Bunkai – From theory to reality

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Even though I have earned black belts in two disciplines, I strive to maintain a white belt mentality. I am still a beginner and no matter how much I learn, I know that there is more to learn than I could ever know. There are martial artists out there that have forgotten more than I have learned. Since most of my training is in non-traditional and sport style martial arts, I wanted to explore a traditional path to balance my martial arts experience. No matter what style you practice and how many years you have been training, it is important to step back, review your progress, and determine what path you should take to expand your knowledge.

It is easy to stagnate in your training. Instructors are very susceptible to this stagnation. They get stuck in a loop of training others and forget why they got into the martial arts in the first place. They neglect their own training. Sometimes they neglect it to the point of confusing teaching classes with their own training. Teaching techniques to students does open one’s mind to the inner working of the techniques and is in my opinion the final step in learning a technique but it is not a replacement for training. I have seen many martial artists get stuck in the teaching trap, only to see their martial arts stagnate. When their martial arts stagnate, not only does their personal performance suffer, their teaching style suffers and when teaching, they seem to be just going through the motions and they exhibit no energy.

In my self-evaluation, I determined that my reinvention involved learning how kata applies to practical self-defense and fighting techniques. In my research, I found that traditional kata can contain an entire martial arts system. Each movement has a specific meaning and is useful in fighting. My past experience has had kata and fighting taught separately. Kata was taught to help with stances, balance and discipline. Fighting and defense was taught with punch and kick combinations. I have had conversations with traditional martial artists and have seen videos on social media that connect kata to techniques and I wanted to learn more about it. I am not abandoning my other styles. I will continue to train in those but I will add to my knowledge.

As part of this reinvention I am starting as a white belt. The teacher said that I could start as a higher belt because of my previous experience but I want to start from the beginning and earn each step. Having trained in many styles through seminars and yearlong side studies, I am amazed at the similarities in the arts but the slight differences that differentiate the styles can be confusing. These slight differences can be very important because the secrets of the styles can lie in these small differences.

The new style I am pursuing puts a heavy emphasis on Bunkai. If you are like me and have a primarily non-traditional background, you might not have heard of Bunkai. The Wikipedia definition explains it pretty well: “literally meaning “analysis” or “disassembly”, is a term used in Japanese martial arts referring to process of analyzing kata and extracting fighting techniques from the movements of a “form” (kata).” However, explaining it and experiencing it are two different things. Practicing Bunkai can be an eye-opening experience.

An example that I have experienced was the deconstruction of a high block. My fascination with this move might make me a karate geek but this one lesson has had me thinking for a few weeks. Why did this fascinate me? There can be so much power generated with small technique changes. This might not be a revelation to you but it was to me because of my size. I am a pretty big guy. Because of my mass and strength, I am able to execute moves effectively even if my technique is not perfect. Continuing with the high block example, I can adequately defend myself with the high block as I originally learned it, but when I executed the high block using the deconstructed technique, I knocked the uke backwards. Learning these little details are going to make me a better martial artist.

Whether you have dedicated your life to one style or if you are like me and have explored martial arts more broadly, continue your training. One of my teachers has been training for 50+ years and he says that he is always learning new things. If he can be learning new things after being in the martial arts for so long, you and I can find new things to learn. Make time to train. Never forget why you started martial arts. If you are not growing, you are dying, so keep growing!

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