For Spring in the South 2017, Eli Cohen, godan and head of Israel Shotokan, traveled from Israel to North Carolina to lead 50 Shotokan Karate of America members from throughout the United States and beyond in an exceptional series of practices. We are fortunate to have an excellent record of this weekend through the photographs and videos produced by our member, Simone Degan, as well as an article by Cynthia Hsu, former member of the Chapel Hill dojo, currently practicing with the Philadelphia dojo (see below).
Spring in the South 2017 with Eli Cohen
At this year’s Spring in the South, the 38th such event, Eli Cohen, head of Israel Shotokan, began his lesson the moment we bowed in, showing us two correct ways to rise after rei. One was to use the balls of our feet to push upward against the ground. The better strategy, he said, was to bring the right foot forward so that it was next to the left knee. In both cases, the most important thing was to avoid tilting the torso forward, instead leading with your tanden, or hara, as Ambassador Cohen referred to it.
Warm-ups began by moving forward and back: left foot in (what juniors like myself sometimes describe incorrectly as “jumping”). This was where Eli Cohen imparted his second piece of advice: when performing this warm-up, make sure that both of your knees face forward, in the direction that you are moving.
When we stopped moving and planted our feet, Eli Cohen emphasized the importance of having our two feet rooted to the ground, connected to the earth. He next asked us to reach our arms out to our sides, as if we were extending “the palm of one hand toward Israel and the palm of the other hand towards Japan.” He reminded us to focus on the elbows, not the hands, and to avoid straightening our elbows all the way to prevent our shoulders from rising. He also told us that when we were inhaling we should not consciously breathe through the nose or mouth, but rather expand our abdomen and let the air fill in the vacuum.
In addition to the legs, arms, and hara, he also asked us to take note of the vital point on the top of the head, located just between our ears. This represents our connection to heaven. To find this point and determine its appropriate orientation relative to the rest of our body, he asked us to grab our ears, then lift our hands up as high as they would go, and drop them; we repeated this several times. At the conclusion of this exercise, he told us that we should try to maintain the current position and orientation of our heads relative to our bodies throughout the remainder of the practices.
Our first few exercises emphasized this connection to the ground and heaven. We each worked with a partner who would hold the ankle of the (back) leg as we moved forward in front stance. We then repeated the exercise with the partner applying resistance to the back thigh, the shoulders, the head, and then, lastly, the belt. In one last iteration, the partner alternated the body parts to which resistance was applied. During this last exercise, we focused on remembering the feeling of moving forward with our hara (as if someone were pulling on our belt), even while our partner was restraining another part of the body.
We incorporated this exercise into a Heian Shodan practice. We formed groups of three, in which one person performed the kata while the other two held back different parts of the kata performer’s body. In the subsequent exercise, we gathered in groups of four. This time, three people “stuck like gnats” to those making kata, leaning, sitting and pushing so as to force them to move with the hara to overcome their combined weight.
We next reiterated the lesson in two different contexts. Eli Cohen asked us to step up and down the bleachers, once again emphasizing that we should be careful not to tilt our torso forward as we moved, instead focusing on the hara and exhaling as we moved. Returning to the gym floor, we practiced implementing this technique while moving both backwards and forwards (one technique in each direction at a time). Then, for several minutes, he asked us to move in any of the four directions, as if we were creating our own kata in a box with dimensions that were a single stride in each direction.
We were asked why we thought there were only five black belt levels and five Heian katas. It was explained that these represented the five basic elements: earth, water, fire, air, and emptiness/void. The exercises we had just done were to teach us how to incorporate the element of earth into our practice.
To introduce the concept of water, Eli Cohen demonstrated how we should practice incorporating this concept into Heian Shodan, moving around at an almost frenetic pace, not pausing for any of the turns or even at the kiai. He emphasized, “This is not the Heian Shodan you know. This is a new Heian Shodan.” We practiced both Heian Shodan and Bassai in the “water” style. During the practicing of Bassai, he reminded us that when water approaches a wall, it doesn’t actually stop before turning around, but rather bounces back. He also reminded us of the importance of turning with our hips when we change direction, instead of having our hips go one way while our arms go another.
After practicing kata, we gathered again in groups of four or five. This time, one person had to defend against a ring of attackers (who were at ma distance) by flowing around them. In the next exercise, the attackers were still in a ring, but only one was permitted to attack at a time, while the defender was not allowed to counterattack, only block.
Lastly, we repeated the practice of constantly moving while maintaining our “connection to heaven” within the confines of an imaginary box. This time, the box was more than a single step, allowing us to flow in a single direction for several techniques at a time.
As we concluded our “water” lesson, Eli Cohen reminded us: “It’s important to maintain your connection with the ground. If we lost it, we’d become birds, although we’ll do that in a few minutes.”
For the next exercise, we practiced a variation of ippon-gumite. Defenders held their arms out to their sides, reminiscent of how one might imitate airplanes or birds as a child. When attacked, the defender would pivot, swiveling the arms and hips so that they rotated over the attacking arm in a helicopter-like fashion, thereby blocking the oncoming oizuki. In subsequent exercises, the defender continued turning and delivering a series of counterattacks, for instance, an uraken to the kidney or the back of the head, turning in circles around the attacker in a series of seven or eight steps. We then applied this circling strategy to grabbing our opponents to push them off balance.
We also practiced spinning in a two-kick series of movements consisting of a crescent kick then a spinning back kick, and followed this with nidan-geri practice. Finally, finishing the “air” lesson by practicing Heian Shodan again, but this time incorporating tobi-kome into every move.
“Imagine holding an electrostatic field in your hands. Rising up through your arms. Settling into your hara. Feel the heat building up like a volcano. Then when you feel it bubbling up, let it explode.” We first practiced incorporating the element of fire while transitioning from shizen-tai to oizuki. We did this without an external count, instead letting ourselves feel the heat building up and exploding (and thus attacking at our own pace). In practicing ippon-gumite with partners, we tried to maintain this feeling of rising heat and then exploding.
To capture the intensity of fire without actually hurting each other, we next practiced a variation of ippon-gumite where one person would “explode” by grabbing the other person by the lapel, while the defender performed a block with both hands (similar to the move in Heian Yodan).
Lastly, we practiced all five Heian katas with the feeling of fire. We then practiced Heian Shodan one more time, this time emphasizing the feeling of water everywhere except at the kiai, where we concentrated on exploding with fire.
The last of the three practices, on Sunday morning, was devoted to teaching us about the “void.” We began by practicing Heian Shodan with our eyes closed, only opening them when we changed directions. Next, we practiced the entire kata without opening our eyes.
We followed this practice with three different variants of ippon-gumite. First, defenders had their eyes closed; then attackers closed their eyes; and lastly, both attackers and defenders kept their eyes closed.
“How many senses do we have?” Eli Cohen asked us. “Six. Five of them are senses we know (sight, sound, smell, touch, taste), but there’s a sixth sense. When you sense something threatening and react, it might be the sound or the touch, but you’re not sure exactly how you knew something might be threatening. This is because you are reacting to the sixth sense.”
“When you face an opponent, you let yourself be dead inside. This enables you to not think about when to attack, but instead imagine yourself in the shoes of the opponent. Rather than sensing and reacting to the opponent’s movements, you instead sense and react to the opponent’s decision. You can sense any moment of weakness or lapse in concentration that your opponent experiences, and that is when you attack. This is how to implement the sensation of emptiness.”
Eli Cohen gave his final lesson at the very conclusion of the last (third) practice, after we had bowed out. He reminded us the importance of hara one last time, describing how we should bow not by bending the head or the shoulders but rather by keeping the torso straight and originating the movement from the hara. He demonstrated this as he bowed down to the other seniors, and thus concluded the final practice.
For a junior such as myself, it was truly an honor and a privilege to spend the weekend with Eli Cohen, learning of such a unique, comprehensive, but well balanced perspective on the different elements we can incorporate into our practice. I, like many other Spring in the South participants, am very grateful to Eli Cohen for taking the time to travel and instruct us, as well as to the wonderful Chapel Hill dojo for organizing and hosting this event. I look forward to attending the Chapel Hill Shotokan dojo’s 40th anniversary next year.
Cynthia Hsu (nikyu), Philadelphia Dojo