Shinsokai Aki Gasshuku 2014
by Garry Lever (2014)

A long, long time ago,
In a dojo far, far away...

In the lead up to this autumns gasshuku I frequently found myself thinking about Star Wars. The Jedi were an old fashioned, out of date relic of the past in the movie. Still, they had skills well beyond those of regular people and upheld a code of conduct which set them apart from the masses. As a youngster I was struck by the similarities between the Jedi and the bushi of the Okinawa karate that I had read about and been inspired by. Like in the movie though, the bushi were a minority pushed to the point of extinction in a world that had long since moved on to bigger, better things.

Miyagi Chojun sensei had but a handful of regular students throughout his life. Yes, there are the large group shots taken from school classes, but his real art was passed on behind closed doors in a manner that would cause all but the most hungry of students to quit. Such is the nature of true karate. It simply asks too much for the average person.
Our gasshuku are a way of paying homage to such simpler times as our tiny group gather together in the middle of nowhere to immerse ourselves in the training of the body and spirit. Our gasshuku would involve no 'meetings' or socialising over beers where we could then flatter each others egos. No, our time would be spent a little differently. This was not a holiday or a social occasion.

I travelled from London to Spain this time accompanied by my long term student Katarina. She makes a journey of roughly 1 hour in each direction to attend my dojo each session. I have tried my best over the years to put her off, but regardless, she keeps coming. As impressive as her dedication is to me, I am even more amazed at the dedication of Barrett sensei's two students Juanlu and Victor. Each month they make a 7 hour journey EACH WAY to spend time learning from their teacher. This is how serious they take their development. Without bragging, earlier this year I travelled from London to New York just to learn Taiso Daruma and spend a couple of days with a teacher I knew next to nothing about, but who I felt might help my development a little. I didn't even know if he would teach me upon my arrival, but took a risk. To my knowledge, I am the only one in the UK who knows Taiso Daruma as a result. What is your art worth to you and how much are you willing to sacrifice? The ease of Google and YouTube has bred a type of karateka who will rarely even pick up a book, let alone get off their backside to travel a few miles and learn in person from one who knows.


We were met at the airport in by Juanlu and Victor who kindly drove us to Barrett sensei's home in Almeria, and during the drive we all had a good opportunity to catch up on each others lives and talk about the current news in the karate world. Our group is very small and closely knit, much like a family unit. Our gasshuku would not consist of standing in a line with hundreds of other students repeating the same old kihon to the count of a disinterested instructor. There would be no shouting or militaristic drilling, yet each member would be expected to bring their own intensity and determination to their practise. There would be nowhere to hide, and no reward or 'recognition' for having attended.

Upon arrival at Barrett sensei's home we were met at the doorway and invited in. A quick cup of tea and chat and we were then led out to the two dojo out back to begin soji so that they would be ready for the following morning. Every surface and floor area was thoroughly cleaned.
Whilst performing our duties, Barrett sensei took me aside and led me to the new rooftop dojo which he had been secretly building. The work in progress was simply brilliant, a walled area resembling a 'dragons back' circling the area and providing solitude for those who would be training inside. I looked forward to the future where I might be using the area for a little kobudo practise.

We had an early start the following morning, so once our jobs were complete we all retired for the night. The first session would begin at 6am, but I had everybody wake at 5 for some early morning zazen to focus the minds. Brief instructions were given regarding posture and breathing, and then everybody was left to enjoy/endure the experience. Facing the wall of the cave in the Shinsodo, I concentrated upon relaxing the body, softening the breath, and emptying the mind. Folklore tells of how Daruma faced the wall for 9 years at Shaolin. We wouldn't be sitting for quite so long, but I could tell by the uncomfortable breathing patterns and muscle twitches toward the end of the session that people were beginning to be challenged. For anybody who believes zazen is easy but hasn't tried. Set a timer for just 30 minutes, assume half or full lotus position, maintain the correct posture and a concentrated mind and then maybe after this we can talk.

The gasshuku was officially opened by Barrett sensei reminding everybody of the reasons we hold them in April and October each year; to honour and offer our respects to Miyagi Chojun sensei who was responsible for formulating Goju Ryu. In addition we would keep Miyazato Ei'ichi sensei, Shinzato Ji'nan sensei, and Higashionna Kanryo sensei in our minds to acknowledge their contributions to the art.

The first session consisted of a thorough junbi undo, working the joints, nerves, tendons and muscles of the body from toes to eyes, including the full range of floor strengthening exercises and kiko. The practise of junbi undo is taken very seriously in our group and it is not uncommon for it to take well over an hour to complete. As I have said many, many times before: IT IS NOT A WARM UP!

We were reminded of the need to challenge ourselves and push the boundaries of what we can achieve with our bodies. Feats such as one armed push ups on shoken were demonstrated and attempted, with the reasoning of why it is important explained. Many fail to challenge themselves or fully develop their techniques due to fear, pain, and laziness. If one is unable to use a particular technique for real without hurting themselves, have they any right to display it within their kata? This is why most examples of bunkai these days consist of blunt tool techniques such as tsuki, empi, geri, etc, and an overuse of grappling/small joint manipulations. The more dangerous/effective techniques of Goju Ryu have become extinct in reality as few are able to confidently use them.

We were instructed to head down to the orange tree grove in front of sensei's house. Carefully making our way in the darkness, we followed sensei into a fenced off octagon in an area surrounded by trees. Here we practised the breathing kata of Goju Ryu: Sanchin with and without turns, as well as a fast version, and finally Tensho.

As the sky began to become lighter, sensei told us we had 3 minutes until sunrise and that we had to run to the top of the long, steep hill behind his house to complete Sanchin/Tensho at the top. We scrambled away and began the steep climb, legs tiring rapidly and lungs burning. I struggled to control my breathing and heart rate and felt quite light headed as I arrived at the top. Resisting the urge to sit down or pass out, I walked around briefly, trying to control my lungs and heart. Turning toward the east, we faced the ridge line of the mountains to observe the rising sun as we performed Sanchin; drawing in upon the energy of the suns rays. Immediately after completion, we turned our back to the sun as we performed Tensho kata. Why? Go find out...

The climb down was more than a little tricky in my worn out 14 year old trainers with hardly any tread left! It was like trying to do it in roller skates. Somehow I got to the bottom unscathed, and ate a hefty breakfast with plenty of tea. The conversations over breaks and meals were always relating to karate, and certainly from my point of view, would provide the things I would be working on for the months to follow. These conversations remain private I'm afraid, but many of the subjects usually seem to appear in various articles that I write further down the line.

We wandered back down to the outdoor octagon area with sensei, this time in the bright sunshine so we were able to see a little better. Sensei had fenced off and cleared a large area which would serve as another outdoor dojo. The relevance of the octagon was explained, and it had nothing to do with the UFC! The 8 sides related to the bagua, or 8 gates. Each gate related to a particular element, time frame, seasonal change, and more. It may be no coincidence that there are 8 kata in Goju Ryu, with Miyagi sensei adapting his training habits to follow the natural rhythms of the universe.
More questions than answers were given, as usual and necessary, and each student was left to either pursue or discard the information provided depending upon how ready they were to receive/notice the hints given. As is tradition within the classical arts, the student is expected to steal hungrily the details they require. Little attempt is made to force feed ideas to a student. If they don't catch it, maybe they can wait for the arrival of the next comet.

The group were then split with Katarina spending time in the Shinsodo with Barrett sensei having her kata checked, and Juanlu and Victor training in the Shinsokan with myself. For our practise I had each of them perform a kata of their choice and we then explored various applications and principles from within. I tried to prompt a move away from the standard karate-like stock attacks of straight punches and wrist grabs, toward a more freeflow style of attack, showing how the same techniques can be applied regardless of how the opponent comes at you. We also covered how to navigate through the opponents guard and clearing obstructions to create an opening, as well as using the correct tools for the job. Vital points were also shown and explained to show how striking the correct locations greatly amplified the effect of even light strikes.

Claire had made a particularly nice soup for lunch, so more discussions about the current state of karate over a couple of bowls. One interesting question which came up was 'what makes a great karateka?' I'll leave that to you to ponder for yourself if you wish.

The next session in the Shinsodo focused upon various paired kumite drills. No, not kumite as in put some mitts on and pretend to be kickboxers for a few minutes. Kumite as in an engagement of the hands. Beginning slowly and gradually increasing the intensity to full on, our partner was to deliver multiple random strikes which we had to defend against, seize the initiative, and then deliver a meaningful counter which had the potential to end the engagement. Speaking for myself, I ate more than a few punches, which always serves as a good wake up call and learning experience. The idea was to use kata techniques and discover their adaptability without having to change their outer appearance. Staying true to the kata seems to be a big area of difficulty judging by the various examples on YouTube, with the majority of people unable to make their techniques work without having to change them significantly to fit their preconceived ideas or wild guesses at what a technique 'could' represent. The days training was brought to a close, and we spent the rest of the evening talking over dinner before getting to bed early for the next days training.

The following morning we once again woke at 5am for zazen before the training started at 6am. The first session of the day was held in the natural spring at the bottom of sensei's land. The sound of the running water provided a nice soundtrack to the mornings kobudo training. Each person was allocated a particular weapon and kata for their study. Juanlu and Victor Shushi no Kon, Katarina Tozan no Kama, and myself the Matayoshi no Kuwa. This was the first time I had practised the kata for this weapon. The kata itself has many unusual movements and footwork, and the dynamics of the weapon make it a particularly difficult one to handle. By the end of the session we had each managed to commit the basic movements of our kata to memory, and would spend the coming months gradually polishing the kata in our own training. Following kata practise we each paired up and explored bunkai from our respective kata.

After breakfast it was back to the Shinsodo. For the next session I introduced a basic tui na treatment for lower back pain, including massage techniques, use of acupoints, and breathing, posture, and hand forms. I strongly feel that serious martial arts practitioners can benefit greatly by learning the healing arts. Both are mutually beneficial, and morally it is a good thing to balance out the negative physical skills we acquire in how to hurt somebody. Historically healing and martial arts go together, but sadly this has been all but lost in the Okinawan arts.
Following this I gave a discussion regarding the energetic changes in the body relating to time of day, and also the relationship between the internal organs and the exterior appearance of the person with regard to diagnosis, and also how to analyse a person for weaknesses.

Tui Na
Basic tui na treatment
(Shinsodo Dojo, October 26th 2014)

After lunch we were back in the Shinsodo for the final formal session of the gasshuku. The next few hours were spent crossing hands for kakie, with various challenges and drills set to explore different ways of affecting our partners posture, balance, and root. The drills gradually gave way to freeform practise as each persons understanding and ability developed.
Following this we were back to application practise, picking up from the previous days kumite session. Each person chose one technique to explore in order to discover its versatility, weakness, strength, and use of things such as footwork, posture, and developing a suitable opening and target on the opponent. The intensity once again was stepped up, and people were soon flying into their attacks with realism and commitment in a freeform manner. The formal training was brought to a close with the breathing kata of Goju Ryu, and a presentation of sandan promotion for Katarina who has steadily grown in ability and understanding over the past year.

Katarina being presented with her Sandan certificate
(Shinsodo Dojo, October 26th 2014)

After bowing to the shinzen one last time, we were dispatched to conduct soji (cleaning). As well as cleaning up any mess we had made, this gave a good opportunity for immediate reflection upon the weekend, so it was also soji for the mind and spirit.

Our gasshuku are always small, personal affairs. Much like our group. There is no great socialising or drinking culture, no opportunity to meet someone famous and have your picture taken. Nothing to be gained for your reputation by having been 'seen' with somebody. Our gasshuku bear more resemblance to a 'retreat' rather than a grand event which karate gasshuku seem to have become. Perhaps retreat is a good word to describe our approach to practise in general. Certainly the more the 'brand' of karate advances, the more our group retreat away from what it is becoming. By staying true to the ideals that karate once stood for, we steadily remain focused upon walking the middle road and improving ourselves daily through the challenge of training.

Garry Lever
Uraniwa Dojo
Essex UK

“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.”