Interview with John Titchen, Part II
What was your early karate training like?
My early karate training was very standard (for the time) Shotokan Karate in a school club. The club belonged to the English Shotokan Karate Association and our gradings were conducted by one of its (then) Chief Instructors, Roger Hall (now 8th Dan). I joined the club as soon as it started, and can remember having my left arm in a fibreglass cast at the time due to a cycling injury. In my first year I only had four hours of classes a week in the school term time, but most of the club managed 6 hours, so I used to train on my own in the evenings to try to keep up (I’m not a natural athlete). Due to coming from a military family I went to a boarding school, but I managed to find a Jin Sei Kai Shotokan Club at which I got a little bit of training in the summer holidays.
In my second year of training my instructor, Susie Jayasinghe (who is now with JKA England after a long break from Karate) decided to run more classes. We had lessons 4-6PM and 9-10PM Monday to Friday, with generally 2 hours at the weekend. Looking back on it I don’t think any of us appreciated how lucky we were to get seventeen hours of classes a week. With hindsight I realise that’s akin to 12 years of the once-a-week training that some people do.
My memory of the training is that it was very similar to what I’ve seen in lots of Shotokan Dojos. A solid grounding in Kihon combinations, prearranged sport Kumite and Kata.
I left school before getting my Shodan grade and so continued my karate at University. There were two Shotokan Karate clubs at Birmingham University at that time and I tried the KUGB one but settled with the English Shotokan Academy one, which was taught by Ken Hassell (now 6th Dan) with the late Steve Cattle as the Chief Instructor. At the weekends I would catch a train to Buckinghamshire and then drive to Bishops Stortford to catch a class with Roger Hall as I decided I wanted to stick with ESKA through to my Shodan at least.
The ESA Shotokan was slightly different to the ESKA Shotokan, with variations in the Kata. One was what I would describe as more Enoeda Ryu, the other more Kanazawa Ryu. In my second year I decided at the time to focus on doing things the ESKA way and so I stopped going to Ken Hassell’s classes, something I would later regret when renal failure subsequently cut short my participation in the normal aerobic classes. I would get up to leave the house at 0630 to walk down to the Court 3 Dojo in the Old Gym, working on my own on kata, bunkai visualisation and footwork from 7AM to 9AM each weekday before going to my 10AM tutorial or lectures (the advantages of a History degree timetable). I rejoined Ken’s club for a few months in my third year but had to stop going in 1996 due to my renal failure related anaemia (and other symptoms) making in-class training too difficult.
It may seem strange looking back now, but although I think I was given a great grounding in Shotokan basics, two things were very absent from my early training in class: bunkai and padwork. I had a bag at home in the garage and I bought a 7 foot Makiwara and planted it in the garden (and it moved house with me three times), but impact training didn’t feature much in class. It wasn’t until my family moved again and I trained for a few months with Graham Palmer (now 5th Dan) in Norwich that I got a proper introduction to using pads and body armour in class.
What first interested you in kata bunkai?
I was interested in kata bunkai from within my first few months of training. I think it was probably when I started doing Heian Nidan / Pinan Shodan that I could see that the movements did not make practical sense in terms of the context they were being taught. I wasn’t prepared to just shrug my shoulders and accept it. I like challenges and to me the puzzle of the application of kata presented a challenge. I wasn’t prepared to accept the explanations presented by standard kumite combinations as they only seemed workable against pre-arranged attacks, and often left no real counter or follow through, plus there were times when it seemed that the arms were moving for no reason at all. From that point on I read books, magazines, watched videos and cross-trained to try and find answers.
What led you to want to write a book on kata bunkai, the Heian Flow System, and why go down the route of HAOV rather than the more generalised kata bunkai approach?
A large part of the Heian Flow System wasn’t written for the Heian Flow System. In fact the majority of the introduction of that book was written in 2002 for a project on close range applications of Shotokan Uke techniques. I had taken a large number of photos for this project but wasn’t quite happy with the backdrop when my focus was slightly diverted.
I went down the route of HAOV (Habitual Acts of Violence) for a number of different reasons. As I perceived it, the majority of bunkai I had seen in books or on courses was orientated towards pre-arranged kumite style karate techniques, or static grabs and holds. This also applied to the bunkai in the ‘oldest’ texts I could find like Funakoshi’s Karate Do Kyohan and Karate Jutsu. This makes perfect sense because Funakoshi was writing about applications for people learning Karate in a modern Budo Sportif construct, and therefore was converting his explanation of many of the kata movements into a basic kumite model rather than giving applications in a realistic self defence construct. At the same time I was very aware that the few violent incidents I had had the misfortune to witness or be in had looked nothing like the attacks seen in the Dojo or in books, whether in karate Dojos or in the cross training I had done with Chinese Martial Artists and my long term cross training in Aikido. I had taken up regular cross training in Aikido in 1996 to gain an insight into the joint control, angles and unbalancing I felt sure were in karate (but I had not been taught), and this had a great impact on my bunkai. I had begun looking at HAOV in earnest from about 1995, but following one particular incident in 1999 I made the decision to study HAOV in much greater depth along with patterns in violent crime, and all my bunkai since then has been related to this.
In 2001 I became involved with Rick Clark’s AoDenkouKai group, which was composed of martial artists from a variety of different backgrounds interested in research. This brought me into contact with Bill Burgar and those who have read his excellent Five Years: One Kata as well as the Heian Flow System will see a similar approach, since I was already looking at bunkai through the medium of HAOV, adrenaline tolerance, vital points, unbalancing and redundancies as part of my own studies. In early 2004 I was presenting a piece on how I taught applications for Age Uke in my normal kumite classes at a cross training gathering of ADK Instructors when I watched Steven Webster and Ger O’Dea sharing their take on a Heian Nidan (Pinan Shodan) bunkai drill, which looked at a small part of the central section of the form. There was one movement (a shove to the chest followed by a palm strike) that I really liked in their demonstration and I could see how it could give possibilities for tying in other applications and role reversals – especially with regard to Heian / Pinan Sandan. I had previously observed flow drills in video and photographic form performed by both modern and past karateka as well as other martial artists, but had found the ones I’d viewed limited in their application and relevance to the kata, and as a result had stuck with training isolated stand alone bunkai. On returning home I looked at all my existing bunkai with this new addition and the idea of creating something more cohesive than one step drills. From this I pulled together a significant proportion of my existing Uke technique bunkai into the Heian Flow System through visualisation at my desk over the next two days, immediately beginning to teach it to my students at the time in Norfolk. I thought this was far more exciting as a project than the work I had done on stand-alone Uke techniques and as a result decided to move forward with that as a priority for publication instead of the work I had done on Uke techniques. Actually only ¾ of the Heian Flow System as I trained and drilled it made it into that book; some of my favourite drills were kept back for seminars and my regular students.
How did you move from bunkai into thinking about DART?
I’m not sure I did. By this I mean that I didn’t one day sit up and decide to create and name my own Karate system. A karate system is something that evolves naturally from the experience of training and introspection on extrovert practice; I do not believe that anyone who deliberately sets out to create something different is going to achieve an effective cohesive result. When I first started teaching Karate it was Shotokan Karate under the ESKA syllabus with Roger Hall and Mick Nursey (8th Dan) as the two Chief Instructors. In 2002 I decided to leave ESKA and become independent because I wanted to be free to teach my own self defence orientated kata bunkai and use that as the basis for my kumite drills. My aim initially was to teach Shotokan Karate, but with kata bunkai drills instead of the kumite sets I had learned, and a greater proportion of kihon against pads rather than thin air. I initially advertised the classes as Shotokan Karate.
Once my students started using the Heian Flow System I had to reconsolidate the syllabus slightly. The greater depth of our kata work meant that students knew the forms in a way I had not been able to when I first began Karate. Over the course of the next two years (2004-2006) the Heian Flow System and the introduction in 2005 of body armour in regular training both made a great impact on our approach: we were training at close range against HAOV, with lots of pad work and a strong emphasis on applying an angular approach and avoiding force on force, in short we looked nothing like the Shotokan Karate I had originally studied and the pedagogy was entirely different.
Since 2003 I had used the name ‘Practical Karate’ to denote what we did, but I felt this was too generic a descriptor to use to identify us from all the other approaches out there. I spent a lot of time looking into Japanese terms to describe the system because to call it ‘Shotokan’ would be false advertising, but even though I felt that my approach was very traditional, as a westerner I felt very uncomfortable using a foreign language and began looking for alternatives. I looked at some Greek and Latin terms, but felt that ultimately this created similar problems to using Japanese terminology. I wanted to use English descriptors but struggled to find a single word to sum up what I wanted to convey.
In 2006 I settled on the name DART – Defence Attack and Resolution Tactics, as I felt this summed up what we did through a number of umbrella terms, plus I also liked the duality of the word ‘dart’ both as a swift (action neutral) movement and as a weapon. DART Karate is essentially applied and evolved pressure tested bunkai along brought together through cross training into a holistic pedagogy as seen through the medium of research into violent crime, psychology, the law, sports science and education. Our Practical Karate logo remained on our uniforms and certificates as part of our heritage and is now the badge of the association through which I teach both DART Karate and my form of Kyohan Shotokan Karate. I see these as different criss-crossing paths up the same mountain to reach the same destination. People often get hung up on names and overly specific about terminology, and it’s not always helpful. Karate is a very broad descriptor, and what unifies us (and other martial arts) is far greater than what differentiates us. Ultimately whether they call it Shotokan karate or DART karate the instructors within the association are doing their own karate, the system name merely hints at the nature of the path they are taking.
How do you see the Heian Flow System relating to DART?
The Heian Flow System, as it appears in the book, represents a significant proportion of the DART Karate system syllabus as it was taught between 2004-2007. There’s actually almost nothing of the physical elements of the Heian Flow System, in the format in which it was published, left in DART Karate as I teach it now. A number of the training drills of the later training evolution of the Pinan Flow System are in the core DART Karate syllabus.
How has DART developed over time?
I think we’ve got smaller and bigger. A driving force behind DART Karate has always been research, both written and practical. Over the years the amount of evidence from different academic and practical fields supporting the way we do things has continued to grow along with the endorsements of our pressure training from instructors in other systems. At the same time the number of physical approaches taught has changed as I have condensed our drills down to tried and tested overlapping responses that fit holistically together.
Our increased use of body armour in our regular classes led to us abandoning the wearing of Gi for 8 years in favour of lighter western clothing which to some people less versed in karate history made us appear less traditional than we actually were. A few years ago we returned back to wearing Karate Gi after an evaluation of our training methods. I’d noticed that because I had built up sufficient body armour to run multiple armoured person event days, I was using the armour less in normal class training, and the increase in pad equipment due to the number of seminars I had been teaching meant that more of our in-class impact training used the pads. While we had adopted the t-shirts because wearing the Gi under armour was impractical, we had actually become less rough in our pushes and pulls to avoid tearing them. By returning to the Gi we have upped certain areas of contact in regular classes once more and this has fed through to better student performance in simulation training.
It is important to me that students understand our methodology and training rationale, as I think that understanding how and why we do something one way and accepting it plays a valuable part in technique absorption. As a result there is a fair amount of discussion in our teaching methodology rather than just seeing and feeling, and almost all our gradings have a written element where students are asked to demonstrate a working knowledge of some of the fundamental elements underlying our approaches in addition to the paired drills, solo technique performance and padwork.
When I first started teaching DART Karate the syllabus used the ‘original’ fifteen Shotokan Kata of the Kyohan, and I still train the majority of those as part of personal research projects and teach most of them in the Practical Karate Association’s Shotokan clubs. Due to the depth at which we were exploring and using the forms I later cut the syllabus kata down to the Heian and Empi and taught these in the common order. In early 2006 I decided to reorder our syllabus giving precedence to core skills and prioritizing drills according to HAOV frequency. This made a nonsense of using the existing kata order in relation to the application drills we were then doing, and as a result of this, and the fact that our methodology has morphed many of our drills, I stopped teaching kata for a number of years to my DART students. The lack of kata did have a detrimental effect on student basics and like the Ashihara and Enshin Karate systems I codified a number of our drills and principles into solo mnemonics (kata) to give students a way of focusing in their private practice. DART Karate students now learn and practice three kata: two of which are my own (and are based on our drills and principles) and one of which is the common core Karate form Seisan.
What do you see as the future for karate kata bunkai training (Pinan Flow) and DART?
The Pinan Flow System is the result of the Heian Flow System having been subjected to greater testing with our increased multiple person and scenario armoured full contact training over the years and my own training to correct weakness I had perceived in my own repertoire. There is an increased focus on stand-up grappling responses and escapes and controls at clinch range and the content is significantly different. There is a greater overlap between DART Karate and the Pinan Flow System than there was between DART Karate as it is now and its past Heian Flow System Drills, but the majority of DART’s drills have evolved and coalesced in a manner that means the Heian/Pinan Kata are no longer appropriate drilling material to reinforce DART Karate’s core approaches. By contrast the Pinan Flow System forms the core (along with Naihanchi Shodan and Seisan) of the Practical Karate Association’s Shotokan clubs’ training.
The bunkai that I teach to karateka is not limited to the Pinan Flow System, but the experience I have gained through years of solo study of kata and studying violent crime and running as realistic violent event simulation training as I can devise have affected my overall approaches to kata and traditional martial arts. I am more than happy to look at a form that I’ve been shown and say “I don’t know this form, and I don’t know for certain what its originator(s) may have intended to convey, but I recognise this move as not only X but also Y and Z that can be effectively applied in the following contexts.” or “I can see this application, but more importantly this type of movement teaches this principle which is important in…”. I use the Pinan Flow System as a way of helping my Shotokan students as well as karateka in other systems get much more from their current kata study. I’m excited to say that all four volumes of the Pinan Flow System have now been published in paperback and ebook and have had a very positive reception. I’ve already taught the drills to students in Europe and the UK and will be taking the material over to Canada later this year. The Pinan Flow System has so far proved very popular world-wide and I am enjoying travelling to teach it and meeting many amazing martial artists and making new friends across the globe.
It is encouraging to see that there is a growing movement towards effective bunkai teaching for kata in the karate world. If the kata are being kept purely for ‘show’ and the core focus of the combative or martial side of training is focused on good quality effective competitive kumite then that is not an issue, and I see that as a part of the modern Japanese based karate scene; but where clubs choose not to participate in any form of effective sport karate kumite but then don’t make use of the deep reservoir of effective training drills coded in their kata to provide some good defensive skills for their students, I feel something important is missing. I hope that with the wealth of information and skilled instructors out there, in twenty-five years finding clubs that don’t teach good bunkai will be the exception not the norm.
DART Karate is slowly growing in terms of the number of people that practice it regularly. It’s difficult to know for certain how we’ll develop as it does depend to a large degree on how many students choose to progress to being good instructors, how many want to run their own clubs and where they choose to live and work. We’ve a number of potential Dan grades this year and some very promising up and coming Kyu grade students, so the future looks bright.
John thank you for taking the time to follow up on your first interview, which can be read here.
John Titchen Practical Karate
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Last edited by Simon; 09-May-2016 at 01:03 PM.
Nice interview John - thanks in particular for the mention!
Although it was a long time ago, believe it or not I continue to work on the 'Embu' style drills that were presented to you that day in 2004! Somewhat similar to yourself, they now have a heavy influence from my journeys in occupational self-protection and physical restraint practice using gear and high intensity.
The original design brief for the kata-based composite drills and related practices remains unchanged and although I haven't reviewed your material, I guess it would be interesting to cross-reference one day!
My more recent insights have come from studying with long-time practitioners of Taika Oyata's Ryukyu Kempo art and the changes that have come about in my practice have been substantial. Like night and day compared to the 'plodding' of much modern Karate.
I am teaching some seminars on these concepts and drills at the end of April - would you care to help me get the word out? I would really appreciate it.
Practicing Ryukyu Kempo and Kobudo in Surrey UK
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