Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Goju-Ryu [剛柔流] or the Hard-Soft Style

"The way of inhaling and exhaling is hardness and softness." [From the poem Hakku Kenpo]

Goju-Ryu [剛柔流] or the Hard-Soft style is a traditional Okinawan style of Karate. It is unique for its blend of both hard techniques, such as closed-hand strikes and kicks, with soft techniques such as circular blocks, locks and even throws. Goju-Ryu is also characterized by an emphasis on correct breathing as well as body strengthening and conditioning drills. Many partner exercises exist in Goju-Ryu to help build strength and sensitivity.
Karate, in its origins, entered Japan from China by way of Okinawa. The Okinawan isles served as a center of trade between the two countries and several styles of Karate were developed and practiced there as a result. Goju-Ryu has its beginnings with Kanryo Higashiana, a native of Naha who spent some years training various styles of boxing while living in China. When he returned to Naha in 1882, he founded a dojo characterized by its mix of hard and soft techniques. Higashiana’s most prominent student, Chojun Miyagi, decided upon the name Goju-Ryu in 1929.

While visiting friends in the south of Japan, I was invited to train at the Shidokai dojo and experience some Goju-Ryu training. An hour trainride out from Kitakyushu followed by an hour’s drive brought us to the very remote dojo in Iizuka, Fukuoka Prefecture. We were greeted warmly by Kanari Sensei, an 82-year-old man with an eight degree black belt (in the photo, he is the man standing to my left). As Kanari Sensei invited us into his office, he pulled open his refrigerator an offered us all drinks. After we shared refreshments and introduced ourselves—there were two of us visiting the dojo for the first time—we were inviting to train.

In a room full of 3rd-degree, fourth-degree, and fifth-degree black belts, it’s hard to know where to begin. AS this was a special occasion, however, and Kanari Sensei knew I practiced Judo, he encouraged me to train with another member of the dojo, Jim Baskind, who has practiced Brazilian Jujitsu quite extensively. Jim and I spent an hour “rolling” (the Jujitsu term for Newaza) and he was kind enough to pass on some advice on strategy and positioning while fighting on the ground. Judoka—at least your normal Judoka—rarely spend time fighting on the ground and the knowledge you can gain from a Brazilian Jujitsu fighter is invaluable. AS we discussed BJJ—primarily while he was choking me—two important ideas stuck out in my mind: ground fighting is like a game of chess in which you patiently wait for your opponent to make a mistake and, in another sense, its like mountain climbing where you spend time looking for foot and hand holds.

After a short coffee break mandated by Kanari Sensei, I began practicing with Quint Oga-Baldwin. Together we worked on “Sensitivity Drills” known as Kakie. These drills involve close contact grappling with an opponent and focus on sensing an opponent’s intention through tension and movement. I will dedicate a separate entry to Kakie as it’s something I quite enjoy.
Finally, Nonomiya Sensei—the fifth degree black belt who is second-highest ranked in the dojo after Inari Sensei himself—grabbed me and practiced breaking an opponent’s grip. We began by discussing how Judo players grip and hold their opponent’s gi during randori and Nonomiya Sensei offered me his advice on breaking balance using movements from Goju-Ryu.

At the end of the night, I commented to my friend Lyn, “Wow, that was the most relaxed dojo I have ever seen; people come, they train hard, and the sensei had no problem that I spent time practicing Jujitsu when this is technically a Karate dojo.”

Lyn’s response was simple, but I think really expresses the truth of the situation: “Kanari Sensei is 82 years old; he has an eighth degree black belt. He is pretty confident in his skills and students and he has nothing to worry about.”

---Note: also training with us was Mario McKenna; if you want to read the blog of an extremely well-respected and well-informed budoka, check out his blog at:

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