Thursday, 22 January 2015

"Styling it out"

I want to write about the various karate styles around and why I feel they are irrelevant to practical martial arts.
Firstly I'll start by mentioning even though it possibly goes against my last sentence, I would still describe myself as a shotokan karate practitioner. I started training in shotokan over 25 years ago and it is still the only style I have graded in (I think? - more on that later). Whilst I feel very little association with the term "shotokan" I do feel the term has its merits in describing what I do to other martial artists and as a marketing tool to prospective students. 
Shotokan karate is widely regarded as the style of karate created by Gichin Funakoshi about 100 years ago (the karate historians out there will have issues with that statement but for the purposes of this blog it will do). His teachings and students then proceeded to take what they learned around the world and we now are left with Shotokan karate as we know it today, possibly the worlds most commonly practiced martial arts style. 
Obviously in the 100 years or so since funakoshis day things will have changed a bit. Karate is used for many different reasons. Some for sports, some for self defence, some just as general study yet all these variations lay claim to funakoshi and shotokan in some way. The same is also said of the other main styles of karate such as goju ryu and wado ryu. Visit 2 different wado ryu clubs and you will receive conflicting views on what their style is all about. 
As an example of this I can remember a couple of training sessions I have been in attendance of at 2 wado dojos recently. First session at dojo number 1 we were performing ushiro geri. The instructor noticed I was doing the kick very different to the way he teaches it so he showed me his version and explained his reasons for it, all fine by me, I was there to learn new perspectives and I did. Later that week I visit a different wado dojo in another town. Again we practice ushiro geri and it turns out this instructor does it the same way as I did and not the same as the other wado guy did. I asked if he had ever done it in the other way and he said he had not and wasn't aware of anyone that did. Both clubs use wado ryu as their style and claim the techniques they use to be "the wado way". For the record I don't think that one of these guys is wrong in the slightest. They both have a lot of experience in karate and I have trained with both since and would train with them again in a heartbeat. 
I have had a very similar experience at goju ryu dojos. There have been 2 goju ryu dojos I have trained in and both have taught me the kata "seisan" and both completely differently. Again I don't see one of these versions as wrong and I feel they both have merits. One version I learned concentrated on the conditioning and hojo undo (supplementary training) aspect that is common to goju ryu and I find particularly appealing for my own training, the other school barely mentioned any of these things and the kata felt very different. 
I have also had these experiences in other shotokan dojos. Whilst a student I lived in a small town with just one kugb shotokan club in it. I trained in this dojo often but quickly realised that things were done a little strange (or so it seemed to me) and as I was less experience then I almost thought they were doing it wrong. Turns out the other black belts in the club thought the same of me! As I trained there regularly over a couple of years I picked up a few things that I actually preferred to the way I had been doing previously. I was then left in the awkward position of having new habits from my college dojo and I would automatically do them when training at home. I then had to switch between 2 variations depending on where I was training even though I preferred one over the other (my home dojo felt I was doing things wrong by using technique from the college dojo! That was where I was to grade so I had to do it their way). This experience didn't sit well with me and being told to change from an effective technique to an inferior one just "because I said so!" Was counter productive in my opinion. In the years since I have trained in many more other dojos and learned hundreds of different opinions on techniques, some I have utilised in my own training and teaching (such as the Shukokai double hip punches) in replacement of my old "shotokan" ways. 
So what have I become now. A shotokan practitioner that studies goju ryu and Shito ryu katas. Uses hojo undo for strength and conditioning, and punches like a shukokai stylist? That also brings me onto my grades. I have graded up to 4th Dan by shotokan karate instructors like most do but for my 5th Dan I wanted a change from the norm so sought out someone that would grade me on my karate rather than what I could do for their association. My grading was therefore performed in front of a 9th Dan shukokai and a 7th Dan wado ryu examiner. Does that make me a 5th Dan in shotokan still? Or just a 5th Dan in karate. I will say that the 2 guys that graded me really knew there stuff and easily had knowledge to grade me in shotokan if that was what was required. I'm quite proud to say that my grading was overseen by probably the 2 most impressive martial artists I have ever met. 
To further my point lets go back to the beginnings of the style. Again I'll put this in very basic form but Funakoshi had 2 main teachers. One of them was Anko Itosu. Itosu also taught other people and the other people then went on to formulate other styles. One of these guys was Choshin Chibana who went on to form the shorin ryu style of karate. A quick youtube search will bring up videos of both Funakoshi and Chibana performing tekki shodan/Naihanchi kata. To the untrained eye the two versions look very similar but the experienced karate-ka will notice many stylistic differences. This is quite normal as at the time of the videos they were different ages, different body shapes and maybe even were training different things within the kata. It also highlights how different my version of tekki shodan is from both of theirs! Yet I refer to my version as a shotokan kata?
Come forward a few years and you have descendants from Funakoshi in Kanazawa, Enoeda and Asai. I have trained with all three of these and the experience was very different yet they all claim to teach Shotokan. Again the 3 masters had varying body shapes, flexibilty and even prior or new knowledge to impart (Kanazawa is also a tai chi master and I believe asai has experience in jiu jitsu or aikido). My own personal karate has a lineage tracing back to Kanazawa although I have never been a regular student of his and only trained with him in seminars etc I do however sometimes train in clubs within his organisation. Kanazawa often uses his tai chi and its associated breathing methods in his karate including a deep inhale and exhale after performing a kata. This is a technique I have phased out as I do not see much merit in it personally. My phasing out of this also goes back to my days in the kugb where being Enoeda rather than Kanazawa lineage they didn't do it so I would be the only one doing it after a kata!
Again a quick YouTube search can quickly bring up kata performed by all three masters and the differences are often quite striking. Heian shodan for example shows 3 different ways of performing the hammer fist strike and 3 variations of upper rising block and 3 knife hand blocks, yet all are said to be shotokan. You can even go back and find funakoshis heian shodan and see that his version is different again from Kanazawa, Enoeda and Asai. But none would ever be considered wrong!
My point really is that there can't really be a "Shotokan way" or a "Wado ryu way" just like there is often no right way or wrong way to do karate. Without being overly philosophical about it we should all find our own way. By that I mean that an experienced practitioner should be adapting techniques to make them fit their own body style or fighting style. You could argue that the only person that really did Shotokan was Funakoshi himself and we are all just trying to emulate him, this is fair enough but for me personally I know that there are a lot of things my body can do that Funakoshis couldn't and vice versa. Also I know that there are things I can no longer do that I could 10 years ago and as I get older that feeling will most likely increase. 
Because of all of this I feel very little affiliation with the term "Shotokan" other than to use it as a basic descriptive word for what I do. Having said that I quite sure I will continue to call myself a Shotokan karate-ka for many years. 

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