…and, if the Katas were gone?

Again, this is my opinion only…


It has been said that the combinations and katas of Shaolin Kempo are the backbone of the system( please note that shaolin kempo uses “kata’s” as a name of specific forms, unlike other styles where the term “kata” is equal to the term “form”). As a seeker of excellence in my chosen art, naturally this type of statement grabs my attention. “The backbone of the system”…I mean, wow…how can I not be drawn into an in depth study of these two key points???
So, historically the development of the combinations and kata is fairly well documented until about combination 30. We see the origins in Kajukenbo and their evolution as they spread from West to East until things culminate in the 6 Kata of George Pesare.
Unfortunately, I have not been able to find much written on the katas and combinations other than historical information and musings.
As I mentioned in my previous blurb, the most rich interpretation I have found of katas 1-5 have been through using the combinations as keys. Without such interpretation they are little more than line drills, really. In the sense, that the Katas do not codify Shaolin Kempo flow, tactics, strategies and fighting principles. However, our numbered combination techniques do just that for the system. So, of what benefit is one to 5 kata in a system that teaches the Pinan / Heian forms?
When Kajukenbo was growing, they did not have the Pinan/Heian series as we do. When Nick Cerio brought them into his teachings and Fred Villari kept them in his Shaolin Kempo the need and benefit for the katas diminished greatly.
I count no more than six techniques, maybe eight at the max, in the Kata series that are not found in the numbered combinations or the Pinan series. Please note that I do not have all of the 108 numbered combinations. Let that sink in for a while…

I still practice and teach them, as they are a part of our history. However, I wonder what we, as Shaolin Kempo practitioners would loose, if we dropped them all together. Our distinction from other styles would remain due to our method, numbered combinations and the above dan rank forms. We would have more time to delve deeper into our forms and combinations. Seriously, to what degree do we benefit from continuing to use these forms we call 1 to 6 kata?

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Shaolin Kempo Katas – some of my thoughts

I have long been interested in what makes Shaolin Kempo work. Naturally, practice was a large part of the answer, so I practiced at every opportunity. I asked questions of my early teachers and this led to better technique time and again. It was in my second year as a black belt that I was shocked to the core. Friends of my instructor needed someone to teach for them at one of their locations. As their curriculum was different from my instructor’s curriculum, they gave me an instructors course. Excited to learn more and to teach I eagerly accepted. The course was not a pleasant experience at all. I learned a great deal, to be sure but I did not enjoy their way of doing business or teaching. During one of these instructor course I saw them doing a combination differently than I had been taught, moreover it seemed quite ineffective. When I asked the question I was told that the combinations are concepts and are not meant for fighting. I immediately felt the need to begin a pilgrimage to find a sacred pool that I may wash the sacrilege away and purify myself before the Lords of Kempo once again!!!

I settled on going home lighting some incense and meditating for 2 hours. Then I understood my mission: Champion the effectiveness of Shaolin Kempo! 🙂 Yes, I had an interesting youth. The good thing is that this determination fired my desire to learn the history of our art and to refine my understanding of mechanics.

Fast forward through reassuring discussions with my old instructors, history discussions with Matt and Kenpojoe, Mark Urban’s great website, martial talk, studying taiji, teaching, practice practice , practice, learning Naihanchi system through Soke Cuevas ,becoming Prof.I’s student and more and I am where I am now: Forever a student, godan, an effective fighter and a knowledgeable instructor. However, those instructors were at least half right. The combinations hold and convey the fighting principles of shaolin kempo, in the same way traditional karate forms are instruction manuals for fighting. To be clear, the combinations work very well for self defense. Technique-wise, they are a little less easily adapted to competition sparring; and, in my experience most cannot succeed in point sparring…but that is a game of tag, so who cares.

I almost threw away the Pinans from my curriculum at one point because they are not truly Shaolin Kempo. I do not make such decisions lightly, so I researched them and studied them deeper than ever before. What I discovered convinced me that they needed to stay. We simply needed to work them better.
Then, I took what I learned and turned my attention to getting the same out of our lineage forms…the Katas 1-6, Honsuki and the forms from Fred Villari. The Katas are not “composed” in the same idiom as the traditional karate forms. I initially concluded that the katas are merely line drills and lacked the sophistication of the more traditional forms. They are fine repositories of movement, yet lacking in depth. So, why then consider then the back bone of shaolin kempo along with the combinations?

I found an answer in the combinations themselves. By treating the combinations as mini forms, they came alive for me in a new manner. It took a while for me to solve a difficult perception problem, yet once I did, everything changed. To some it may seem obvious, however, the constant connecting our Shaolin Kempo history back to it’s roots resulted in some (or maybe just me) missing the significance of the “breaks” in the development.
Recall that Ed Parker said that his art comprised approximately 10% of what he had studied from the Mitose-Chow lineage. Note that when Fred Villari declared himself 10th degree, the BB magazine article actually quotes him as saying he has mastered the art of Sho Tung Kwa.
I had for too many years equated Shaolin Kempo flow with American Kenpo flow. Armed with this correction of the obvious I began to see the evolution in our katas, with 6 kata coming the closest the Shaolin Kempo flow. Prof.I sometimes refers to 6 Kata as a “celebration of the combinations”.
This is the key. Shaolin Kempo flow is found in the combinations to a far greater degree than in 1-5 Kata. The controls, angles, and rhythm of striking, grabbing and felling are to be extracted from the combinations in order to take more out of 1-5 Kata.
For instance, the sequence after the first turn in 1 kata reveals something completely different if you look at it with AK flow eyes than if you work the concepts of combinations 3, 22 or 45 in there. Suddenly, we move away from a simple rapid series of strikes and blocks (nothing wrong with a rapid series of strikes to be sure!) to a more sophisticated folding of a body, chokes, locks and takedowns.
Use the keys that are in the combinations and apply them to our forms while keeping in mind the language of forms (to a lesser degree with 1-5 kata) and our knowledge grows. The higher forms tend to follow more closely the instruction convention of the traditional forms. Yet, still, the way to add life to those forms; and, find the ways that they add to our ability to express shaolin kempo and to fight with shaolin kempo and to defend with Shaolin Kempo is to use the keys in our combinations to steal the art for ourselves and our students.
Of course, this is my understanding and my way with Shaolin Kempo, not everyone will agree.

Training is truth.


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Being a good training partner

DSCF9048In my classes this past week I have found myself giving the ‘being a good training partner’ talk several times. As a teacher, when you answer the same question a few times, it tells you that it’s probably a good time to go over whatever topic that is prompting these questions with the whole group as there are probably many more class members out there who just haven’t asked yet.

It can be tricky to be a great training partner. The responsibilities involved vary depending on the drill, your partner, and how experienced with the material each of you are. As beginners, and sometimes as advanced practitioners you go through phases of learning material. If you are just learning a technique for the first time, a full power, full speed attack is not what you need. However, if that is all you ever receive, you will never be prepared for reality.

A good model I encountered was taught by Shihan Walt Sento; it was the Feed-Allow-Resist model. In the beginning, a good training partner provides an attack that helps to ‘feed’ the correct response. You commit and help the defender by giving just the right attack for the technique that they are trying to learn. As they get the hang of it, you back off to a neutral attack where the person doing the technique must make it happen on their own but you provide no help. Finally, when they are doing the technique well, you can resist so they know they can pull it off on an uncooperative attacker.

If someone is learning a takedown for the first time, it’s not being a good training partner to resist with all of your might as it make it hard for the person to apply the technique cleanly and they end up trying to ‘muscle through’ with poor form. Give them the opportunity, and even good feedback – like pointing out locations for proper hand placement or footwork. Simply stating ‘You’re doing it totally wrong’ is the hallmark of a poor training partner.

When you finally get to the resist phase, it’s often in a sparring or testing situation. Even then remember – with hard resistance the risk of injury goes up. We should think like a team – injured team members make us weaker as a dojo. We need to provide resistance to make us stronger, but not so much that either one of us gets injured. We are here to get stronger, better, and have better lives. Everything else should lead to that.

Every time I train with another person, I strive to be the best training partner I can be. Sometimes it means I have to be uncomfortable. Sometimes it means I have to put my ego aside and work at a different level to help my partner develop their skill and get the most out of their training. This is how I rate my training. Was I the best training partner I could be today?

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