What was it about the martial arts that attracted you?
It’s breadth. There is so much to cover in martial arts that it can become a never-ending journey. There are some pretty cool stops along the way, of course, but you’re never really done so long as the desire to learn remains strong. I started taking judo as a kid in 1970 because I was a scrawny little “beanpole” who got bullied in school. It was amazing to learn that a little guy could defeat a much larger foe by using his strength against him. I enjoyed the tournament competitions most of all. Performing well was a big boost for my self esteem while the trophies were an added bonus. As I got older I tried a variety other arts, some traditional (e.g., karate, kobudo) and some not (e.g., knife, gun). Over the years my emphasis has shifted. I have stopped competing entirely, focusing primarily on perfecting traditional kata and exploring practical applications with an emphasis on self defence.
Who was your first instructor or inspiration?
My first instructor was Kenji Yamada, a two time US national champion and the highest ranking black belt in the country at that time. His skill was amazing, but his love for the art was paramount. He not only ran (and still runs) a traditional dojo in Seattle (Washington, USA), but also held classes at a local Boys & Girls Club in the neighbouring town of Bellevue to make the sport more available throughout the community. He put a ton of time and energy into teaching us skills, introducing us to Japanese culture, and ferrying us around to tournaments in a big old monster station wagon. A couple times a year he would even drive us more than 260 miles round trip (418 km) to Canada so that we could compete. Currently an 8th
dan, he started judo when he was 13 years old has been teaching for more than 50 years!
What were your first impressions of training?
Wow, that was a loooong time ago so you’re really testing my memory here. I guess the biggest thing was culture shock. I’d never seen a traditional gi or obi before. The formality of it all was certainly unusual, particularly the bowing. Once I’d spent a little time in the club, however, it all became more and more “normal.” It was rather nice to immerse myself into another culture.
What is it especially about them that interests you? What successes/promotions have you
There is something for just about anyone in martial arts. If your goal is character development, tournament competition, physical conditioning, mental discipline, self-defence skills, weapons forms, a chance to teach others, any or all of the above you can find it. It goes back to that “breadth” thing I mentioned earlier. I’ve done all that and more. Of all the things I’ve achieved, the one I’m the most proud of is the books I’ve published. While I can share my knowledge with only a few students at a time in the dojo, my books and articles create a legacy people throughout the world can benefit from.
How important is realism to martial practice?
Realism, to the extent practicable, is absolutely essential if you want to be able to defend yourself on the street. There’s more than one black belt out there who’s been beat down badly because he didn’t understand the difference between sparring and fighting. However, due to safety precautions drills in the dojo you can only simulate reality. After all, it’s no good if your training partner goes home in an ambulance or worse yet in a box. It’s crucial, however, to have a solid foundation, knowing what might work and what cannot work on the street. Working stadium security I’ve witnessed, interceded in, and stopped or prevented hundreds of fights, experiencing all manner of aggressive behaviours as well as the escalation process that invariably precedes them. There is a monumental difference between working cooperatively with a partner to learn a new technique and striving against an opponent to apply it in an adrenalized, fearful state.
How important is understanding the purpose behind moves/techniques? How do you find out
about those purposes? From your teacher, or from your own study? Which, do you think, is the
best way to find out?
Kata should not be aerobic exercise, but rather the fundamental basis of a fighting art. As you know, it is a logical series of offensive and defensive techniques performed in a particular order. The challenge is that if you do not understand the applications you’re really just dancing around in your jammies, a complete waste of time. There is more than one “right” application for most every movement of every kata yet some are more optimal than others. There are a variety of ways to figure out what those good ones are. I think it has to begin with your instructor so that you can build a foundation of knowledge from which to conduct your own experiments. There are a variety of resources out there such as books, DVDs, and websites that can help too. There seems to be quite a growing community of practitioners dedicated to deciphering practical applications from traditional kata. With time and training, however, you need to own it yourself.
What does it take to make a success of martial practice?
Perseverance mostly. If your head is in the right place, diligent practice builds the physical strength, endurance, and flexibility necessary to become a black belt, win a tournament, defend yourself on the street, or meet just about any other goal you’ll set for yourself in the martial arts. Most people never know the limits of what they can do until or unless they are faced with a seemingly impossible challenge and decide to step up and meet it. While it’s easy to give up and drop out, those who persevere almost always become successful. It helps to have a great instructor too. Because there are only a limited number of vital areas on the body that can be manipulated, struck, or otherwise damaged by a martial practitioner, and there are only a limited number of ways that each joint in the body can move, every martial art shares certain common components. Emphasis and strategies will differ, of course, but techniques always overlap. Consequently I feel that finding the right teacher is far more important than discovering the perfect martial art to study.
How important are targets and goals to you? Are grades important? What do they tell you about
An important way of setting yourself up for success in your martial arts training (or anything else in life) is to create a challenging set of stretch goals. After all, people seldom hit what they do not aim for. I personally find goal setting extraordinarily beneficial. I use the process that Iain Abernethy described in his outstanding book Mental Strength. It calls for setting Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound goals. While SMART is a somewhat goofy acronym it is easy to remember and really does work. When used objectively, grades can be an important aspect of goal setting since they force you to test yourself against a predefined set of competencies that ultimately lead to higher and higher levels of mastery within your art. Earning a new belt or rank badge is extremely motivational for many practitioners, while the process of studying for advancement tests in and of itself can be quite beneficial. With all the McDojos out there you cannot truly tell much about a practitioner simply by the belt he or she wears alone. While you might earn your shodan after eight or ten years of arduous study in one system it may only take you two or three years in another. Nevertheless, a ranking system helps instructors organize lessons and meaningfully tailor instruction in ways that facilitate learning.
How do factors such as age and sex affect training?
One of the most intriguing aspects of martial arts is that with sufficient skill and experience, age and gender become pretty much irrelevant. If you’ve been around long enough you’ve no doubt seen the frail old man or woman who can defeat younger, stronger practitioners with ease. I know I’ve certainly been bounced off the walls by some of them myself. That’s great if you’ve been studying martial arts all your life, but what about those who are small or weak or simply want to begin their career at middle age? Never fear. It can sometimes be a blessing if you cannot use brute force to power through, since it helps you focus on learning proper body mechanics to execute techniques even more effectively. It is very important to focus on controlling your weight and maintaining your flexibility as you age though. This not only facilitates a healthy lifestyle, staving off injury and illness, but also helps you be more effective in the martial arts. One of the biggest challenges facing women in the martial arts is that there are relatively few of them when compared to men. Where possible seek a female mentor who can help you understand the uniqueness of your situation and help you in your training.
How effective are martial arts in a street situation? How might they be made more effective?
Do you cover all aspects of practice – striking, grappling, locks etc and if not, which are omitted,
To me, self defence is really about not being there. Awareness, avoidance, and de-escalation are paramount. Once it comes to physical combat you’ve already blown your defence. Having said that, however, that’s exactly what we train to do in the dojo—fight back once we’ve been successfully ambushed and our adversary has the initiative. Clearly the martial arts are very valuable when used for that purpose. In order to pull it off effectively, however, we must look at the art holistically. Karate, for example, is not just about punching and kicking. It’s got locks, throws, sweeps, strangulations, pressure points, and a whole plethora of other applications as well. You can’t be an expert at everything, but you at least need to know what’s possible because that may just be what your opponent will try to do to you. Strikers need to understand grappling; grapplers need to understand striking. Everyone needs to understand common weapons since bad guys universally cheat to win. With enough training you can eventually ascertain not only what works, but also what fits your body type and personality predilections and focus primarily on those items. I look at it this way: there are techniques you know, techniques you do, techniques you train, and techniques you’d stake your life on. Sorta puts things in perspective doesn’t it?
Do you think that the founders of martial art are very special people? Do you think they have all
died out now? If no, then what does it take to develop a new tradition?
There are tons of exceptional martial artists out there today, but only a handful that most everyone can name. Similarly, the founders of the traditional arts were not only amazingly skilled practitioners, but also marketing geniuses as well. We know their names and their styles because they built effective organizations that carried on beyond their lifetimes. In every generation there are a few talented folks who rise to the top of their industry and martial arts is no different than any other in that regard. We’ve seen several relatively “new” arts come to the forefront lately, stuff like MMA, Krav Maga, Brazilian ju-jitsu, sambo, and so on. There are also a variety of talented individuals who have championed relatively “new” trends such as Iain Abernethy has done with the practical applications of traditional karate kata, Peyton Quinn had done with adrenal stress conditioning, or Marc “Animal” MacYoung had done with no-nonsense self defence.
At what point does a personal interpretation of a tradition become a distinct style in its own
Hmm, that’s a tough one. I think it is incumbent upon practitioners of traditional styles to pass along what they have been taught without changes, particularly when it comes to kata. Once a student understands the form, however, experimentation ought to be encouraged. There is almost always more than one “correct” interpretation of each movement. Consequently what works best for one practitioner may not be what’s best for another who has a different body type, or personality. With that approach, it is possible to “personalize” a traditional style without materially changing it. If you’re truly going to create a new tradition it must be much more than simply compiling a collection of your favourite techniques. Picking and choosing individual applications from a variety of different styles is almost always sub-optimal as there is no strategic concept binding them together. Consequently I think that creating an entirely new a new art would be a very big challenge indeed. A “distinctive style” can be a very nuanced thing.
How important are titles such as ‘sifu’, ‘sensei’ ‘sabom’ and ‘shihan’ to you?
These terms can be quite useful to help put martial arts training into the proper context. All martial arts are both broad and deep. There is so much information to master, in fact, that it can literally be a lifelong pursuit. The word sensei, which we typically think of as “teacher,” literally translates from Japanese as “one who has come before.” Your sensei may or may not know everything there is to know about your martial art, but he or she most certainly has travelled much further along the path than you have and will continue to progress over time. Consequently it is useful to think of your instructor as a guide, someone who can help focus your goals and feed you logical blocks of information that will eventually coalesce into a mastery of your chosen art. While I’m not so big on titles, particularly outside the dojo, I like to think of honourifics such as hanshi (model teacher), kyoshi (master teacher), renshi (senior expert), and shihan (expert teacher) as “lifetime achievement awards” which recognize exemplary instructors. It’s nice to have a structure in place within martial arts organizations to express special appreciation such individuals.
Who are you inspired by now? You mention both Rick Clark and Iain Abernethy in your books,
how did you come across these amazing gentlemen?
We’ve been blessed to live in an information rich age where the secret knowledge of just a few years ago is ubiquitous today. I’ve found that the internet has proven a fantastic resource to bring like minded martial artists from all over the world together to share ideas and learn more about their arts. I’m particularly inspired by those who have dedicated themselves to sharing their knowledge with the rest of us through books, articles, websites, and DVDs, folks like Iain Abernethy, Dan Anderson, Loren Christensen, Rick Clark, Marc MacYoung, Martina Sprague, Kris Wilder, and Yang Zwing-Ming. I’ve read and very much enjoyed all of Rick’s work but unfortunately have never met him. I discovered Iain’s book Bunkai Jutsu many years ago, loved it, and subsequently found his web site. We approach kata analysis in similar ways so I asked him to write the foreword for my book, The Way of Kata (co-written with Kris Wilder), which impressed him and we have corresponded regularly ever since. I am honoured to have become the co-moderator of the community forum on his web site as well.
Do you believe that pressure points work?
Yes. When done properly, most people will react strongly to pressure point techniques. Some will react to a few, but not all pressure points. Unfortunately there are also a small number of individuals who do not respond to most points at all. Logically, if professional acupuncturists need several points and several treatments to affect their healing, it seems improbable that we can stop a determined attacker in his tracks with damage from a single pressure point strike. I think it would be folly, therefore, to rely solely on this method to stop an attacker. It is best to think of pressure point manipulations as an extra bonus that goes along with your physiological incapacitation techniques. If it works, great! If it fails, you’ve lost nothing by trying.
Do you think pressure points are the be-all and end-all or the poison on the tip of the arrow?
Definitely the poison on the tip of the arrow. Nerve strikes are pretty cool but they simply do not work every time on everyone. They also become much less effective if the recipient has trained to “seal up” certain points, has certain mental disorders, or is in an altered state of consciousness due to drugs and/or alcohol. While they are by no means the end-all be-all, they are, however, a wonderful addition to your martial repertoire.
Do you agree with pressure testing techniques?
So long as it’s not abused, yes. After all, if you ever need to apply your martial skills on the street you will be combating the affects of adrenaline, both within your attacker and yourself. Your heart rate can jump from 60 or 70 beats per minute (BPM) to well over 200 BPM in less than half a second during a violent encounter. Without prior training, most people cannot function at that stress level. Even highly trained practitioners tend to experience degraded performance.
Are the oyo derived from bunkai valid or should we only practice that laid out by the
Sure. I’m only a purest when it comes to the kata themselves. I strongly encourage advanced students to play with any variety of applications for each movement so long as they strive to find techniques that are strategically sound.
Do you believe that the addition of pressure points and grappling to Karate is
true to the style or a corruption?
Pressure points and grappling techniques have always been a part of classical karate. While much of that was hidden from the general public for a variety of historical reasons, it has been broadly rediscovered today. Without it the art is incomplete.
Do you believe that patterns are the heart of karate/TKD?
Absolutely. Each kata is a wholly self-contained fighting system. Once you know how to interpret them correctly, you can discover everything you need to know for realistic self-defence in each of the forms. They teach stance, movement, breathing, body mechanics, and strategy in addition to the more obvious fighting techniques.
Would you still do your art if there was only one pattern?
Hmm, that’s a tough one. Many of the ancient masters only learned a few kata. In Goju Ryu, for example, it would have been sanchin kata plus one or two more. With only two kata I’d personally be happy. With only one it’d have to be sanchin kata since it forms the basis for everything else and still contains a number of practical fighting applications. I could be happy with just that one for five or ten years but would eventually want more.
Do you agree with Bill Burgar in that people should be practicing their own kata rather than those of their
The strongest practitioner I’ve ever met only claims to know two kata. He can perform more than a dozen, but he’s spent over 20 years learning every aspect of just two. If you wholly grasp all the knowledge that’s baked into any given kata you can become a very powerful fighter indeed. I think that you need to start with the core kata of your style, learning the patterns and common applications of all of them so that you’ll not only meet all your promotional requirements but also have an solid understanding of the system’s overarching strategy and common tactics. Once you have them all down though, I feel it’s very important to pick a few to study in-depth and truly understand. Since it can take several years to internalize the meaning and identify the optimal application(s) of every movement any given kata there’s almost certainly enough that comes with the system that you won’t have any need to develop your own. There’s nothing conceptually wrong with creating your own kata, but it’s a monumental challenge to do it properly. It’s got to be more than just a jumble of techniques.
Fact Box – Snapshot of the person.
a) What’s your favourite colour?
b) What’s your favourite food?
c) What’s your favourite film?
Pirates of the Caribbean.
d) What’s your favourite music?
e) What are you currently reading?
Just finished The Brutal Art of Ripping, Poking & Pressing Vital Targets by Loren W. Christensen and am beginning Cartomancy by Michael A. Stackpole. I like science fiction, fantasy, and (of course) martial arts.
f) What’s your favourite technique?
Shotei uchi (palm heel strike).
g) What’s your favourite pattern?
In case you need any more background, here’s my bio:
Lawrence Kane is the author of Martial Arts Instruction (YMAA, 2004) and Surviving Armed Assaults (YMAA, 2006), as well as co-author of The Way of Kata (YMAA, 2005) and The Way to Black Belt (YMAA, 2007). He has also contributed to other author’s books, published numerous articles about teaching, martial arts, self-defence, and related topics, and is a forum moderator at http://www.iainabernethy.com, a website devoted to traditional martial arts and self protection.
Since 1970 he has participated in a broad range of martial arts, from traditional Asian sports such as judo, arnis, kobudo, and karate to recreating medieval European combat with real armour and rattan (wood) weapons. He has taught medieval weapons forms since 1994 and Goju Ryu karate since 2002. He has also completed seminars in modern gun safety, marksmanship, handgun retention and knife combat techniques, and he has participated in slow-fire pistol and pin shooting competitions.
Since 1985, Lawrence has supervised employees who provide security and oversee fan safety during college and professional football games at a Pac-10 stadium. This part-time job has given him a unique opportunity to appreciate violence in a myriad of forms. Along with his crew, he has witnessed, interceded in, and stopped or prevented hundreds of fights, experiencing all manner of aggressive behaviours as well as the escalation process that invariably precedes them. He has also worked closely with the campus police and state patrol officers who are assigned to the stadium and has had ample opportunities to examine their crowd control tactics and procedures.
To pay the bills he does IT sourcing strategy and benchmarking work for an aerospace company in Seattle where he gets to play with billions of dollars of other people’s money and make really important decisions. Lawrence lives in Seattle, Washington with his wife Julie and his son Joey. He can be contacted via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.