As a recent discussion about how close contemporary karate instruction was to old style karate. I’ve tried to pull together a listing of those pervious practices. Trying to understand the past method of karate study can be difficult. I think it's safe to make some assumptions about the 1850-1900 time frame.
1. Karate was a public presentation at many festivals. On the other hand there were no tournaments, sporting aspects to the training.
2. If accepted for training you live in a walking distance from your instructor.
3. The instructor knew who you were in great detail as a member of your community. Your instructor may have had 40+ years into their own study when you began. The instructor was not recruiting students just living a private tradition.
4. You had a cultural obligation to follow your instructor's teachings, especially if you chose to train.
5. You were either a legacy student (through familiar connections) or were someone who passed the vetting process.
6. The training was private taught hands on, with no technical vocabulary attached. No terms for punch, block, front kick, bunkai were used.
7. You had no uniform.
8. You did not receive rank.
9. You had no specified syllabus of study, what you learnt, what standards were associated with the study was entirely at the hands of the instructor.
10. You study had no style name, no school name, it's tradition was passed only in oral history.
11. Your training may have moved to other instructors. Most of the instructors out of this era had multiple instructors. Due to your attachment to your instructor, they may have been the initiator of additional training.
12. The Makiwara and Kata were the primary components of training. Other components to training were not documented.
13. There is a very strong chance that the Bubishi was not available to Okinawan seniors at this time and may have entered Okinawa post 1900. If that is the case it may have had no influence on the movement of te towards karate.
14. There is no documentation how anyone truly trained. Length of instruction or depth of instruction. The best indication is the art of the students of that era who became instructors.
15. One of the differences between large group instruction and small group/individual instruction the instructor can more directly interact with the student.
16. Then there is the Time. Japan took control of Okinawa in 1871. The King was banished to Japan. The institutions such as the schools came fully into Japanese Control. The government stipends to the noble class abruptly ended, many of whom were reduced to poverty and a drop to the bottom of the social structure having to scramble to find work.
Older customs were ended by the Japanese government, this included wearing the traditional topknot.
This even extended to some of the kata movements designed to grab that topknot, why practice something that no longer existed. All of this would work to make the training more private.
One example of this came from Hohen Soken describing how the opening of Kusanku kata would be used to pull blades (in the topknot comb) from the hair to use with Kusanku technique.
17. Many of the Okinawan people began leaving, there was a shortage of land, there weren't many jobs to support them. This helped the movement of karate outside of Okinawa to the Okinawan communities forming in many lands.
We have direct comments on training in the 1850-1900 time frame. Funakoshi Ginchin "Karate-do My Way of Life" describes his earliest training with Itosu Anko on the Naifanchi kata years before Itosu Sensei created the Pinan kata. Eric Estrada's interview with Hohen Soken also describes his training in that time.
Additionally, interviews with and writings by Kyan, Motobu and Miyagi likely bridge back to those earlier days of training. Here are some links you may find helpful.
Interview with Chotoku Kyan - with Comments by Dan Smith
Karate-do Gariyaku – Chojun Myagi
Sayings of Choki Motobu - translated by Joe Swift
Interview with Hohen Soken