Thoughts, stories, and ideas from Sensei Steve Gottwirt

Thoughts, stories, and ideas from                  Sensei Steve Gottwirt
Some of these thoughts, stories, and personal history appeared in our newsletter, "Dō Gakuin News". Few members have been with us since our first issue in 1993. As such, ideas on this page may have been printed before, but are worth telling again.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

50 Years a Martial Artist

December 13, 2017 marks my golden anniversary in the martial arts.  (How the heck can he remember the exact date?)  I kept a log when I began, showing the date of each class and what we worked on.  The log was lost until my family moved from Jamaica, Queens to Merrick, Long Island in 1971, when it was found sifting through some papers.  As it turned out, my brother Rick married Rita on the same date, December 13, but in 1970.  I can never forget when I started, because it’s their anniversary too, just three years apart.
My first instructor, Sabumnim Illowsky, called his teachings Karate, which was a rare (but known) term, as Tae Kwon Do was almost unknown to the public.  I then went on to Moo Duk Kwan – Tang Soo Do, another ‘Korean style’ in Brooklyn.  As we know, Koreans trained with Funakoshi O-sensei in the 1950s, then went back to Korea and created ‘Korean styles’ based on Shotokan.  I learned Taga 1-2-3, Bin-an 1-2-3-4-5, Chul-ki, and Passai.  Do these names sound familiar?

As a teen, the attractive patch at right caught my eye, but I knew nothing about the style.  I studied Judo for a while.  New York Tech had a Karate Club, which I joined in 1976.  It turned out to be a Shotokan club.  I guess it was kismet all along.  Next month is my 42nd year in Shotokan, but today is my 50th year in the martial arts.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

I Fell Down

I finished class a little while ago and walked over to the pizzeria for lunch.  It rained heavily this morning with gusting winds.  Leaves were scattered everywhere.  I walked along, took a step, and my right foot sank into a deep hole, sending me sprawling face-first onto the ground HARD!  You’re in your 60s and you fell down? You could break a hip; break arm; break ankle!  I did break-fall (mae ukemi), caught my breath, then got up and continued on my way.  Was this an example of self-defense?  Let’s see... I protected myself and prevented injury so, yep, it’s self-defense.

Everyone knows that martial arts are for the young.  It’s that cute, adorable activity that little children play.  No serious teenager would be caught dead doing Karate.  Adults go to the dojo to watch their darling kiddies perform in a little recital for rank promotion.

Today proved what I already knew: Martial Arts training is for ALL ages; perhaps even more important as we age.  Older people are more likely targets for attack.  If you are never attacked, your training may have helped you avoid danger, or made you look less likely a victim to attackers.  If you fall, your training may have increased your bone density and taught you to break-fall minimizing the chance for injury.  If you never fall, it could be that training improved your balance.

Whether you’re young, not-so-young, or old, I’ll see you at the dojo.

Monday, October 23, 2017

How Many Tigers Are There?

We study Shotokan Karate.  Funakoshi O-sensei never 'named' his teachings, simply calling it Karate (empty hands).  Outsiders referred to his teachings by the dojo's name, 'Shotokan'.  There are different variations of Shotokan, Shotokai, Kenkojuku, and others.  Within the Shotokan world, Japan Karate Association (JKA) is by far the largest organization.  There are, however, many other large ‘governing bodies’ including:  JKF, SKIF, WSKF, WUKF, FSK, ISKF, ITKF, FAJKO, WKF, ASAI, SKA, KKA, and a whole bunch of other initials.

A couple of years ago a Shotokan acquaintance mentioned that he is now following Asai Shotokan.  Another friend mentioned that he now performs kata Kanazawa-style.  Not long ago a young Black Belt entered tournament run by a different organization than hers.  She received a low score because her kata wasn’t performed ‘their way’.

In my own parent association, I’ve heard stories how our founder was known to pore over his copy of ‘Karate-do Kyohan’, dog-ear pages, highlight sections, and make notes.  He would then change the way he taught a basic or a kata.  Forgive me if I sound rude, sacrilegious, or just ‘New York brash’, but I doubt Funakoshi O-sensei made any changes to the book since his death in 1957.  Was our founder mistaken, did he misinterpret the book, or did his interpretation change?  Isn't it all subject to interpretation?  We know that almost all moves can have multiple meanings (bunkai).  Whichever bunkai you use will affect your speed, timing, rhythm, and flow. 

In all cases mentioned above, it is some person’s interpretation of how to practice Shotokan that others choose to follow.  So who is right?  Which way is correct?  It’s all good.  They say there is more than one path to the mountain top.  As long as we stay on the path (Dō ) and keep climbing, the summit will be within reach.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Yoi - Rule of Thumb

Yoi can mean different things depending on which kanji is used.  In Karate, it can mean: ready; good; preparation.

Many karateka go into yoi by moving both feet, crossing arms low in front of the body (or making large arcs above their heads), then spreading their arms down wider than their bodies.  I was taught to stand straight (musubi dachi), cross arms at chest level covering the solar plexus, then move the left foot out shoulders-width and uncross the arms down narrow, within the body’s width.  Which way is correct?  Is there a difference?

The first yoi is very expressive; ideal for performing kata.  While dramatic, the first yoi takes two steps, keeping you on the embusen (line of attack).  Folding the arms low on the body leaves your torso and head exposed to attack.  Making large arcs above the head leaves the lower part of your body exposed to attack.  Spreading your arms wider than your body leaves you exposed to frontal attack.  Yoi as I was taught is better for self-defense.  Crossing the arms at chest level makes it equally easy to block high or low, while covering vital organs and the solar plexus.  Moving the left foot out takes you off the attack line.  Bringing the arms down narrow within the body’s width offers more protection from attack.  Like the front bumper of a car, the arms can absorb some impact from a forward attack.

A student once asked me how wide (or narrow) the arms should be.  I told him, “The rule of thumb is to extend the thumbs from your fists and they touch.”  He smiled and said, “So the rule of thumb is the rule of thumbs.”  Yep.  He then thought if I wrote this blog entry it should be called ‘The Thumb - Going My Way’ (a play on words since ‘Dō’ means ‘The Way’). 

So, which yoi is correct?  Which yoi is proper?  The correct yoi is the one your sensei requires at your dojo.  The proper yoi is either one, although you can probably guess my preference.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Attendance and Priorities

The school year just ended and I’m re-thinking some ideas on dojo attendance.

Years ago a student frequently missed classes.  Each absence had a valid excuse like work got in the way or family emergency.  He was concerned that I wouldn’t believe him, or think less of him for poor attendance.  I reassured him that I respected his taking care of priorities.  In light of giri and gimu, he should put more important things ahead of Karate training.  If someone missed class to laze around, watch TV, or just didn’t feel like it … that’s when I’d have a problem with them.  The same holds true with school children.  I will never say that Karate is more important than studying, homework, and family responsibilities.  That said, I now believe that Karate is more important than studying, homework, and family responsibilities.  What??!?  Here are two important points:

1- A student cannot get hurt if s/he makes a mistake in Social Studies.  A student does not risk hurting someone in a Math class.  A Karate student who does not train diligently runs the risk of injuring himself/herself or other students if their skills dull due to lack of training.

2- Parents often face various dilemmas - the child’s homework is not finished, or there’s an upcoming test, or a special project is due.  Of course the solution is simple; don’t go to Karate class tonight.  While I realize that school work is a priority, the parent fails to take advantage of a major Karate training benefit.  We teach students how to be more efficient and effective in physical motion and mental acuity.  A good Karate student learns how to prioritize and get the job done.  Parents should assist their children in fitting variables like homework, study, chores, family responsibilities, etc. around the fixed Karate class schedule.  We should not be the first thing to go because of poor planning.  Shaky attendance is frustrating for the student as their skills are slow to develop, holds the class back as some cannot keep up, and puts all in danger as the irregular attendees’ skills are not honed.

Most attendance problems can be solved in three words: Come. To. Class.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Karate Training is Like a Tree

This article appears in our Spring 2017 newsletter.  It is also posted here because I humbly believe it important enough to warrant a wider audience. 

Look at a tree.  Look at Karate.  See any similarities?  Your Karate training is made up of different parts, same as a tree.  Let’s compare the two.

The most important part of a tree is the root system.  The tree doesn’t get nourishment, it’s not grounded for stability, it cannot grow or even survive without strong roots.  In Karate, this is your Kihon (basics).  Your kata (form) is just groups of basics set in specific patterns.  Kumite and Ippons (sparring and pre-arranged self-defense) uses your basics on another person.  Kihon is the root of your Karate.  Some people argue that perfecting kihon is not necessary; perfection is not needed in a street situation.  This may be true, but we strive for near-perfect kihon for two reasons:

1- Karate-do is an art designed to help the practitioner towards self-betterment.
2- With surprise and adrenaline, you will do a rushed, sloppy version of your techniques on the street.  Careless practice in the dojo means in a street attack, you will do a rushed, sloppy version of already sloppy techniques.

The trunk of the tree supports all branches and foliage.  It is usually thick and sturdy.  In Karate, this is your Kata (forms).  As it was once explained to me, kata is like a living encyclopedia of your style of Karate.  All moves can be found in your kata.  Working kata reinforces your basics, and develops muscle memory for assorted combinations of techniques.  Almost all tree trunks are wider at the base and gradually taper as you approach the top of the tree.  Kata works the same way.  As you move up to higher kata, some combinations are more complicated, but stances-punches-kicks remain constant.  Movements in higher level katas rely on movements developed in lower katas.  For example, you cannot be good at Bassai Dai if your Heian Godan is shaky.

The branches extend out from the trunk.  Each branch looks a little different, but clearly look like part of the tree.  In Karate, this is your Bunkai (analysis; explanation; meaning of moves).  Every movement or group of movements in each kata has at least one meaning - usually more than one.  We give students the simplest, most basic meaning for each series of movements.  As the student progresses, they learn that the same group of movements can have several different meanings.  Shotokan has many hidden grabs, locks, chokes, and takedowns in each kata.  ‘Hidden’ is not quite right; the meanings are there, you just have to look for them.  I’ve heard martial artists argue that bunkai is a lot of bunk; they’ll punch, kick, and block a lot sooner than they would grab an opponent and twist him to the ground.  This is partly true; you will use these basic (kihon) moves a lot sooner than you would do something more complicated.  That’s why these moves are called ‘basic’.  It’s just good to know that you can do something more complex if the situation calls for it.

The foliage, whether leaves, flowers, or needles, grow on the branches.  In Karate, this is your Kumite (sparring).  Just like foliage, kumite is the flashiest, most colorful, most noticeable part of Karate.  Your fighting techniques stem directly from your bunkai.  People see your kumite, but often have no idea how much work goes into bunkai, kata, and kihon to develop these sparring skills.

A tree needs water, sunlight, and nutrients to grow and thrive.  Without these elements, a tree can soon die.  Your Karate works the same way.  Without regular, diligent training, your Karate skills will suffer.  Feed your soul.  Feed your Karate.  I’ll see you on the deck!