The evolution and essence of Goju-ryu karate.

by Ryan Gregory, June 4th, 2015

(This is a brief overview of the history of Goju-ryu that was required as part of my recent black stripe grading. Given the format, it is obviously just a simplified summary of a much more complex history. Nevertheless, I think it might be of some interest, so I am re-posting it here. The main point I wanted to make is that we cannot, nor should we want to, preserve a single version of a style that has always been evolving.)

Introduction: the rise of Ryukyuan martial arts

The Ryukyu Islands represent an archipelago of more than 100 volcanic islands located south of Japan, extending southwest nearly the entire distance from the southern Japanese island of Kyushu to Taiwan (Figure 1).  The largest of these islands, Okinawa, is roughly equidistant from Japan to the north and China to the west, and has long been the political and cultural centre of the Ryukyu Island system. Today, the Ryukyu Islands are part of the Japanese prefecture of Okinawa, having been formally annexed in 1879.  However, for centuries prior to this, there existed an independent Ryukyu Kingdom that maintained strong economic and cultural ties with several of its neighbours, most notably China.

Figure 1. The Ryukyu Islands, an archipelago consisting of more than 100 small islands located between Japan and Taiwan of the coast of China. The largest island in the chain, Okinawa, is the original home of karate.

Figure 1. The Ryukyu Islands, an archipelago consisting of more than 100 small islands located between Japan and Taiwan of the coast of China. The largest island in the chain, Okinawa, is the original home of karate.

As part of an ongoing cultural exchange, a large number of Chinese families (traditional sources put the number at 36) were sent from Fujian Province in China to settle in Okinawa around 1392. These families brought with them various aspects of Chinese culture, including knowledge of traditional Chinese martial arts.  This exchange was enhanced through frequent visits by Chinese nationals to Okinawa and vice-versa. It is from this foundation in Chinese martial arts, especially Fujian White Crane, that the indigenous unarmed fighting system of the Ryukyu Kingdom evolved.

For the most part, this Ryukyuan martial art – initially known as Tode (“China hand”) or simply Te (“hand”)  – was practiced by members of the Pechin class, a class of feudal scholar-officials roughly equivalent to the Samurai class of Japan. In time, regionally distinct versions of the art developed and were dubbed Naha-te, Shuri-te, and Tomari-te after the towns in which they originated (Figure 2).

Figure 2. The island of Okinawa, showing the towns in which regional versions of the indigenous martial art known as “Te” developed. These became known as Naha-te, Shur-te, and Tomari-te. Goju-ryu is a descendant of Naha-te.

Figure 2. The island of Okinawa, showing the towns in which regional versions of the indigenous martial art known as “Te” developed. These became known as Naha-te, Shur-te, and Tomari-te. Goju-ryu is a descendant of Naha-te.

The connection with Chinese martial arts remained strong despite these local innovations, however. As a notable example, the founder of Naha-te, Kanryo Higaonna (1853-1915), spent many years training in China under Fujian White Crane master Ryū Ryū Ko before returning to Okinawa (Figure 3).  Higaonna’s Naha-te was notable for its combination of hard and soft techniques and its focus on the kata Sanchin (“Three battles”), which he had learned while studying Fujian White Crane in China. Similarly, the early masters of Shuri-te and Tomari-te adapted various kata of Chinese origin as their unique Okinawan martial art continued to evolve.

Figure 3. Kanryo Higaonna, founder of Naha-te.

Figure 3. Kanryo Higaonna, founder of Naha-te.

Chojun Miyagi and the evolution of Goju-ryu

One of Kanryo Higaonna’s primary students was the young son of a wealthy shop owner in Naha named Chojun Miyagi (1888-1953) (Figure 4).  Miyagi had begun training with Higaonna at the age of 14 and continued as his student until Higaonna’s death 15 years later, interrupted only by a period of military service and a trip to China to visit the grave of Ryu Ryu Ko. Miyagi returned to China a second time shortly after Higaonna’s death and spent some time training in Chinese martial arts. Upon his return to Naha, Miyagi opened a dojo and began training students. In addition to teaching the core aspects of Higaonna’s Naha-te, Miyagi continued to innovate. In the early 1920s, he created the kata Tensho (“Rotating palms”) based on forms that he had learned while in China. Miyagi considered Tensho to be a “soft” counterpart to the “hard” kata Sanchin that had been taught to him by Higaonna. He also modified Sanchin from its original Chinese form, most notably by changing the kata to use closed rather than open hands.

Figure 4. Chojun Miyagi, founder of Goju-ryu.

Figure 4. Chojun Miyagi, founder of Goju-ryu.

Just as a cultural exchange between China and the Ryukyu Kingdom involved sharing of martial arts knowledge centuries before, the Okinawan system of combat began to spread to mainland Japan in the early 20th century. In 1922, Gichin Funakoshi (a practitioner of Shuri-te and founder of the Shotokan style) travelled to Tokyo to demonstrate his art, which by then had become known as Kara-te, the kanji for which (唐手) translated as “Tang hand” or “Chinese hand”, in reference to its derivation from Chinese martial arts. Later, in the face of growing tensions between Japan and China, the kanji used for the term Kara-te was changed to 空手, meaning simply “empty hand” (but pronounced in the same way as before).

In 1929, a demonstration of various Japanese martial arts was held in Kyoto. Representatives of Okinawan karate were present, but Chojun Miyagi himself was unable to take part. One of his students, Jin’an Shinsato, attended in his place. When asked the name of his particular brand of martial arts, Shinsato had no formal name to offer as Miyagi had not yet christened his particular style. Miyagi subsequently chose the name Goju-ryu, or “hard-soft style”, to reflect the particular characteristics of the style. The name itself was taken from a line in the Hakku Kenpo (“The eight laws of the fist”), which is part of the Bubishi – a centuries-old manual of Chinese martial arts that has long been revered by many Okinawan karate masters.  The precept in question, Ho wa Gōjū wa Donto su, asserts that “inhaling represents softness while exhaling represents hardness”.

The exchange between Okinawa and Japan occurred in both directions, with significant impacts on the evolution of how karate was practiced in its native Okinawa. The change in in the meaning of karate to “empty hand” is one example, but there were many other influences. Inspired by Japanese martial arts such as Kendo and Judo, Karate evolved from a largely combative art to one with an expanded emphasis on personal character development. This is reflected in the modern term “Karate-Do” – not just a system of fighting with empty hands, but of following the Do (“way” or “path”) of Karate training. Other features of modern Karate, such as the use of the dogi as the standard training uniform, the Kyu/Dan ranking system, and the implementation of coloured belts (obi) to signify level of advancement are all relatively recent imports from Judo.  Chojun Miyagi, for his part, never granted Dan ranks to any of his students, although he did adopt the use of the dogi and obi.

By the 1930s, Karate training was no longer the exclusive domain of a masters and a handful of their personal students.  Instead, Karate had become part of the curriculum in many schools and was adapted in various ways to fit this new audience. The combative nature of the art was further deemphasized, and additional training kata were developed. In the case of Goju-ryu, this included the kata Gekisai Ichi and Gekisai Ni, which were developed for use in schools by Chojun Miyagi in 1940. These have since been included in the standard Goju-ryu curriculum, which consists of 12 kata – many of which are of Chinese origin, adapted and modified by Higaonna, Miyagi, and their successors.

Goju-ryu after Chojun Miyagi

Along with the other major styles of Karate, Goju-ryu began to spread beyond the borders of Okinawa and Japan following World War II.  In particular, many American servicemen stationed in Okinawa began to train in Karate, bringing some knowledge of the art with them when they returned home.  Nevertheless, the primary home of Karate remained (and remains) Japan, and Okinawa in particular.

Beginning in the late 1920s, Chojun Miyagi taught Karate at the Okinawan police academy. He also trained a number of personal students in his “garden dojo” at home, several of whom began training under Miyagi in their early teenage years and continued as his student until his death in 1953. Following his death, it fell to these students to carry on Miyagi’s legacy of Goju-ryu.  This was made somewhat challenging by the fact that Chojun Miyagi did not publically appoint any successor and very little photographic or written record exists of his specific teachings. Perhaps not surprisingly, this has led to the emergence of several distinct schools of Okinawan Goju-ryu karate, in addition to off-shoots of Okinawan Goju-ryu such as the Japanese version Goju-ryu developed and promoted by Gogen Yamaguchi.

Three of Chojun Miyagi’s senior students, in particular, have played a major role in the preservation and ongoing evolution of Okinawan Goju-ryu: Meitoku Yagi (1912-2003), who founded the Meibukan school (“House of the pure-minded warrior”); Ei’ichi Miyazato (1922-1999), founder of the Jundokan school (“House in which we follow in the master’s footsteps”); and Seikichi Toguchi (1917-1998), who created the Shorei-kan school (“House of politeness and respect”) (Figure 5).

Figure 5. Three of Chojun Miyagi’s senior students who founded their own schools of Goju-ryu.

Figure 5. Three of Chojun Miyagi’s senior students who founded their own schools of Goju-ryu.

Some of these schools have, in turn, spawned descendant organizations such as the IOGKF of Morio Higaonna (a former student of Ei’ichi Miyazato) and different branches of Meibukan Goju-ryu (Figure 6).

Figure 6.  Predecessor styles and descendant branches of Goju-ryu and their respective founders.

Figure 6. Predecessor styles and descendant branches of Goju-ryu and their respective founders.

Modern Goju-ryu

The three major schools of Goju-ryu have diverged in various ways over the intervening decades. Some of the changes relate to minor aspects of kata performance (Figure 7). There are also distinctions in the order and number of kata taught in the curricula of the different schools. For example, the Jundokan school has two versions of Sanchin, one in which the practitioner executes two 180° turns during the kata (based on Higaonna’s version), and one that is restricted to forward and backward movements only (a version developed by Miyagi). The Meibukan school features five original kata that were developed by Meitoku Yagi and differ from traditional Goju-ryu kata in a number of notable ways (especially the opening pose, chambered fist orientation, and distancing).

Figure 7. An example of minor differences in kata performance between schools of Goju-ryu. This shows the first two techniques in Gekisai Ichi.  The Jundokan version (top; from Okinawa Den Gojuryu Karate-do by Ei’ichi Miyazato ) uses a high punch, whereas the Meibukan (middle; Karate Goju Ryu Meibukan by Lex Opdam) and Shorei-kan (bottom; from Okinawan Goju Ryu: The Fundamentals of Shorei-kan Karate by Seikichi Toguchi) versions use a middle punch.

Figure 7. An example of minor differences in kata performance between schools of Goju-ryu. This shows the first two techniques in Gekisai Ichi. The Jundokan version (top; from Okinawa Den Gojuryu Karate-do by Ei’ichi Miyazato ) uses a high punch, whereas the Meibukan (middle; Karate Goju Ryu Meibukan by Lex Opdam) and Shorei-kan (bottom; from Okinawan Goju Ryu: The Fundamentals of Shorei-kan Karate by Seikichi Toguchi) versions use a middle punch.

It is not difficult to understand how different lineages of Goju-ryu have have diverged. Minor differences in kata performance, training regime, drills, and other elements arise even among dojos within the same organization. It is also possible that each of the founders of the major schools of Goju-ryu were taught slightly differently by Chojun Miyagi. Each may have taken away different details from common teachings as well.  The important issue, it would seem, is that these schools have sought to preserve the core aspects of Goju-ryu – something that is not affected by comparatively minor deviations or differences in emphasis.  That core includes a focus on the balance between hard (go) and soft (ju) techniques, a foundation built on Sanchin (and Tensho) kata, an emphasis on close-quarters fighting and efficiency of movement, and the use of circular movements that reflect Goju-ryu’s roots in Chinese martial arts. That these masters embodied the fundamental essence of Goju-ryu laid down by Chojun Miyagi is reflected by the fact that, following his death, Ei’ichi Miyazato carried on teaching at Miyagi’s “garden dojo”. A few years later, Miyagi’s family presented Meitoku Yagi with Miyagi’s gi and obi.

Notwithstanding their lifelong dedication to preserving traditional Goju-ryu as they had learned it, the founders of the major lineages of modern Goju-ryu were each masters in their own right. They all lived and trained much longer than Chojun Miyagi himself, and each has provided a unique perspective on the essence of Goju-ryu while also introducing new innovations into their respective schools.

This theme of evolution, innovation, and a preserved essence is common throughout the entire history of Goju-ryu karate. Kanryo Higaonna’s adaptation of the arts he learned in China led to the advent of Naha-te, and Chojun Miyagi’s further innovation was essential in the rise of Goju-ryu from this Naha-te foundation. Miyagi’s senior students – who became grandmasters in their turn – have carried on this legacy.

Indeed, change is as much a part of traditional Okinawan Goju-ryu as is tradition itself.



Expectation and perception.

by Ryan Gregory, September 30th, 2013

Friday, January 12th, 2007. A metro station in Washington, DC. Around 8:00AM, morning rush hour. A man in jeans, a long-sleeve t-shirt, and a Washington Nationals baseball hat began playing the violin as the busy commuters passed by on their way to work. Nearly 1,100 people walked past as he played a total of six classical pieces over a period of about 45 minutes. Some tossed change or small bills into his open violin case. Most took no real notice at all. A pretty common scene for a busy subway station in a busy city at the busiest hour of the day.

But this was no ordinary busker. The man playing the violin was Joshua Bell, one of the most highly regarded concert violinists in the world, playing on a violin that was handcrafted in 1713 by Antonio Stradivari and valued at $3.5 million. Only days before, Bell had played a sold-out concert where ticket prices averaged $100. And yet, in this context, almost no one paid any attention.

This little social experiment, which was devised by Bell and The Washington Post, showed how important expectation can be in shaping our perceptions. Nobody expects Joshua Bell to be playing in a metro station, so the experience of hearing him barely registers.

The same effect can occur in the opposite direction: where there is expectation that something significant will happen, and this shapes one’s subsequent perception — even to the point of affecting people’s mental, physical, or physiological state.

Case in point, true believers fainting when a charismatic preacher waves his arm at the audience:

This phenomenon is also alarmingly common in the martial arts. Often it seems that the students of a particular teacher have an expectation that a certain technique will have a specific effect, and then lo and behold, it does.

But what happens when you try such techniques on someone who doesn’t have an expectation that it will work?

Usually nothing…

…or worse.

I don’t think it’s necessarily a case of “faking” the effect, but rather a demonstration of the power of expectation — either based on the belief of the student that the technique works, or the subconscious effects of social expectation from the rest of the audience.

If you want to know if your technique is really effective or if it only works on believers, try it on a resisting partner or someone who doesn’t know what is supposed to happen.

And always think about what explanation is most likely. One, that your student is faking, or reacting to your cues, or is being affected by expectation. Or two, that you actually possess magical powers. This is one case where it really does pay to be a skeptic.

Quite possibly the stupidest thing I have ever read about karate.

by Ryan Gregory, August 11th, 2013

I was looking through my copy of Okinawan Karate: Teachers, Styles and Secret Techniques by Mark Bishop, and I skipped to the section on Goju-ryu to see what he had to say. Below is the section that really caught my attention, reproduced in its entirety with my comments (in italics) interspersed throughout.

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Goju-ryu and health

During the course of my research I met quite a few karate teachers who berated Goju-ryu for its general hardness and warned me to discontinue the training (which I eventually did) or face high blood pressure-related illnesses and a premature death.

Not teachers of competing styles, surely! What reason could they possibly have for berating Goju-ryu?

The critics gained much of their visual evidence from watching unskilled practitioners doing dynamic-tension demonstrations of Sanchin.

I see. So, they base their “visual evidence” on unreliable information. Gotcha.

In this exercise all the body muscles are hardened into one rigid structure as the sweating demonstrator performs the Sanchin moves as if pushing against a heavy weight, whilst being punched and kicked by an associate and issuing a loud guttural “hiss”.

During Sanchin exercise, I was told, certain blood vessels are shut off at the limb joints, the blood cannot flow freely, reverses and accumulates around the chest, neck, and shoulders causing a red flush in that area. Blood vessels of the neck and arms become swollen as the heart tries in vain to keep the circulation going and forces the blood up to the brain. The result of the exertion on the heart, blood vessels and internal organs is not considered by critics to be good for the health, and regular daily practice is said to be the cause of high blood pressure and obesity amongst Goju-ryu practitioners over the age of 40. Rumour also has it that some older practitioners have difficulty lifting their arms higher than their shoulders.

I have never met a Goju-ryu practitioner who couldn’t raise their arms above their shoulders. Certainly, Chojun Miyagi’s top students had no such problems in their old age.

(See here for more examples)

Moreover, is there any evidence whatsoever of increased rates of high blood pressure among Goju-ryu practitioners?

And what on Earth is the possible connection with obesity that the author imagines?

Finally, it should go without saying that if “the heart tries in vain to keep the circulation going” — meaning that it tries but fails — obesity won’t be the problem, instant death will be the problem.

Although this type of dynamic-tension Sanchin training is fast becoming popular, I could find no really convincing explanations for its practice, apart from being a crowd gatherer and a somewhat dangerous body builder.

Read: I could find no convincing explanation for the practices of Goju-ryu by people unfamiliar with Goju-ryu.

Whether or not Chojun Miyagi encouraged dynamic-tension and the resulting overall hardening process of Goju-ryu is not clear…


‘Nuff said.

…but the fact that premature deaths through illnesses associated with high blood pressure are common among Goju-ryu practitioners cannot be disputed.

Actually, it can be disputed quite easily because there is no evidence to support these claims. Chojun Miyagi may have died at the relatively young age of 65 of a heart attack, but Ei’ichi Miyazato was 77, Seikichi Toguchi was 81, Meitoku Yagi was 91, Gogen Yamaguchi was 80, and Morio Higaonna is 74 and still practicing.

The following is a generalisation of other “evidence” passed on to me by those who believed Goju-ryu practice to be coincidental with poor health:

1. In order to harden the buttocks during the Sanchin exercise, forceful closing of the anal sphincter is practised. This, I was assured, will result in haemorrhoids after only two or three years of regular practice.

I don’t know about the author, but my anal sphincter is closed by default. In fact, the definition of a sphincter is “a circular muscle that normally maintains constriction of a natural body passage or orifice and which relaxes as required by normal physiological functioning.”

The sphincter ani externus muscle is under some voluntary control, but this is not the same thing as tightening the large muscles of the buttocks. In any case, this wouldn’t be a significant cause of haemorrhoids anyway:

“The exact cause of symptomatic hemorrhoids is unknown. A number of factors are believed to play a role including: irregular bowel habits (constipation or diarrhea), a lack of exercise, nutritional factors (low-fiber diets), increased intra-abdominal pressure (prolonged straining [i.e. pushing, not tightening], ascitis, an intra-abdominal mass, or pregnancy), genetics, an absence of valves within the hemorrhoidal veins, and aging.”

2. When blocking, the thumb side of the fist is forced sideways towards the forearm, causing pressure to be exerted on a vital point at the side of the wrist. This point may be detected by relaxing the left hand and running the thumb of the right hand to the base of the left thumb until a hollow is found. Even slight pressure at this point will bring pain. In actual fact, an abnormal amount of pressure should not be exerted here as, I was assured, it will have adverse effects on the lungs which may result in various lung complaints including TB and asthma.

Let me get this straight. Even touching this spot can cause significant pain, but Goju-ryu practitioners regularly whack each others’ arms with it while blocking and either a) don’t feel it, or b) are too stupid to change how they block? Also, banging on this spot on the wrist will mess up your lungs? And it will cause tuberculosis (infection by Mycobacterium tuberculosis) and asthma in particular? Um, ok.

3. The testing of Sanchin “hardness”, by punching and kicking the abdomen, will have adverse effects on the intestines and may result in stomach cancer.

I see. You heard it here, folks. Apparently being hit in the abdomen while doing your kata can give you stomach cancer. Never mind the fact that most stomach cancer is associated with infection by Helicobacter pylori and/or other risk factors such as smoking and/or genetic factors.

Maybe the rest of the book is great, but man this section sure was not researched or thought out well.

UPDATE: Here’s a nice analysis of this silly claim.

Ten reasons why karateka should try grappling.

by Ryan Gregory, July 19th, 2013

I’ve really been enjoying my experience in studying judo and BJJ, and I decided to compile a list of reasons why I think this is something that could benefit my fellow karateka. But before I get to that, here are some caveats:

* I’m not implying that all karateka ignore grappling completely. Lots of dojos incorporate relevant techniques in their sparring, bunkai, or self-defense drills. Many also include some type of formal jujutsu training in the curriculum, for example in the form of various wrist locks, arm bars, etc., albeit often from standing.

* I am fully aware that traditional karate contains take-downs, locks, and throws in the kata. However, this raises two important questions: 1) How often do you practice those take-downs, locks, and throws? Is it every single class? If not, then 2) Why not learn from people who specialize in those things and who practice them all the time, including on resisting opponents?

* I am not saying that striking arts are ineffective, and I am not saying that they are inferior to grappling arts.

* I am not saying that grapplers always beat strikers. Clearly they don’t, and no one in MMA only strikes or only grapples anymore. In fact, one could argue that these days more fights end by knockouts than by submissions.

* I am writing this based on my experiences to date, but I do not claim in any way to be an expert in either karate or grappling.

* I am not endorsing BJJ or Judo or Sambo or any particular grappling art. This is about grappling in general, not a promotion for one style or another.

* Yes, I could also write an article about why grapplers should try training in a striking art.

So, with those points in mind, here are some reasons that I think karateka would benefit greatly from some formal training in grappling arts.

1. You need a ground game. As a striker, you probably feel that staying on your feet is the best strategy, and in fact that the ground is the last place that you want to be in a real fight. Especially if you need to be able to get away, if there are multiple opponents, if the guy may have a weapon. I agree. And yes, the “99.99% of fights go to the ground!” internet statistic is complete nonsense. But, even though it makes sense to start out fighting standing up and at your comfortable striking distance, you have to be aware that sometimes it will go to a clinch and/or to the ground. You might be taken down. Or you might take your opponent down and end up on the ground with him. Either way, you could end up in a bad position and suddenly find that your punches and kicks are not going to help you. Some grappling skills will help in all of these situations. They will help you to avoid being taken down, they will make it easier for you to avoid or escape a bad position (and, preferably, to get back to your feet), and they will give you more tools to finish the fight on the ground.

Think of a beginning student in your dojo. Chances are, he doesn’t know how to punch (or even how to make a proper fist), his stances are all wrong, and he seems awkward and uncoordinated. You know he’ll get better with training, but right now he really has no idea what he’s doing. It’s the same for a striker with no grappling experience who ends up in a bad position on the ground.

Here’s an example of what I mean:

I guarantee you that even a BJJ or Judo white belt with only a few months of training will be able to tell you several of the major mistakes that the karateka makes once he gets taken down. They’ll know because they will have made many of those mistakes in sparring and will have learned quickly what gets you choked out.

Even if you train some grappling techniques in your dojo, they are unlikely to be as refined as those taught by expert grapplers. Case in point, here’s a karate dojo working on an arm bar, but unfortunately a rather sloppy version. A resisting opponent would probably escape this easily. But then look at the difference when they get some advice from someone who has grappling expertise.

Even better:

2. Training with grapplers will improve your stand-up game. Knowing what to do if you are taken down will allow you to be more confident and committed with your stand-up techniques because you won’t have to worry so much about the opponent catching your kick or trapping you in a clinch when you move in for a strike. Worrying about being taken down is one reason why strikers are often tentative with their initial attacks. These “toe dipping” sorts of techniques do zero damage and provide a prime opportunity for a grappler to move in and attempt a take-down.

That’s exactly what we see over and over in the early Gracie challenge videos involving people who have trained exclusively in striking arts:

Training with a grappler will improve your stand-up game because it will show you very quickly what kinds of attacks do and don’t work on someone who is intent on going to a clinch or on taking you down. In particular, it will show you why it is a bad idea to do a half-ass kick or single technique rather than a full-on combination attack. It will also show you what you need to do in order to counter a take-down attempt using strikes, which definitely can work if you practice it:

3. Randori is a very effective way to learn, and it provides an excellent reality check. In most striking arts, sparring is done either for points or as something resembling a game of “tag”. That is, it is generally not done at full power because you would quickly run out of partners if everyone fought for real in the dojo. Point or semi-contact sparring can have benefits, such as helping with timing and distance, but it can also give a very misleading sense of what a real fight is like. Remember, how you train is how you will fight, and if you play tag in the dojo, you may try it in the street as well. This is another reason that you see strikers throwing weak, single attacks in far too many fight videos.

It’s not just against grapplers that this bad habit can land you in trouble. Here’s an example of some taekwondo students against amateur boxers. While the TKD guys are playing tag, the boxers are throwing real punches.

It’s very different in grappling arts. Because of the nature of the techniques (throws, arm bars, chokes) and the option of “tapping out” before any major damage is done, students can engage in free sparring (“randori” in judo, “rolling” in BJJ) that involves 100% resistance. In other words, the opponent is doing everything he can to submit you and to keep you from submitting him. Any assumptions that you may have about how your techniques work on a resisting opponent are put to the test and any illusions about their effectiveness dissolve immediately. You simply cannot become deluded about your prowess in the way that many strikers do.

Obviously, there are some very serious strikers out there who put their skills to the test in full contact competition. Kyokushin karate and muay thai come to mind.

But then there are guys like this:

That’s an extreme example, but the point is that these guys can go all the way through the ranks and never realize that they have zero fighting ability. By contrast, this is a critical lesson that you will learn on day one in a grappling class.

Similar points were made recently by author Sam Harris,

[A] form of self-deception can be found in most martial artists, because almost all training occurs with some degree of partner compliance: Students tend to trade stereotyped attacks in a predictable sequence, stopping to reset before repeating the drill. This staccato pattern of practice, while inevitable when learning a technique for the first time, can become a mere pantomime of combat that does little to prepare a person for real encounters with violence.

Another problem is that many combative techniques are too dangerous to perform realistically (e.g., gouging the eyes, striking the groin). As result, students are merely left to imagine that these weapons decisively end a fight whenever deployed in earnest. Reports from the real world suggest otherwise.

These concerns make BJJ and other grappling arts unique in two ways: BJJ can be safely practiced under conditions of 100 percent resistance and, therefore, any doubts or illusions about its effectiveness can be removed. Striking-based arts can also be performed under full resistance, of course, but not safely—because getting repeatedly hit in the head is bad for your health. And, whatever the intensity of training, it is difficult to remove uncertainty from the striker’s art: Not even a professional boxer can be sure what will happen if he hits an assailant squarely on the jaw with a closed fist. The other man might fall to the ground unconscious, or he might not—and without gloves, the boxer might break his hand on the first punch. By contrast, even a novice at BJJ knows beyond any doubt what will happen if he correctly applies a triangle choke. It is a remarkable property of grappling that the distance between theory and reality can be fully bridged.

4. Striking is not always effective. One of the problems with the safety-related limitations on full-contact training in striking arts is that it means that many strikers have to assume that their punches and kicks will be effective if they ever need to use them for real.

Sometimes a powerful strike or kick is all it takes:

But you simply can’t assume that your strikes will work every time and against every opponent. Look at the damage that boxers and MMA fighters can take without going down. As one example, here is the last few minutes of the famous UFC fight between Anderson Silva and Chael Sonnen:

Sonnen spent 23 minutes using Anderson Silva as a punching bag, but he still lost the match. At the last moment, Silva managed to pull out a win by catching Sonnen in a triangle. Chael Sonnen is no 90-pound weakling. He’s a strong, well-trained fighter. And yet, he landed strike after strike for more than 20 minutes, and it did nothing to stop Silva. Yes, he was wearing gloves, but lots of fighters get knocked out in UFC matches even with gloves (including Anderson Silva), so that’s not the explanation for why strikes did not end the fight. The point is that sometimes strikes end a fight quickly and sometimes they don’t, and you cannot assume that one or two strikes will be enough in every situation.

If that doesn’t convince you, consider that UFC heavyweight Roy Nelson recently set a UFC record by being hit with 437 significant strikes without being stopped by any of them. Those are strikes by trained heavyweight UFC fighters. Maybe you hit a lot harder than they do, but I wouldn’t count on it.

5. Striking is not always appropriate. One of my favorite scenes in the brilliant web comedy series Enter the Dojo comes in the very first episode, in which Master Ken instructs his students in how to deal with someone poking them in the chest (skip ahead to 1:50):

This is a parody, of course, but serious examples like this are pretty common. Consider these extreme responses to someone throwing a punch:

The truth is, you can’t unleash hell on someone for grabbing you or trying to punch you and expect there to be no legal or moral consequences. Sometimes doing damage with strikes is just not appropriate at all. Consider the “drunkle” scenario, which is a drunk uncle at some family gathering who is causing a scene. You can’t very well do a circling destruction on him in front of all your relatives. In cases such as that, you need a less violent alternative for controlling the individual. Grappling arts specialize in joint locks, hold downs, and chokes that can end a situation effectively without doing permanent damage or landing you in jail. This is why many karateka also train in at least some basic locks and take-downs, but more training means more options.

5. It will expand your ideas about bunkai. One of the most interesting aspects of karate training is learning the applications of kata. It’s amazing how much information is packed into kata, and not just obvious things like blocking and punching, but joint locks, throws, and take-downs. Perhaps this is not surprising, given that many of the early masters of karate also had experience with some form of grappling art such as judo or jujutsu.

As an excellent modern example, Iain Abernethy has various books and DVDs which emphasize the use of throws and grappling techniques derived from katas.

Of course, no one knows more about throws, locks, and take-downs than someone who has trained extensively in an art that focuses on these techniques. They may also practice using them against attacks that are different from those that are typically practiced in karate. Learning from experts in throws and locks can greatly expand your repertoire in this area, which you can then apply to your own understanding and interpretation of kata to see how they can fit within your karate training.

6. Most people don’t train in martial arts, but a lot of people watch UFC and YouTube. Self-defense oriented training in most martial arts includes defenses against grabs, haymaker punches, and other common attacks, because this is what you are much more likely to encounter in a real situation. Nonetheless, most of what is taught and practiced in karate is how to defend against karate-style attacks such as straight punches and kicks. This may or may not translate into fighting skills that work well against untrained opponents with no martial arts background.

Yet, odds are that you if you do get into a fight, it won’t be with one of these guys:

But it could very well be against a guy like this:

A person like this has no formal training, but has watched many UFC fights and YouTube videos and will be trying to use an amateur version of MMA moves. That includes imitations of take-downs and grappling techniques, which are pretty easily countered if you have real training in these areas.

7. It will expand your knowledge of body mechanics. Applied knowledge of how the body can and can’t move is what makes the martial arts effective. Striking arts like karate may emphasize strong stances, power generation, speed, and torque. Grappling arts like judo emphasize the proper use of balance (and disruption thereof), leverage, and momentum. Karate teaches how to maximize the force of impact and to attack the most vulnerable targets. Judo and BJJ focus on how to control an opponent using minimal effort and to disable an attacker using joint manipulations and chokes. Put this knowledge together, and you will have a formidable understanding of applied biomechanics.

8. It’s a new challenge. One of the goals of martial arts training in general is to constantly challenge oneself. Unfortunately, once a certain level of proficiency is reached in one art, it can be difficult to follow through on this — especially if it means leaving one’s comfort zone. Trying a martial art that is quite different can be a real challenge and very exciting, once you get over the idea of being a white belt again.

9. It’s a great workout. If you take part in multiple sports, then you’ll know that they do not all use the same muscles in the same way. You can ride a bicycle all you want, you’re still going to be sore if you go rollerblading for the first time. Likewise, the muscles and the way they are used is different in karate versus grappling arts. Combined with the sustained strenuous exercise of randori, this provides a different and highly complementary workout to your normal training.

10. It’s fun. ‘Nuff said.

So there you have it, ten good reasons for karateka to give grappling arts a try.

Timeline of a karate grading.

by Ryan Gregory, July 17th, 2013

This is the story of a recent senior belt grading at our dojo. Bear in mind that every dojo’s gradings are different, and that they may emphasize different things or include different components. In fact, every grading within a dojo is different. The point isn’t what the students are required to do at the grading, it’s that the experience represents a significant physical and mental and challenge that provides a major sense of accomplishment in earning the next promotion in rank.

Here is what it was like for us at this particular grading.

9:45 AM — Breakfast. Shreddies and a protein bar. Coffee. Forecast for today is hot and humid. Packed several bottles of Gatorade and water, energy bars, and two gis.

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10:20 AM — I arrive at the dojo and meet up with others who are grading, along with a few senior belts who aren’t grading today but have come early. Each grading has a fitness component at the start, and we generally have a choice between a run or a series of exercises back at the dojo (for example, 150 pushups + 150 situps + 150 mountain climbers + 150 jumping jacks). Today I decide to do the run, so we get ourselves organized and head down to Riverside Park.

10:40 AM — At Riverside Park and ready to roll.  Time for a nice little 7km run through the trails at the park to get things started. And by “nice” and “little”, I mean “hot” and “gruelling”.

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Did I mention that it’s really hot out? At least I have on proper running shoes, not like the ones I wore for the Spartan Race which gave me a nasty blister. I also remembered to wear some sports socks, which happened to be ones I got from the publishers of the scientific journal Evolution at a conference last summer.

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11:45 AM — We arrive back at the dojo, which is now filling up with black belts from our dojo and Senseis and students from five other cities. We change out of our sweaty running clothes and into our gis. People are milling about, stretching, chatting. There are obviously some nerves among those grading, but the mood is positive and people are happy to see friends from other dojos. I realize that I am the only person below the rank of brown belt grading today.  There is someone grading for Yondan, someone for Sandan, two for Nidan, two for Shodan, and one for black stripe.  And me (grading for blue).

12:00 PM — Everyone lines up. We hear a welcome message from Sensei, followed by a formal bow-in. We start off with walking basics, then walking basics with partners.





After the basics, we do some kakete and koteketae with a partner. It is extremely hot in the dojo, and almost everyone is already sweating heavily. Eventually, Sensei turns on the air conditioning to provide a bit of relief (and, presumably, to prevent anyone from passing out).



12:30 PM — A short break for a drink. It’s very hot today, by the way.

12:35 PM — Now it’s time for renzoku kumite. This is one of the most physically demanding parts of the grading, especially in the heat. I have to do 10 rounds, which is bad enough, but those grading for nidan have to do 25 rounds. I finish and have a little time to catch my breath, but the nidan guys are still going.





Here is an example of renzoku kumite. Note that this is only half a round, and it’s slower than some people tend to go. It’s also the simplest set of techniques, but we did any number of combinations.

1:05 PM — I do my kakomi kumite. 6 rounds. The guys grading for nidan are still doing their renzoku. They don’t finish until 1:30 and then they have to do their kakomi. There’s a bit of waiting for me, since I got mine done first and had the fewest rounds to do. But then I join in for one of the people grading for nidan. However, it’s much easier being on the outside of the circle than in the middle since you’re not blocking or striking the entire time.


Here’s an example of kakomi kumite.

1:50 PM — Everyone finishes their kakomi. Time for another short break and a quick snack and lots of liquids. I also put on my clean gi. Bringing it was a great idea. The air conditioning is humming now, and the sweat-soaked gi was feeling pretty gross by this point.

2:05 PM — Now it’s time for kata (and bunkai for black belts), ippon kumite (and nihon kumite for black belts), and oral questions.  Here’s the panel of black belts that we’re facing:


This part of the grading is my least favourite and is the one that causes me more stress than anything else.  I’m not a fan of doing my katas under pressure and in front of an audience, with every move being scrutinized. The fact that we’re exhausted from the run and the first half of the grading doesn’t help.  Plus, there’s a fair bit of sitting and waiting for our turn, because this part is done individually.  This means that the muscles start to stiffen up, making kata performance even more difficult.

Several people go through their kata, bunkai, and oral questions. The black belts have been giving each person very good corrections and constructive criticisms on their katas.

3:25 PM — It’s been over an hour. I still haven’t done my katas yet.  I’m getting rather stiff, so I’m grateful for a short break and chance to stretch.


3:30 PM — Back to finish the rest of the kata. I go dead last. I am asked to do two katas: Saifa and Seiryu.  They go pretty well — meaning no major mistakes, not forgetting anything, or any of the various things that can go wrong in these situations.  Obviously there are various comments for improvement, however.






After my katas and the comments, it’s time for my oral question.  Up to this point, many of the questions have been stuff like “What have you learned since you started karate?” or “What do you hope to accomplish in the future?”.  Not for me.  I get “Why do you think Chojun Miyagi created Goju-ryu?”.  My answer, in true professorial manner, was somewhat complicated.  I said that I don’t think he set out to create a style from scratch that would be part hard and part soft, but rather that it evolved that way more organically.  So, to me, the question actually had two components: one, why did his style end up being hard and soft, and two, why did he decide to name it Goju-ryu and emphasize this aspect of it? I talked a little about these, and then I was asked whether I had read a particular document by Miyagi and who the intended audience was.  I believe the question was referring to this document, entitled “Historical Outline of Karate-Do, Martial Arts Of Ryukyu” — at least, that’s what I based my answer on.


The last thing to do is my ippon kumite, with Sempai Wes as my partner.  I only had to do the Jo and Chu ippons but the shodan candidates had to do all the ippons and nihons.





4:25 PM — The grading is essentially done. People are chatting or getting a drink while the judges discuss the results and fill out the certificates.

4:45 PM — The moment everyone has been waiting for: presentation of the new belts, shaking hands, bow-out, and group photo. It’s done!





In case I forgot to mention, it was really hot today.


Which martial art has the worst music?

by Ryan Gregory, July 14th, 2013

There is a long-running debate about which martial art is the best on “the street”. What you hear about far less is which martial art has inspired the worst music.




Video analysis as a useful training tool.

by Ryan Gregory, June 20th, 2013

Last night at Judo class, Sensei was trying to correct a mistake that I kept making during a certain throw. The throw in question was O Soto Gari (large outer reap).

Here’s the throw broken down:

And here it is in action:

The problem is that I was not getting in close enough or getting my partner off balance in the right direction. I watched him demonstrate the throw on my partner and on me, and I understood the concepts involved, but I kept making the same mistake. So, Sensei went over and grabbed his iPad and had me to do the throw a couple of times while recording video. He then played back the video in slow motion, pausing at a certain point and noting the gap between my body and that of my partner.

Let me just say, I was very impressed by how informative this little exercise was. Of course, lots of sports use video analysis to look in detail at one’s technique and find areas for improvement. I had also video taped my own karate kata not too long ago and found it very useful to review.

The difference, though, is that with the tablet and its large screen and the particular app that Sensei used, we were able to scrub through the video to find the problematic element(s) of my throw, and pause on a particularly revealing image, all in real-time. I have an Android tablet and phone, and I was able to find the same app. It’s not free (costs about $5), but it I am sure I will get a ton of use out of it in training, both in judo and karate. And I suspect that my dojo mates would benefit enormously from seeing their own technique in real-time like that as well. Sometimes you can be told something over and over and understand the correction, but until you see yourself making the mistake it can be difficult to correct.

For those who are interested, the app in question is Coach’s Eye:

It is available for iPad and iPhone from the iTunes Store, and for Android devices from the Google Play Store.

Like Back in the Gi on Facebook.

by Ryan Gregory, June 7th, 2013

For those of you who would like more frequent posts, please check out the Back in the Gi Facebook page. I post short updates and interesting links much more often there.

If you’re a Facebook user, feel free to like the page here:


by Ryan Gregory, May 5th, 2013



(noun; Japanese ryū, “school” + Greek via Latin and French -ism, denoting action, state, condition, doctrine).

1. A belief or doctrine that one’s own specific martial art and style or school thereof is inherently superior to all others. Often rationalized on the basis of “purity” and/or assumed efficacy under hypothetical conditions.

2. Mistrust, lack of respect, and/or unwillingness to learn from fellow martial artists on the basis of their style or affiliation and not their individual characteristics or skills.

3. Criticism of the performance of other martial artists as judged from one’s own specific understanding of similar techniques, without regard for legitimate and/or arbitrary differences that exist among arts and/or styles or schools.

Related: ryuist (adjective or noun); racism; tribalism.


Judo belt requirements: White to Yellow.

by Ryan Gregory, May 5th, 2013

There is lots of information online about Judo techniques and curricula, but I thought it would be useful (for me, at least) to have some of this material combined in one place.  For example, here is a summary of the belt requirements for White (6th kyu) to Yellow (5th kyu), based on the Judo Canada syllabus.  The animations are from the excellent site which is run by Neil Ohlenkamp.  Clicking on a technique name will link to a YouTube video.

(Throwing techniques)

Osoto-otoshi Large outer drop  osotootoshi

Osoto-gari Large outer reap  osotogari
Uki-goshi (or o-goshi or tsuri-goshi) Floating half-hip throw (or full hip throw or lifting hip throw)  ukigoshi
Ippon seio-nage One arm shoulder throw  ipponseoi
Deashi-barai Advanced foot sweep  deashibarai
Tai-otoshi Body drop  taiotoshi2
Ouchi-gari Large inner reap  
Kouchi-gari or kouchi-gake Small inner reap  kouchiga
Kosoto-gake or kosotogari Small outer reap or small outer hook  kosotogakekosotogari




Zempo-ukemi Front breakfall  
Koho-ukemi Back breakfall  
Yoko-ukemi Side breakfall  
Zempo-kaiten Forward roll  


(Grappling techniques)

Kesa-gatame / kuzure-kesa-gatame Scarf hold / broken scarf hold



Yoko-shiho-gatame Side four quarter hold  yoko_shiho_gatame
Escapes from kesa-gatame  
Escapes from yoko-shiho-gatame  
Basic attack and defense  


Other skills

Shizen Hontai; Migi/Hidari Shizentai Basic posture (left and right)  
Jigo Hontai:Migi/Hidari Jigotai Defensive posture (left and right)  
Tai-sabaki; Tsugi-ashi Body movement  
Kumi-kata Grips  
Kuzushi Breaking opponent’s balance  
Tsukuri Turning into the throw  
Kake Executing the throw  



  • 9 of the specified 9 techniques performed in motion. Chosen goshi-waza must be performed to the right and left.
  • Serving as uke for the tori attempting a grading examination.
  • Minimum of 15 weeks of practice 2 x 120 minutes /week, as a white belt.
  • Knowledge of Judo origin and history.
  • Fitness goals: 20 full push-ups; 30 modified sit-ups, 20 burpees in 60 seconds.