These articles by Aaron Hoopes were originally published in Shotokan Karate Magazine (SKM).
The principles are the same for all styles of martial arts.
Aaron Hoopes has studied Shotokan Karate for over 30 years and holds a 3rd degree black belt. He trained Takayuki Mikami in New Orleans for 4 years and then in Japan under Sensei Masatoshi Nakayama for 3 years at his private dojo – the Hoitsugan. He also trained at the JKA headquarters in Tokyo, Japan and in various dojos around Australia and the USA.
Breathing Training for Martial Artists
(Shotokan Karate Magazine Issue 72)
by Aaron Hoopes
One of the most important aspects of martial arts training is proper breathing. However, for practitioners of hard styles, effective breathing methods are often left to the students to figure out on their own. The central principle of breathing is of internal cleansing, getting rid of that which is old, worn out, and stale, and exchanging it for what is new, fresh, and energized. During inhalation we are bringing in fresh oxygen, nutrients, and vital energy. During exhalation we are expelling carbon dioxide and other toxins and poisons that we produce or collect in our daily lives.
There are a large number of breathing exercises. Some are simple and easy while others require years of practice. I will discuss the five I believe to be the most effective for the martial artists who are beginning to explore the potential of proper breathing. First, we will describe the two methods which are best suited for becoming aware of the body: Attention Breathing and Abdominal Breathing. We will then go on to the more advanced exercises of Reverse Abdominal Breathing and Nose Panting. Finally we will introduce The Complete Breath which is more challenging and requires increased concentration and practice.
In practicing these breathing exercises it is important to concentrate on breathing through the nose, both during inhalation and exhalation. Of course when training in the martial arts, breathing strictly through the nose is unrealistic. In fact it is physically impossible since the body’s demand for oxygen increases too fast for the nose to handle the flow. However, while doing these specific exercises it is important. Think of it as a closed circuit within the body, breathing in through the nose and out through the nose. If you open your mouth, you break the circuit and the energy dissipates.
It is important to realize that people breathe differently. Children tend to breathe with their abdomen, while middle-aged people breathe with their stomachs, and older people often breathe mainly with their upper chests. But the way people breathe is also affected by other factors, emotions, for instance, or ill health. Someone who is excited will breathe faster and shallower than someone who is sad. Someone who is calm will breathe slowly and deeply. Someone out of shape may be panting after a short walk or climbing some stairs.
Attention breathing, as its name implies, is about focusing your awareness on the natural rhythm of your breath, not to control it but simply to observe it as a bodily function. Your awareness is the instrument which enables you to shift from unconscious breathing to conscious, or dynamic, breathing. This shift is accomplished by concentrating on the feeling of the body as it breathes. Feel the air as it enters your nostrils. Follow it as it flows into the lungs and notice how deeply it reaches into them. Maintain your full attention and follow it back up as you exhale. Feel the used air as it is expelled from the body.
Gradually, as you become aware of the feeling of the breath it should become smoother and more relaxed. But don’t try to change your breathing during Attention Breathing. Your aim is to observe your unconscious breathing habits so you will be able to feel the difference when you actually begin dynamic breathing. If you find your mind wandering, simply catch yourself and return to the breath. Try to perform Attention Breathing for five minutes each day at the same time of day, perhaps in the morning when you wake up or at night when you are about to go to bed. As you become used to it, see if you can focus on your breath at other times throughout the day. Eventually the awareness of the breath and your breathing should become an integral part of your life.
Once you become aware of your breathing, it is time to begin modifying your breathing habits. Abdominal breathing is by far the best breathing method for people beginning to study breathing exercises. Regular practice brings quick, tangible results. It is easy to learn and difficult to do incorrectly. In addition, Abdominal Breathing has the benefit of invigorating the abdominal muscles. Their constant movement massages the internal organs and increases blood circulation.
The basic idea is simple: fill the lungs from the bottom up. Abdominal Breathing is about filling the lungs completely. Most people breathe using only their chests or the top half of their lungs. Abdominal Breathing seeks to expand lung capacity by starting from the lowest part of the lungs. The focus, therefore, is on the abdomen, an area roughly three finger widths below the navel. Known as the hypogastrium in Western medical terminology, this area is called the dan tien in Chinese and hara in Japanese. This point is the focal point of Abdominal Breathing.
Start in whichever stance or posture you feel most comfortable. Inhale through the nose. Expand the abdomen gradually by lightly pushing out and down as the oxygen fills the lower lung cavity. Focus the mind on expanding the abdominal area. Don’t be overanxious and forcefully protrude the abdominal wall. Instead, try to achieve a gentle and smooth expansion in time with the inhalation. When the abdomen is full, exhale through the nose and pull the abdomen gently back into the body, compressing the lungs from the bottom. With each inhalation the abdomen expands, with each exhalation the abdomen contracts. It is important to remember that you should not expand or contract your chest; instead, feel as if you are drawing the air deep into the lower part of your body. Repeat for ten cycles of inhalation and exhalation, filling to maximum capacity and emptying completely with each breath.
Reverse Abdominal Breathing
Reverse Abdominal Breathing is more difficult than Abdominal Breathing simply because it reverses the natural flow of the breath. Reverse Abdominal Breathing is a breathing method best suited for those who study the martial arts since it concentrates focus on the hara during exhalation. Regular practice strengthens the abdominal muscles and makes breathing naturally strong. Try blowing up a balloon while keeping one hand on your abdomen. As you blow out, your abdomen naturally expands instead of contracting. The same is true if you are trying to push a car that has run out of gas. In order to express the power you are putting into the act, you exhale while pushing out. Reverse Abdominal Breathing is a breathing method which tends to infuse the breather with power.
Again, start in whichever stance or posture you feel most comfortable. Inhale through the nose. Slowly draw the abdomen in and up. The upper chest will naturally expand as oxygen fills your lungs. As you inhale, contract the muscles of your perineum. The perineum is the area between the anus and the lower edge of the pubis at the front of the pelvis. The central point of the perineum is called the huiyin in Chinese and is the focal point for Reverse Abdominal Breathing. By contracting and pulling up the huiyin you are able to concentrate on the abdominal area. Again, don’t be overanxious and forcefully squeeze the abdomen. Instead, focus on keeping a smooth and relaxed motion. When the lungs are full, exhale through the nose, release the huiyin, and push the abdomen out and down. Repeat for ten cycles of inhalation and exhalation, filling the lungs to maximum capacity and emptying them out completely with each breath.
Breathing through the nose is of the utmost importance when practicing breathing exercises. The nose has a number of defense mechanisms that prevent impurities and extremely cold air from entering the body. First, a screen of nose hairs traps dust and other particles that could injure the lungs if we breathe through the mouth. Next, there is a long passage lined with mucus membranes, where excessively cool air is warmed and very fine dust particles that escaped the hair screen are caught. Finally, in the inner nose are glands which fight off any bacteria that may have slipped through the other defenses. The inner nose also contains the olfactory organ that gives us our sense of smell, which can detect poisonous fumes that could damage our health if we were to breathe them.
The Nose Pant is a great exercise for charging yourself up with energy if you feel sleepy or for releasing stress any time during the day. Imagine that you are blowing a piece of dust out of your nose by sharply puffing out through the nostrils. This is immediately followed by an equally sharp intake of air through the nose. This in-and-out ventilation should be repeated in rapid succession ten times. As you become comfortable with the exercise, increase the number of repetitions. When beginning, just concentrate on the nose and upper chest when breathing, but as you progress try to focus on the abdomen. Abdominal Nose Panting consists of contracting the abdomen as you puff out. Reverse Abdominal Nose Panting expands the abdomen on the puff out. After completing a session of Nose Panting, always follow with a couple of deep slow breaths to calm the body down.
The Complete Breath
The Complete Breath is a dynamic breathing exercise that is both simple and complex. Regular practice expands lung capacity, which, in turn, slows down unconscious breathing and makes it smoother and more regular. In addition, The Complete Breath maximizes oxygen intake and enables oxygen-rich blood to flow to the extremities. It also cleans and invigorates the lungs.
In the beginning it is best if The Complete Breath is practiced from a lying-down posture so maximum concentration can be placed on the exercise itself, which consists of four separate aspects: inhalation, retention, exhalation, and suspension.
Inhale through the nose. Expand the lower abdomen, pushing out and down, just as if you were starting Abdominal Breathing. Once the abdomen is full, continue inhaling and expand the chest, filling the upper lungs. Raise the collarbone and shoulders as you continue inhaling. Fill the throat and the nose. Stop.
Hold the breath in. Bring your attention to the fullness of the body. Feel the expansion circulating the oxygen-rich blood throughout the body. Continue to hold the breath in for a count of ten.
Exhale through the nose. Contract the lower abdomen pushing in and up. Continue to exhale by squeezing the air from the lungs and chest. Lower the collarbone and shoulders. Blow the air from your throat and nose. Empty it all out. Stop.
Hold the breath out. Bring your attention to the emptiness of the body. Feel your body like an empty balloon waiting to be filled. Continue to suspend breathing for a count of ten.
On the next inhalation don’t gasp for air. Calmly and smoothly inhale just as before. Feel the air reaching far beyond your abdomen, filling every corner of your body like an expanding balloon. Notice the sensation of your body as the new oxygen is brought in.
Do the complete set five or ten times each day.
The purpose of breathing exercises is to enable you to bring awareness to your breathing. When you are aware of your breathing you can use it to maximum effectiveness. The change from unconscious to conscious breathing is accomplished by thinking about your breathing and becoming aware of your own body. Most of our behavior is unconscious. We walk around in our bodies, rarely noticing how they feel unless there is pain. Seldom do we consciously think of the body as feeling good. Feeling good shouldn’t be an absence of pain. It should be an invigorated, energetic state where you are comfortable and happy in your body. Becoming aware of your breath is a way to reach that feeling. Expanding your breathing ability is a way of extending that feeling.
Try to become more aware of your breathing during training and at other times. Take deeper breaths. Do regular Abdominal Breathing. If you feel yourself getting tense or angry, do some Attention Breathing and notice how your feelings change. If you are bored or sleepy, do some Nose Panting to reenergize yourself. No matter what you are doing, breathe. Make conscious dynamic breathing a regular part of your life and you will find it naturally benefits your martial arts training.
Generating Ki Through Breathing
(Shotokan Karate Magazine Issue 73)
By Aaron Hoopes
Whenever I teach a “Breathing in the Martial Arts” seminar I always have the students breathe in and out through the nose. This often brings quizzical looks and invariably, at the end of the session, the first question asked is; “Why are we breathing in and out through the nose?” This is a valid question and I’d like to address it here. Before I do that, I need to explain a little bit about Ki energy and how it relates to breathing.
Most martial arts practitioners have some idea about the concept of Ki energy. Ki refers to the natural energy of the Universe, which permeates everything. All matter, from the smallest atoms and molecules to the largest planets and stars, is made up of this energy. It is the vital force of life. It is the source of every existing thing. Ki has many manifestations. Different philosophies and cultures call it by different names. Metaphysical science calls it “vital force.” Friedrich Mesmer called it “animal magnetism.” The Indian and Hindu yogis call it “Prana.” To the Kung Fu and Tai Chi practitioners of China it is known as “Chi.” Western science defines it as “biorhythm,” and New Age thinkers simply call it “cosmic energy.” Naturally, in each manifestation the Ki is viewed and defined differently, but basically it is the same thing. It is the power which enables us to think, move, breathe, and live – the power that makes gravity act like gravity. It is what makes electricity electric. It is the link between our perception of the inner and outer worlds. It is our connection to the very flow of the universe and the prime moving force within the human body. Ki is not breath, it is the power that makes it possible for us to breathe. Ki is not simply “energy,” it is what gives energy the power to be energy. Ki is the power behind movement and thought…and it is everywhere. It is in the oxygen we breathe and the blood that flows through us.
It is difficult to define Ki concretely. It cannot be seen or measured, it cannot be touched or captured. It is everywhere yet we have no way to touch it, make it tangible, or even prove its existence. Therefore Ki is a difficult concept to accept. The Western mind likes the tangible, the concrete and the specific. It likes a scientific explanation which defines, dissects, and categorizes. Ki transcends this kind of explanation. It doesn’t fit easily into a strict biomedical framework. It is simply indefinable in those terms.
Ki within the body is like power in a rechargeable battery. Occasionally it needs to be replenished. The Ki of the universe is inexhaustible, yet the body needs fresh Ki to maintain its vitality. When you are exchanging the Ki within you with the Ki of the universe, you feel healthy and vigorous. By energizing the body with Ki it is revitalized naturally, enabling it to fight off illness and maintain good health. The true secret to replenishing Ki resides in our breathing.
Breathing in and out through the nose is the only method that enables the body to process Ki energy effectively. Most people understand the importance of breathing in through the nose. The nose has a series of defense mechanisms that prevent impurities and extremely cold air from entering the body. These were detailed in my previous article “Breathing Training for Martial Artists” (SKM Issue 72). Breathing out through the nose requires a deeper understanding of the nature of Ki energy. Practitioners of martial arts, especially karate, need to absorb and process the Ki that they are breathing in order to generate the power and force for the techniques they practice. They also need to be able to retain the Ki within the body until the moment it is needed. Basically, when we inhale we are bringing fresh oxygen and Ki into our body. When we exhale through the mouth we are expelling carbon dioxide which contains all the toxins and poisons that have built up within the lungs. We are also expelling Ki from the body. But if we are continuously expelling the Ki we never give it a chance build up into the rich source of energy needed to complete our techniques to their maximum effectiveness. By exhaling through the mouth the Ki energy is simply dissipated back into the world. Breathing out through the nose, however, completes a closed circuit. By exhaling through the nose, the Ki energy, instead of being expelled with the carbon dioxide, is transferred to the dan tien or hara, located about three finger widths below the umbilicus. With each breath in, more Ki enters the body and circles down to the dan tien growing stronger and stronger. During this breathing process, the tongue is up, touching the top palate of the mouth just behind the front teeth and the air is expelled from the nose with a slightly audible hiss. There is also a feeling of the abdominal walls contracting down with the exhalation.
Once sufficient Ki has been generated this way the practitioner is able to expel the Ki with tremendous force. This is known as the Kiai where the breath is expelled through the mouth. This is the reason that there are usually only two techniques within each Kata where we Kiai. An important factor of Kata training is that it teaches us to build up sufficient Ki energy and then expel it in one strong technique. If we try to Kiai with every technique, we quickly become fatigued since we are expelling Ki with every breath.
Remember that Ki is a subtle, invisible force that requires much patience and long years of practice to understand. The ability to relax and breathe effectively will benefit your training in building Ki. When your mind and body are working together in a relaxed manner and you are breathing properly, a tremendous amount of energy is able to flow through your being. The key is not to force it, just slow down, relax and breathe through the nose.
Stillness Training: The Basis of Movement
(Shotokan Karate Magazine Issue 77)
By Aaron Hoopes
One of the most important things I have learned in teaching breathing to martial artists is that one can only understand its importance by actually practicing deep breathing oneself. The same is true with stillness training. It is impossible to adequately understand the benefits of contrasting movement with stillness without actually trying it yourself.
Shotokan karate is a powerful and dynamic martial art. Yet, sometimes its emphasis on strong, hard techniques seems one-dimensional and overshadows the need for contrast. Without weakness there is no such thing as strength. Without soft there is no hard. This idea of contrast or balance in the martial arts is best symbolized by the concept of Yin and Yang. The Yin/Yang symbol is one of the oldest and best-known life symbols in the world. It represents the two poles of existence, which are opposite but complementary, and which exist everywhere in every part of the universe. The light, white Yang moves up blending into the dark, black Yin which is moving down. The two aspects are in opposition to each other but they are also interdependent. Yin and Yang can be described as dependent opposite forces that must always be in balance. The opposite forces flow in a natural cycle, one always replacing the other. Each force contains the seed of the other, which is why we see a black spot of Yin in the Yang segment and a white spot of Yang in the Yin. They do not merely replace each other but actually become each other. Absolute or pure Yin (or Yang) does not exist. Everything contains some degree of its opposite.
What the Yin/Yang dichotomy is telling us is that in life all things have two opposite dimensions. If light exists then darkness exists as well. Wherever there is an “up” there will also be a “down”. If something has a front it must have a back. Something that is born will eventually die. There are no advantages without disadvantages; there are no disadvantages without advantages. All the opposites one perceives in the universe, then, are embodied in the opposing forces of Yin and Yang. This changing combination of negative and positive, dark and light, cold and hot is what keeps the world in motion. In our individual lives all change can be seen as one opposite becoming the other. As something reaches an extreme, it always gives way to its opposite. Just as the seasons cycle through summer-fall-winter-spring and create opposite periods of hot and cold, windy and still, rainy and dry. Yin and Yang cycle through active and passive, dark and light, strength and weakness. If Yin and Yang are balanced and flowing, life itself is balanced and flowing. Each of us must have this balance to be complete.
For people who train in the martial Arts, one of the most important principles embodied by the concept of Yin and Yang, is the relationship between stillness and motion. Stillness is the natural state before movement begins, and yet it is also the basis of all movement. Understanding the symbiosis of stillness and movement can guide you in establishing true balance and control within yourself. A technique which begins from perfect stillness enables you to execute the movement in a coordinated and efficient manner which, in turn, allows your body and mind to reach together a balanced harmony. Furthermore, by increasing your efficiency of movement, you can release unnecessary tension and relax more completely.
The best method for learning the principle embodied in stillness and movement is to stand still – completely still. To begin, choose an individual position from your favorite kata. For beginners it may be a back-stance, knife-hand block (kokutsu shuto-uke). More advanced karate-ka may choose the first move from Sochin or the last move from Gojushiho-sho. The actual position of the arms and legs is less important than the requirement of the training, which is simply to remain completely still. Once in position, do not move at all. The goal is to achieve total, pure stillness. This is different from just getting into a stance and holding it. The point here is to make absolutely no movement at all. No adjustment, no shifting of weight, nothing. I realize that this may sound simplistic. But if you practice this training you will eventually come to understand the difference between absolute stillness and what passes for stillness in your regular training. You will become intimately aware of each and every muscle that is in use. Then the quality of your movement will naturally move toward perfection.
Once you have achieved stillness, relax the focus of your eyes and bring your attention inward to your hara or dan tien (the spot just below the navel). Begin slow Abdominal Breathing (see my article, “Breathing Training for Martial Artists” – SKM 72). Keep completely still in every other way. Ignore the itch on your cheek, the twinge in your foot and the ache in your muscles. Hold the position for as long as you can without moving. If you are training alone at home, it may be useful to play music and stay in position for the duration of a song, then gradually lengthen the time to two or three songs. When you cannot stay still any longer, slowly – as slowly as possible – shift your position so that you are in a mirror image of the original position. Hold still again for another session.
By learning to achieve a state of stillness, you enable the body and mind to come to a restful position. Then, any movement initiated from this stillness is done with complete awareness and true intent. Your actions become the embodiment of quality and perfection. As you become more adept at practicing stillness, you will learn that it can be incorporated into your regular training. Once you have a feeling for perfect stillness you will be able to call on it whenever needed. In a kata you may only be still for a split second between moves, but if it is perfect stillness then the transition between the moves becomes flawless.
Finally, there is an additional benefit to this training – muscle strengthening. But it’s a different type of strengthening. In weightlifting, for instance, we breakdown muscle tissue so that it grows back stronger. Stillness training, on the other hand, rather than breaking down the muscle. tones the fibers of the muscle tissue. While it does not expand the size of your muscles, it does make them stronger. The more you practice the exercise the stronger your muscles will become and the longer you will be able to hold you stances.
As you get used to this exercise, see if you can bring it into your daily life. When you find yourself with a free moment, practice it – or one adapted to your particular situation. Soon you will become more and more aware of the feeling of true stillness and you will begin to recognize how it contrasts with movement. We are constantly moving all during the day. Try to take a moment and bring stillness into your daily life. It will benefit your training immensely.
The balance of Yin and Yang is apparent in every aspect of life. We just don’t take the time to pay attention to it. Stillness training is a method of enhancing awareness of the inherent balance in life. It is a tool for keeping us on the path of karate as a way of life.
THE LONG STRETCH
(Shotokan Karate Magazine Issue 82)
By Aaron Hoopes
Supplemental Training takes place outside of your normal karate class. Regular group classes are the main focus for many martial artists, but in order to truly excel in your art you must be willing to put in extra time outside of regular practice in order to fully internalize the techniques and movements you are learning. When starting training, there is a tendency to feel that the regular class is enough. However, as you progress and see how truly deep the art goes, you begin to realize that much more training is called for. You will never reach your potential if you only think about karate when you are training in class. Of course, you must attend the group classes. That is where you are taught the specifics of karate techniques as well as kata and kumite, but it is up to you to spend the time necessary to actually learn or internalize what you are being taught. Supplemental training is your opportunity to do this. Note too that the effort you put into training outside of class will quickly be apparent when you are in class.
The Long Stretch
One of the most important aspects of Martial arts training is proper stretching. Training is difficult enough without having to be concerned that our muscles are not ready for what we will ask of them. In most karate classes, stretching is primarily focused on specific muscles or muscle groups of muscles that are to be used during the class. It usually entails pulling muscles in opposite directions, often with a soft bouncing motion in order to loosen them up. The stretches concentrate on short extensions in preparation for the rigorous physical exercise that is to come. Other muscles which may only play a supporting role, are often insufficiently stretched
The Long Stretch can be described as a holistic practice. It concentrates on the body as a whole instead of individual muscles. It focuses on the interconnectedness of the muscles of the body and works to strengthen and tone them effectively. In karate the body is trained to move as a complete unit. Each muscle works in harmony to produce an effective technique. Proper stretching, which enables each muscle to do its part, is a priority. The better we train all of our muscles the better they will respond when called upon to perform.
Practicing the Long Stretch helps coordinate the muscles and get them all working together. It works to lengthen, tone and stretch your complete musculature along an extended range of motion. This is done by slowing down the pace at which you stretch and bringing mindful awareness to your body. Deep breathing and relaxation are used to gradually lengthen the muscle extension, enabling the release of the tension trapped within.
Slowing the Pace
Slowing down the pace of stretching is simply a matter of time spent. Most karate classes spend the first ten to fifteen minutes in stretching. This is fine to warm up muscles that are already stretched, however it is woefully inadequate as a primary stretching session. It is imperative the karate practitioner take time outside of class to stretch. Participation in group classes should only be one aspect of your overall training.
Slowing down the pace of your stretching is really quite simple. Don’t rush through it! The key is to start by relaxing the mind. The body will follow because when the mind touches the body, the body responds. Keeping your attention focused on the particular muscles that are being stretched brings your mind and body together toward the same end. Slowing down your stretches enables you to feel each stretch completely and to experience it in depth.
Central to the long stretch is deep breathing. Deep breathing practice has been a major part of the martial arts for thousands of years. It is only recently in the more modern martial arts, with the emphasis on sports and tournament competition, that breathing exercises are not practiced as much. Proper deep breathing oxygenates the body. When we are breathing deeply we take in larger amounts of oxygen and energy which are distributed throughout the body via the cardivascular system. The rich oxygenated blood assists the muscles in becoming more supple and strong. Breathing also has the effect of helping the mind to calm down. When we are looking inward, focusing on our breathing, other disruptive thoughts that run continuously through the mind settle of their own accord. The mind relaxes. This, in turn allows the muscles to relax, stretch and lengthen to their full potential.
There are many different breathing exercises used in the various martial arts, but for the long stretch suggest you stick with simple abdominal breathing. Abdominal breathing or belly breathing is filling the lungs completely from the bottom up. The focus is on the abdomen, or hara, the spot just below your navel. As you breathe in push this belly area out and down. It is a muscular action as well as a respiratory action, so become aware of your abdominal muscles expanding. By pushing the abdomen out, you create a vacuum allowing your lungs to open and be filled to their maximum capacity. As you breathe out, contract your abdominal muscles, pulling them in and up allowing them to squeeze the air from your lungs. It is especially important to relax and focus on releasing tension during the exhalation process.
Practice abdominal breathing during your supplemental training. Take three long, complete breaths during each stretch. The muscles need time to unwind and release the tension that builds up within them during everyday life. As the muscles relax they will begin to gradually lengthen. Sometimes it helps to visualize your body as a lead weight sinking down with the pull of gravity. Whatever stretches you do are fine especially ones that are done in your regular karate warm-up. Just do them longer and slower…and remember to breathe.
You should very soon begin to notice a difference in the way your muscles feel and the quicker response you get from them. Part of training is becoming aware of living in your body, feeling the muscles move, experiencing the deeper effects the techniques have. The Long Stretch puts you in closer communication with your body. Use it to make you body your ally. Practice the Long Stretch a part of your supplemental training and your karate can do nothing but improve.
NAKAYAMA SENSEI’S LEGACY: THE HOITSUGAN SEMINARS
(Shotokan Karate Magazine Issue 85)
By Aaron Hoopes
Few individuals have energy, ability and charisma to become legends while they are still alive. Masatoshi Nakayama was one such man. The head of the Japan Karate Association from 1957 until his death in 1987, he presided over an organization that became a major driving force in shaping modern karate and martial arts training. Sensei Nakayama was well known around the world. He traveled extensively, teaching seminars and workshops. He presided over the JKA Honbu Dojo (Headquarters) located in Ebisu, Tokyo. What many people may be unaware of is that Sensei Nakayama maintained a small, private dojo where he taught a select group of people from all over the world his traditional methods of Shotokan karate. This was the Hoitsugan Dojo.
In Japanese, Hoitsugan essentially means the gathering together of people with a similar interest. This was the guiding principle of the training that took place there. Although the Hoitsugan was not well known to the outside world of karate, Nakayama Sensei had essentially given an open invitation to foreigners to come and study with him in his very own home, where the Hoitsugan was located, and where his students lived in spartan quarters on-site.
This attracted a unique mix of acolytes and adventurers. The students came from all ends of the Earth: North America, South America, Europe, Australia, the Middle East, Africa and Asia. However, despite their disparate origins they had one thing in common. They were all foreigners in Japan, and therefore eternal outsiders (gaijin) with a passion that burned so brightly that their successes, both private and public, would become undeniable.
In 1987 Sensei Nakayama passed away, shaking the Japan Karate Association to its core. As guests in his home, the students of the Hoitsugan greeted guests at his funeral, and continued training in his honor with his designated successor at the Hoitsugan, Kawawada Sensei. Soon after, the JKA started to split. The struggle to continue as a cohesive organization was fraught with difficulties as many senior Japanese instructors disagreed on the future direction and structure of the JKA. Without Nakayama Sensei’s guidance and advice, these disputes soon got the better of the organization.
The gaijin students of the Hoitsugan stayed on the fringes of these events since they were, by and large, not Japanese and therefore had relatively little standing in whatever organization they trained with. However, they did have one important thing in common. They had all traveled to the source of modern Shotokan and trained directly with Sensei Nakayama and had all continued to nurture, expand and develop their ability, even after leaving Japan.
In 2003 one of those instructors, Jon Keeling, decided to gather together as many of those former students as he could find and have a reunion of sorts — a series of seminars that would allow these instructors to present their combined karate knowledge in a format that would honor the memory of their chief instructor, Masatoshi Nakayama. The Hoitsugan Seminars were born.
The first Hoitsugan Seminars took place near San Francisco, California, in February of 2004. With fourteen former students of Sensei Nakayama as instructors, the Seminars were a tremendous success. Instructors included Steve Ubl, the first Hoitsugan resident, Leon Montoya, one of a handful of Western graduates of the JKA Instructors Program, and James Yabe, whose training with Sensei Nakayama actually predated the founding of the Hoitsugan. The Seminars were very well attended and even spawned a professional-quality DVD. But this was just the beginning. The quality of the training could not be denied. Most, if not all, classes were taught by karateka with over 20 years of experience in Shotokan and other arts, and at least six months intensive training at the Hoitsugan. Word of the Hoitsugan Seminars spread and the momentum to hold another event grew.
The Second Annual Hoitsugan Seminars was held over an extended weekend at the end of April 2005 in Los Angeles, California, hosted by Michael Berger, James Yabe, and Glen Michel. This event surpassed the first in both scope and attendance. The group of thirteen instructors was even more impressive. This year the Hoitsugan instructors included Kensuke Seto a current member of the JKA’s Shihan Kai (Master’s Council) based in Tokyo, James Yabe, Steve Ubl, James Field, Malcom Fisher, Michael Berger, Jon Keeling, Bob Ehling, Glen Michel, Aaron Hoopes, Richard Amos, Erik Passoja and Fred Borda. All instructors were just as qualified as those at the 2004 event. There were a total of 28 seminars conducted in 20 one-hour sessions over the Thursday-Sunday event (many sessions involved splitting yudansha and mudansha into separate seminars), not including two optional stretching/breathing classes and two Q&A sessions where visitors were able to learn more about training in Japan.
Students – many of them instructors in their own right – came from across the United States and other countries for the opportunity to train at the Seminars. There were even international visitors from as far away as Nepal. Training was varied and intensive. Each class reflected the individual instructor’s special understanding of karate. Covering everything from stretching and breathing to fundamentals and shifting as well as advanced kata, kumite and combat applications for the higher levels, there was a wide variety of classes available for all attendees. Most of the instructors also attended the majority of seminars themselves. So in one session, students might, for example, find themselves paired up with Malcolm Fisher one minute and Michael Berger the next.
“It’s so great to have a chance to train with these instructors. They have so much knowledge and skill. It’s amazing to have them all together in one place at the same time,” reports Bob Smith of Michael Berger’s Ken Zen Ichi Karate-do.
Kensuke Seto, who taught opening night while visiting from Japan with Shotokan legend Victor Young in Camarillo, California, mentioned, “Nakayama Sensei would be very happy about the Hoitsugan Seminars.”
Nibas Vaidya, Chief Instructor of Shotokan Nepal found the seminars to be “very scientific, informative…a classical approach of Shotokan with new way of thinking…No doubt that we took advantage of it in true martial arts spirit.”
The 2005 Seminars in Los Angeles may now be history, but they are far from complete. Jon Keeling, director of the Hoitsugan Seminars planning committee says another DVD is in production, and there are tentative plans to hold the Seminars on the US East Coast, Europe/UK, South America and South Africa in the coming years. “This is a unique opportunity to pass the knowledge we have along to the next generation of karate students.” Jon says. Eventually, the plan is to have similarly qualified Hoitsugan instructors available to travel and conduct seminars on a smaller scale but to a wider audience. Given the momentum and positive response from the first two Hoitsugan seminars, it seems very likely that Jon’s ambitious plans will soon become a reality.
And the group is not limiting themselves to just teaching seminars. They are also collaborating on a book project that may well be “the new Moving Zen” for karate enthusiasts around the world. Dozens of Hoitsugan alumni will be sharing their experiences in Japan before the lessons they learned are lost. They hope to continue Nakayama Sensei’s generosity, teaching and philosophy – the “Hoitsugan experience” – and spread it around the world as he intended, and thereby maintain his legacy, in the spirit of the Hoitsugan.
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