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Isshinryu's Heart and Soul - Seisan Kata
Victor Smith

Seisan is where the art of Isshinryu begins, in my opinion it is the best answer for any layer of attack, and become the essence of our system mastery.  After all it should be the kata where we've spent the most time over the years, and that time should show in our performance.

In many systems Seisan is an advanced study not a beginning, but apparently in the roots of Okinawa's kata development there were those instructors who also began teaching with Seisan. Seisan also apparently is among Okinawa's karate's oldest kata.

Beginning Movement

I began studying Seisan my 2nd week in Mr. Lewis' dojo in Salisbury, Md. The class after I began that study, Mr. Lewis had one of his off cycle nights, where the normal class didn't flow and something different, something unique, something special occurred. Immediately after warm-ups Mr. Lewis called on us to practice our kata, and for the remainder of the two hours simply stayed back and watched our performance.

All I knew was Left Foot forward, left side block right reverse punch, step and reverse punch and then step and reverse punch. So for the remainder of the two hours that's what I did unceasingly. Mr. Lewis didn't use formal tests, but I don't doubt he was seeing who was working and who was loafing.  Of course I was a raw a beginner as existed, with no obvious physical ability to start with, and with
sweat pouring down my face I really don't know what anyone else was doing.

In time I did get Seisan, and then Seiunchin and then Naihanchi and so forth.

Variation on a Theme

After maybe 3 or 4 months of Seisan study, one of the seniors took me aside and corrected my form. As I was initially shown, when doing the kata, with each direction change I was moving further and further to one side, and not staying on the opening line of the kata. Well at this point I was now shown how to adjust my stepping during the turns, a less `perfect' technique, and the adjustment kept my kata working the same line as the opening.

Nobody explained it but I came to realize once I had developed some technique my execution was advanced to a smaller technique execution. A gradual movement from large technique to smaller technique.  This wasn't done with each kata, but its usage in Seisan made a lasting impact on many layers.

The method of instruction was you jumped in. You began kumite the 2nd week, and got your butt kicked by a young woman 10 years younger than you were, but then she was a green belt and you knew nothing. But you became all green belts target practice until your technique allowed you to strike back.

When Charlie Murray began a youth karate program for the kids of his Church, Seisan was where we began them, and later when I took my program into the Scranton Boys Club, it was identical to the way I was taught.

Negative Thoughts

About a half year after my Sho-dan I attended an open tournament in central Pennsylvania.  I placed with my Chatan Yara No Sai, but competing with Seisan I didn't do anything special.  One of the judges was an Isshinryu senior (and as every black belt in Isshinryu, everywhere was my senior then, I won't discuss who further) and after the competition I approached him with "Sensei, could you tell me how I could make my kata better."

Yes I had some idea of the way the open martial arts world worked, but I had no idea what existed within the Isshinryu world. I was training myself, and thought I was making an honest effort to try and learn, and who better to ask than somebody in Isshinryu.

What I got was extreme muttering, "I've never understood where some instructors got their kata.", and realized he was making light of Mr. Lewis' kata that I was trained in, by the nature of his comment, not my execution of it. It was the start of what I discovered were layers of extreme animosity within the Isshinryu community, towards others in Isshinryu.  [Of course this isn't everyone, but we're all aware that it does exist.]

I was green and ate the comment, but never forgot it. I've always followed my instructor's basic attitude of politeness, but never would I pay that individual any serious attention again. I knew he studied in this country and my instructor trained in Okinawa. What an interesting contrast.

Shortly after that event, at a different tournament a very Senior Goju instructor gave me a very low score. I approached him later in the day inquiring what I could do better and he began an almost automatic rant on how Isshinryu had no stance.  In context his students all had incredibly dynamic, strong stances.  I have strong suspicion why so many seniors in other systems look down on Isshinryu (not necessarily their students who I competed with and against), but
I wasn't there in the earlier days to prove my suspicion. So I began to closely watch others stance work in all systems. And guess what? The better the karateka, the better the stances was becoming universal in my eyes.

I took those comments to heart and began to watch the best in Isshinryu I knew, Tom Lewis, when the chance arose. I saw how precise his stances were.  Nobody had taken the time to point out that very technical detail to me in my training. And I no longer needed anyone to do so again.

And by thinking about them my own stances grew stronger. Several years later Charles, home on leave, remarked how strong my stances were growing. Well it wasn't by accident.

Technical point, the physical mechanisms are far more involved than just the stance. It is the use of the entire body, its alignment and one's abdominal area, that adds to the stance itself.  Much of my vocabulary is self-made as I worked my way through these developing principles. But as I began to work on this myself, I also began to correct my student's stances more closely, too. 

Counter Theme II

Thinking about this piece, brought this incident back into my mind.  I remember the point he made. I have no video of my instructor from those days, but my Seisan was what I was shown. The past few days I've pulled out other references, and my instructors kata was identical to what Charles Murray ran (and I do have on video), And further looking at Bohan Sensei's notes, his kata was the same as I did too (as is Mr. Harrill's).

And the comment, well it's not worth repeating, except as a general incident in my studies. I later would watch him compete in Masters forms divisions many times, and he never bettered Mr. Lewis when I was watching. Want to guess which kata Mr. Lewis was using in those divisions?  Of course it was Seisan, backed by his long hard practice.

Those five years teaching in Scranton, Seisan remained the opening kata exercise, but during those years I touched many other systems, and as I specialized in teaching youth, in a small school setting (class size has never exceeded 25 and most frequently is less in 25 years).  I came to realize I wasn't interested in youth perfection but youth moving forward towards skill.

Variations on a Theme

In those outside studies I ran into various versions of Seisan.

With Carl Long I experienced Seisan from the point of view of Shimabuku Eizo. It's only in my memory today, but it wasn't terribly different.  Carl did have an interesting variation, at some point where we were using the step across front kick, at that point each time in the kata he was  using the jumping front kick, as an advanced drill using Seisan Kata.  While it would easily fit into Isshinryu's to do the same its one of those details I never got around to playing with, in part because I eventually used Carl's Annaku which also has a jumping front kick in my students studies.

With Tris Sutsrisno I studied Shotokan's Hangetsu Kata.  Their practice actually had a section that could be done either way, turn right or turn left, and end up in the same spot of the kata.  Also among the many layers of technique I studied with him, I did get the opening bunkai his system used for Hangetsu's opening. True to his form, the applications were more kakushite, or hidden hand, than straight kata technique application.

Further Theme Studies

As I was teaching youth I came to realize I wasn't really in a hurry to develop them. There was no tactical need to do so in the communities I lived in, and I was starting to realize you really don't get any kata in a short time. Aside: in time I realized you really didn't have a kata till you were running it for 10 or more years. That doesn't mean you couldn't do it well, but until you practiced it long enough that you truly relaxed and your center drops because your various muscle groups are no longer working against themselves, and your body moves through the technique more naturally,  you really haven't gotten it.

I came to believe there was no short cut to 10 years, either. Then watching the youth and in particular how they performed the 2nd row of Seisan, not cleanly executing the technique as I wished it, it occurred to me why not make a modification to something easier for them to understand. The choice I used, decades later I was jokingly accused by my friend the  Eagle Claw instructor, that I was using Eagle Claw in the form, but this happened before my minor Eagle Claw studies.

Instead of the two hands performing a simultaneous outer open middle block and low open block, I modified it for beginners to grab with the one hand, then outer open middle block with the other and finish with the first hand in its low open block. This is only an opening step, and by a students mid kyu ranks, their form is modified to the original values. While it seems foreign, it does do what I wish. My
only goal is working for perfect (at many levels) Seisan performance by Sho Dan, and this training step became a beginning tool in the way I teach Seisan.

A New Beginning

When I moved to Derry, NH, and began my program anew, I took the weight of my studies and added several new kata exercises before Seisan.  As I was teaching students part time, I wanted to slow down their pace of learning (to work on building better skills), yet keep things interesting and logical in their skill development.

Kata was a central focus of my kyu program, and what I did was add Fyugata Sho (Matsubayshi ryu) and Annaku (Shorin ryu) as training steps leading up to the study of Seisan. Those kata's techniques were slightly altered to Isshinryu stances, blocks and strikes, but those two kata became a logical succession of technique development for my program.

But those were skill-building sessions, till I was ready to begin their Isshinryu study with Seisan.  They and several other additions, allowed me to restructure the training time to Sho-dan examination from 7 to 10 years, but allow training to be interesting, and work to keep building stronger Isshinryu instruction in my program. I've had more than enough successes to know this works for us.

[I don't mean to imply those who don't follow this path are wrong. We're just on different paths, but I believe our real goal, developing skilled and good black belts remains constant.]

All this occurred more than 20 years ago.  With the reset of my program with additional theme studies to supplement the kyu student's Isshinryu, my efforts for advanced study began to grow.

The next direction

My youth program now fixed in its direction, the new group of dan's I developed began to do very incredible things with their Isshinryu dynamics.  I observed further and began to see a further outgrowth of Stance development. I had also developed an adult program, developed Dan's in that program and began to attract a few other good dan's to our program. This gave me a group to `play' with.

The result was a more dynamic use of stepping and body movement. I came to see the crescent step as the act of compressing one's movement into the center and then exploding from that center into the next stance.  I used Seisan as the theme study in this motion, developing each movement first drawing into the center and then outward. I came to see the timing as 2/3's of the movement for compression and 1/3 of the movement for explosion. I didn't see a constant speed movement or stepping as the goal. [Again there's far more involved than just the stepping.]

I also began to see how natural breathing was part of this controlling mechanism. As I chose to break the kata down into technique sequences, it was a controlled exhalation during the execution of a technique sequence (either one or many movements) and  a controlled inhalation between the technique sequences.

This was not for the kyu program at that time, it was dan study. The goal of using Seisan study for this was to build a template that would eventually be shifted to all our studies. And in time that is the direction we've moved.

We're not perfect, but this template of movement began to become a signature of what we're teaching, and over the next decade, began gently to be incorporated even into the youth program, in some details.

Whether this was an outgrowth of my own tai chi practice, becoming more attuned to my bodies mechanics, or simply from close observation I can't say.

But the personal goal to take kata and develop energy that could be then placed in a response technique against an attack seemed worthy, then and today.

The initial applications

It was also at this time, with close to 10 years studying applications  from the Sutrisno system of Shotokan (around 1990 or so) , I became interested in being sure I could address his capabilities with the Isshinryu system alone. And that's a big order because he taught and executed literally thousands of techniques from his karate, aikido and tjimande.

So where did I begin, well with Seisan Kata.

I started by looking at basic application of the first movement against a template I had developed, what I thought of as my unlocking principle. This was that a technique should be able to work for interior and exterior lines of defense. So I'd take an application and see if I could use it against a right punch, a right grab, a right kick, then a left punch, a left grab and a left kick. Found often a technique worked everywhere, yet occasionally some didn't very well.

The difference was once I found a valid application for a kata technique, I normally stopped with that theme.

But that opening section of Seisan, I began to look harder. I came to see how I could take the side block and reverse punch and use that as an entry for almost the entire Aikido locking vocabulary I had studied.

Then I discovered by redefining a technique stopping at different points, you had entirely different applications.  That a kata techniques following step could be a sweep to down an opponent and much more.  Some discussion on this can be found at my website .

So these themes began to inter-twine, from wringing more energy out of a technique to unlocking its application potential.

Other discoveries were tied to personal study on the use of turning as a weapon, itself, and eventually the understanding that 180 degree kata turns seemed best designed as counters against rear grabs.

Nova Exploding Brightly

It was 1994 that fireworks began in my studies. 

First I had recovered from previous bouts of arthritis and was training with a passion. That spring I competed at a tournament going all out, trying to fight getting older.  I competed in masters forms (with tai chi chaun) , black belt forms (with N. Preying Mantis) and black belt weapons (shi shi no kon no dai), breaking a tie with my Seisan kata, too. It's great to have a fall back that you're great in, too.

Later that year I parted training with Tris Sutrisno, yet the desire to make my Isshinryu stronger than his incredible arts didn't diminish. Further keys were unlocked when Ernest Rothrock began to share more information about my tai chi chaun with a distinct set of explanations on correct body alignment increasing power.

It was no longer an arbitrary issue, do so because your instructor says so. Instead I can prove why the original training is correct, and when you are or aren't set correctly. This isn't in words, but up close and personal, and proof that the student can't deny.

And when I took his explanations and applied them to my Isshinryu with the students, they fit like a glove. All of which enhanced our earlier efforts. We now had objective proof when things were right. As a side benefit, I now had a very objective way to judge anyone's performance, not even needing knowledge of their system.  Simply by seeing their body alignment in their technique execution, you can see when they are more or less effective.

It's Never Over, the Best Comes Next

Now when I say I was having fun with my Seisan, that's not more than
the beginning.

The next year I first met Sherman Harrill. What can I say, the efforts I made on kata application became nothing but an opening movement to understand what he was sharing.

I became like a kid in a candy store, with a whole lot of Seisan going on.

So more training, continual refinement of what we wanted kata to become, applications and more applications. That must be the end of the Seisan saga?

Nope, then came the internet.

Hello Joe-san

Well I entered the internet age, began discussing with many good people, and found many most willing to share with me and I in turn.

One of the fascinating studies I did was on the nature of underlying structure binding variations of kata together. I created the word "Seisan-ness" to explain that it may be possible to understand the original kata, if you explore the range of Seisan kata variations, looking for their common dominators.

My study looked at Isshinryu, Shorin Ryu, Goju Ryu, Ueichi Ryu, Tomari, Shotokan and other Seisan variations. While my conclusion isn't scientific, I did feel all of the versions share a heritage
with a common source, they share Seisan-ness, IMO.  You just have to look past the unique differences.

Then several shared concepts that really enhanced my Seisan understanding.

I believe it was Rich Kordel who shared the concept of replacement stepping. That's where you begin your crescent step bringing your foot alongside the other foot, but instead of stepping forward with that foot, you step back with the other foot, and end up with the right stance. It enables you to do Seisan Kata almost in one spot, and also shares an entirely different dynamic of technique to apply.

Then Len Scalafani shared how Seisan technique could be replace with Tai Chi technique. Intriguing me I started with his suggestions, and some of my own knowledge and crafted a Tai Chi Seisan. And it is a true representation of tai chi technique, using Seisan's pattern.

Not that I taught it to my karate students. Tai Chi, IMO, doesn't mix well with karate. But the exercise was worthy.  A year or so later I was able to demonstrate it to Sherman at a clinic in Western Mass., and he was interested because of the wide number of empty hand techniques.  We never had time to pursue its opportunities together.

Concluding Movement

If you're thinking what kind of alien is Victor Smith, first if you watch my student's Seisan Kata, you won't find it alien at all. Nor are we perfect, though I'd rather have that as a goal if I had to pick one. But what you'd find is a theme that runs throughout their training, to try and craft better and better movement control, and eventually work to apply that into their defensive opportunities.

For myself, well Seisan remains a personal favorite. Following Charlie Murray's advice that for the first 20 years your training is your instructors, and after 20 years its yours, I have my own personal Seisan, based on my own choice of body dynamics and my own choice of application potential within those dynamics.

But then I'm still young and learning. I'm sure there's much more to come.



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