Spring Gasshuku 2013
by Garry Lever (2013)

In April our group held their gasshuku to commemorate the birth of Miyagi Chojun sensei, founder of Goju Ryu. We hold gasshuku twice a year, coinciding with the anniversaries of Miyagi sensei's birth and death. With the various members of the Shinsokai spread over such large distances, these events provide an ideal opportunity to catch up and train together in an intense manner without distractions. This year's spring gasshuku also saw the official opening of Barrett sensei's new dojo, the Shinsodo (), which he had been building for the past couple of years by carving out the hillside behind the family home, creating a large cavernous cave which makes for a rather unique training location.

I arrived a couple of days early so that Barrett sensei and I could spend some time taking photographs for the forthcoming Essence of Goju Ryu – Vol II. This gave me a nice sneak preview of the dojo and a chance to tread the new wooden floor. Every dojo has a unique atmosphere and feeling and take some getting used to before you become truly comfortable and part of the history. Old dojo have an almost haunted feel to them as it is easy to see the 'ghosts' of previous training sessions in your mind's eye. The Shinsodo did not immediately generate such ghosts, this would take effort on our part to drop a little sweat on the floor and add some energy to the void. I realize this might all sound a little esoteric to many who are used to training in hired halls or sports halls, but those who have visited real dojo will understand I think. It is like being stood in an empty theatre.

Barrett sensei and I talked and trained and talked. My learning from him is a little different these days, evolving past those early 'spirit' sessions which filled me with dread. It is now much more similar to how things were done at the Jundokan with him sending me off to get on with it whilst he also trains, stopping by to offer some advice where he thinks I could use it. Such small nuggets of information keep me busy for the months which pass between our meetings. Many people might feel a bit lost at this approach, and I must admit it takes a few years to get used to taking responsibility for your own progress. This is the nature of the way; nobody is there to hold your hand and wipe your behind. It is this responsibility that freaks most people out and sends them running into the open arms (and open bank account) of the latest celebrity kurodee (TM Mr McKenna!) fad.

Richard Barrett - Tou
Richard Barrett practicing a technique from Seisan kata on the tou
(Shinsokan Dojo, April 2013)

My fellow Goju Ryu practitioners arrived late on the Friday evening. Some old friends, a newer friend, and a brand new friend too. It is quite funny that I am now so familiar with a couple of them that I forget we speak different native languages so I lapse into my lazy way of speaking, leaving them wondering what I'm going on about occasionally. My native London accent is not the easiest to understand, even for native English speakers. On our honeymoon in California, my wife had to translate my English into an understandable form whenever we were out for dinner so that the waiter could understand. After a cup of tea and a brief catch up, Barrett sensei dispatched us all to conduct soji (cleaning) in the two dojo, ready for the morning's training. We split into two groups to get everything ready, wiping down all of the photo frames and flat surfaces before then scurrying along the floor with wet rags in the push up position. With that completed, we retired to bed to prepare for the morning.

This gasshuku, Juanlu would be testing for shodan so there were a few surprises planned. The group training was to begin at 6am, but I was sharing a room with Juanlu so woke him up at 0445 for early morning practice before the others began. Together we climbed on top of Barrett sensei's garage under the cool air and full moon to conduct an hour of sanchin, tensho and kiko. None of this was explained to Juanlu, he was just told 'sanchin and tensho, go practice' and left to get on with it whilst we both trained individually. My hope was that this would provoke a couple of 'insights' and questions for Juanlu which might have a beneficial effect upon his future approach to training. Many people complain of a lack of time and opportunity to train, but the early morning contains an untapped area for many who are unwilling to drag themselves out of bed earlier than they usually need to.

After finishing our early morning training we wandered over to the Shinsodo to begin the first formal session at 6am. The others were already in there, sweeping the floor and making last minute adjustments to the cleanliness of the dojo. Soji is officially conducted at the beginning and ending of formal training, however, it is also done as and whenever needed. I am quite fond of metaphors as many of you might have noticed, and soji to me is a good reminder of the nature of training. It's about maintenance, and a job which is never finished. The moment you finish soji, the dojo is already becoming dirtier again, so will soon need cleaning once more. Training is like this. Kyu Do Mugen...

Barrett sensei entered the dojo and I got those same old last minute nerves as I watched him pacing around, warming up out of the corner of my eye for the few minutes before the call came to line up. He has always done this in silence which is a bit unnerving, and you always start to wonder what horrors he has lined up for the session. The session began formally in seiza with a period of mokuso. My mind drifted to the reason we were all kneeling inside a small cave in Spain; Miyagi Chojun sensei. I wondered what he would make of all this; being from a tiny island on the other side of the planet some 60 years ago. His portrait on the wall would catch my gaze often over the weekend, and I hoped that our small efforts to practice his art to the best of our ability would make him happy. His portrait hung on the shomen wall next to his teacher Higashionna Kanryo sensei. On the other side of the candle lit tokunama were Shinzato Ji'nan sensei and Miyazato Ei'ichi sensei; our Goju Ryu family tree.

I mentioned earlier about the need to drop some sweat on a dojo floor to help bring it to life. Barrett sensei clearly had this in mind when he decided upon the content of the first session. After Juanlu led us through junbi undo, Saifa was broken into small sections and we completed a high number of repetitions of each part, with various pushups and bodyweight exercises filling the intervals. Besides being good for the development of spirit, this type of intense focus upon a kata leads you to developing a better understanding of the correct breathing patterns and muscle usage in order to conserve energy and create efficiency of movement. High repetitions help to ingrain these principles into your everyday kata. We also conducted tai tanren in pairs, conditioning the shins, thighs, abdomen, and arms through various 2-person drills.

We broke for a breakfast of tea, fruit and pastries, and talked more during the interval. We had all come from different traditional karate backgrounds before becoming members of the Shinsokai, and it was interesting to hear of the newer student's experiences in their original dojo. There appears to be a huge expanse around the term Goju Ryu, with many different interpretations and approaches. I know of schools that practice sanchin maybe once every few months, some don't have junbi undo or hojo undo, some practice 3K type karate, and others adopt a sport approach. Yet, all refer to themselves as Goju Ryu. In my opinion this can't be right? Or, had it got to the point that 'we' were in fact the odd ones out, and our methods were obsolete and out of touch? One thing is for sure, I see little around the world in either karate or Goju Ryu that I identify with. I wonder whether Miyagi sensei would recognize his art?

The second session of the day focused upon sandan gi, both stationary and moving, Gekisai 2-man form, and various forms of kakie. All of us train alone for maybe 90% of our time, so this was the part I was looking forward to; a chance to cross arms with live partners of different shapes and sizes to see if my approach to solo training had built solid principles which could be applied universally. I spent the time playing with subtle ideas which had worked on paper and in my head, seeing how they reacted to the fluidity of the human mind. How could little tricks relating to timing, distancing, balance, blending, softness, etc, make the drills more effortless? The success or failure of these ideas was not that important, what mattered was that I would come away from the session with things to work on and tweak to improve my art further. Anyone can learn to fight quickly, it is 99% mental. Martial arts is a little different though as the idea is to move beyond 'fighting' and into the realms of mastery. This mastery remains elusive and distant, but as 'artists' we have to continue to chip away at the sculpture, adapting and improving to create the best work of art we can. Or, we could just get a ready-made plastic statue from ebay maybe... There are plenty out there selling replicas which look similar to the untrained eye. The great thing about simple drills such as sandan gi is that it offers an even playing field where each person has the opportunity to develop the level they are currently at within the relative safety of a set-piece drill. There are so many basic principles contained within this one exercise consisting of 3 blocks and 3 punches, that it can be said developing your skill of this drill will lead to an overall understanding of how to apply all the uke waza of Goju Ryu. Most people are too eager to move onto more advanced things, flow drills and endless bunkai variations. All of this is useless if you haven't yet absorbed the most basic principles of the art and discovered how to steal the initiative from the opponent.

Richard Barrett teaching
Richard Barrett Sensei teaching
(Shinsodo Dojo, April 2013)

The session ended all too soon, but at least there was lunch to look forward to! We ate lots and talked more over tea. Gasshuku are all about training and bonding as karateka through shared endeavor. I always learn the most by 'spying' during the conversations in the breaks, carefully remembering things Barrett sensei occasionally gives away. This is an art one has to master just as well as any physical techniques, for this was how students stole information in the past. It was not the done thing to ask questions during training so you had to spy and steal with subtlety. Students of the Shinsokai are required to keep personal training diaries to help with this very thing. Bun Bu Ryo Do.

For the last practice of the day we headed into town to the health food shop and community center run by Barrett sensei's wife. Here we would cover kata and applications whilst Juanlu performed his kata in front of Barrett sensei. Our little group focused upon Seiunchin and applications, giving the students a chance to explore an initial idea and then see what complications might occur naturally. The kata hold the answers to such complications, you just need to know where to look. I tried to drill home the point that you can't predict everything, so it is better to remain 'unattached' and able to 'adapt according to time and change' with 'techniques occurring in the absence of conscious thought'. It would take some years before this would happen, but hopefully some building blocks were put in place for the students to at least start asking the right questions of their kata rather than hoping for the 'one size solves all' approach to bunkai.

Back at the house we all got to work preparing various Japanese inspired dishes for the opening feast in the Shinsodo. Some looked really good, and some looked rather dubious. I wondered whether Victor was secretly trying to poison us with his shitake croquettes? I would watch carefully and make sure Juanlu ate one first, just to be sure. A mat was laid out in the dojo and we all sat on the floor together to eat various dishes as Barrett sensei stirred a pot of stock which was simmering over a gas stove. He explained that he had made Shabu Shabu, which he remembered Miyazato sensei often used to order at restaurants' with him. Shabu Shabu consists of a pot of kombu (seaweed) infused stock with vegetables, into which thinly sliced pieces of raw beef are dipped for about 30 seconds, before then being removed and dunked straight into a bowl of raw egg and immediately eaten. Despite my doubts, it turned out to actually be quite nice, and I enjoyed a few helpings. Barrett sensei then insisted that I drink the raw egg! I knew this would be coming for one of us, but I'd hoped I would dodge that particular bullet onto one of my kohai, haha! To much laughter, I downed the raw egg, with much of it dribbling from my chin. I thought about Gokenki's poor old students who had to eat raw eggs during each training session! Martial arts is about experiences and the dojo about facing different challenges, not all of them physical! Native Okinawan music played quietly in the background, and after eating, Barrett sensei requested that a few of us perform a dance called Hamachidori. I had picked up a little of this in my research into Okinawan Ti, and helped introduce this dance quite badly to a group of pressed volunteers. I have a few similar memories from Okinawa, and these experiences are amongst my favorite training memories so I was pleased at the opportunity to help pass on such minor yet very important traditions. This little meal and welcoming party for the dojo would add some of those ghosts to the void, and a shared history between those who would train upon its floor. The dojo was again cleaned thoroughly before we all retired to bed for the following days practice.

Japanese dinner
Japanese dinner to celebrate the opening of the new dojo
(Shinsodo Dojo, April 27th 2013)

Waking at 0445 again for our early morning practice, Juanlu and I went out into the cool air for breathing kata and kiko training. It was quite a wet morning, with fine rain filling the air. We joined the rest of the group for the 6am start, this time with three of us being sent into the smaller Shinsokan dojo to practice hojo undo, Sanchin and Tensho, whilst two junior grade students trained with Barrett sensei in the Shinsodo. The great thing about there now being two dojo was that we had the option to split the sessions depending upon experience or what needed to be worked upon. Our session focused on many of the ideas covered within The Essence of Goju Ryu – Vol 1 as relating to contraction/expansion in the body and how this is combined with the use of the breath and correct body structure. It was nice to see some lightbulbs switching on and some puzzled looks as people realized they now had more questions than answers, and a lot more to work on. We all re-joined in the Shinsodo for group Sanchin, and it was here that I really noticed how the sound of the breath reverberates around the cave. It is a really amazing sound that stirs the spirit. There was an amusing trick played during one of the sanchin that reminded me of the playfulness of the older generation of Okinawan teachers who would sometimes change a technique if they caught a student spying. I wondered whether anybody noticed this?

After breakfast Juanlu was instructed to change into running clothes whilst the others changed back into their dogi to return to the dojo. He and I then set off together for a cross country run through the surrounding hills of Albox. We used various sprints, intervals, hill climbs, static jumps, and changes of pace to replicate the demands placed upon the body during combat. Occasionally we stopped off at a convenient point to practice Sanchin up in the hills. Luckily the rain had cooled the air a little, so at least we didn't have to fight against the heat. After a sprint back to Barrett sensei's home, Juanlu was then led through various different endurance and conditioning challenges including facing the machiwara for an extended period, the idea being not to give up. This was his test, and his decision whether he wanted to pass or fail. Aside from the occasional word of encouragement, it would be up to him. After this, we performed the various kata of Goju Ryu together to finish the session. I am happy to report that Juanlu was successful in passing his test.

A typical landscape around the town of Albox
(Almeria, Spain)

After a hefty lunch, the final session of the day was open training. Barrett sensei spoke about how the training was conducted at the Jundokan under Miyazato sensei, and after this, the students were left to their own devices to use or waste their time as they wished. This approach to training might seem odd for those who are used to standing in lines having their practice dictated to them, but becoming comfortable with taking responsibility for your own development is essential if ever you want to be able to stand on your own two feet as a karateka. This approach encourages the correct development of the sempai/kohai relationship and develops leaders rather than followers. Miyazato sensei truly believed this to be the best approach to teaching karate, and I would wholeheartedly agree with this opinion. Seeing people work through their own problems and come up with individual solutions is most inspiring.

Juanlu - Richard Barrett Richard Barrett - Juanlu
Richard Barrett Sensei working with his student Juan Luis Cadenas de Llano
(Shinsodo Dojo, April 2013)

The gasshuku came to a close with another period of mokuso and of course, the dojo kun. Looking at the faces of Higashionna, Miyagi, Miyazato, and Shinzato sensei's, I wondered whether our efforts over the weekend would have made them proud and if they would have recognized their art in us? The weekends training had been unspectacular, and there was nothing covered which would not usually be practiced in regular training. Nothing new, and no gimmicks. Despite this, it seemed we still ran out of time and barely skimmed the surface of certain subjects. I wondered how much time people really had on their hands to afford them the luxury of adding more and more? All I want to do is refine my Goju Ryu down to the very essence so that I actually have less and less. The truth of it is that despite many wanting the 'badge' of practicing authentic Okinawan Goju Ryu, few are actually willing to persevere through the mundane and regular. The allure and draw of something exotic very quickly wears off once the realization sets in of the task at hand. Perhaps this is why there were only a few of us gathered in a cave in the middle of nowhere rather than a vast sports hall full of dozens of black belts? Then again, maybe it is us that have got it all wrong?

Garry Lever
Uraniwa Dojo
London England

“No matter how you may excel in the art of Karate, and in your scholastic endeavors,
nothing is more important than your behavior and your humanity as observed in daily life.”