Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Hidden and Secret Knowledge

Much has been made, in martial arts culture, about the secret techniques, or the hidden things in a given style.

I was talking with my Sensei this evening, and talking about Isshinryu and about people that had studied Isshinryu and then gone on to other styles. He made the comment that principles of Isshinryu provide a very sound foundation from which to pursue other styles. That made a lot of sense to me.

Personally, I've looked into Krav Maga a little, and liked much of what I saw there, and then related it back to Isshinryu, rather than dropping Isshinryu and pursuing Krav Maga.

I'm of the opinion that until I've reached at least black-belt in Isshinryu, then I won't be able to fully appreciate what Isshinryu has to offer, and probably won't be able to fully appreciate what other styles have to offer, either.

There is the superficial stuff -- The physical forms of whatever art we choose, and then there is the infinite subtlety; the facets of what we learn and how this new knowledge is like plowing the hard soil so that a deeper knowledge can seep in.

I'm finding that as I run through the Seisan Kata, and the beginnings of the Seiuchin Kata, that I'm focusing on so many things at once: My breathing, the angle of a wrist, rotating on the heels instead of on the balls of my feet, making sure each punch is at the proper height, making sure it's guided towards the center-line, making sure that I'm extending to 98% and then snapping it, making sure that each kick, I'm chambering the knee properly, raising it high enough, and then snapping the kick, making sure my toes are pointed up so that I'm striking with the ball of the foot.... So many things...

While I'm doing all of these things and concentrating on all of these things, my body says, What if you bent your knees more and lowered your center of gravity? What if you reached your hands out, opened your palms, and then brought your fists back, when you go to stack your fists? What if you rocked your hips forward as you went into the front snap-kick? 

So many other things like this... When I listen, I can hear and see my Sensei in my mind's eye, telling me to concentrate on my breathing, telling me to rotate on my heels rather than the balls of my feet, telling me that my wrist needs to be straighter during an open-handed side-block. When I listen, my body also has its own wisdom and it begins cooperating, rather than being so uncoordinated and stubborn.

There are hidden and secret techniques in our chosen martial art. They aren't likely to be discovered on some newly unearthed scroll or parchment. They come from within ourselves, as we refine ourselves spiritually, physically, and mentally, as we pursue and perfect our art.

On a different note: I found out that my daughter and I will be testing for yellow-belt on the 3rd of April. A blue-belt in our class will be testing for her brown-belt. I'm really happy, because I've seen how hard she works and practices. There's another woman in our class who is a brown-belt, and I hope she tests for black-belt soon. She's awesome... This evening in class, there was one of the kids from the childrens' class, testing for his yellow-belt. It always makes me feel good to see others advancing... :-)


  1. When we were talking about the applicability and completeness of other styles, my sifu said kind of half-jokingly, "just look and see how many old people practice the style to see that."

    There's kind of some truth to that. At least with my martial arts, I see a LOT of sloppiness in form and structure. The sloppiness almost always comes from young guys. (Which, yes, would include me.) This is because when you're young and fast, your strength and athleticism can get you through a fight and can compensate for your bad structure. But structure and knowledge is much more powerful, and also, when you get older, that's what you're going to need anyway since you won't be so strong or so fast. And, ironically, you'll only have that if you worked on it when you were young. :)

    Regarding secrets and knowledge, I like this quote by Bruce Lee a lot:
    "Before I studied the art, a punch to me was just a punch, a kick was just a kick. After I'd studied the art, a punch was no longer a punch, a kick no longer a kick. Now that I understand the art, a punch is just a punch, a kick is just a kick."

  2. Way to go Frank!!!! You're doing awesome!!!!

  3. Hi Frank

    I agree with James, It's generally the young ones (mainly teenagers) who have the sloppiest technique - but get away with it because of their speed and agility! I think as you get older (I'm even older than you!) you learn to work within the limitations of your body and think about the details of the technique much more - good technique is what makes things work for a maturer body. Middle aged martial artists are much more thinking than the younger

    The other thing to expect as you go through your pre-black belt training, (I think this is a common experience)is that progress in the first 3 or 4 belts is quite rapid and you feel you are really starting to get the hang of things, then in the middle belts progress really slows up, sometimes you feel you are even going backwards. You have to not be too discouraged by these times and just train through it. Then you get to that pre black belt year and suddenly it's all fitting into place and happening for you again. I've noticed our 1st kyu grades seem to transform in that year before black belt - even the teenagers!

  4. Thank you, Irma!

    James, I'm reminded of the Zen saying: First, there is the mountain. Then there is no mountain. Then there is the mountain again. :-)

    Sue, thank you! I'm in a funny place, because at nearly 41, I'm still in great shape and still have a lot of natural athleticism. At the same time, I've got a nagging tendinitis in both elbows, and my lower back is stiff and a lot less flexible than I would like, so I'm having to take things slower and more carefully than I would have, even a few years ago.

    What's really neat, is that when I'm doing a technique or running through a Kata and I don't have it right, it's rather two-dimensional. When I really pay attention, focus, and concentrate on my breathing, stance, and technique, it's like suddenly, the light comes on. The technique has a feeling, or maybe it's a Knowing... I can hear this shout inside of me that says, "YES!!"

    There's a part of the Seisan Kata; the last third; where I go into a T-stance and draw the fists back to my hip. Before, this was just a somewhat bland part of the Kata. It didn't seem to mean anything. I was watching my Sensei run through the Kata, and he opened his fists, allowed his hands to extend a few inches out from his body, and as he drew them back to his hip, tightened his fists again. Suddenly, that part of the Kata just lit up for me! When I imitated that movement, I realized that it was an elbow being thrown to ward off an attacker from behind, and the technique itself really popped! It's hard to explain in text, but I'll probably make another video in the next couple of weeks, and you'll be able to see it demonstrated...

    The great surge of progress at the beginning, then the plateau and even feeling like one is losing what one has gained, and then the surge of progress again: I'm used to this. It's an experience common to a great many things, so when I get to that plateau, that's a signal to me to go back over the absolute basics with a fine-toothed comb and really refine them. I am nothing if not tenacious. :-)))

    Thanks again!!

  5. Another thought: (from the website in my earlier blog on the history and founder of Isshinryu, Tatsuo Shimabuku.)

    Tatsuo's feelings were hurt by some of the senior Masters from Naha who did not agree with his new style of karate. Once while sitting in the dojo after class several of us were sitting and drinking. Tatsuo liked to drink Awamori an Okinawan distilled alcohol made from certain type of long grain rice which comes from Southeast Asia. There were many bottles of awamori,pine juice, and beer of various sizes on the table. Others present were drinking beer or mixing the awamori with pine juice a pineapple juice. Tatsuo asked the students "Which is the best bottle?" Those who were drinking beer stated the beer bottles,others picked the largest bottles,and some chose the smaller bottles. Shimabuku said all the bottles were good. All of them served a purpose: to hold what they were intended to. " There is no best bottle," he said. What Tatsuo was saying was each had a purpose and all were good. He was relating this to karate.

  6. There aren’t any ‘secret techniques’ or ‘inner meaning’ behind their appearance, there are only good and faulty techniques and advanced understanding of things. In true martial arts there are only properly taught techniques that work because there is complete knowledge of the principles behind them and because every element is in place to make them work. To teach techniques without proper knowledge of them or to intentionally leave out elements in order to keep students intrigued and later on ‘reveal’ the true meaning is dishonest and not in accordance with the martial way. I’ve heard of a style of Wing Chung that deliberately teaches incorrect technique to their beginners, later on it is revealed the techniques were faulty and the correct form is taught in the guise of ‘advanced interpretation’… utterly ridiculous. Certain techniques are more advanced and potentially more dangerous in practice (obviously) and it’s only natural a teacher doesn’t reveal his most treasured techniques to anyone but those he deems worthy but there’s nothing ‘secret’ about them. This is just a marketing ploy to attract and keep more students: mysteries always attract attention, even if they’re bogus.

    “There is no ‘interior’ nor ‘surface’ in strategy. The artistic accomplishments usually claim inner meaning and secret tradition, and ‘interior’ and ‘gate’, but in combat there is no such thing as fighting on the surface, or cutting with the interior. When I teach my Way, I first teach by training in techniques which are easy for the pupil to understand, a doctrine which is easy to understand. I gradually endeavour to explain the deep principle, points which it is hardly possible to comprehend, according to the pupil's progress. In any event, because the way to understanding is through experience, I do not speak of ‘interior’ and ‘gate’.“ (Myamoto Musashi, the book of wind)


    PS: I'd say it's usually the beginners that are sloppy, regardless of age. If advanced students are sloppy there's something seriously wrong with the dojo and/or the style.

  7. Thanks. I'm convinced that the heart of Isshinryu is revealed through the absolute focus and discipline in performing the kata. Over and over, each time, focusing on proper breathing, proper stance, practicing as though one's life depended on it, (which it very well may, someday), and constantly seeking to improve. The practice is its own reward.

    My Sensei may be satisfied with my performance of the Seisan Kata, and it may be sufficient for a promotion to yellow-belt. Personally, I am not satisfied. I am looking to constantly improve my technique. I suspect that even when I'm a black-belt, I will still be working on improving my technique with the Seisan Kata.

    "Zen mind, beginner's mind." If ever I get to a point where I feel that there is nothing I can improve, then it's time for a serious reality check.