Thursday, October 30, 2008

Ghost Techniques for the Season

This time of year with my seasonal Ghost Technique seminar for the children I teach always brings focus to one of the more subtle aspectsof the arts. The art of not being there.

The concept of Ghost Techniques was shared from Ernest Rothrock's teachings. It's based on a combination of movement and the opponent's perceptual lack of awareness. While sounding exotic, it actually is something experienced many different ways.

Some examples:The boxer using slips, bobs and weaves, to dodge around the opponents strikes. This works because the opponent is striking where they KNOW the boxer is, and not being there is used to their advantage.

Before one says boxing isn't karate, Mutsu's 1933 work Karate Kempo extensive section on karate applications begins with just those techniques, methods to slip, and dodge strikes.

One of my original Isshinryu instructors, Charles Murray, had worked this into a fine art. He would keep a 3 foot circle around him and whenever anyone touched it would either slide back so their attacks would not be on target, or conversely explode when they touched the circle to flow over and through them. Charles taught me another Ghost technique, how to use a drop side kick against an attack, yet another Ghostly variation.

Those two examples are where aware opponents knowing they're fighting each other, use this special spatial awareness to their advantage.

In my Tai Chi studies sometimes you simply step back to create a void to draw the opponent inside.

This can be shades of a great JapaneseSamuari flic "Sleepy Eyes of Death", where the sword technique made an opening the opponents would strike into because they knew he was open, only to die. Of course this is always easier in the movies.

A far different example is from the teachings I experienced with Tristan Sutrisno. One time he disappeared from my strike to end up standing on my shoulders. When you're on the receiving end you really do belive in ghosts. His aikido drills would as frequently shift to remove himself from an attack, and in his Siliat Tjimande he would ground himself, dropping beneath the opponents attack to strike from below.

More specifically the Ghost techniques of Ernest Rothrock (a very small subset of his instruction) consist of specific movement drills to disappear from an attack, to shift so you end up behind your opponent. The opening study is against rigid attacks to learn the shifting patterns, but then extension against more random attack follows.

A more modern terminology would be the use of body shifting and movement to evade an attack and to in turn use that movement to place yourself ina more advantageous position.
But if you're opponent knows where you are, and really believes they'll strike you there, it is possible to disappear before their eyes, and…………

So as the moon darkens, thoughts of the ghost drift by as Halloween approaches. May you always not be there when necessary.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Salisbury Tales – part seven Green means Go!

I was several months past a year at the Salisbury Dojo when towards the end of August I was laid off from my construction job. While the money had been sufficient for our living I could see the future should be doing something else. We finally decided to try Scranton, where my wife parents were living and traveling there I found work in a bank to start as a teller.

That meant a very hurried trip back to Salisbury to pack up and move our household. It was such a hectic time. Several weeks earlier we held a party for the dojo at our rented home and now I had to leave them. Thursday evening I left off the packing and returned to the dojo to explain to Mr. Lewis and everyone we had to move.

One of the sad realities in our world is as important as karate can be in our lives, it cannot be first place. Many times being able to move for work to support the family is far more important. Our country is far different from an island 45 miles long, and how we make our livings are very different today too.

That class was very bittersweet. I loved the training and then Mr. Lewis started me learning Chinto kata, just the opening section, but I thought he was doing it as a going away present. Then at class end I was called up before the class and promoted to Green belt.

There are no words to describe my emotion at that point of time. Suffice it in time I came to realize what promotion really meant. It was never a completion or passing a test, but it was opening newer and harder challenges for me to try and live up to that promotion. The longer I go the more that has become my personal path.

As I’ve gone back 36 of so years writing this, so many old stories opened themselves for me, ones I had put to rest long ago. Now I realize how my study of Isshinryu was first and foremost the classes training, over and over, but it was so much more living an Isshinryu texture in doing so. Karate wasn’t just being a student, but it was participating in more than the dojo, but in an Isshinryu community and if my training was to continue I would have to establish that texture one way or another in any future studies because it had become something very important to my life.

My trip up to Scranton established that there was no Isshinryu and in fact no karate in the Scranton area at that time. I had no idea what I could do but practice what I had worked to learn.

Returning home meant several days more packing and then me following my wife in the car as I drove the UHaul north.

The night was dark as were my feelings. Friends I had made being left behind as I was driving into darkness, the light behind me.

When Mario McKenna suggested I start a blog I thought I’d begin with my passions about karate. When it occurred to me that perhaps many haven’t had a beginning year like I had experienced, it might be of interest to describe it, but taking the time to return to those days has been very personal.

Yes my Salisbury days were over, and you really can’t return home again, but I did go back.

As to how I returned to Isshinryu study, why that’s a tale for another time, I will state that it was literally God’s intervention that brought me back to Isshinryu and made me a black belt. Who was I to reject the movement of his hand across my life.

As I drove on in darkness I only knew somehow I had to return to Isshinryu study.


Friday, October 24, 2008

The Salisbury Tales – part six The Salisbury Blues

Later that spring I reached Blue Belt and my wife Yellow. Kata it was Naihanchi (Naifanchi, Nihanchi alt. spellings) and Wansu time.

Class remained focused about ½ kata and ½ kumite. Then in a blue moon Sensei would start class by calling out games and that’s all we’d do, run races, wheelbarrow races, etc. It kept us from becoming stale.

I continued to travel and was training 3 or 4 days a week, focused on my studies but now aware of what some of the seniors were doing. One of the guy’s went up for his black belt examination, the only testing Mr. Lewis held, but the actual testing was not open and none of us knew what it represented.

The club also participated in more tournaments, of course only a portion of the club were attending. I remember Karl Hovey’s in Virginia. A huge tournament by Bob Maxwell held outside of Washington DC, with maybe 50 seniors judging the black belt forms at the same time. There were no ties in that division. As we traveled far to attend them, we were almost always early, and that day arrived around 9am but my division wasn’t called till almost 7pm. Made for a very long day.

Aaron Banks had organized a full contact league and was holding a tournament in Baltimore. Mr. Lewis’ had been contacted to provide a demonstration between two of the fights. The IKC black belts were going to do a breaking demonstration and they spent a lot of time preparing for it. I was asked to contribute to the extent that they needed help holding Al Bailey horizontal at shoulder height. A stack of cinder caps were placed on his stomach and Dennis Lockwood would break them with a sledgehammer while standing on a chair.

The day of the event we drove over to the Baltimore Civic Center. One of the demonstrations involved I believe Frank DiFelice taking kicks to the groin and four simultaneous strikes to the throat. He had a very deep gravely voice. Four of Mr. Lewis’ black belts were asked to deliver the strikes for his demonstration. They followed Mr. DiFelice’s instructions how to strike, but they weren’t pulling things either. It was interesting to watch in practice as well as done in the ring. I never volunteered to learn those skills.

Our demonstration time arrived and I watched the dust fly as those cinder caps broke.
The day was far more eventful because of the fights. In an earlier contest one competitor tried to block a kick with a low block and broke his arm. Then in the main event Butch Bell (a student of Ron Collins) was to fight the league middle weight champion, Kasim Dubar. Bell was in the ring and very focused. Dubar was talking to the press outside of the ring, and then entered to showboat high kicks. When the fight started Bell didn’t kick he just waded into Dubar with hard punches and in a flurrey dropped Dubar. He recovered and rose to continue fighting. Again Bell just tore into him, backing him into the corner and then delivered maybe 15 of the hardest body shots I’ve seen. He stepped back and like a board Dubar fell forward, not breathing. The Physician wasn’t ringside, being back stage to treat that broken arm and only the quick response of the judge, Johnny Kuhl from NYC saved Dubar’s life. The highlight of course was Mr. Lewis taking everyone out to dinner on the way home, me spending time with the black belts.

Funny what you remember. Later that year in August the latest issue of Official karate covered the event and I had my picture in the magazine. Of course you could only see my obi the way the break was photographed, but it was still me. You don’t get bigger time than your obi in Official Karate.

So training, traveling and training, tournaments, events in the arts one evening Mr. Lewis asked me to come into his office. I saw that Charles Murray was in there with him. Mr. Lewis explained to me that Charles was going to be home from college for the summer and was planning at teaching a self defense course at a hotel in Ocean City, Maryland. The IKC black belts were going to help him with the demo and would I help too. I replied “Sure.” Then he told me that they wanted me to spar with Charlie for the crowd.

Was my goose sunk, and for the next several weeks all that was on my mind was I was going to have to fight Charles Murray.

Just as Mr. Lewis had trained in Okinawa in 1959, Charles had received his Sho-dan and in the USAF was stationed in Okinawa in 1971 and trained with Shimabuku Sensei during is tour. I heard stories about how he was a ferocious fighter, as a teenager he faced Howard Jackson, then the top middleweight fighter in the US and almost fought him to a draw. When Charles was home from college and would drop in to work out, he’d take the strongest brown belt and work them over. If one of the black belts from his generation of IKC would show up, you’d just watch in amazement as they’d tear into each other.

And I was selected to fight Mr. Murray in front of a crowd and all my instructors across the Eastern Shore. I had no idea how to do it. The entire time before the demonstration nobody said another word to me about it.

The day arrived, the crowd on the beach front of the hotel was huge and there were over 20 IKC seniors present. I think I also did Seiunchin kata. When it came time for the kumite demonstration I was putting on my safety gear and Charles hadn’t worn any before and I had to show him how to put it on,

I was standing there, all of my instructors watching me facing a non stop fighting machine. Mr. Lewis shouted “hajime’ and I did my best to tear into Charles………I don’t remember much of what happened. Later I heard some of the instructors were aghast that I jumped into him and he proceeded to work his techniques up and down my body. I think they felt he was going to destroy me. Someone told me they tried to tell Sensei we have to stop the fight before he kills Victor, but Sensei let it go.

I wasn’t hurt and just remember fighting and being nailed often as I was trying. A blue belt trying against a 2nd dan. It seems they never thought to mention that for demonstrations you just play and I guess I was chosen to make Charles look good (as if he ever needed help). Aside years late Charles showed me he had a movie of our fight. It looked pretty much as I remember, one of the spectators at a ringside table had a great time watching me getting pounded.

So I got out with my skin intact, Charles, a year later would graduate as a Minister. There’s a lot to his story, sometime I’ll share a bit of it that I know.

The rest of the summer I remember preparing for an IKC shiai (the size of a small tournament itself) working Wansu hard and always training.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Salisbury Tales - part five As the Yellow Belt Darkens

As I recall all of these events in my first year of training I can see how the beginner retains events from their special time of newness.

It was a time of training, more training and tournaments.

Always new adult beginners and the experiences they offer. One night we were being drilled in basics by Mr. Lockwood and one of the new beginners was having trouble with their uppercut drill. As Mr. Lewis’ dojo had a wall of mirrors, Mr. Lockwood told him to go back to the corner and work on his uppercut facing the mirrors, practicing hitting himself in the jaw. A short while later Mr. Lockwood looked up and an amazing expression formed on his face. I turned my head to see that beginner practicing striking himself in the jaw with his uppercut.

I realized I wasn’t very good in kumite and as Mr. Lewis’ students had formed their own Isshinryu clubs over the Eastern Shore of De., Md. and Va. I began to visit those schools on off nights for more training. The first visit was to Reese Rigby’s club, then held in a church in Dover. I asked him if I could train and told him I knew I need more kumite practice, so of course I got what I asked for. When we got to kumite I was assigned to a green belt named Bill. In the middle of our fight he came at me with a jumping kick, and out of reflex I swept my left hand up under his legs. He ended up horizontal to the floor and dropped, hitting like a rock. I thought I had killed him but it turned out he was also a black belt in jujutsu and just did a hard break fall. Still, for whatever reason, when something works it’s a good night. I did get more kumite practice too.

My wife’s indoor volleyball league concluded and she decided to join the Isshinryu program too. I never saw anyone move through the white belt program faster. Of course since she was a physical education instructor and having watched me practice for months, her overall knowledge of training helped her.

One Sunday she came to the club when I was cleaning and I tried to show her how to spar. She leaned forward and ended up with a black and blue eye, a tradition that continued for years. When we sparred, somehow something happened such as she’d kick me and in turn hurt her ankle (hospital visit) or punch me and sprain her wrist (another hospital visit) and I ended up being the ‘brute’ hurting her.

When it came time for her first kumite, I could see some of the other’s faces showing we have to take it easy on Victor’s wife….alas. Her first move was normally to bust anyone in the mouth with a backfist strike… not just a phys ed major, she had two older brother and….

That spring I went to NYC with a group of the club to attend the tournament at the Sunnyside Gardens to raise money for a memorial for Shimabuku Sensei. It was a gigantic Isshinryu affair. There’s quite a backstory about the event, but that’s not my tale to tell.

Sunnyside Gardens was a hall Professional Wrestling events were held in. The day of the tournament when you stepped out of the locker room and took two steps your white gi turned black. It was the dirtiest tournament floor I’ve ever seen. The tournament officials were moving around the floor with hammers driving nails down so we didn’t step on them.

I gather most of the seniors in the Isshinryu system were there, and Shimabuku Kichero flew in from Okinawa for the event too. My yellow belt kumite division was run by Don Nagle. I met Steve Armstrong and discussed with him for a few minutes, a recent article he had in Black Belt magazine. We had dinner with Harold Long between the tournament and the evening show.

All participants received a very nice certificate to remember the event. A friend of Mr. Lewis’ Karl Hovey who was originally from Okinawa gathered up all of our certificates and went to ask Shimabuku Kichero to sign them for us, but that didn’t work out and they weren’t signed.

The most memorable things I remember are the huge gathering of Isshinryu seniors present. A brown belt from MYC with the nickname Quick Draw McGraw wining his fights by throwing a flurry of knife hand stirkes. I rememberMr. Lewis taking 2nd place in Men’s Black Belt Kata, and at the evening show watching Shimabuku Kichero going through Chantan Yara No Sai. A night at a hotel while the Black Belts attended the Black Belt evening festivities, and of course a long ride home to Salisbury the next day.

A month or so later George Iberl was hosting a tournament in York, Penna. As my family lived 10 miles from their my wife and I went up for the weekend. Of course she had to win 3rd place in Women’s White Belt Kata. It was quite a well attended tournament, and like many in those days there was to be an evening show.

The star attraction was Bill Wallace who would be hosting a clinic on kicking the next day, but the most memorable performance was that of Ted Volrath. Volrath Sensei lost both his legs in the Korean War in service to our country. Later he studied Isshinryu and proceeded to give a self defense demonstration that included him leaping from his wheelchair while taking down his assailant. In his demonstration he described how he had a role in the movie ‘Pusher’s Die Hard’, and his wheelchair had been custom built for the role. He was on the stage talking to the crowd seated below when suddenly he grabbed the armrests on both sides and pulled them up. Two double barreled shotguns popped up and shot off blanks. The entire crowd dropped back into their seats.

Volrath Sensei was not going to let a handicap stop him from being a karate-ka, but that demonstration had a cost. He had landed hard from that leap and injured himself, later going to the hospital.

The clinic with Bill Wallace the next day was sparsely attended, but he paid no attention to that. Bill Wallace had the nickname ‘Superfoot’ and lived up to it. Not only were his kicks superfast, he could kick innumerable times without putting his foot down.

The clinic was 3 hours long and for over an hour he pushed us in just stretching, drill after drill, and that was the easy part. Next came the kicking.

Bill Wallace had injured his right leg long before and only kicked with his left leg, but his flexibility was such he’d raise his knee so it against his chest, and his raised leg and standing leg were almost in a straight line. He only threw Side Kicks, Roundhouse Kicks and Hook Kicks, but in any combination without end.

His leg was literally as controlled as his arm, He could slowly raise his leg to brush your hair back off of your forehead, or he could tell a strong black belt competitor exactly which kicks he was going to throw and you’d see them helpless to stop them.

The remainder of the clinic was kick, after kick after kick, the most intense kicking drill I’ve ever done. The longer we kicked the lower our legs went till they were down to the ground and Bill would walk around growling like a DI to raise or legs and kick harder.

A very intense demonstration combining unique personal ability and lifetime intense drilling.

Bill Walace wasn’t perfect, he has been beaten, but you had to go a long way to do that. It was about that time he switched over into PKA full contact style fighting, and made quite a name for himself there too.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Salisury Tales - part four They Call it Mellow Yellow - quite rightly!

One day I was promoted at the end of class to Yellow Belt. Lewis Sensei followed his instructor’s traditions and you didn’t test for belts. When you were ready to begin training at a new level you found yourself asked to come up before the class and you received a promotion, with no idea it was coming that evening.

I always find it interesting how such promotions carry greater obligation. You haven’t achieved anything, rather you are challenged each and every promotion to work harder and live up to the responsibility of the new rank.

Kihon still remained Kihon. Kumite meant you could fight harder and in turn ‘they’ could let you have it even harder. You also began a new kata study.

In Isshinryu this meant Seiunchin kata.

About ½ of the kata was done with tension and hard breathing, similar to Sanchin breathing, and about ½ of the kata was done with normal speed and breathing. The Isshinryu Seiunchin kata is a variation of the Seiunchin practiced by the Goju stylist. For the most part they cover the same material and the movements have the same application potential, but Isshinryu’s Seiunchin is just that, Isshinryu’s.

Among the changes the Club was getting ready for a karate demonstration at the local Civic Center. I just related one small back story of that preparation.

Mr. Lewis decided to form a Yellow Belt team doing team kata using Seiunchin for the performance. There was one slight stylistic difference for the performance from the Dojo Seiunchin, and we were going to do it to music. The group practiced the kata over and over, and then the music was added. It was to a mid 70’s song, ‘The Hustle’.

To this day when I practice Seiunchin kata I hear ‘the Hustle’ in the background.

Because of that deep drilling Seiunchin became my favorite kata for the next 20 years, till I reached the point I no longer have favorites, I fully respect all of them. But other lessons learned were the values to imprinting a group flavor to the kata. To this day I maintain kyu group study of Seiunchin kata, following the same timing and flow of that day. I find there is a strong return on the effort of group practice, getting all of the students on the same page, setting them for eventual application study using that timing and flow with the Seiunchin technique tool kit.

I had begun to pay for my club dues by cleaning the dojo every Sunday afternoon. It allowed me to spend time on my training for an hour or so and then get down to work. So I was now in the dojo 3 days a week, and having the key I could open the dojo up for class as soon as I got there during class nights.

Kumite also took on a different practice. Jhoon Rhee had begun manufacturing and selling SafeT gear for the hands and feet. We all bought some because we expected it was going to be required in future tournaments. The funny thing was, those Green belts I wrote about seemed to strike and kick harder with the foam rubber pads on their hands and feet.

On the other hand I had discovered a new weapon. Even though I was working as a construction laborer, when I warmed up I ended up with a gigantic pool of sweat around me and had to run and get the mop to clean it up before class could proceed. In turn when anyone kicked me, especially when they did so hard, when they put their foot down they fell as we had a polished tile floor I was cleaning each week.
I was far from an adequate fighter, but that one secret weapon could drop everyone.

Working with the Safe T gear we prepared for an upcoming tournament in Lansdowne, Pa. The day came when we drove up as a group. I competed with Seisan kata, but when they announced the kumite division and covered the rules I remember there was a change from how we were training, probably no head contact allowed at all. At the time I didn’t know how the rule difference could work considering I had trained differently.

Of course today, I would recognize forget the rules and just fight. Then I didn’t know what to do, none of my instructors were nearby and when my fight was called I was thinking far too much… enough said.

It was a time of work, more work, sweat and pain and so much more.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Salisbury Tales - part three You had to be there!

Long ago in pre-history when I was a yellow belt in Isshinryu at Tom Lewis' Isshinryu Karate Club in Salisbury Maryland, I was asked to help in a demonstration with the Self Defense techniques. I was to be the attacker, and Kathy, a younger green belt, was to be the object of my unwanted attentions.

Everybody knows the story. I do something and then go splat.

One Tuesday night, two men came to the dojo and asked to watch a class. Next to Sensei Lewis office there was a bench for potential students to do just that. They watched through the warm-up and opening drills. Then class split into kumite (free-sparring) practice, and Kathy and I moved off to the side to work on our demonstration.

I remember specifically drilling on our closing movement. I approach her from the side and place my arm around her shoulders. Whatever her response I end on the floor on my hands and knees. My right hand was clutching my left ribs, because she was then to do an instep front kick into my ribs (on my hand) and then follow up with a quick sweep of my left hand causing me to finish by falling face first onto the floor.

Practice makes perfect, right?

While all this was happening, the two visitors were starting to become obnoxious. Perhaps their nature, or perhaps assisted by a few brews, they began to speak loudly between each other about how much tougher they were.

The instructors were trying do decide on an appropriate response to their behavior when our demonstration went live.

I grabbed Kathy and of course next I was on the floor holding my side. She nailed my hand with her instep kick, nice and hard with a loud 'Thwack', but when she followed with the sweep of my hand she missed. Instead of sweeping, he foot traveled up underneath my armpit and she nailed my nose with her instep.

I remember reaching up with my hand and it coming away bloody. Now this was not an uncommon experience for me in those days learning how to fight. Safety gear had just come out and most of the time we didn't use it, and everyone simply accepted mistakes happened.

In this instance two black belts rushed up to me (where I was on the floor) and Dennis Lockwood knelt down and whispered in my ear, "Victor, don't do anything."

The next thing I knew was they grabbed my feet and drug me across the dojo floor, leaving a trail of blood behind me.

I was pulled out the door, and both of them helped me to my feet brushing me off.

Dennis told me, "Wait here a moment, I have to go inside." And he left me with the other Black Belt to attend me.

He marched inside and walked up to the two visitors."Gentlemen, we have an opening in our class for a new student, would one of you wish to join."

It was interesting to note how pale they looked as they quickly left the dojo.

With much laughter my instructors helped me to the bathroom to clean up the mess.

The Salisbury Tales - part two The Green Machine

When you’re a beginner you spend more time watching the group ahead of you than the more senior members. You can imagine yourself becoming a green belt, where as a brown or black belt were beyond any comprehension.

In the Salisbury Dojo when I began there were an incredible group of Green Belts. They were all strong karate-ka and could fight like Demons.

As a White Belt I was target practice for them in kumite. Being larger I think they felt I was their private kicking bag and I’m sure I had cracked ribs for a few months for a time each breath I took contained some pain. In fact most beginners didn’t last more than a few weeks, feeling how far they had to go, that and the pain likely caused them to move on, quickly.

But those that lasted were a driven bunch. Many of the white belts would show up as soon as the dojo doors opened about 45 minutes before class. We’d spend our time working hard on the Charts, Kata or Mr. Lewis’ unique Kotekitai drills, both single and partner training. With that was abdominal kicking with top of the foot round kicks, and body side kicks too..

Starting soft we gradually picked up the pace and impact to those areas of the body which can be conditioned to take a strike. In turn the Green Belts would use that conditioning to work us over harder.

I had been training a few months and the school was going to attend an open tournament in Baltimore. Tournaments then were large affairs with many different systems in attendance. The tournament director announced several rules changes because of Chinese stylists in attendance. Ground techniques and groin techniques both with control would be valid scoring techniques in the tournament.

Watching our green belts competing they were the only competitors anywhere on the floor who were using ground kicking techniques to finish fights. One of the guy’s was so good when the judge would shout ‘hajime’, and by the time he finished speaking our green belt would have his spinning back kick in his opponents mouth, with control. Something I had experienced many times.

My own tournament beginning was more circumspect. I still had little idea what I was doing, and when I faced my opponent and started fighting, he scored his first point against me by kicking me in the groin. I’m sure it was more because of white belt skills than because of practiced groin attacks. Then we continued fighting and the fight concluded the same way a groin kick. I’m sure the judges had a different idea what control was, that last kick left stars in my eyes, tears streaming down my face from the pain. It made for a long drive back to Salisbury.

Training with those green belts was interesting, but they also introduced me to an important fact of training, in time most move one. In their case it was often for work or careers in the Coast Guard. Their developing skill in karate wasn’t enough reason to not do what they had to do to live.

I was still very new in the art, but that was one of the lessons that would not change. No matter how important karate was in someone’s life, it was still only a part of life and never the most important part.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Bubishi - The Classical Manual of Combat

A new edition of "Bubishi - The Classical Manual of Combat" has been published by Tuttle.

This new edition contains more material by Patrick McCarthy about his efforts to translate the Bubishi. It is hardbound and makes a fine addition to any Martial library.

I've had a minor passion for some time about the Bubishi and it's role in developing Karate on Okinawa. Shortly I will be discussing some of my thoughts on this too.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Salisbury Years - part one

In the early mid 70’s I was working as a construction laborer at Salisbury State College, helping construct a new Physical Education complex and one day heard about a Karate School outside of town. When I got off work that night I went there and found a barn that was a custom karate school on the inside. It was Tom Lewis’ Isshinryu Karate Club.
I watched a class and was invited to join the next class, so $15.00 for monthly dues in hand I started studying Isshinryu Karate.

I had some previous exposure to Karate. One of my University roommates trained at Temple with Okazaki Sensei in Shotokan Karate and he used to teach me how to block and strike so he could practice on me. At the time I started Isshinryu one brother was training in Go Su Kwan in NJ (SL Martin), another was training in Tae Kwon Do in Md. in a Jhoon Rhee school, and my youngest brother and sister were studying Shotokan in Penna. To me it seemed as if was finally my turn.

Classes were twice a week in Salisbury, the program was run as a Club. Mr. Lewis had begun his own training on Okinawa in the last 1950’s and had been teaching in his home town since 1966. To my instructors, my first year would have just been another year and a new wave of students. To me it was the opening movement for my life and contained so many incidents that I’ve never forgotten.

The First classes

We all begin at the beginning. In my case my first class after about 20 or so minutes of warm up was an introduction the Isshinryu’s upper and lower body charts. A systematic study of basic techniques, blocking and striking, as well as lower body kicking.

I didn’t have a uniform, it would be months before that occurred. I wore sweat pants and a t shirt.

The second class I learnt the opening of Seisan Kata. Rei and open, step left foot forward into Seisan Dachi (Front Sance) with a simultaneous left side block followed by a right reverse punch, then right foot steps forward with a left reverse punch to continue with the left foot stepping forward with a right reverse punch

The third class Mr. Lewis announced kata practice and stepped back. The entire class I repeated the opening section of Seisan Kata over and over and over and over and over. When I concluded I was standing in the middle of a six foot puddle of sweat on the tile floor. During the entire class there were no instructions or corrections. Everyone was observed I assume to watch what they were really putting in their own training. It was never explained though years later I learned that Shimabuku Sensei rarely taught in a class setting and would observer student’s efforts, rewarding correct performance with new material.

The fourth class I got my introduction to kumite and was assigned to fight a young female green belt almost 10 years younger and maybe 100 pounds lighter than I was. I had no idea what I was doing, and she proceeded to drive me backwards all around the dojo blasting me in the mouth with roundhouse kicks. No preparation, no advice either. I didn’t have a clue what to do, just had to experience it. Kumite would continue as a regular part of training. When you fought the other white belts you tried to do something, when you fought the seniors you tried to survive.

These were the pre-safety gear days and class sparring rules were no head contact and light body contact. I would observe from the bottom women were not called foul if they hit a man in the mouth and as you advanced no contact to the head was often you nailed them but they didn’t snap back, and light body contact…… well.

Mr. Lewis’ students had moved on through the years, opening Dojo’s from Wallops Island Virginia to Dover, Delaware, and many other locations on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, Delaware and Virginia. There were a core of Senior Instructors with Mr. Lewis (such as Al Bailey and Dennis Driscoll) and a continuing changing group of drop ins from the other dojo. Everyone took a hand in the instruction and we quickly learned that there were many small variations in the kata which were our practice. You picked up to remember which instructor taught which version for when they saw you again they expected you to do it the way they showed you. We never heard a discussion about the ‘right’ way to do kata, rather the focus was to do the best with your version possible.

Class quickly became a focus after warmup’s and drills of about 50% kata practice and 50% kumite. Only occasionally were situational self defense drills worked. Classes followed a general order but not fixed one. Once in a while you’d jog around the dojo to a USMC running cadence. Several times a year you’d show up for class and spend the entire time playing games, such as races, wheelbarrow races, etc.

There were no testing’s, instead there was training and the surprise when you were called up at the end of class for a promotion.

We trained hard. Many beginners quickly left because of the level of contact from the beginning. There was little besides training. We didn’t receive lectures, nobody was derided from other styles or within Isshinryu. Your karate was what occurred on the floor. You knew who had skill and you worked, step by step to get it yourself.

But the events that occurred in that year… more to come.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Sai perspective

I began my study of Kobudo with Sai when I was training with Charles Murray, back about 1977. When he studied on Okinawan in 1971 at Agena he learned the Isshinryu version of Chantan Yara No Sai kata at the Agena Dojo, under Shimabuku Tatsuo.

My Sai came from a visit to Asian World of the Martial Arts in it’s old location in Philadelphia on North Broad Street. Most would recognize my Sai as one of the most common versions commercially sold. Solid chrome plated steel with wide tines and decades of dents. Well balanced but not perfectly so, with the years they’re perfect to me.

I remember in Fumio Demura’s book on Sai , the book showing photographs of different Sai types. Charles brought a pair back from Okinawa in 1972 for Mr. Lewis, they were small almost dagger like. He told me how on visiting a Goju school he saw the students throwing their Sai into a tree for target practice.

There is another Isshinryu Sai kata Kusanku Sai . It was created by Isshinryu founder Shimabuku Tatsuo using Isshinryu’s Kusanku kata for it’s base and adding a piece from one of his older Sai kata, Kyan No Sai, was designed to be done with three Sai. Towards the end of the kata, one Sai is tossed into the ground and the third Sai pulled out of the obi to replace the one thrown. It is likely the toss to the ground was not to throw it through someone’s foot, but was done for safety in the dojo, where the original use was likely like the Goju students practice.

I imagine it very rare today when one would be called upon to use Sai in self defense. On the other hand long, hard study of Sai is a great compliment to empty hand karate. The techniques really work to increase power in striking and blocking, simply from the weight of the weapon in your hands. The practice also builds grip strength over the years allowing you to transfer that power when grabbing in kata technique application practice.

From my experience all Kobudo study is most useful for the adult. It takes the potential of adult strength, developed ligaments and tendons all working together to build advanced skills. Younger students rarely have the best mixture of the above and frequently their kata execution is modified to take their current ability into account.

For those systems which incorporate Sai studies, they are well worth the long range development which might result.

Saturday, October 4, 2008


I’m sure it was in 1979 at a Cherry Blossom Karate Tournament in North Eastern Pennsylvania when I went into the locker room to change at the end of the tournament. A senior instructor, Joe Brague, was talking to a number of the competitors and turned to me and said, “Victor, come over here I want to demonstrate something to them…” The next thing I knew was I was on the floor regaining consciousness.

Brague Sensei demonstrated a carotid choke on me and I went down. That’s what happens. The pressure on the carotid sinus causes the heart to stop beating and the loss of blood flow to the brain causes unconsciousness in maybe 5 or 6 seconds.

That’s all you slowly count to 6 and you’re unconscious before you get there.

That was enough to get me looking into how chokes were performed.

In one karate magazines they demonstrated a technique that would set up that choke. I tried it out on a senior student and saw how it was working, so I started working my way through logical means of setting that choke. Eventually I worked out about 5 or 6 choking techniques.

This was one of two different choking sequences, the other being the trachea choke, which takes longer to set (say 20 seconds) and can be far messier to deliver.

A few years later at a summer camp I was asked to give a clinic, so I told them I was going to show how to choke, but when I started showing the techniques the camp director rushed over and asked me to stop, that it was too advanced for the students.

Are such studies too advanced? I teach youth and certainly do not teach them how to choke, but understanding the reason you must instantly break a choke is not beyond youth needs either.

Choking has always been a part of Judo. I remember an Olympic contest where the American judoka was contesting with a Russian judoka. They locked up and shortly it was over, the Russian went for a collar grab-choke and simply choked out his opponent.

But chokes are a layered answer. A while ago Police Science thought that teaching Police chokes would be a humane way to control assailants. You wouldn’t have to strike them, you’d just render them unconscious. Potentially true, but forgetting an important item, a Police officer trying to restrain a subject has likely been bodily threatened by them, and has their adrenalin rushing, in turn in less than in perfect self control. A carotid choke held say 20 or more seconds can be life threatening. A Georgia State Trouper explained at a clinic how frequently good ideas in Police Science end up wrong when the full picture comes into play in practice.

Tactically a choke is one way to finish an response to an attack. Shift, parry, strike, etc. till control is required and a carotid choke is certainly a logical way to finish that control, assuming one is in enough control to only do what they wish.

Chokes to the neck (carotid or trachea) have serious side effects. The neck can be dislocated or broken under some circumstances; the axis might be fractured against the atlas in such circumstances with paralysis a result. (under no circumstances take my medical technical opinions as accurate, they are only intended to generally refer to a complex set of dynamics that one should responsibility reach with a Doctor for accuracy).

Yes under the right circumstances they may be performed to show human frailty, but under no circumstances does ever going beyond a second or two to show the potential, are the potential risks worth going further.

While frequently demonstrated, it is always irresponsible to ‘safely’ put someone out.

This knowledge should not be hidden. The most important value is showing everyone never let anyone touch their neck. In fact if someone must know when it is most important that they react without thinking further, anyone placing their hands on their neck, anyone attempting to place their hands on their neck, or anyone seeing a strike coming towards their neck, gives immediate license to respond and make all of the above not happen.

Perhaps it best stated the neck is the gateway for strongest control of our person.

And of course the study of how chokes can be set has a more important value, how does one counter those attacks.
The paradox of our arts asserts itself. To become most technically efficient at neutralizing an attack, we first have to be able to deliver that attack with force, focus and speed.

So when having turkey and someone asks who wants the neck, it might give you something to think about.