My Journey to Koryu Kata

When Sakamoto-Sensei came to Canada in 2000, he did a demonstration and for the first time I got to see the koryu kata being performed. These are old style or ancient kata once performed in Okinawa and often with Chinese roots. I was really impressed by his performance. I had never seen anyone move like that before. It changed what I wanted to get from my karate training. It put an image in my head that I knew I wanted to attain, though I didn’t know how to get to it.

Matt Mannerow performing Tensho kata.

It was also made clear to me that I couldn’t be taught this technique. I had to find my own way to it.

I’m just in the beginning stages of trying to learn the koryu technique. I know that my understanding and kata will evolve with time; I am only taking my first baby steps. The koryu technique is not hidden; it exists in the kihon and kata available to everyone, if you know how to look for it. You cannot reach it by training alone; you have to bring the right understanding to bear.

Sakamoto-Sensei has said that you have to train in Sanchin kata every day to reach the higher technique. Later he amended this and said you also need to train in Nihanchi, Seisan and Neiseishi every day – the combination of these three kata are found in every other kata you do. He has also said to me if you understand Kusanku and Ryushan then Tensho kata is easy.

The way I see it, to reach higher techniques takes constant training of the mind, body and spirit. These things combined with the right feeling lead to a natural evolution of technique. This technique will be unique to me, since my understanding is different than my teachers’.

Matt in 2004 and 2014. Practise of Sanchin kata with a standing Zen feeling has changed the nature of his technique.

As I write this, I’m 36 years old. It will be interesting to see what changes I go through in the next 10 years. Here are some points to consider as I go on my journey:

  1. If you don’t try you will never succeed.
  2. Your technique has to become internal and less a matter of external force. If it doesn’t, you won’t go beyond Kusanku kata. For my internal development, I have been practicing Sanchin Kata and investigating standing Zen (in fact, I think Sanchin is standing Zen). And I’ve tried to take the feelings I’ve gotten from these things and apply them to the rest of my karate. You can’t just breathe one way as you practice Sanchin and then do it differently in everything else. You must use tanden breathing all the time.
  3. Once your technique starts to become internal, you need to work on delivering the power from your tanden like a shockwave. The energy releases into your opponent and then goes back into you again, so you are ready to launch the next technique. This all happens very quickly, in milliseconds, Sakamoto-Sensei calls this a tanden circuit. I’m working on doing this more efficiently and becoming more explosive.
  4. There are no absolutes. The technique is always changing, so don’t get locked into a box. There’s no limit to what your body can do and the power you can create.
  5. You need to relax, but it’s relaxation with a coiled purpose, like a snake ready to strike.
  6. Even though you are using internal technique, your external body is still involved. You must maintain your body structure or the technique will not work.
  7. The koryu kata are a combination of everything you learned from Nihanchi to Ryushan, done with the right feeling.

A few points on each of the koryu kata I’m working on:

Ryushan teaches you how to vibrate your tanden; the energy goes in waves into your opponent and then comes back to you again, getting you ready for another technique. A few years ago I was doing Ryushan and discovered that my body started to feel like a complete unit, so that the energy went into the ground and back out again, in a pulsing motion. My technique started to use every ounce of my body power and not just my hips. My hip actions started to become smaller, but their power increased.

Tensho Kata by Morio Higaonna-Sensei, Okinawan Goju Ryu Karate.

Tensho means “revolving hands,” “rotating palms” or “turning palms,” but I believe that its spiralling technique is created in your tanden. You cannot just copy this kata’s technique, you have to create it one the inside with your understanding. You also have to develop a 360-degree awareness, and not just to the front and back. The Ryusei and Goju-Ryu versions of Tensho are drastically different Chojun Miyagi-Sensei, founder of Goju-Ryu Karate-do, created their Tensho, where did our version come from? Sakamoto-Sensei said that Chitose-Sensei, the founder of Chito-Ryu, learned the version done in Ryusei from Higaonna-Sensei, who was both his and Miyagi-Sensei’s teacher.

Unsu means Cloud Hands. I think the basis of Unsu is Nihanchi kata, enabling your body to “float” through you opponent’s attack and delives a powerful counterstrike. Itss true power is hidden in the softness of the movements. I’m just starting to explore this kata and I’m not qualified to really elaborate more than that.

After Unsu there are Seichin and Hoen kata. Then there is a “bridge” kata and five more koryu kata. When you combine these 10 kata, you have Gungfu-no-kata.

So I have a lot of exciting training to look forward to.

—Matt Mannerow is an instructor with Grey-Bruce Ryusei Karate.