WTSDA Testing Committee Update

Originally published in the 2017 Fall WTSDA & WTSDF Newsletter

Many exciting updates to our Sah Dan and Master testing processes have been implemented. I want to remind everyone that testing is a privilege and not guaranteed to everyone. The association is looking for quali ed candidates, that means simply being Ko Dan Ja Belts.jpgactive in your home studio is not enough, minimum requirements are just that, minimum. In order to be considered for Sah Dan or higher rank, a record of service to your studio, region and association is required. Regular and consistent attendance at all events, participation in events, volunteering to accept additional responsibilities is expected. Also, let’s not forget a high level of technical skill and knowledge is required. Time in rank alone is not enough for consideration. Here are the updates as approved by the Board of Directors:

1) A Sah Dan candidate who operates a studio with a minimum of 25 association registered students can earn the title of “Master” after successfully completing the second year of testing and completing all requirements including the 20,000 word thesis as well as being up to date on all monies owed to the WTSDA and all testing fees paid in full.

2) Oh Dan candidates and higher have the ability to “pass” their test after 1 year. This possibility is for the exemplary candidates. All minimum requirements as well as physical requirements and fees and monies owed to WTSDA must be current. A high level of skill and performance is expected.

3) There is now a parallel track for rank. A Sah Dan can now be promoted to Oh or Yuk Dan without the title of Master. This is for the candidate that remains dedicated, loyal and active in all studio, regional and WTSDA functions but does not have the ability to open or run their own studio.

4) Yuk Dan and Chil Dan candidates are not required to write a 20,000 world thesis. A special assignment can be assigned by the Grandmaster.

Paul Mimidis, Yuk Dan
WTSDA Testing Committee Chair


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New T-Shirt Design

Hey folks! I’m looking for feedback on this t-shirt design. Thanks.


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Training for 31 Oct

No class tonight for Halloween. Go Eat Candy!

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The Basics of Bunkai: Part 8


by Iain Abernethy, www.iainabernethy.co.uk

Welcome to the eighth and final part of the Basic Bunkai series. In this series of articles we’ve been exploring the basics of “bunkai” (kata application). The masters of the past told us that a single kata was a lifetime’s study: it is therefore impossible to cover all aspects of kata application in a series of articles. Nevertheless, this series has covered many of the key concepts that you need to be aware of to begin your bunkai study.

It is my view that traditional karateka who do not study bunkai will only ever experience a hollow shell of the art. It is within the application of the kata that we find all the depth and subtleties that, for me at least, makes the art of karate so enthralling and rewarding. In previous articles, we’ve seen that, in addition to the striking skills, the traditional kata record strangles, throws, limb-control, joint-locks etc. It is also a study of bunkai that makes karate a holistic martial art.

As we said at the onset of this series, kata application is often presented as something “hidden” or “secret”. Bunkai is not a mysterious secret knowledge that is the sole reserve of a chosen few. Anyone can get involved with bunkai training and study if they understand the “language” of kata. It is hoped that this series of articles has helped increase your understanding of that language.

The bunkai examples and concepts we’ve examined in this series can be summarised into a small number of key points. It is these key points that are the essential start to bunkai study:

1. All kata applications are designed to end the confrontation there and then.

All the techniques in kata are constructed to either totally incapacitate an assailant or leave them in a situation or position that they are so vulnerable that they are effectively at your mercy. Any interpretation of the kata that would leave your opponent able to continue to fight is incorrect. Examples of this are the sequences that are often interpreted as multiple blocks with no follow up.

You may remember that in part one of this series we discussed the limitations of blocking and established that the techniques now labelled as blocks were never intended to be used as such. We’ve also seen examples of how many of the “blocks” can be applied in simple and effective ways.

2. All parts of a movement are significant.

Hands are not placed on the hips for no reason, nor are they “wound up” as a preparation for the following technique. No movement is without purpose and you need to ensure you understand the purpose of all parts of a kata motion. If the movement had no purpose, it would not be in the kata in the first place.

Those who have been following this series will recall how we established that the hands are either injuring the opponent, or creating and maintaining an advantage. Hands are never inactive or held in a passive guard. Kata is not about the back and forth motion associated with martial arts sparring; it is about close-range combat and therefore both hands are always active.

3. Every kata move is designed for use in combat

It is important to understand that all movements within the kata are designed for use in real fights. Although certain moves may increase strength or improve balance, that is not their primary function. Their primary function is to disable an assailant in civilian combat. The strategy, tactics and techniques that lead to success in one environment are frequently inappropriate for a different environment. When studying kata application, be sure you understand that all motions are designed for use in combat and that any physical or mental benefits are secondary.

It’s similar to how punching a bag for an extended period of time can improve your health. However, punches weren’t designed to improve your health: they were designed to damage the health of others. Likewise, kata can improve your health, but that’s not what they were designed for. Kata is about combat. It is also important to be clear on the type of combat that kata addresses.

4. The angles at which the techniques are performed are important

You are never turning to face a new opponent. Only the foolish and the unaware would not be facing their assailant before blows were exchanged. The vast majority of kata techniques are designed to deal with an opponent who is in front of you. The main reasons that kata techniques are performed at angles is to instruct the practitioner that they need to be at that angle, in relation to their opponent, in order for the techniques to work; or that by moving in that direction the transfer of their bodyweight will aid the technique’s execution.

Because kata is a solo exercise, there is no second person to demonstrate the required angle. Therefore, the kata has to use a previous position to show the angle. This is one of the most important keys to understanding what the kata are showing on any given movement.

5. The stances are a vital component of the techniques

Stances are never assumed because they look nice, or to strengthen legs, or to improve balance. Stances are taken because they put bodyweight into the technique or they help to unbalance the opponent. We have seen many examples of the use of stance throughout this series. When studying kata, look at the stance, the weight distribution, the resulting shift in bodyweight and the manner in which the stance was assumed. It’s also important to understand that the end position is just that: the end of the technique. It’s when the body is moving into the stance and the weight is being shifted that the technique is being applied.

6. Real fights are sloppy affairs and the way the application is performed will reflect this

When performing the solo kata we are practising the ‘ideal’ movement, which is relatively easy to achieve against the thin air, but another matter entirely against another human being who is intent on doing you harm. When applying kata techniques your main concern should be the movement’s effectiveness, not retaining an inch perfect performance. What is a graceful movement when performed in the kata will become rough around the edges when applied in an all out situation. When studying the true function of kata the visual appearance of a technique must never be a concern. The only valid measure is whether or not the technique disabled the opponent.

7. There is a need for skills at every range

A real fight requires competence at all ranges and with all combative methods. In this series we’ve seen how the kata contain joint-locks, throws, takedowns, chokes, strangles and strikes. It is the study of bunkai that makes karate a holistic and wide-ranging martial art. It can come as a surprise to some that these methods exist within karate due to the fact they are generally not widely practised today (they were in the past). However, an understanding of bunkai and a study of the older karate texts will confirm just how comprehensive karate should be.

To be clear, karate is and always has been a percussive art. Also, the grappling aspects are simple methods to backup the core striking skills and should not be mistaken with the skilled and sophisticated methods associated with modern grappling. However, the basic methods of the kata are suitable for the environment for which they were devised.

8. The likelihood of any scenario must be considered

The majority of kata techniques deal with likely scenarios in civilian altercations; as opposed to the scenarios faced by warriors on a battlefield or competitors in a ring. Choki Motobu once said, ” The techniques of the kata were never developed to be used against a professional fighter, in an arena or on a battlefield. They were, however, very effective against someone who has no idea of the methods being used to counter their aggression ” (‘Tales of Okinawa ‘s Great Masters’ by Shoshin Nagamine).

In a real situation it is statistically very unlikely you’ll be facing another martial artist who has the same set of skills as yourself (and even if you did, the environment is different and the fight still won’t be like a competitive match or dojo spar). Kata techniques are more likely to deal with shoves, clothing grabs, head-locks, head-butts and wild frantic swinging punches than as defences against “martial arts techniques”, skilled submissions or modern sporting methods. It is also worth remembering that most fights occur at close-range and hence the majority of kata techniques are for use at that distance.

9. Strikes should be delivered to anatomical weak points

There should be no doubt that techniques delivered to the body’s weak points will have a greater effect than techniques that are not. You should be as specific as possible with regards to the areas struck when studying bunkai. That said, you should bear in mind that the accurate placement of strikes during an all out fight is not easy.

Hitting a weak point can make an effective technique more effective, but it will not make an otherwise ineffective technique work. Hitting with power is the key. The kata give us plenty of information on the weaknesses of the human body. However, knowledge of weak points is not the main key to understanding kata.

10. No kata techniques rely upon predetermined responses from the opponent, however predictable responses should be acknowledged

It is quite common to see flawed, modern-day applications that depend upon the opponent performing certain actions (like the example from Pinan Shodan / Heian Nidan that we saw in part six). It should be obvious that the opponent will never respond in a predetermined and agreed manner in a live fight. This is one of the great flaws with the “bunkai” demonstrated at tournaments as part of team kata events. Such demos are not true bunkai because they rely on the “opponent’s” compliance. True bunkai is not something you do with a cooperative partner; it’s something you do to an uncooperative opponent.

Although we can’t rely on the opponent’s compliance, some physical responses are instinctive and therefore predictable. Such instinctive motions are therefore often taken into consideration by the kata. An opponent is always very likely to move away from any source of pain and any follow up movements should acknowledge this and any other similar involuntary actions. If you look the bunkai examples we’ve shown throughout this series you’ll frequently see the use of these predictable responses.

11. There are many effective applications for every movement

Master Anko Itosu – the creator of the Pinan Kata series – once wrote, ” There are many movements in karate. When you train you must try to understand the aim of the movement and its application. You have to take into account all possible meanings and applications of the move.” I feel that it is very important that the individual discovers their own unique understanding and expression of the underlying and unchanging kata principles. Also, many movements have more than one function or expression. Although some motions do only have a single use, others can be used in a wide range of ways. We need to be sure to follow Itosu’s advice and explore all possible uses. We covered the idea of multiple functions in part four of this series.

12. Endeavour to understand the principles upon which the techniques rest

The key is to understand “why” the techniques work. Try to get beyond the simple memorising of individual techniques and endeavour to fully understand the principles of combat upon which the kata are based. Principles are far more important than techniques. Principles can be applied in an infinite number of ways, but techniques are very specific and hence limited. Endeavour to fully understand the principles of kata and learn how to fight in accordance with them. Whilst initially this understanding will be on an intellectual level, you should aim to integrate these principles into your subconscious.

By concentrating on the principles, and the various ways in which they can be applied, the kata becomes an inexhaustible supply of martial knowledge and it is possible to appreciate why the masters of old said it would take more than one lifetime to fully understand a single kata.

13. All applications must be workable in real situations

For bunkai to be valid, it all must be applicable to real situations. That is what kata was designed for, and that is the datum to which we must work. Not all karateka are interested in the practical side of the martial arts. Some practise the art for other very valid reasons. However, for your bunkai study to be valid, you have to work to the same datum as the past masters and have a good understanding of the environment in which the methods of the kata were created to operate. In order to understand kata, training must be realistic and sparring should not be based on the modern competitive rules but, as we discussed in part seven, should instead be kata-based.

As we said at the start, bunkai is not an area of training only for the chosen few who possess the “secrets”. Bunkai is something that all karate can study and practise. The concepts summarised above and the technical examples we’ve looked at throughout this series should have given you enough information to begin your personal study of this interesting and vitally important part of karate. I hope you’ve enjoyed these articles and I’m very grateful to you for taking the time to read them.

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The Basics of Bunkai: Part 7

by Iain Abernethy, www.iainabernethy.co.uk

This series of articles explores the basics of “bunkai” (kata application). Over the last six parts we’ve been discussing the fundamentals of this vitally important aspect of karate. We’ve seen how the most common kata movements can be applied at close-range. We’ve also examined the key concepts of bunkai which, when understood, will allow you to understand kata.

In part six we looked at a couple of bunkai examples from Pinan Shodan / Heian Nidan. In part seven we are going to look at some bunkai examples from Yodan and Godan. The first three Pinan kata record the fundamentals of the fighting system recorded by the entire Pinan series. The final two kata build upon those fundamentals.

Once a certain skill level has been achieved it can be prudent to develop your understanding of the underlying principles, look at alternatives and add “supporting knowledge” to the basics. You always aim to use the basics in the first instance; no matter how “advanced” your knowledge. However, a deeper understanding of core concepts and the alternative ways in which they can be applied will make you a more versatile martial artist. I believe this is why the Pinan kata are structured in the way they are.

In part one of this series we saw how the “rising block” – as found in Pinan Nidan / Pinan Shodan – can counter an opponent securing a grip on your clothing. An alternative way to deal with this situation is found in Pinan Yodan. This secondary method can be used as an alternative or an addition to the core method shown earlier in the series (the first method can flow into this second one).


The opponent has seized your clothing. Deliver a strike before seizing the hand the opponent grabbed you with (Figure 1). Turn to the side and push down on the opponent’s elbow with your elbow (Figure 2). You’ll remember that in previous articles we covered how a movement performed to the side within the kata means you need to be sideways on to the opponent when applying that movement. Pull on the opponent’s hair as you deliver a kick to the opponent’s knee (Figure 3). Use your hand to control and create a datum as you deliver an elbow strike to the opponent’s jaw (Figure 4).


There are a few interesting bunkai concepts demonstrated by this sequence. The first thing to discuss is the height of the kick. In the kata the kick is performed at middle level; whereas the kick is delivered to the knees in the application. It is very common for the kicks to be performed at an elevated height in today’s kata. Whereas the kicks were originally performed low, a desire to “improve” the look of the kata and make them more athletically demanding has seen many kicks being performed higher. This can obviously cause inconsistencies when examining the application of a kata sequence. From a practical perspective, we never want to kick higher than mid-thigh. Keep this in mind when studying kata. Just because you may have been taught a version of the kata where the kicks are high, does not mean they were originally that high and it certainly does not mean that should be applied that way.

The second thing to note is that different styles perform a different kick at this point in the kata. Wado-Ryu and Shito-Ryu perform a front kick. Shotokan performs a side kick. When people discuss the differences in kata, they often assume that one version is correct and the other is flawed. However, when you look at the bunkai of any given sequence, it becomes apparent that the variations are frequently just different ways of achieving the same result. Does is matter if you take out the opponent’s knee with a side kick or a front kick? Both will work well and I therefore feel it is misguided to say one version is “wrong” and another is “right”. Bunkai study shows that all the various styles of karate have a great deal in common. The style differences are often little more than varying manifestations of common principles.

In the kata, a clenched fist is moved across as the kick is delivered (the “lower-block”). This represents grabbing the opponent’s hair in order to pull the head back and set them up for the elbow. In the photographs you’ll notice that’s not what I did. I hooked my thumb under the opponent’s nose and used that to move his head back. The reason I did that is that my partner’s hair is too short to secure a decent grip. I therefore adapted the movement but adhered to the key principle (use pain to position the opponent’s head) in order to set up the elbow strike.

Once the application of a given kata motion has been sufficiently practiced, the next stage of study is to examine the underlying concepts and the various ways in which they can be applied. That way, you can adapt the technique, in line with the constant underlying principles, to be relevant and applicable to the situation at hand.

Gichin Funakoshi (founder of Shotokan karate) had twenty key principles of karate. The eighteenth of these principles was “Always perform the kata exactly: Actual Combat is another matter”. This statement emphasises the importance of being able to adapt the kata relevant to the circumstances and not being shackled by the ritual of the formal kata. Choki Motobu also told us to understand the principles of the kata so that we can adapt it as required; as did Hironori Otsuka.

It can be useful to think of any technique demonstrated by the kata as an example used to illustrate a principle. It is the principle that is truly important and therefore kata are best understood as a record of principles as opposed to techniques. However, our study will always begin with the examination of the example. It is these basic examples that we have been discussing in this series. However, we need to understand where our bunkai study is headed.

Another thing to note about the sequence from Pinan / Heian Yodan is how one technique flows onto the next. These longer transitions are not seen in the earlier Pinan kata. As would be expected, Pinan / Heian Godan contains the longest transitions and we’ll now move on to look at one of those transitions.

In part four of this series of articles we saw how the “lower X-block” from Godan can be used to dislocate an opponent’s shoulder. We have now reached the point where it would be a good idea to examine the entire sequence.

Your partner has seized both your wrists (Figure 5). Rotate your right hand and slap down on the inside on the partner’s wrist. This will free your hand and allow you to strike. Shifting forwards into reverse cat stance will add power to both your escape and strike. This is the application of the “reinforced block” (Figure 6). Tighten your grip on the partner’s right wrist as you feed your arm underneath their armpit in preparation for the following throw (Figure 7). This preparation is frequently mislabelled as a “rising punch”. This is obviously incorrect as you are looking in completely the wrong direction if it was indeed a punch. This is another good example of karateka seeing everything as “block, kick and punch”. However, as we’ve seen throughout this series, the original karate, as recorded in the kata, is much more holistic than the prevailing modern interpretation of the art.


Execute a shoulder throw to take your partner to the floor (Figures 8 & 9). Once your partner is on the floor, apply a shoulder lock and throw your leg onto the other side of their body in order to prevent them twisting out of the lock (Figure 10). This is the application of the “lower x-block”. The exact details of how to apply this movement were covered in part four of this series.


This sequence from Pinan Godan is a transition drill across ranges and is not a “technique”. It can therefore be split into pieces to isolate specific skills, used as a drill to teach the flow of techniques, or can be adapted to include other throws, finishes, escapes etc. As before, the kata is giving us an example and we should not be afraid to vary that example and fully explore the underlying principles. It is when we do this that kata really starts to come alive. The sequence again shows how the Pinan / Heian series develops and how the later kata contain longer transitions.

I believe that kata should be viewed as a process. First we learn the kata. We then learn the applications of the kata. When the applications have been learnt, we should then start analysing the underlying principles and explore how to adapt the kata in line with those principles. This is still not enough though. We need to gain live experience of applying these techniques and principles otherwise all the knowledge gained from bunkai study will be theoretical and not practical. We therefore need to bring the methods of kata into our sparring.

Most modern karate sparring is based on the rules of karate competition, which is not related to the methods of the kata. To practise the methods of the kata we therefore need to engage in what I’ve termed “Kata-Based-Sparring”. This covers a broad range on non-compliant training methods that will include strikes, throws, locks, chokes, strangles, limb-control, etc. A detailed discussion on this training method is beyond the scope of these articles. However, as we said earlier, it is important that from the onset of your bunkai study you understand where the process is headed and what it will eventually involve.

Part eight will be the final chapter in the Basic Bunkai series. In that article we will recap the key points of this series and summarise the information needed to unlock the kata and get you started with your bunkai study.

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The Basics of Bunkai: Part 6

by Iain Abernethy, www.iainabernethy.co.uk

In this series of articles we’ve been looking at the basics of “bunkai” (kata application). The purpose of these articles is to introduce the fundamentals of this vitally important aspect of karate to those relatively new to the martial arts or bunkai study.

In the preceding articles we’ve looked at the combative applications of some of the more common kata motions. We’ve also explored some of key principles of bunkai which will help you make sense of kata. In Part 6 we will begin looking at some specific applications from the Pinan / Heian series of kata. “Pinan” and “Heian” are simply differing pronunciations of the same word. The Japanese pronounce the characters as “Heian” and the Okinawan’s favour the pronunciation “Pinan”. Idiosyncrasies of style aside, they are generally the same kata regardless of preferred pronunciation. The Pinan / Heian kata are among the first learnt in many styles and are therefore ideal for the purposes of these articles.

The Pinan kata were created by karate master Anko Itosu over one-hundred years ago. The kata contain movements from older kata and are effectively a summary of the combative methods being practised in the Shuri region of Okinawa at the time of their creation. As we briefly mentioned in part one of this series, a key factor in the evolution of karate was its introduction to the Okinawan school system. The version of karate that was taught to the children was solely about developing health, discipline and character. For the first time kata were taught as a form of exercise. Only the external shell of the kata was passed on and the fighting techniques that kata were developed to record were not taught to the children.

Later on in his life, Anko Itosu became a school teacher and he was predominately responsible for introducing karate to the school system. The Pinan series were the main kata that Itosu taught to the children, and therefore it is sometimes thought that kata have no combative value and were created specifically as a child’s exercise program. A thorough examination of the available evidence shows that this view is greatly flawed.

The first thing is the meaning of the word “Pinan”. In the book Karate-Do Kyohan, Gichin Funakoshi – the founder of Shotokan Karate and a student of Itosu – explains that “Pinan” translates as “peaceful mind” and that Itosu chose that name because once the five kata and their applications are fully understood the karateka can be confident of their ability to defend themselves in most situations. The name of the kata series is therefore said to have been chosen due to the combative nature of their applications.

The second thing to consider is that Itosu also taught the Pinan kata to his adult students: a practise that makes little sense if the kata were created solely for children. The Pinans are relatively short and that is probably the only reason why Itosu chose for them to be the ones taught them to the children (all be it in a watered down fashion).

Thirdly, the motions that make up the Pinan kata are generally taken from older kata which were created by various Chinese and Okinawan martial artists at a time where martial arts were overwhelmingly combative in nature.

Finally, and perhaps most compellingly, when the techniques of the Pinan / Heian series are analysed it becomes unmistakably clear that the series do indeed represent a well thought through and coherent combative system in their own right; which is completely in line with the name Itosu chose for the kata that he created.

This is a series of articles on the basics of bunkai. I therefore don’t wish to go into too much depth on the whole combative methodology recorded in the Pinan / Heian series, or get into why the series is structured and ordered in the way that it is. What I do want to do is look at some of the applications of the series, use those applications to reinforce the principles of bunkai we have already covered and to introduce some new ones.

The first application we’ll look at is the opening move of Pinan Shodan / Heian Nidan. It should be understood that the first kata of the series (Shodan) was renamed as the second (Nidan) in Shotokan to reflect the revised teaching order in most modern dojo. However, Itosu intended for Pinan Shodan (now Heian Nidan in Shotokan) to be the first taught.

Because bunkai is frequently not studied to a sufficient depth, many misconceptions about the functions of kata movements arise. Some of these misconceptions have become widespread and are unfortunately now accepted as the “mainstream” or “official application”. This happens despite the fact that is abundantly clear that the “official application” is extremely ineffective.

 The motion is frequently explained as a block, where the arm in front of the forehead serves no purpose (Figure 1). The second motion (Figure 2) is said to trap the opponent’s second punch in such a way that a hammer-fist strike is delivered to the back of the opponent’s elbow. This motion is said to be an “arm break”. There are innumerable flaws with this application; so many in fact that it should be obvious that the “mainstream” application was not what Itosu intended.

In this series of articles we’ve looked at some of the fundamental concepts of bunkai. You’ll recall that a move to the side means you need to move sideways relative to the opponent; it does not mean the opponent is to your side. You’ll also remember that the vast majority of kata techniques are for use at close range. Kata is also about dealing with civilian altercations, not the formal attacks found in modern karate dojos. You’ll also remember how we discussed that kata does not contain what are commonly considered as “blocks”. We’ve also established that every part of the kata movement should serve a purpose. The “official application” fails on all these counts (and quite a few others).

A much better way to view this kata motion is as a shoulder-lock. You have secured a grip on the opponent’s wrist, turned sideways and fed your other arm to the outside of the opponent’s arm. This is the function of the first movement (Figure 3). The grip on the wrist is then released and the opponent’s arm pushed down and away. At the same time the opponent’s elbow is pulled in towards you. Your arm motion is exactly the same as the kata’s second motion (Figure 4). This will lock the opponent’s shoulder and from there they can easily be taken to the floor (Figure 5).

  The application we just discussed is completely in line with the concepts of bunkai we’ve covered so far in this series. What is interesting though is that both the flawed “official application” and the more pragmatic one we’ve just examined are both considered as attacks to the arms. When the applications of kata stopped being widely taught (following the introduction to schools, and later the prevailing Japanese fashion of modifying martial arts to be sports and systems of physical exercises / character development), I wonder if a student asked what the first move was for and received the brief answer “it attacks joints of the arm”. Because the principles of bunkai were not widely taught, and many of the “new wave” of karateka had no combative experience or understanding, it is possible that the function of the movement was misunderstood in the way that has now become so widespread.

My study of bunkai has found numerous examples where the pragmatic application and “official application” share a common theme (in this case they are both said to “attack the joints of the arm”). For those of us who enjoy researching kata, the ineffective mainstream applications shouldn’t always be completely dismissed as they can occasionally point us in the right direction of the true applications.

Striking is the core of karate. However, as we’ve seen throughout this series, bunkai training opens up other subsections of traditional karate study. The technique we’ve just looked at is one of the core joint-locking movements of karate. In addition to the techniques of the kata, the older karate texts also reveal the fundamental locking, strangling and throwing methods that are now missing from much of modern practise. When studying bunkai, it must always be remembered that the kata are not solely about striking.

Another application from Pinan Shodan / Heian Nidan that I’d like to examine is the “double block” towards the end of the form. The opponent reaches forwards and grabs your neck in order to keep you off balance and set up a datum for their punch. Quickly slam your forearm down onto the opponent’s arm. This will disrupt their posture. The arm motion will also ensure there are no obstructions to your forearm strike to the opponent’s neck (Figure 6).

One of the combative concepts demonstrated by this piece of bunkai is that the hands should work together with one hand creating opportunities for the other. The hands are never held in a passive guard or a “ready position” in kata. Guards are for sparring and distance fighting. At close-range it is better if the hands are put to an active use. The hands working together in this way is an important key to understanding kata. A hand is never idle or merely guarding. An inactive hand (one that is not disadvantaging or injuring the opponent is some way) is called a “shi-te” (pronounced “she-tae”) which translates as “dead hand”. When studying bunkai you need to ensure that “dead hands” are avoided and the concept of using both hands is consistently applied. This is another fundamental concept that needs to be understood if you are to make sense of kata. If you look back across all the bunkai examples that we’ve examined in this series you’ll see this important principle at work.

In this article, we’ve introduced some additional information relating to the Pinan / Heian kata, which are generally the first kata studied and where true bunkai training begins. We examined the occasional relationship between the widespread flawed applications and the more effective bunkai we’ve been studying in this series. Part 6 has also seen us reemphasise the idea that karate has many areas of study in addition to the core striking skills, and that the kata is a record of these areas. We’ve also emphasised the importance of using both hands together and avoiding any “dead hands” when applying kata.

Part 7 sees the penultimate article in the Basic Bunkai series. We will examine some of the transitions found within the Pinan / Heian series and introduce a few more fundamental bunkai concepts that will help you make sense of kata.

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5&7 Sep Training

Hey folks, I wanted to drop a quick note that we are having class this week, however I am currently TDY. Mr. Hovan will take the lead for the next few weeks. This works well because I am preparing to PCS back the US in December. 

I will also push out an article for your consideration later this week. 

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The Basics of Bunkai: Part 5

by Iain Abernethy, www.iainabernethy.co.uk

In this series of articles we’ve been looking at the basics of “bunkai” (kata application). The purpose of these articles is to introduce the basics of this important aspect of karate to those relatively new to the martial arts or bunkai study.

In Part 5 we’ll be looking at two applications of the “lower-block”. As we established in the first part of this series, the modern labels attached to many kata techniques have nothing to do with their intended function. These labels arose relatively recently in karate’s development and originate from the “watered down” karate taught to Okinawan school children in the early 1900s. Prior to this time, karate was not openly taught and both the kata and their application were closely guarded secrets. So there was no uniform terminology prior to the terms used by the school children. So if “lower-block” was never meant to be applied as a block, then what is it?

“Lower-block” has lots of different functions and which one is being illustrated at any given point depends upon the kata in question and the surrounding movements. As we discussed in Part 4, prior to the standardisation of kata not all “lower-blocks” would be performed in exactly the same way. The motion would be slightly different depending upon what function was being illustrated. From the number of “lower-blocks” in kata we can determine that the motion must have many functions, otherwise it wouldn’t be shown so many times. In this article, we’ll look at using the “lower-block” as a combination takedown and an arm-lock. There are of course many other applications for “lower-block”, but the two I’ve selected should also help us to further our understanding of the key concepts of bunkai.

Cover and gain control of the opponent’s lead arm (Figure 1). Secure a grip on the opponent’s arm. Pull their arm towards you and down. This pull will turn the opponent’s head slightly and ensure your elbow has a clear run in to the base of the opponent’s skull. This is the function of the “preparation” of the “lower-block” (Figure 2). If the elbow has landed strongly, but the opponent is still in the fight, the remainder of the “lower-block” motion can be used to crank the opponent’s neck and take them off balance. Maintain your grip on the opponent’s arm (the function of the hikite) as your forearm pushes against their jaw in a circular motion in order to crank their neck and break their posture (Figure 3).

Complete the “lower-block” to take the opponent completely off balance and onto your knee (Figure 4). If needed, you can then follow up with any suitable strike (Figure 5). The fact that your partner’s spine or kidneys will hit your knee as they fall means that great care needs to be taken when practising this technique. You must also ensure that you are always being supervised by a suitably qualified and experienced person during bunkai training.

In this technique we can see some of the principles of bunkai that we have introduced in previous articles. We can see how the full movement is used, how both hands are being used, how the stance serves a practical purpose, etc.

One other fundamental bunkai concepts illustrated by this movement is that every single kata movement should, at the very least, leave the opponent in a position where they are extremely vulnerable. It is quite common for kata movements to be incorrectly interpreted so that no advantage is gained and the karateka is left in a “neutral” position. You’ll notice how this motion has trapped the opponent’s arm, struck them, cranked their neck, dropped their spine on to your knee, and left them in a position where they are extremely disadvantaged.

There are innumerable historical, technical and practical reasons why the motion should not be applied as a block. One of these reasons is that when this movement is used as a block (taking as read that it’s very unlikely to work, but for the purposes of discussion let’s say that it does) you’ve done nothing to disadvantage the opponent. This is in breach of one of the fundamental principles of bunkai study: It should always be remembered that every single kata motion must, as an absolute minimum, disadvantage the opponent and leave the karateka is a position of significant advantage.

The second application for lower-block that we’ll be looking at is an arm-lock performed at an angle. Before we look at the technique itself, we need to examine what the angles in the kata are actually meant to represent.

It’s at this point that we need to dispel the common misunderstanding that the angles in kata represent you turning to face a new opponent. You are never changing angles to face a new opponent! In the vast majority of situations the opponent will be in front of you. The main exception being when your awareness wasn’t what it should have been and the opponent has got the drop on you. In those instances you’ll probably be out of the fight before you know you’re even in it. So what are the angles representing if not moving to face new opponents?

When a movement is performed at a new angle, the kata is telling you to position yourself at that angle in relation to the opponent. Being at the angle demonstrated by the kata will increase the effectiveness of the technique in question. This is a very important key to understanding kata. The opponent is almost always in front of you and the angle tells you how you need to be positioned when applying the technique. If a move is performed at forty-five degrees, it means you must move to a forty-five degree angle to your opponent when applying that technique.

Because a kata motion will be linked to a preceding technique – which it may not be linked to in application – the movement of the kata to get to the designated angle is often not the same movement of the feet used in application. When analysing kata, it is the angle that is important, not the step in the kata used to get there. Remember, the step in the kata may simply be linking two unrelated techniques.

To illustrate the principle of angles let’s look at the “lower-block” after the last “rising-head-block” in Pinan Nidan / Heian Shodan. As we’ve already mentioned, the application of this movement is an arm lock performed at an angle. Your arms have clashed with the opponent’s arm (Figure 6). Seize the opponent’s wrist and position your forearm just above their elbow (Figure 7).

Pull the opponent’s hand to your waist as you rotate their forearm. Keep your forearm in contact with the opponent’s arm and push down and around in an arcing fashion. As you rotate the opponent’s forearm, the position of their elbow will also rotate. It is for this reason that your pushing arm must move in an arc in order to keep applying pressure to the correct point. This rotation of the arm makes it very difficult for the opponent to resist the lock due to the constantly changing direction of the force. Step around with your back foot in order to add bodyweight to the technique and to increase your mechanical advantage. This is the application of the “lower-block” (Figure 8). In Wado-Ryu and Shito-Ryu the technique is normally performed at a forty-five degree angle. In Shotokan it is performed at a ninety degree angle. Both work. Now that the opponent is off balance and their head has dropped down, you should seize the opponent’s shoulder and apply a downward pressure. This will ensure that you maintain control over the opponent and it will prevent them from regaining an upright position. Step forwards and deliver a strike to the base of the opponent’s skull (Figure 9).

Notice how moving to the forty-five or ninety degree angle demonstrated by the kata takes you away from the opponent’s free hand and significantly increases the effect of the arm lock by increasing your mechanical advantage.

In this article, we’ve looked a couple of applications for “lower-block” and briefly looked at a couple more bunkai principles. Those who have been following these articles from the beginning will now be starting to grasp the basics of bunkai. As we said at the very beginning, understanding kata and taking part in bunkai training is something that everyone can do. It’s not the sole reserve of the highly graded or those who posses the “secrets”. To understand bunkai, all you need to know are the kata and the principles and concepts we’ve been covering in this series. In Part 6 we’ll look at some specific bunkai examples from the Pinan / Heian series and begin to recap what we have leant so far.

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The Basics of Bunkai: Part 4

by Iain Abernethy, www.iainabernethy.co.uk

Welcome to the fourth part of the basic bunkai series. “Bunkai” refers to the analysis and the practical application of the techniques of traditional kata. In previous articles we’ve looked at some of the basic applications for common kata movements such as age-uke, shuto-uke and gedan-juji-uke. We’ve also looked at some of the fundamental concepts of bunkai which are the keys to this area of martial study.

In this article we’re going to look at more applications of the “lower x-block” from reverse-cat-stance (Figure 1) . In Part 1 of this series we established that the modern labels commonly attributed to kata movements have nothing to do with the intended function of that movement. Just because a movement is now labelled as a “block”, does not mean it was originally intended to be applied as a block. In the last article we saw how “lower x-block” could be applied as a strangle, and how assuming reverse-cat-stance would increase the effect of that strangle.

The stances in kata are “snapshots” that show how the bodyweight should be distributed and shifted. I feel that “stance” is sometimes a misleading word because it has connotations of something fixed and immobile. In reality, stances are simply the weight distribution and leg position required at a given instant. There is nothing fixed; the bodyweight shifts through the “stances” as needed.

In addition to the shift in bodyweight, the actual position of the legs of a stance can be used to control the opponent’s motion and hence enhance the effect of the technique. The strangle we showed in Part 3 made used of the weight shift caused by assuming reverse-cat-stance. The joint locking applications of “lower x-block” that we will be examining in this article will make use of the leg position of reverse-cat-stance to control the opponent’s motion. It is hoped that these examples will help those new to bunkai study to understand the key ways in which stances are to be realistically used.

Trap the opponent’s arm and deliver a palm heel strike (Figure 2). Maintain a tight grip on the opponent’s wrist and slam your forearm down onto the inside of their elbow joint. This will cause the opponent’s elbow to bend and can break their balance. Continue the motion so that you can lock your slamming arm onto the top of your grabbing arm. Shift forward slightly as you tie up the arm so that the opponent’s elbow is against your chest (Figure 3).Twist to the side whilst pushing down on the opponent’s wrist in order to lock their shoulder and completely break their balance (Figure 4). The instant the opponent hits the floor, drop your knee onto their ribs and pull upwards. This will injure the opponent’s rib cage and take out the wrist (Figure 5).

The leg and arm positions at this point are “lower x-block” and reverse-cat-stance. The assuming of reverse-cat-stance makes use of the bodyweight during the takedown. The knee hitting the ribs will also prevent the opponent from rising as the wrist lock is applied and therefore the lock will have a far greater effect. We can see how the position of the knee is controlling the opponent.

During bunkai training it is very important that the function of the stance is always considered and utilised. Reverse-cat-stance can also be used to prevent the opponent from rotating on the floor. A great example of this is found in Pinan Godan / Heian Godan kata.

The sequence we are looking at is the one that ends with jump. The kata breaks the opponent’s grip on your arms, traps their arms, delivers a strike, and then throws the opponent. Now that the opponent is on the floor, the kata shows how you can follow them onto floor and dislocate their shoulder. The final application of the jump into “lower x-block” from reverse-cat-stance is the technique we’ll be examining in this article.

The opponent has been thrown to the floor by the preceding moves (Figure 6). Drop down whilst placing your arm between the opponent’s head and arm. Sharply bring your forearm upwards to bend the opponent’s arm (Figure 7). In order to stop the opponent from pulling their arm away, seize the back of your opponent’s arm. Secure the hand on the opponent’s arm by grabbing your wrist with your other arm (Figure 8). If you were to twist the opponent’s arm at this point, they would simply turn around and alleviate the pressure on their shoulder. If, however, you throw your leg on to the other side of the opponent (the purpose of the jump) the opponent can’t turn out of the lock and hence it will be much more effective. The leg position at this point is again reverse-cat-stance (Figure 9).

In Part 4 we’ve seen a few more examples of how the techniques that are nowadays mislabelled as “blocks” can be pragmatically used when correctly understood. We’ve also seen more instances of how the stances are used to make techniques as effective as possible. The techniques we’ve looked at in this and the preceding article also introduce another fundamental concept of bunkai: the concept of Multiple Function.

In these articles we have seen three differing ways in which “x-block” from reverse-cat-stance can be applied: as a strangle (in Part 3), as a wrist-lock takedown, and as a shoulder-lock. The exact function of any given “x-block” is determined by the kata in question and the surrounding techniques i.e. the “x-block” we’ve just looked at from Godan can’t be the standing strangle shown in Part 3 as the preceding throw means the opponent is not standing.

It is a pretty safe assumption that in the past the intention of any movement would be more apparent due to the exact way in which the motion was performed. However, as kata was being taught without application to large groups, movements were simplified, became more uniform and some specific details were lost. This is not a great problem as long as we understand the nature of kata and the various methods of application. A key part of bunkai study is to understand that although various kata movements may look alike, they don’t automatically always have the same application i.e. not all “x-blocks” are to be applied as ground-fighting shoulder locks.

Another key to understanding kata is that they do include generic motions with multiple functions. Sometimes a movement is only meant to be applied in one way; other times it has a few equally valid uses. It is therefore important to understand that some kata movements may have been included with more than one specific function in mind. In 1908 Anko Itosu (creator of the Pinan / Heian series of kata) documented his ten key principles of karate. His sixth principle stated, “There are many movements in karate. In training, you must try to understand the application of all movements. You must take into account all possible applications. Kata movements can have many applications”.

There are therefore two key issues to understand when talking about multiple function. Firstly, it is very important that those new to bunkai study don’t fall into the trap of thinking that any given movement is applied in the exact same way in every kata (look at the surrounding movements to gain a clear understanding). Secondly, another mistake that those new to bunkai study can make is to think that all kata sequences only have a single use. Some do only have a single function; however, some have more than one use. We need to follow Itosu’s advice and be sure to fully explore our kata. The trick to avoiding both errors is to always examine a movement in the context it is presented in the kata, and to then explore all the possibilities of that context. We’ll return to these ideas in future articles.

In Part 5, we’ll examine another common kata motion; that of “lower-block”. We’ll see how the motion can be applied as an arm-bar and a combination takedown. We’ll also look at a few more basic bunkai concepts that will help you to better understand kata and make use of the information they were created to record.

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The Basics of Bunkai: Part 3

by Iain Abernethy, www.iainabernethy.co.uk

In this series of articles we are exploring the basics of kata application (bunkai). The aim of these articles is to open up this fascinating area of martial study for those who are relatively new to karate and similar arts, or who are new to bunkai study.

Earlier in this series, we established that at close-range blocking is highly unlikely to work (too close and too fast). We also covered that the kata motions now labelled as “blocks” in modern dojos, were never originally intended to be used as blocks.

The “x-block” is perhaps one of the most obviously flawed techniques should it be applied as a block. The most common modern interpretation of the movement is thrusting both arms downward to stop a kick or low punch. It is highly unlikely that this would work. Even if we do manage to get our arms to the opponent’s striking limb, it leaves the head dangerously exposed and, in the case of a kick, it is very likely to result in damage to the blocker’s arms. It is very unlikely that the warriors who formulated the kata would have even considered the use of such a technique. So if they weren’t using the motion as a block, what where they using it for?

As we’ll see, the motion now labelled as “x-block” has a number of differing applications depending upon the exact way in which the technique is performed and the context of the kata (what moves are before and after it). One of the first uses we’ll look at is using the “x-block” to strangle an opponent.

You have wrapped the opponent’s arm and gained control of the back of the neck (Figure 1). Head-butt the opponent in order to distract and weaken them (Figure 2). Quickly place your hand on the back of the opponent’s head and push down (Figure 3). Feed your other arm across the back of the opponent’s neck and continue to push down (Figure 4). Use your free arm to reach underneath and grab the opponent’s clothing. Pull on the clothing to effect a strangle (Figure 5). IMPORTANT: Never practise chokes or strangles unless you are under the direct supervision of a suitably qualified and experienced person.


In the photo, you’ll notice that my body position is identical to the “x-block” in many kata. Also notice how the front stance prevents you from being easily pushed over and drops your weight into the technique. One of the basic rules of bunkai study is that the stance always serves a practical purpose and adds to the effect and efficiency of the technique.

“X-block” is also often performed in kata from reverse cat stance. If we stick with looking at the motion from a strangling perspective, assuming reverse cat stance will drop the weight yet further, and although there will be some loss of stability, this is offset by the fact that the opponent’s posture is greatly disrupted and the effects of the strangle are increased (Figure 6).

Before we move on to look at some alternative applications for the motion, I’d like to quickly mention the role of the grip and the head-butt. One of the other keys to understanding kata is that they only record the vital core information. Supporting knowledge such as basic gripping skills and an understanding of the importance of disrupting an opponent prior to a technique (this time in the form of a head-butt) are generally not shown for two main reasons: Firstly, the kata were designed by fighters for other fighters. They therefore assume that such knowledge is self-evident and therefore there is no need to repeatedly record it. Secondly, the kata are summaries of fighting systems. Hence it would make little sense to repeatedly show the same ideas over and over and “swell” the kata for no gain. We’ll return to this idea later in this series. For now, it’s enough to understand that a basic knowledge of supporting methods and concepts are required as part of your kata / bunkai study.

We’ve now seen two ways in which the “x-block” can be used to strangle an opponent unconscious (there are others). Another way in which kata makes use of the “x-block” motion is to maintain advantage and strike an opponent should they be bent at the waist (many of the kata motions preceding “x-blocks” position the opponent in that way). One hand seizes the opponent’s shoulder and applies a downward pressure. This will momentarily control the opponent’s motion and allow the other hand to powerfully and accurately strike the opponent on the base of the skull (Figure 7).

In Part 3 we’ve looked at some of the basic bunkai (application) of the “x-block”. There are of course other ways in which the motion can be used in a practical way. In Part 4, we’ll continue our exploration of basic bunkai and show how “x-block” can also be used to take an opponent to the floor and to lock up the joints of the arm.

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