-mate John Paul Donleavy, who would also be examined for Shodan grading when the class was over. Aware of Sensei’s attentive eyes, we could not rest for a moment, even when struggling to get to grips with some aspects with the bunkai which we had not previously seen. There could be no option now to “take it easy” ahead of the grading with Sensei’s eyes never too far away, and we performed each of the bunkai sequences with vigour and no shortage of contact, leaving plenty of bruises on each other, making certain that our arms and legs would remember this course for many days to come at least.
If you search YouTube there are plenty of videos of karateka performing Bassai Dai showing bunkai where the kata is performed by the book and the attacks are modified to fit the sequence, often resulting in attacks which are off target by several inches, or worse. Sensei’s bunkai are a refreshing alternative to this approach. The attacker always launches attacks to the target, and the kata sequence is altered to make proper defences and counter-attacks. The emphasis is on distance and timing, and performing the kata in this way was quite unlike the classic kata, as form now had to give way to effectiveness and the timing changed from the classic timing to a kumite encounter. Thus forward movements in the kata were often performed in reverse or with tai sabaki to avoid being hit by the attacker. However, Sensei continued to emphasise using the whole body to generate powerful techniques, and even though the classic form of the kata was now changed, its essence re-emerged almost unconsciously as attention was given to focus and stability in the bunkai. There was no time during the class to worry about the ordeal that was to come after the class. I was acutely aware that I had been practising the kata Jion in particular for the three months before the grading, but having spent this time on Bassai Dai, I decided that I should switch this for my chosen kata. I reasoned that retaining the feel of these bunkai while performing the kata would be easier while they were so fresh in my mind.