Opening Seisan Kata 101.1 – a minor study in application potential
First Post a word from our sponsor
I thought it might be useful to try and show all the application potential I
find and teach for Seisan Kata’s opening section, as an expansion of earlier
efforts. Among the many reasons my son is beginning this study,I’d also like to
record this for my instructors future efforts, and I’d like to share my thoughts
with my friends, too.
But starting to define them I both realized how much was there, almost an
unlimited number of potential to explore, and if I could document them I also
realized nobody would ever be able to use them.
Then I remembered words from Harrill Sensei, “The kata applications I share
aren’t important, it’s the principles underneath them which are important.”
Then it came to me, I should listen to Sherm’s words. So instead of focusing on
describing all of the potential applications I can do, I’m going to focus on the
principles underneath my application study and accompany them with some
examples. In turn they are where I yield my application study.
It also strikes me that trying to post everything I see at one time will lead to a babble complex, so I’m going to do this one piece at a time, and hope it leads to questions, thoughts, disagreement and perhaps even agreement on occasion.
Application Potential instead of Bunkai
I remember well a time when kata was just kata, almost everywhere, and a desire
to see if they were something else was a long, hard journey of self study. In
time other study began to point out interesting answers used by other systems,
but I always returned to my own belief the kata technique ought to be used to
their full potential just as they stand.
Along that path a word came into public usage. The word was ‘Bunkai’, and the
most common usage was this was how the instructor would teach the applications
of the kata technique, their ‘bunkai’.
Words take a life of their own. The use of ‘bunkai’ came from the developing
Japanese forms of karate. It is a specialized term within some of that
community, not a universal understanding for all Japanese. Outside of the
martial arts community that used it the average Japanese would use the term as
the car mechanic would bunkai the car, take it apart, to locate the problem.
Really a very different use of the word, where in karate perhaps the kata is
bunkai’d to explain the applications.
But the use of ‘bunkai’ to explain how kata application was taught was not
enough. Other additional terms such as ‘oya bunkai’ arose to explain the
alternate applications, etc. to develop a more technical explanation of what was
being taught. So things became more structured as abstraction to discuss the
actual events, and categorize them.
I spent quite a while on a different sort of ‘bunkai’ one more like the concept
of hidden hand ‘kakushite’ in a tradition where the dan studied thousands of
applications tied into kata sections similar to mnemonic devices to remember and
teach them. But this ‘bunkai‘ did not use the kata techniques directly. Yet did
accurately describe another abstraction, or map to lay on top of the process of
developing a students applications.
I am not comfortable with the use of ‘bunkai’ to really understand karate.
Having an instructor define answers is fine, and if that’s all one chooses to do
that is fine too. But I look to a freer hand.
On Okinawa, pre 1900 there was extremely little technical vocabulary to define
karate. There was no ‘bunkai’ you just experienced, first hand, your
instructor’s answers, and for a wide variety of reasons, it is reported many
instructors rarely taught application use until very long in the arts study. And
I’m sure there are those who used it very early for the student too. Just
because there are stories, one should never assume those stories explain the
Dan Smith (Seibukan) just made the observation on the cyberdojo, from a question
about the use of the term ‘kakushite’ that I feel ties into this topic. “The
Okinawans try not to emphasis specific applications as it limits the possible
responses or utilization of techniques. Tijikun means demonstrating what the
hand is doing and is teaching method utilized by Okinawans to emphasize the
correctness of technique rather than the specific application.”
Regardless of what anyone else does or taught, when we perform kata all of its
techniques represent a potential that any of us ought to be able to tap into.
This Application Potential does not have limits drawn around it. If you work
and find a method of using the technique that you were not shown and in turn you
can successfully drop an opponent with it, there is no right or wrong answer.
There is simply potential realized.
When I began to look at kata technique this is what struck me, how can it
actually be used, and my own studies began to find out what did work. Of course
there are layers to this study, and in turn the more I looked the more I was
Then serendipity let me experience Harrill Sensei, and an entire universe beyond
my initial understanding was there. For he would take a movement sequence (as he
defined it) and explore it’s potential, in greater and greater depth, literally
hours and hours on one movement.
Though not his student, he pointed in large directions that I continue to follow
with my own efforts as well as what he shared.
But application potential is not the end, it is but a beginning step, with
infinite answers. After studying the potential, then the work comes learning how
to sell that potential against stronger and stronger attacks, how to learn how
to choose between the potential answers for a best situational response, and
acceptance not to limit the answers to keep one un-readable by an opponent,
* * * *
Opening Seisan Kata 101.2 – The Kata Section Defined
When I think of Isshinryu in my soul, it is where I began on the first day. Yes I did begin with the study of the charts, but I also began with the study of Seisan Kata.
Seisan Kata’s opening section links so many different topics. Depending on how you received the charts, it’s potential is there. You can find its soul within Sanchin and within SunNuSu. Variations on a core theme, a core Seisan-ness.
And in total, Almost variations within the Seisan Theme (Tou’on Ryu, Goju Ryu, Shorin Ryu, Ueichi Ryu and on) share some similarity in the opening section.
But the potential is not universal. A school nearby does a variation of the Seibukan Seisan. Their use of stepping out in a block in horse stance and then shifting into their front stance with the punch is not one I personally believe in, and in turn many of the Isshinryu potentials are not there, replaced by other ones.
So limiting myself to Isshinryu, realizing there are variations on the theme, still feel many will understand these section definitions, for the kata.
AS I perform Seisan the section I am looking at would begin:
1. Cross Hands (right hand on top)
2. Left Foot Forward Left Side block as Right Hand Chambers
3. Right Reverse punch as Left Hand Chambers
4. Right Foot Forward Left Reverse punch as Right Hand Chambers
5. Left Foot Forward Right Reverse punch as Left Hand Chambers
I realize some may not cross the hands (chambering the right hand and just stepping forward with a left outside block) which may change some of your options.
Others may follow the reverse punch with an outside block with the same hand, or just emphasize the punching hand’s retraction after the strike so much it is almost identical with a block.
I suspect the most common explanation for the first side block and reverse punch is the attacker is punching with their right hand, you step forward, block/parry the punch aside and punch them in their solar plexus. (Which by the way is one of the variations I will be discussing, as will its obvious follow-up, continue to step forward and keep striking (3 times) into the attacker).
But Shimabuku Sensei saw a different answer (from the Harrill Sensei notes on the self defense techniques in the Pleasant Isshinryu files section from 2002) 1.a. Left hand holds right wrist. From Seisan, pull the hand back to the release position and strike to the solar plexus.
Opening Seisan Kata 101.3 – Some Basic Principles Underlying the Discussion Defined
I think it’s a good idea to frame several tools I’m going to be using in this discussion up front. If this boors you feel free to skip reading the rest.
But as I continue along my way, they’re going to be referenced and more principles specific to certain types of applications, will be added.
On conclusion I think I’ll wrap all the principles behind the techniques together in an appendix.
Let’s see if Sherm knows what he was talking about (and I’m sincerely betting he does).
Kata I’m defining as a relatively fixed tool (hey I’m polite) develop certain energy potential, and application potential tries to use as much of that energy as possible, as exactly as possible, for greatest results.
A technique application may be Offensive in nature, Defensive in nature, or Counter Offensive. But as in combat all plans are thrown aside when the enemy is joined (borrowed that line of course from many movies – last seen in Tom Cruise’s Last Samuari) My definitions of course are just an arbitrary analysis of potential.
Offensive – when I choose to use a sequence to directly attack the opponent (frequently from the side or the rear).
Defensive – They strike first and I defend against their attack to stop it.
Counter-Offensive – They’ve attacked and I survive and counter-attack. The simplest answer is I’ve been stuck in their grab and yank and I respond.
The manner of Stepping is not defined by the kata.
The concept of application potential does not follow 100% kata technique, but allows a bit of warp to consider all the techniques potential. Most times I start with identical stepping as in the kata, but at times when I find the shape of an attack does not make it harmonious I’ll step differently. Principles behind those choices will come at that time.
The manner of Stepping is either Straight or Curved. Now there’s a line that should be included in the Code of Karate, IMO I must be clear I’m a solid crescent step guy. That’s how I was trained to execute the system, it’s how I teach the system (getting very heavy on my students (advanced too) cases when they don’t use it), and I believe it represents one of my core values behind Isshinryu energy development.
But being a rational individual I fully understand very similar power potential (perhaps the same) exists with the straight style of stepping. It’s just not what I do and if I go into my normal chant on stepping execution, feel free to tune me out. Course I’m right <Grin>
Behind the crescent step. There are many types of energy development in our body all of which combine in our execution. What I really like about the crescent step is how we pull our lower body into our centerline and then can explode from that centerline into our opponent, increasing the energy of our strike.
The specific timing I strive for is 2/3rds of the step is drawing into the centerline and 1/3rd of the step to explode out.
There are subsidiary benefits, such as allowing you to change your mind ½ the way in your step and back up from the centerline using replacement stepping, if the opponents coming in faster than you wish. (thanks to Rich Kordel for suggesting that to me years ago). So you get to compress some of your energy and explode it into your attacker, combining with the other energies from your body.
I tend to use a short hand I developed long ago to write less.
RFF = Right Foot Forward
LFF = Left Foot Forward
RFB = Right Foot Back
LFB = Left Foot Back
RP = Right Punch
LP = Left Punch
And so forth.
Opening Seisan Kata 101.4.1 – Crossing Hands
Crossing Hands applications represent variances in the manner in which the ‘X’ is formed for its application potential.
I expect many did not think I’d start here.
In fact I would not have started here but for the fact Sherman Harrill began the first clinic I attended with this section of Seisan Kata.
But in this post I’m not beginning with what I understand of Sherman’s answer. Instead an answer from my studies.
The situation – you have somebody on top of you, say shouting in a crowded place and you read their eyes, and reddening face and realize they’re ready to grab or strike you. Your hands are relatively down at your sides, and your back is against the wall, bar or people behind you so you can’t move forwards or backwards.
The response – You release you knees, allowing your center to drop and your two fists strike up, forming the ‘X’, with the right fist on top.
You strike with the vertical ridge of knuckles into the solar plexus. In fact as your weight drops from the knee release, your fist strikes up, slamming into their solar plexus with great power gives you an opening for Plan B, C and/or D.
Knee Release 1.a. – I owe Joe Swift to getting my mind on this, he translated material on this from a book published in Japan, and later released in English. I can’t remember the name right now, though I know Len’s referenced it several times.
Essentially you cannot move unless you release your knees continually. The knee release coupled with allowing the bodies weight to drop into a technique allows that dropping weight to be released in other power, such as a strike.
You can prove this readily. Take a partner (perhaps one you don’t feel to friendly towards on that day) and try the rising crossed hands strike into their solar plexus without releasing your knees. Then do the same with the knee release and see which gives you a bigger bounce, and which causes their eyes to bulge out more. Then form your own conclusions, not my word.
This is just one example, there are others we will be using later. This is a principle with a lot to offer in application potential.
Principle of Alignment Theory – Here’s another difficult one to explain. It’s easy to show in person and it can be done with different description maps (words) to explain the same idea.
In this technique it’s pretty simple. When you cross the hands your power increases (you an also prove this to yourself). You aren’t slamming the lower left hand their tight, just rising, not necessarily supporting the right. But as long as the left rises and touches the right it’s more powerful.
The simple reason for this is because when the wrists touch, the other side of the body is drawn forward, keeping it in better alignment for more power.
If the human body is not aligned correctly for technique (which can vary depending on how the technique is being used for energy release) it is less powerful.
If you are perfect, you can make the rising right hit the solar plexus correctly and still get the bang for your buck, but when your hands touch you won’t make a mistake, your entire body is engaged properly.
Oooops – Addendum
Cheng Man-Ch’ing’s - Advanced Tai Chi Form Instructions.
As a practitioner of Yang Long Fist Tai Chi Chaun, at the forms end there is a section called ‘Step up and Form Seven Stars’ that employs an identical hand formation, and the two hands rise up to face height but passes the solar plexus along the way.
Recently I was looking at Cheng Man-Ch’ing’s book and was struck with his description of the application of this technique.
Page 95, “The two wrists intersect and support each other as they attack the opponents solar plexus. This blow is extremely devastating. Its victims re unlikely to escape serious danger. Those who use it should not do so lightly.”
I’m not certain I would endorse his analysis of the medical ramifications of the strike, but it can pack a wallop. Yes my son doesn’t like me striking him this way, nor in many other ways either <G>.
This is the first of many other parallels I will try to show as this technique analysis continues.
Opening Seisan Kata 101.4.2 – Crossing Hands – Tribute to Harrill Sensei
When I met Harrill Sensei for the first time, and it was when he was covering maybe 150 applications a clinic, a very stiff pace, he explored a great many different potentials within the Crossing Hands of Seisan Kata.
This section highlights some of the strongest lessons I learned from his teachings.
His use of the crossing hands and the following side block and reverse punch really shows how much he could look beyond the basic appearance of a technique.
What he did was open up the act of the crossing hands by taking its components, looking how different timing and entry into the cross hands would yield different potential.
This crossing hands was practiced against a straight punch, but I really think of it more as a grab defensive counter.
The situation – Your opponent reaches out with their right hand.
Your response - Staying in stance you roll your center line to the left. As you do that, your left arm rolls across their arm, towards your center and down. And with that movement your center line rolls back to the right. This section has been a double rolling of the hips.
[Variable, I also like to do this by reaching out with my left alongside their reaching arm, and then drawing it back as I roll their arm to my centerline and down. This is using the arm as an earlier intercept and allows you greater contact to control their limb incoming.]
As my left arm presses their arm down, my right arm now rolls in and up, striking their arm just behind the elbow, forcing their arm to bend. The ‘Cross’ is formed by the cross strike, as your right arm goes left it crosses the plane of your left arm pressing in and down. The ‘X’ is formed with their arm in-between, even if your two arms are not touching. As you’re doing this
When their arm bends at the elbow, begin the act of chambering your right, drawing your thumb back across their inner elbow, as you do that your left arm rolls up underneath and behind their arm, to a side block type of arm/elbow lock on their arm. Your right continues to chamber as normal.
You have also been rolling your centerline back to the left during the ‘X’ and Side Block process. This centering of your body centerline on the working aspect of a block/lock is another aspect of alignment theory, to create a stronger technique with less ‘arm strength’ instead using the entire body more efficiently.
At this point you press your left arm down across their arm to the right, and your body centerline rolls back to the right. This forces them down in an elbow lock.
You complete the technique with a reverse punch to the throat, behind the ear, the neck at the carotid sinus, or other target of choice.
You can even use an add-on here, and instead of a straight punch to the neck, add on a right hook punch into the tip of their shoulder for the pain it offers.
This is a very useful locking or projection technique, depending on angle of entry, and the manner in which the kata energy is expressed in the execution. Just by making the lock and roll down more extreme, it becomes a projection, throwing the individual on their head.
When they use their left -
But this does not end here, because of another principle, the unlocking principle.
What if they grab at you with their left hand instead of their right. You don’t have to root for a more specific technique, instead just apply the technique the same way against their left grabbing arm.
You will discover it is a slightly different lock, more a bent arm drag down, but it works just as effectively.
This rather unique category of karate technique usage makes me thing of how the Chinese Arts contain Chin-Na, or locking techniques.
In fact I’ve been looking through my Chin-Na collection and I don’t find this lock present, the most I can do is find the bent arm elbow lock-down ending, but not the same entry. But the Chinese Chin-Na texts point out they do not contain everything, just the more common locks.
While similar to Chin-Na there is a difference, most of the chin-na I’ve seen (such as in Northern Eagle Claw) incorporate grabs with the locks to make the pain more intense and the lock stronger.
This set of applications does not do this.
In general I approach use of locks the same way. Unless you’re contesting against someone on a one to one basis, grabbing the arm you’re trying to lock ties that hand up, and if you’re attacked by somebody else the same time, that grabbing hand just can’t be released enough.
On the whole I teach to use the rolling center into the lock entry and the pressure of arm against arm to work the opponent into the lock. If another attacks, you just have to roll your pressure away from the lock to free the arms up for the second opponent.
Instructors note – too often people feel more comfortable using a grab. It sometimes takes considerable work to keep everyone on mission, but the grab-less locks using your full body centering, and arm pressure to make the lock work with correct practice.
Principle of Fractal Analysis
Fractal analysis is a term I borrowed from a BaGua-zhang discussion that I like because I feel it really describes what Harrill Sensei was doing. Fractals are a mathematical study where you bore down into smaller components of a process, and then deeper still, still yielding new study. [I’m not a mathematician and this is the closest I can wrap words around a very interesting very, very complex mathematics study.]
What I see as fractal analysis is taking components of a kata technique and using them as complete techniques itself. The deeper your bore, the more useful material is uncovered.
The Unlocking Principle
I had worked out the theory behind the unlocking principle long before I had met Harrill Sensei, and was using it in my own studies, but he made it sing.
In its simplest statement, look at a technique from a right attack, from a left attack, while turning, or from rear entry.
The technique in the kata, is not limited to what appears before you as for its application potential.
The principle of the Add-on
Depending on the situation, there are often other endings that provide great effect too. There are no rules in application potential that say you cannot use the application to its fullness and then add something on for greater effect, obtaining synergy from the combination of techniques.
Where add-on’s are theoretically infinite, I am going to just focus on a few of the more logical ones in my experience for this level of study.
One way to look at this lock is that the left hand in spiraling in during its movement till it completes the spiral by rolling the opponent down.
Opening Seisan Kata 101.4.3 – Crossing Hands the Director’s Cut
Here we come to the end of looking at the use of the opening crossing hands in Seisan Kata. But this isn’t the least, rather one of the more important application potentials to study in the kata, the way I would keep score (and I normally don’t weight anything better or worse than the next).
The time to strike is when the opportunity presents itself.
This usage of Kata Seisan’s opening crossing hands and side block then reverse punch also came from that first clinic I attended with Harrill Sensei.
The situation – Your opponent strikes out with their right hand.
Your response - As their arm comes out, you step forward (for myself I normally chose to step forward with my right foot. [Interior Line of Defense.] My right hand strikes across my body into their arm, with a vertical ridge of knuckles. At the same time my left vertical hand strikes into their right oblique muscle, several inches below their right lower rib.
This simultaneous strike both deflects their arm and strikes them at a point where they really are not ready to receive a strike. Their focus is on their arm reaching out to touch you, not on receiving impact into a sensitive area.
Ernie Rothrock tells me this is one of the reasons the Chinese arts he studied chamber low, so the turning hand can be drawn back to protect that area, the returning chamber in effect wedging an attack away while it is being drawn back.
You can clearly see a relative comparison to Wansu kata parry/strike technique in this application.
But if really nailing someone when they’re not expecting it is enough a whole lot of other choices are open.
Next simultaneously chamber your right hand and perform an outside block with the left. Then complete the section with a strike into their solar plexus.
But we’re not finished with this by far.
The principle of the Chambering Hand
I think the thing that impressed me most about this technique was how the chambering hand could become a slashing plane of force. With the chambering hand you can:
Return the chambering hand as a slash across the ribs.
Return the chambering hand as a slash across the face.
Return the chambering hand as a returning slash to drive a 2nd punch aside. This is where the attacker was performing a grab and punch.
When this sequence is used with the above sequence, it literally becomes ‘Hit ‘em once, hit ‘em twice and hit ‘em once again.’
I can even see how you might want to make a punch miss just to hit them with a really punishing return slice, if you really don’t like the opponent.
Now we return to a friend, The return of the Unlocking Principle.
The Attack - Now the attacker steps forth with their left and strikes with their left hand.
The Response – Perform the identical defense against the left grab/strike as you would with the right.
You strike across with your right as your left punch strikes into their left oblique muscle. Then you simultaneously side block/parry with your left as your right hand slices across their ribs as you chamber. Then you strike out with your right hand. Where you strike of course is the issue.
There are other ways to step and change the angle of this defense against arm attacks, but more on them to come.
The principle of the 100% Drop
When you’re on the outside, and your striking hand is chambered, one way to drop your opponent all the time is to take that hand and deliver a vertical strike into their outside upper leg, striking into the bone.
This cramps their leg up (charly horse time) and they fall.
It is not the only option, but one that really works.
While there are many other Seisan principles that can be inter-mixed with these versions, we’ll let them be discussed as we move forward, rather than at this moment.
In fact this entire study will be self-reflexive. Many of the Seisan principles can be intertwined at will.