What are you really practicing?

By: David Lambert – IOGKF International Editor, IOGKF Australia

IOGKF International Editor, Sensei David Lambert, questions all Goju-ryu practitioners to pause and access whether or not they have strayed from the path of true Karate. He provides a very interesting view into who really is practicing traditional Okinawan Goju-ryu, with an analysis and breakdown of our styles main teaching principles...

What are you really practicing?

That is the question I find myself asking instructors whose claim to fame is teaching ‘traditional’ Okinawan Karate, when they seem to be doing everything but.

In regards to being a member of the IOGKF, we are challenged with the daily preservation and protection of the cultural heritage that is our treasure - Okinawan Goju-ryu Karate-do.

There is no doubting that when the average citizen thinks of Karate, instantly they picture tournament and sports Karate. They know very little about the traditional or ‘true’ Karate, that we should be practicing.

The reason I say should, is because I am beginning to notice a growing trend among young instructors, out to prove their worth as Karate’s next big thing. They seem to conform to society’s ideas of what a good Karate-ka is. More seem to feel that having successful tournament records, large class numbers, a great dojo set up or making large amounts of money from teaching, automatically means they are a good example of traditional Okinawa Karate. In some situations they are, but from my observations I am seeing more who are not.

You cannot sacrifice our ‘true’ Karate training, just to give people what they want and so you can make a buck.

We must be very honest and acknowledge that Karate is not easy in a physical activity respect. Please don’t get me wrong, it is the most rewarding physical activity I have ever encountered, but it is also definitely one of the hardest. In a time where technology and globalisation have brought people together with the click of a button, more and more people are stepping back from participation in physical activity, as they no longer need it for the social aspect.

I feel many Karate-ka are jazzing up their teachings and training to maintain an entertainment value to compete with these factors. By doing this they are losing the gokui (essence) of what traditional Karate is really all about.

Nothing disappoints me more than when I ask a student from another dojo or style, ‘what do you do at training’, and hear a reply along the lines of, ‘um, we mostly do lots of sparring and a bit of bag work.’

What disappoints me further is when I ask, ‘Do you do much Kata training?’, to be met with ‘um, sometimes. Usually only before grading’s though.’

But what lets me down most of all is when I see senior kyu grades and sometimes black belts perform basic Kata and their form is terrible. I am usually never surprised to find that these same people usually have one Kata that is reasonable – only because it is the Kata they perform at tournaments.

Instructors who run their dojo’s with their main emphasis on lots of Kumite training and bag work, may as well hang a kick boxing sign above their door, because that is all they are practicing.

The practice of fundamental Kata is the key to many traditional styles and in particular Okinawan Goju-ryu Karate-do. Without regular in depth and energetic training in Kata and its techniques and applications, you are not practicing Okinawan Goju-ryu.

All other training conducted by Karate-ka, should be linked to the improvement of their fundamental Kata.

Kihon (Basics) should be practiced regularly as a means of strengthening our techniques. It is easiest to think of Kihon training (both static and moving) in 3 basic stages.

Firstly, static Kihon training should be used specifically to strengthen the actual techniques, through with many repetitions.

Secondly, Kihon with basic foot work (side to side, forward and back, tai sabaki) should be utilised to adapt the body to using the techniques with typical Goju-ryu motions.

Finally practicing Kihon ‘drills’, utilising many stances, angles, movements and techniques, trains the body for effective and practical application of Karate moves. It combines all the Kihon training stages into one. Combined with strong kiai, this can become quite physical. Anyone who trains with Sensei Bakkies can attest to this!

Through strong and meaningful Kihon training, the Kata improves and Kumite abilities also rise in standard.

If you focus on this vitally important aspect of training, it can provide the challenge many students look for from their instructor and in their Karate training. If you keep yourself and your students working vigorously and build up, Kihon training can become quite entertaining and is definitely rewarding towards your Karate abilities.

The other thing missing in many Dojo’s is Hojo Undo (supplementary training) equipment. This is one of the life sources for developing a strong body for Goju-ryu and conditioning the tools we need for our techniques.

Extremely cheap and easy to obtain or make, there are no excuses for the lack of Hojo Undo in dojo’s worldwide, especially for adult classes.

Practicing Hojo Undo regularly is more beneficial for Karate-ka than living in the gym. A gym regime may give you big biceps and big quads, but the exercises usually done to obtain these have very little benefit to improving your Karate. They are good for creating some extra power in certain muscle groups, but practicing with equipment like Chishi, Makiwara, Nigire Game, Kongoken, Sashi and tan will create over all body power for your Goju-ryu related techniques.

Take Chishi training for example. Firstly if you practice the basic ‘chishi kata’ practiced at Higaonna Dojo, you will notice a few things. Firstly, there is a close resemblance in the motions and final positions of the arms in relation to Sanchin and blocking movements. Secondly, you can see that, rather than a dumbbell, that only works a select few muscle groups, a large variety of muscle groups in the back, upper arm, forearms and the legs (with the squats), are all worked and strengthened through just one repetition. Some of the exercises practiced in the Chishi Kata are demonstrated in the below video, by Higaonna Sensei.

After regular practice with many of the hojo undo equipment, you may begin to find the odd area that you have had a plateau with or is becoming too used to the regular training. At this point and with much research, you can begin to experiment with the Hojo Undo and create your own exercises, as shown below by Sensei Alessandro Febbo. Just remember, like with everything, don’t forget where you came from – Basics.

If you don’t practice Hojo Undo regularly, your Karate abilities will be very little compared to the Karate-ka who does. If you avoid this kind of training because it’s hard work, you’ll have a harder time keeping up with Karate-ka who do. If you ignore this vital part of training, you are not practicing Goju-ryu.

For seniors and adults, the other link in the chain to developing the strong body is Sanchin. When you say you practice this Kata, if you are not putting in the effort to practice regularly then your statement is false. Sanchin practice slowly unlocks the body’s natural hidden power. Its daily practice will open the tanden area below the belly button, giving you the ability to co-ordinate the body’s muscle contractions and hyper-contractions with deep breathing and kime points specific to Karate.

It can’t simply be coincidence that every Goju-ryu Master that has ever lived has placed a large emphasis on this seemingly basic practice. The movements are simple, but its execution and science can be difficult to comprehend. Everything from the toes to the muscles in the back of the neck are strengthened through this exercise.

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A student of Chojun Miyagi Sensei once decided to fight his cousin, who was also a Karate exponent, to see who was stronger. Chojun Sensei’s student was beaten easily. Afterwards, he asked his cousin ‘How did you beat me?’, to which is cousin replied, ‘It is because you do not practice Sanchin’. Chojun Sensei’s student went to training and asked that his teacher only teach him Sanchin. He trained hard in Sanchin as returned to face his cousin – he beat him easily.

The value of Sanchin cannot be emphasised enough – practicing once a week is not practicing. If you do not practice Sanchin, you are not practicing Goju-ryu.

The other aspect I feel most instructors overlook in their private and class training is Junbi Undo (preparatory exercises). The trend seems to be that instructors in all Goju-ryu styles are forgetting the purpose of our warm ups, which is to prepare and condition the body for typical Goju-ryu training. The genius of these exercises is amazing. However so many instructors seem to over look the value of exercises like, for example, ‘Tai Otoshi’ (Body dropping – into Shiko Dachi), where aspects of Go and Ju are developed and the tanden is opened and prepared for other training.

If you are not practicing Junbi Undo with co-ordinated breathing, as well as strengthening and conditioning all the joints, you are not practicing Goju-ryu.

Kakie is the next factor that is too easily forgotten and ignored among instructors who focused on sport Karate and sparring. Kakie is perhaps the most important Kumite related exercise we can practice.

To quote Higaonna Sensei ‘A fight starts with a kick or a punch, but it always finishes in close.’ Without regular Kakie training, you will not be able to handle an opponent who moves in close to fight. It develops you ability and quality when applying lock and restraint holds, executing escapes and it also helps to increase our sensitivity to predict the ‘next move’. Devoted Kakie training can lead to a formidable ability to be a devastating close quarter’s fighter. Nakamura Sensei and Sensei Eric Higaonna demonstrate how advanced you can make Kakie in the video below:

If you do not place an emphasis on Kakie, you are not practicing Goju-ryu.

Sensei Bakkies Laubscher further supported this in his 2010 Chief Instructors Gasshuku speech, when he said: If you don’t practice Kihon, because it’s boring. If you don’t practice Chishi, because it’s heavy. If you don’t practice Sanchin, because it hurts your throat. Then you’re not practicing Goju-ryu Karate.’

We need to realise that there is no shorter path with Goju-Ryu Karate. We all have to train the same path and there is only one way to train. If you stray from the path, you’ll get lost in the woods of the Goju-ryu forest and you may never find your way back. But if you do the most basic thing, take the straight path; even if it feels like it’s up Mount Everest, you’ll one day reach the ultimate goal.

As I mentioned early in this article, as members of the IOGKF, we are challenged with the daily preservation of protecting true Okinawan Goju-ryu. We need to remind ourselves that today, we are being lead by the Master in the direct line to the founder. It cannot get any truer than what we have in Higaonna Sensei. If we stray from his teachings and we stray from the fundamental training principles of this power art form, eventually no one will be practicing Goju-ryu.

So ask yourself the question. What are you really practicing?