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The Hypergolic Relationship Between Kata Kumite and Tuidi

Published October 14th, 2019 by Charlie Berg

In virtually every school teaching traditional karate (and even more sport-oriented modern karate schools), there are always three basic categories of the training and curriculum: Kata (forms), Kumite (sparring), and Tuidi (Self-Defense/Grabs). Coming up in a traditional Okinawan ShitoRyu dojo, each of these modes of practice was taught religiously--as three separate subjects, almost like learning English, Math, and Biology in high school. And while one subject did take cues from the other, there was little actual continuity from one area of practice to the next.

In having the chance to learn directly from Shihan Rusty McMains, a lost world of Okinawan Karate began to slowly peek through the underbrush...something real, something dynamic and living. Unlike former instructors, Shihan McMains almost always demonstrates the powerful combative body mechanics right along with every section of a kata being learned--down to the slightest nuance of elbow or wrist positioning. As a matter of fact, in Shihan McMains’ school you don’t move on to the next section or portion of a kata until you at least have a basic understanding of what that movement in the kata can do, and is supposed to achieve combatively (in terms of life-protection). So, instead of learning all the movements of an entire kata with nice form, crisp, fast movements, impressively low stances, ramrod-straight legs--all designed to look really good, then on another occasion learning isolated application of a few techniques loosely taken from the kata-- Shihan McMains’ teaching interweaves ‘bunkai’ with ‘kata’ inseparably. And once or twice, he had even hinted at something that sounded like being able to ‘spar the kata’, the ability to move in real time with a partner, applying the movements, techniques, body mechanics, and combative principles--in real time...Whoa. I was intrigued.

Our most recent group class at the OKC Dojo in Houston, Texas focused on learning the mechanics of basic kumite or sparring techniques. As I mentioned, in my younger years I had done a great deal of sparring practice, much of the emphasis being placed on being able to move explosively, mastering kick-punch combos, and being able to block or ‘tag’ your opponent. To my surprise, learning with Shihan McMains revealed I had never really learned the basics of how to move my body through space with real precision and efficiency. We learned the foot and handwork of moving linear forward and backward, up and down the floor. The training session took place Monday evening. I arose the following Tuesday morning still thinking over the implications of what he had taught the night before. After a morning jog with my wife, I began my karate practice, going back over the exercises taught the previous evening. After making sure I was remembering the body mechanics and movements of the basic kumite class, I went on to practicing my basic kata; Gekisai Dai Ichi, Gekisai Da Ni, and Saifa. To my fascination and excitement, there was a very real connection between the body movements of how Shihan McMains had taught the kata, and how he was teaching kumite. Maybe I suddenly got a little greedy, maybe I had a little too much coffee flowing through my veins, but somehow it became obvious: ‘this is all connected!’.

I began experimenting. instead of just a simple jab straight-punch from the kumite exercise, I went ahead and incorporated Shihan McMains’ ‘thread the needle’ jodan-uke (as a strike!) from Gekisai Dai Ichi, then grab-and-pull into the next punch, then, instead of just ‘push-back’ and slide, I could see how you can grab your opponent's arm and crash down on him with a sudden drop-down of the body while ‘scissoring’ with gedan barai strike/block; all the while letting the shoulder-arm movement lead the body, rotating on a vertical axis, not letting the body lean forward. I realized that if I faced-off with a real person any one of these movements could cause serious damage, from grabbing down on a person’s deltoid nerve, while stabbing their eyes and face, then scissoring their arm into a cartilage-ripping downward pull--scary stuff! All occurring within less than a couple seconds...

An interesting analogy came to me. During my college years there was a fun feature to many music festivals and dance parties--the celebratory glow stick. During the night, or as the lights went down you would take the small plastic tube, bend it in the middle, and poof, magic! It would glow bright with any number of different colors. The secret to the magical luminosity of rave-club glow stick was created by the interaction of two different chemicals, causing something called a hypergolic reaction. A thin plastic membrane kept the two chemicals separate from each other in two different ompartments within the tube, when ruptured allowed the chemicals to combine, causing the luminescent reaction, the magic! In a similar way, the separate ompartments of kata, kumite, and tuidi, when allowed to interact simultaneously, open up a whole world of life-protection magic where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Sometimes we can’t see the forest for the trees. I wondered why this reality of karate hadn’t occurred to me or other students of this art in the past. Why is that this powerful union of martial practices are largely lost to today’s general martial arts public? The answer? Actually, the answer is quite obvious. With just the slightest review of modern martial arts history, the greatest cause is the alteration of most martial arts into a global sport.

Ironically, it was Shihan McMains’ early years as a fighting and kata competitor that led him to his current path of study and high level of success. Knowing there had to be more than training for a trophy, he sought answers beyond the limits of the 20x20 ring. Over the years, his teachers and trainings would expand to include an incredibly in-depth understanding of body mechanics and various ‘martial sciences’. While many share similar academic understanding, very few have the combative background that allow for a truly practical, real application.

With the rise of “MMA’ styles where detractors maintain that ‘karate blocks don’t make sense in a real fight’, or ‘you can’t actually use kata for self-defense’, the martial arts in general get a bad rap. And, when it comes to the majority of modern karate schools today--the critics are absolutely right. But you know what? I’m perfectly ok with many people not knowing the secret of true karatejutsu. Frequently when Shihan McMains is questioned about his method of self-defense, he merely responds that he teaches ‘a classical form of martial arts’. Which is true. It is also just the tip of a very large and dangerous iceberg.


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