I am a Nidan

It feels strange, I now wear the black of the shadows I was dreaming of facing all those years ago as low grade.

I wear the black blackbelt of someone who has been focused on their goal, and not let it be just a dream.

I wear the black gi of a warrior that faced 30 men, a long line of shadows, facing down fear to prove to myself that I am a warrior, I do belong. To overcome doubts and demons.

I always had this little niggle, that people thought I was just a brawler, or not smart enough. It’s all in my own head. Most of my life, I have let my demons take over me.

They led me to self destruction, in many different ways. Karate was different, it was the first place I belonged. No matter how much I tried for my dad, I was not the rugby type, I was an outsider an observer.

Karate was the first place that I met people like me, forged friendships through the fiery pit that sparring can be. It is where I found love, where I didn’t know I deserve it. It was the first place that I realised I could actually be good at something.

From my first lesson I knew karate, the style of Goju ryu, specifically the hard path of the DKK association that it was for me. It is the first place I faced fear, and no matter how many times I have fallen, I keep fighting, improving inch by inch.

This fear and doubt that has affected me most of my life, has been like a catalyst in my way of life that is karate. I know I have to practice more than most to get things right, so I trained harder at home. I became obsessed with its history. Hanging with mates, we would drink and feel like we have discovered new ways (well new to us, but ancient like the katas) and we would play and find our understanding evolved.

People knew from a low grade that I would get this far, I didn’t believe them. I was always scared.

I reached shodan, a grade I deserved but felt like I could of done better. Don’t get me wrong, I did my best.

When I asked for advice for attempting the 30 man kumite, people said I’m tough, withstand twenty fights, brawl the next ten or vice versa. This got to me, I knew deep down I was a better fighter than this. This was the first time I believed in myself.

I trained with two men, one small but so exceptionally technical, a counter striker. I knew if I could get a fraction as good as he is then I am on the right path to where I want to be. The next man is like a juggernaut, powerul bigger, but a really smart fighter that people underestimate. He pushed me to new levels, where I had to change my style to last thirty fights, to become the smart fighter I knew I was somewhere deep inside.

We had our fight club, I would go through highs and lows, and the boot camp people that followed were so supportive, they got behind me like a big family seeing me fight through it all. My love was one of them, she saw my spirit my laughter even in the darkest moments and saw me through my journey.

Our shihan’s lessons seemed to be focused on me (thats how we all think), and his advice though simple made the biggest difference in the darkest moments. I based a lot of the way I wanted to fight on him and his way of fighting.

We had the big tournament with our London club, I won the grappling and got tons of advice on how to improve for the next three months. Simple advice, but ones I took to heart, their approach helped me to evolve into the calm warrior I became on that sunny day.

Every fight I always have great fear, every grading I always thought I would fail. This time, I knew it was my time. I knew I trained like a professional, I knew I dedicated my life to this one moment. I didn’t drink alcohol for nine months, no snacks except for ice cream on a Sunday. I trained twice a day, I didn’t do as much cardio as others, my cardio was based on fighting and sparring fitness and toughness.

I think the difference between some is that they jusy want to survive the nidan grading, for others it was a test. For me it was my chance to prove I was the best. Not out of ego, there will always be a better fighter. It was to prove I was the best, the best fighter I could become, to slay my demons and prove I am a black gi, I do belong.

My future girlfriend dragged her family to see my fight, she was meant to be at a family reunion. She didn’t want to let me down.

My dad was 88 years old, I was 29. I wanted to prove to him, and show although I couldn’t become a professional rugby player like he wanted, I would for at least this moment become a professional fighter. Proved to him and myself that I can earn something beyond what I thought I could. I wanted to make proud.

Apparently mine was one of the best performances that many had ever seen. I am still struggling to digesting this, me how can I do this? Was it really me. 

10 months later I am only just starting to accept this, I did achieve the impossible. But it will mean nothing, if I don’t keep training, if I don’t keep pushing my boundaries. I know I can be better than I was.

This is my way of life, I am a blackbelt, I wear the black gi of those who have faced the black dragon. I am part of this brotherhood, this cult.

It is in my blood, I can the scars of my marital journey like a proud warrior.

Karate has shown me that a man can reach his dreams, if you stay humble and have iron will then anything is possible.

Finally a connection with Stances

For the last week it feels like I have had many eureka moments, where something makes sense and it’s been a constant if accidental theme, stances to generate power from the ground, stances that helps with your covering and deflecting, it is what is seemed like as kid like training of karate but is actually in the heart of its true power.

Roundhouse kicks is a kick I have often struggled on, I can kick quite hard on either leg but that is with lot of effort, and my quads often get burnt out really quickly making it hard for me to do them fast for a long time.
Andy one of our nidans is a very good fighter the amount of power he can generate is incredible but also the speed and stamina he can perform for lengths at a time. He has often discussed his type of kick, but whether it just finally made sense (large parts of it have, it’s just putting them together) to alot of us or whether his teaching style has evolved I’m not quite sure yet.
First he took out the speed and got us to focus on the technique raising the knee high, dropping it down, rolling the shin kind of corkscrewing your body into the kick, almost being side on with your bodyweight and structure and rebounding it back.
Elements of it I have been told before, from the likes of Darren etc but it’s the first time when it all clicked into.place that I didn’t need alot of effort to generate power, my thighs weren’t burnt out and the roundhouse kicks were much more effective.
He went on about range, and different levels but a quick discussion with him at the end was his keenness that it all related to sanchin.

Power from the turn, effectively using the stance to generate power is an element I have often struggled with (unless I’m in animal mode), I have been looking into bunkai and stances for a while (mainly saifa and seiunchin) but generally my connection has been quite weak. The during Smiley’s Sandan Course the London Shihan came over and gave me some advice, that I was just turning and punching I wasn’t using my stance, legs or bodyweight into the punch.

This was the drill where our partner had a fist out by our heads and held a pad with the other, we had to turn and defect block the strike and then strike them back.

The London sensei demonstrated and the power he generated caused the pad holder to go backwards quite a bit. He pointed out that I wasn’t using the corkscrew on the turn to drive into my stance, and that I should use the stance to drive my bodyweight into that pad.
The effort was the same, intent was different and the power I achieved enabled me to send the pad holder backwards.
This changed my perspective for the whole course, the kihon ido wasn’t just something we had to do, but became a fundamental aspect of karate, and I could feel the power driving from my legs into my stance, and the turn now was transformed. Not only was i having the reaction time to deflect block and strike, the corkscrew of my legs meant power from my stance went into my block and strike and I felt drive aggression as if someone tried to attack me.

This ended up effecting me throughout the rest of the course, when it came to being surrounded by pad holders calling north, south, East or west I was using what the London Shihan said instinctively and driving through the pads. This lead to sparring where it all came together.

After the course I wanted to thank the London Shihan as it made a huge difference, and admitted my weakness in not using my stances so well when it comes to striking. He gave me some great advice on when they are so important, and why we aim not to hurt but to knockout a person. Pain isn’t enough when  you could knockout and end the conflict quicker, be it from mental, physical or spiritual consequences, but that intent is the most important aspect even if you have to internalise with a partner, with a pad you should always release it. This mindset will get you through alot of trouble and get you most of the way with your karate journey.

I asked the London Shihan does it imply to sticky hands, and he answered yes because they will lead to the final strike which will always aim to be that knockout blow. He demonstrated that a heavy hand, is nothing compared to the combined strength of the stance, corkscrew and bodyweight shift into that strike.

It made me realise that while my time in China was great and beneficial for me, with learning Sanzhan, I have been so focused on being subtle I have stopped using all the power I use to use. It’s like a yo-yo going from exaggeration to subtle, and finding the right balance. I will have to start exaggerating my movements focusing on connecting stances to strikes before I can make it subtle again.

Mindset, when it comes to striking no point in just trying to hurt someone, intention is.key, is strike especially on a pad should be a knockout punch, just giving them pain isn’t going to do much, when sparring intention is to knockout as that will bring your mechanics into it, but internalise it as you have the mindset to do knock them out, with damaging your training partner.

Gripping the ground from your stance be it Zenkutsu dachi or sanchin dachi, gripping with the feet gives you this connection with the ground that you are driving against which can make you more solid in using your stances or help driving you to and from. The Bristol Shihan was on fire last night, and this eureka moments starting from Andy last Thursday, smiley and London Shihan to the Bristol Shihan, everything seems to be slowly connecting together.

Rather than just grip the floor with your toes, which raised the arch in your foot so your not rooted and connected, therefore can’t generate power from it, you pull the ground with tour toes from in to out slowly, it acts like a suction rooting you to the ground. In sanchin kat, your drive the lead hip in, draw the other the other hip in, sink and bring the knees in and rise up almost upright but sinking with your tailbone. This is stuff us high grades have heard before, but trying to walk like that brought new insight and as I discovered new muscle groups into effect.
A similar principle is developed from zenkutsu dachi, where the lead foot gets rooted to the ground and the release enables you to drive backwards effect for sparring.

Maybe it’s just me getting older, but it’s been nearly a week of karate relevations, but the only way for me to learn them is by practice.

Smiley’s Sandan Course

It was a privilege to take part in smiley’s Sandan grading, where he had to teach a course to the association on an aspect of karate that we might sometimes over look, and so the course enables us to learn train and drill this for two hours.

I was impressed with the warmup, to most it might of been just kihon ido (moving basics) but it completely warmup up the body, preparing us for training without causing injury. What was most impressive of it was that it lead straight into what he wanted to teach, the turn.

A seemingly simple drill to turn the opposite direction and to be prepared to defend to yourself from attack from behind. Smiley noticed that many ranging from high grades to low grades often rush this to try to keep in time with everyone else and therefore we often don’t properly cover, block and strike on the turn.

So he had us slow it down take our time, the cover starts just before you start the turn, you end up covering your head and have time to block and strike with plenty of time to do everything and actually to be able to generate power from the corkscrew like action of the turn going into your stance be it zenkutsu dachi or sanchin dachi. By taking our time and not rushing our techniques we had time to fit everything into the turn, covering just before we pivot allows us to let everything flow together.

Smiley later analysed why we turn initially with the current front foot and not the current back foot, the first gives you time to react to a punch to your head and takes you off their center line putting you in a stronger position, the latter forces you to react Instantly, sometimes forces you to move your head out of the way maybe by moving your body depending on the effect of your deflect and blocking but with put you on equal footing with your attacker, which is a disadvantage as you are effectively turning into their attacks.

We drilled this with a partner holding out his fist, then he held a pad with the other arm so we could practice the turn and react into a punch, drilling in that instant reaction of seeing danger in the corner of your eye and reacting immediately. This reaction gave a new meaning to the turn and help visualise that we should have the mindset of reacting to the turn as if someone was about to attack us from behind.

We returned to kihon ido and the whole lineup looked and felt better, we were smoother and the turn itself felt very reactive which transformed everyone’s kihon ido. Moving basics suddenly felt like they made more sense, an new element was added to them.

We then got into.groups of three and trained this reaction with the first kata (geksai dai ichi) bunkai, but this time instead of just doing  bunkai, we had to react as soon as we finished off the previous bunkai as the strike would be coming when we were turned away from the second attacker.

After the excitement of the reactive bunkai we again returned to kihon ido, this time as well as turning around he would ask us to turn 90 degrees one way or another.

Smiley got us to walk around and at random we could grab someone’s shoulder or someone could grav our shoulder and we would have to react Instantly turning  correctly

We got split into groups again, and returned to kihon ido several times as his goal was to prompt us into turning into an attacker in an advantage (stronger line of attack, keeping your head clear of his fists). We were split into groups of five, depending on the angle the call was made would depend if we found it easy or hard, some people prefer one side to another. I found using the drill helped me generate power and react much quicker than I perhaps would normally do.

We again returned to kihon ido, and now I could feel the connection between my guard, stance and strikes everything was flowing in harmony.

Then he got us to do the grab the shoulder, from back or side and we would have to react into an instantaneous spar for.several moments before the next. It was exciting to feel as my stance work connected with my strikes and I was therefore more effective, I could see it happening throughout the whole group.

Smiley gave one of the most well taught lessons ever, from start to finish everything fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle, turns something that seems simple maybe even boring and an area that annoyed it’s lack of cohesion in alot of gradings not only getting fine tuned but to bring the karate spirit into, see how it transcends through to all aspects of karate, making us better at deflecting, power generation, reacting. The list could go on.

The Shihan’s speech at the end was very insightful, they didn’t necessarily agree with everything smiley went on about, but found it very thought provoking where they had to go and discuss and think about it to themselves several times in the grading. They were proud of him and so were we.

Sparring, sticky hands and valley drop

It was another awesome training session today, I especially enjoyed the warmup as it emphasised alot of drills we don’t normally practice that are of higher grade skill.

We started of with 6 rounds of sparring, meant to be 50% contact to work on speed, technique, and entry. I went a little heavy with the orange belts because they will have their green belt soon and they need to get mentally ready.

Then we did running, pressups and a few situps, ran a few times. Then we practiced Kakie and did pressups inbetween them. This felt great as we got to drill in using our sensitivity drill, working our sanchin mechanics and it the muscles had a nice burn. Clap pressups were done after this, only 10 which is sensible, challenging enough without risking injury.

Then  we did the same with hakutsuru te (white crane hands), much like wing chun hands, learning to redirect a strike, distract your opponent and strike, keeping fluidity in your arms always having your attack and defence ready.

Next we practiced some roundhouses, being relaxed with them, as that is when the roundhouse kicks are at their most dangerous.

Then we did a fun drill, slapping each others hands (guard high) to get our hands fast, loose, high guard and ti train our reflexes. This developed into one person having a high guard, chin down, whilst their partner attack their guard, trying to keep their eyes open. This progressed to attacking the guard, then slapping the side of the head, when your in guard and you think a strike is coming you turn your guard to block it. This helped us to focus on protecting the head and reading our opponent when they were going to strike, while being pressured.

Our next section focused on tani otoshi (valley drop throw), Sensei was kind enough to make me demonstrate the throw in front of others. (I will get use to this, I will says I tapping my wizard of Oz slippers) We discovered that we all have our own particular way of getting into the throw, mine is pull them towards me, before I throw as they’re body has dropped enough for me to apply the throw, Sensei likes to take the arm over his head,his leg can drive in to theirs making the throw easier.

We observed as a group that if you don’t keep control of the arm, start shiga dachi too soon or not close enough, or don’t use shiga dachi at all then the technique won’t work.

We worked on some counters, one being dropping your weight down before they have a chance to throw you, or anticipating what they are going to do and move your leg behind theirs first.

Andy was really connecting with seiunchin throws, and showed us several variations.

Overall an awesome session.

Keep training, Never Give Up. OSU

Re-learning Tensho, Teaching Quickflame and some Kicking Fun

Warmup

Mike and I decided to train in a beautiful park on Saturday morning, I missed a brownbelt/blackbelt course which mainly focused on tensho and he wanted me to go over some of the Jo staff forms and mainly Quickflame.

We both warmed up slightly differently, me using Sanzhan and Shisochin and mike doing pressup’s/situps/squats. Then we did Sanchin a few times first loose then normal and we both felt really loose and ready to train and not exhausted to the state that we couldn’t train and learn on what we needed to learn for that session.

Tensho

I won’t go into too many details, and as I told mike I took what he said with a pinch of salt, he had already just re-learnt the form we had missed so much from the first time we were shown it, the arms are much closer into the body (a lot like White cranes 1st three forms) and the tension is completely different to the body then Sanchin is, I found it a lot harder and a more of a full body workout whilst the movements themselves were so much more like tai chi. It really did tire me out.

The details of how we even start the kata were really shocking and it was weird to feel my butt clench so much. It really changes the way I do Sanchin and the other katas (including Sanzhan) and the kata is far more beautiful and devastating than I first realised.

Mike also noticed that I turned into the movements on my left side during tensho just as Cameron did when I was weight training with him on Friday. My right Lat is huge while my left is small (all my other muscles are well balanced) which started when I first did pullups nearly 10 years ago, the bar is slightly angled and I never realised until 2 years ago but obviously my right Lat compensates for my left, meaning my jab from my right is much more powerful than my left, it will be something I have to continue to balance out as to me Lats are the power through everything in punches (something I learnt in White Crane) and is an big weakness.

I was surprised how much like the wing chun form and 2nd/3rd form of White that this kata was from what I have observed (and I have tried out the Wing Chun form on two occasions), just the way the elbows are locked in, tension in the arms, the angles of attack they use, it was really exciting there was much that i had missed out when I first learnt it back in January, I can now see why it is a mid-higher level kata.

Jo staff

We Progressed to the Jo staff, I went over the geksai versions and showed him what I knew of Saifa, and with his fresh eyes was able to point out a problem I had with it, then I polished up on his Quickflame which he will need next year which wasn’t too bad he just needed to be more flowing with his legs and know what to do with his hands at key junctions.

Sanzhan

Then looking at how tensho reminded me off Sanzhan so much I decided to show him the first part of Sanzhan but I told him only the first part. He was surprised at how much more difficult and tense it is compared to Sanchin and tensho and how much more relaxed the power is when you explode the arms. He didn’t quite get it but he got the idea and it tripled his punch power (ow). I was showing him how the tension was like a build-up of energy but not the power in itself, you must release that power with a hint of relaxation and turn it into a bullet from a gun. A main principle of White Crane is not to telegraph which means you don’t raise the shoulders or move the hips it all comes from the core and Lats.

 

Kicking

Then I got into discussing with him the various versions of Sanzhan/Sanchin on how some develop one key aspect and have a certain weakness that Uechi Ryu’s version would be the closest version to a good balance and how I had heard rumours that there is one version with kicks (which would be devastating.

Before the session started I was on about a drill I do I call long range combo, I use it to drill my kicks because I am a close quarters fighter and I need to start introducing more kicks into the style I fight in. I have also been doing a lot of jumping kicks which I know is what is the next step in white crane that they use to get their kicks in closer, I just worked on it by accident (I really need to go back to China and visit my Sifu). Mike was showing me how to incorporate Jump kicks to close the gaps, I asked him to look at my roundhouses and he asked me to compare to my front kicks.

I have been drilling my front kicks a lot recently and I was surprised to see Mike drop from them (I didn’t add power. He asked me to aim for a front kick and then change at the last moment to a roundhouse and with little power it made a huge difference. He believes that all kicks come from the core and knee that we telegraph too much where it should so much more simple.

He watched my stance and because in my mind I have incorporated kicking I have lengthen it and turned my body at an angle which means there is so much distance that even if I don’t telegraph  they will see the kick coming from the distance. It means getting my footwork back to Sanzhan which is a nice balance of Neko ashi, zenkutsu dachi and Sanchin dachi.

I should use the same principle’s for kicking that I do for punching, it’s not back to the drawing board I have the ideas already I just have to simplify it, focus more on tensho and Sanzhan and adapt my kicking drills to include a better stance for me to use.

A beautiful day, training with my best mate and we both came away with loads of ideas and new perspectives it felt like we been on a course but could of trained longer if we wanted to. All we needed was a beer afterwards.

Keep Training, Never Give Up, OSU.

Weight Training for Goju Ryu

It was really fun training with my mate Cameron from work; he is a bodybuilder and strongman and really knows how to train his body depending on his mood for that time. I decided to test out earlier that week and was surprised to see that despite focusing on bodyweight training for two years my weight lifting strength hasn’t changed that much (obviously weaker because I haven’t trained my nervous system like that in years).

Explosiveness and tempo for martial arts

As I told him I wanted to train for my martial arts, rather than two separate hobbies where my body tries to do two different things and get injured often as a result. He completely agreed recommended speed training for explosiveness and he also noticed that my temp was different to his almost double his speed. Cameron is focused on squeezing the muscles feeling a pump, where my natural mindset it to blast through that exercise which he said was great for the power that I need in martial arts. I wasn’t doing speed for the sake of it, largely my form was clean, I have to get lower on my dips etc.

Volume

I learnt why I never put on sheer mass, except for bodyweight exercises I had never done that many sets for one or two muscle groups, I was surprised to see myself keep going at these points, it shows how remarkable the body really is. Today I am surprised how loose my body is showing that lifting weights the correct way stretches your body.

Weaknesses

Cameron was surprised that for a naturally strong man some exercises I was really weak and he was looking at my muscles in shock, and he started to analyse why that was. On the bench my right side is far stronger which means it takes up more of the load on the bar thereby looking weaker. Cameron couldn’t understand at the time because sometimes my left would kick in. He worked on my form on some key exercises and told me to lower the weight to where the problems starts and build up slowly from there, he reckons three months they will go away.

I noticed on one exercise and he noticed on another that on my left side I turn my body into the exercise meaning I am using more of my body and joints into the exercise. This is probably how I use to injure myself in weight training, that my right side would take the load and that I damage my joints by not letting the muscles bear that weight.

This is the first time I really weight trained with someone and it is really eye opening on what I have been doing wrong.

Then I was tempted to do Single Arm Rows (SAR) my former speciality I really wanted to see if I could use a 50 kg dumbbell again, and so with Cameron watching I blasted through my right side and struggled with my left side. He noticed I didn’t go so deep on my left and that my body would twist to make it easier. I was ecstatic that I could lift that heavy a weight, and relieved that I knew where I was going wrong, I need to fix my left side for martial arts. He said I had a really strong chest, strong lats but need to work on my traps.

Next time we will work on squats and deadlifts which when I perform the correctly will be so beneficial to karate, especially if I keep that explosiveness mentality I’m not a bodybuilder I am a martial artist.

Comparing bench-press to Sanchin

Not an exercise that I really used as I use to train on my own, but the way to drive force and power in the bench (and probably for squat and deadlift) reminds me of Sanchin/Sanzhan) is to breath into your abdominal muscles (or dante/tanden) squeezing the lats and feel like you’re bending the bar. Doing it correctly felt very much like doing a hard version of Sanchin.

Keep Training, Never Give Up, OSU.

Sanzhan/Sanchin and Squat Kicks

I have noticed some key weaknesses in Sanzhan fighter, it has many strengths and I do love it, but I have a habit of not telegraphing my punches to the extent of not delivering the power that I can from it, (a balance I must fight) so I have been working more on Sanchin, Shisochin  and tensho to help me gain power in both arms (in Sanzhan you strike with both arms at the same time, in sparring you do one at a time) but I didn’t want to get into the habit of not kicking, my kicks need a lot of work especially front kick as I rarely use it in sparring. So I have been doing squat kicks the last couple of weeks with a high open handed guard whilst looking at a mirror.

I noticed immediately that my elbows flared out too much, and tried to find a balance on where my arms should be. I disagree with some high grade at the club and that they have their guards too high, which for me causes too much tension (wrong kind) in my shoulders and slows me down, I believe that all our blocks (like our stances) are points within our guard, all are important and we should flow between them, where I disagree with a few high grades is that they believe that we contradict our bodies so much that they can take powerful blows, that our head can’t take it so me must only guard the head. I agree protecting the head is extremely important, something I really need to work on, but if we are in the street or dojo someone strikes extremely powerful and I am not tensed in time I am not arrogant enough to think that I can withstand it, a powerful clean well timed shot to the ribs or solar plexus can take anyone down, you see it in boxing and MMA all the time.

Anyway back to the topic I am working on a loose guard, higher than I usual do and elbows in, I am making sure I am getting into the habit of squatting parallel, then I noticed a problem with my front kicks, I don’t extend far enough (probably because I am subconsciously protecting me knees) and it makes me realise one reason I have been having a problem with them, so I have been focusing in front of a mirror extending that kick.

At first this was hard and a lot to focus on, but I have already found that I am landing more front kicks in sparring because I have been focusing on this drill and my guard as dramatically improved. I am trying to tie it all in together so that I can kick close quarters, I even managed to surprise myself the other day and did a Nidan Tobi Geri (well more first was a front kick, second was a Tobi Geri) and both of them landed, I was really impressed that I of all people could actually land that move.

It is good times being a Shodan, I am actually learning about myself and how I should fight, not fight to a set pattern or what people think should be the norm, adapt it to my personality, boy type strengths and weaknesses.  If I knew that it would of made such a difference, I would of done Sanchin and squat kick (with a high guard) years ago.

Keep Training, Never Give Up, OSU