Visiting Sensei
by Víctor López Bondía (2014)

In March 2014 my friend Juanlu and I drove down to Albox to pay our monthly visit to Barrett Sensei.

Training started with junbi undo, as usual, and soon after we started to move our toes Sensei made us stop for a moment to explain that once we've come to grips with an exercise, it could be adapted in order to make it more difficult and challenging... This reminded me, once again, of the piece of advice from our Dojo Kun which refers to "practicing with creativity". Even though too much lip service is paid to statements like this, Karate is indeed a "never-ending path". This means that we can and we should always be looking for ways to improve. Karate is a very simple art; it was never meant to be complicated. This is not to say it is easy. If at some point your training becomes too easy, maybe it's time to move to the next level? You may be able to do some or even many push-ups easily... What about one-handed push-ups? What about single-knuckle push-ups?

The Shinsokai approach to Karate-do sticks to the Goju-Ryu syllabus as it was passed on by Miyazato Eiichi Sensei. However, preserving all the classical kata, tools and training methods is in no way at odds with keeping an open mind and introducing any exercise that could help you improve your Karate. The bottom line here would be preserving tradition without being limited by it. I think this is exactly what Miyagi Sensei was doing when he introduced, for example, the kongoken into his system. Whenever he spots a flaw or weakness Sensei suggests some exercises we can try in order to get a better feeling for the technique or principle we are working on. I'm always amazed by Sensei's ability to come up with different exercises, with and without kigu (equipment), we can use to get the hang of anything proving to be difficult.

We did a lot of partner work over the weekend. This is always welcome as we normally do not have the luxury of having a (live) partner in our personal training back at home. Unfortunately I had to be a bit cautious as I had to keep looking after my right wrist which is still weak and cannot take too much strain.

We started off by breaking different kinds of grips and after a while we moved on to practice "staggered kumite", which is similar to chess: one person presents and holds an attack and the other person has to come up with a suitable defense and counter, then the original attacker becomes the defender and it's their turn to deal with the situation they find themselves in, and so on. The whole point was to use the techniques from the kata. All the techniques found within the kata have a purpose and are there for a reason. This should sound like stating the obvious, but when we look at modern Karate, more often than not we see how kata and kumite have nothing to do with each other. I think there are two main reasons for this: first, kata are widely misunderstood (and that's why "practical bunkai" instructors are so successful these days); and second, the influence of sport (Karate techniques were never meant to be used in a rule-bound fencing-like match so when people start to train "sparring" then the kata and all their stances, techniques and strategies become useless). One of the main reasons for my moving away from modern Karate was that I felt I needed to understand my kata better. Now I practice the techniques in the kata as I would use them against an opponent, and this simply makes sense since kata is basically a way to rehearse self-defense situations solo.

Shisochin bunkai Seiyunchin bunkai
Kata bunkai
Shinsokan Dojo

I don't know the meaning of all the movements though, for some of them are obvious, but others are not, and it takes a lot of practice and experience to figure out what they represent. I've always wondered whether it's possible for us now to get to know the "true" meaning of the techniques... After all we'll never know what those who developed the kata had in mind when they did so centuries ago... I shared this feeling with Barrett Sensei and he said that even though we can't know for sure, if we get to understand our Karate enough, we can make an educated guess which hopefully won't be too far away from the original idea. Sensei asked why a certain technique found in two different kata was performed differently in each of them... Sensei usually puts forward this kind of questions which leave us guessing, and we are constantly reminded that we should always have a reason for everything we do. If we don't have at least one (sensible) reason, even if the physical movement is correct, we don't really understand what we are doing, so that's no longer Karate but calisthenics. Whenever I find myself trying to solve these puzzles I can't help feeling lucky for being in a place where these questions are not only welcome but mandatory; when I was practicing modern Karate they were never encouraged as they would put even the most senior instructors between a rock and a hard place.

Shisochin bunkai
Shisochin bunkai
Shinsokan Dojo

Working with a partner I realized that ma-ai is a very important subject that I may not be developing properly in my personal and lonely training. I also realized that when a live opponent comes into play, even in a prearranged scenario with a compliant partner, it is much more difficult to stick to the kata and make techniques work; the body seems to rush into a more... 'flexible' or 'natural' (but not more effective or efficient) way of moving. I think this is why Karate requires endless repetitions, to get to a point where the techniques become hard-wired, natural and instinctive. Sometimes, we tried to apply a technique which seemed feasible in our minds but then it was not easy to make it work on the opponent, or it had to be adapted. When this happened Sensei made us think about whether the kata was wrong or we might be trying to fit a square peg into a round hole... The kata is never wrong, or course, so if something is not working it is definitely because we are not using it as it was meant to be used.

The last training session we worked with the kon, and to say that I feel clumsy wielding the weapon would be an understatement... Karate teaches us that it takes a lot of training and effort to learn to control our own "bare" body; now, carrying a weapon makes everything much more complicated as all of a sudden the range changes, and you have to be careful not to hit anything around you... or yourself! Even just holding it properly is difficult when you are not used to it. This reminds me why martial arts cultivate humility... How can a true practitioner be conceited when they are always struggling with their art and they are constantly defeated by it?

Víctor López Bondía
March 2014

“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.”