Spring in the South 2019 was led by Ray Berry (Godan). We are again 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.
I’ve always loved how Chapel Hill dojo’s annual Spring in the South event allows juniors like me to form a uniquely personal impression of a senior who might otherwise seem like an inaccessible legend. This year, I was especially grateful, as well as nostalgic, for the unique privilege of practicing under Ray Berry’s tutelage. The last Special Training held at Randolph-Macon College, Ashland, VA, in 2012 (where Ray is head of the Department of the Arts) had been my first, and his way of explaining creative insights, romanticizing the history of our tradition, and infusing humor into rich storytelling helped lay the foundation for how I approached my subsequent years of practice. In addition to that Special Training, Ray and I also share an affiliation with the Chapel Hill dojo. In the first few years after Larry Lazarus founded the dojo in April, 1978, Ray made the 60-mile drive from Greensboro, NC, to Chapel Hill for the first kyu test in November of that year. The memories shared between him and members of the Chapel Hill dojo over the intervening years, particularly in the support of winter Special Trainings and trainings with Daniel Chemla in Ashland, made the event especially heartwarming. Nidan Nora Favorov described to me how Ray had been present at her very first kyu test almost 40 years ago. Ray also joked that he and Larry, being “900 years old…have been married for 40 years”
Ray began the event by introducing himself and his philosophy for the weekend: “I’ve been hiding away for the last year and a half, healing from surgeries and things—those funny changes in your life that sort of drop out of the sky in front of our practice. I worked to try to get back to my practice, to come back to where I thought I used to be. It’s not possible. But I’ve come back in a lot of ways. In the process, I’ve discovered some things, and I’ve sort of blended them into a kind of design for this weekend. For those of you who have practiced with me before, you never really know what I’m going to do anyway, so don’t worry about it. There’s a good reason, or there’s a reason.”
He then introduced one of his key ideas for the weekend—the term uke—which we often use to refer to a partner but implies “to receive.” Blocks, such as ude-uke, can be thought of as a way of receiving the attack, which changes how we think about it. “I have sat behind the table and said ‘No’ during sandan promotionsbecause the uke let them do everything…It’s like that scene when The Hulk has got Loki and goes, ‘Whamwhamwhamwham!’ Loki wasn’t a good uke.” Ray continued, “How we receive something is an interesting thought. Something bad happens to you, or when you’re with a partner in kumite, how do you receive it?”
Ray next focusedon the concept of the natural stance. He asked us to stand in natural stance, and then asked, “Is that really the way you stand? Most of you will favor one side over the other, so one foot is slightly in front of the other. You don’t go up to your friend and say, ‘Hey, Mike, how are you doing?’ with your shoulders square to the front.”
To try to break us out of our “karate-style” natural stance into one that was more genuinely natural, our first exercise was to walk (naturally) across the floor, with our backs to him, and punch as soon as we heard him clap his hands. After several iterations of this, he told us, “From my perspective, it’s really cute how you guys are walking. Now that you’ve been primed to expect to punch, you’re starting to ‘karate it up’ because you’re expecting it.” He explained, “If you’re walking like this to get ready for the exercise, I’ve already got you…You were thinking, and it affected your walk. I could put you in red high heels and you would look a little better, but not by much. I could see as soon as the clap would happen, you would shift and then go into your technique. It would create a great technique. But in a real fight, we can’t do that; we don’t have time. When we see an opening, it’s only going to be open for a little bit, so we have to move right away. We can’t check our standing leg; we can’t worry about our back heel.”
Ray next focused on how relaxing (what Mr. Ohshima refers to as “taking the power off”) makes our technique stronger. He described how practicing Bassai while he was relearning how to relax had helped him heal, but also made him realize, “We tend to put too much strength in certain things that’s just not necessary.” He demonstrated the double-fisted jodan and gedan level punch from the second kiai in Bassai. “We have all this energy and this,” he said, gesturing to his torso, “becomes kind of skewed.” He emphasized that instead, the strength in the double-fisted punch comes from the stance, which provides stability while the arms remain light so that they can penetrate.
To teach us to keep our arms light and loose, Ray demonstrated a double-fisted punch with the fists parallel at chudan level (rather than at different heights as in Bassai). He described the feeling as being similar to holding a basketball to your chest and throwing it outwards and away from you with both your hands, “almost as if you are throwing something away.”
Ray also demonstrated how the double-fisted punch could help with initiating a punch in iai. He first recounted a strategy for initiating a punch described to him by Daniel Chemla: envision yourself standing behind you and walking into yourself, in order to trick yourself into thinking you are partway through an oizuki when your fist begins to move. Ray also described how another common approach to starting is to squeeze inward with the thighs, such that when one leg relaxes, it naturally moves forward. He mentioned that a drawback to this approach is the tendency to overextend the leading arm, which often results in the standing leg losing its connection to the floor. Ray demonstrated how lifting both arms simultaneously (rather than just punching with one side) would also cause the whole body to move forward. He also suggested lifting the leading leg as if doing a mini-kick, rather than sliding it, so that the standing leg could maintain its connection to the floor.
We then practiced executing the double-fisted punch (with our fists parallel), first by punching while moving in front stance, then by punching while starting from natural stance. He reminded us during the practice to concentrate on making our punches “explosive.”
For the final lesson in the first practice, Ray asked one of the godans to demonstrate the stance he would typically adopt in kumite. He pointed out the useful features of the stance: how the hands can block, grab, or strike readily, and how a kick could be initiated from the front leg without moving the back. “And what we’re going to do is we’re going to build on the standing form, and we’re going to use it. We want to start to look at what we can get out of the stance.” To do so, Ray gave us three exercises. First, moving in fighting stance while kicking with the front leg. Second, using the stance and front-leg kick followed by a maete. Third, performing the sequence of kick, maete, gyaku-zuki.
Ray opened the second practice with these words: “Kata is a part of our practice that comes to us sort of in reverse order. We never get to see a kata made. Some bunch of guys a long time ago taught self-defense, or they taught fighting, and they wanted to keep it in the family, and they codified it. All the kata that we practice have some origin. Lots of things are said about them, sometimes they’re right, sometimes they’re wrong, sometimes they’re not true with the sources, but it doesn’t make any difference.” He described how after practicing kata for a long time, we might instinctively use a technique in kumite that came out of our kata: “That’s kind of an amazing concept, that we’re excavating something that we really don’t know the origins of at all. There’s no videotape, none of that stuff. [It’s] really kind of an oral tradition and a physical tradition that goes with it.”
He continued to say, however, that “Kata, even though we try to make it stable, isn’t. Kata changes.” He described how kata might be modified depending on the individual practicing it, and cautioned, “Don’t get too tied up on how specific something is. I maintain that there is a spirit in each kata from that original guy. That’s what I value. [That guy] said, ‘I have been working for years on this, this is how this is, this is my best shot. This is my kata, how will you receive it?’ Look for the feeling and the spirit in the kata. Be vigilant about the spirit of the kata.”
To help us understand this, Ray described three “chunks.” “I’m trying not to say ‘thirds’ because ‘thirds’ means that they would be even. These will be uneven pieces and they will be uneven for each of you. You will have a different kind of shape for the first, second, and third pieces.”
He described the first chunk as, “The fundamentals that were underneath the kata.” Ray reminded us that he is a realist painter in addition to a karate practitioner, explaining, “When a realist painter looks at stuff, the first process is to simplify. You look for the biggest ideas there.” As an example, he described how he might squint at the crowd in front of him and produce a painting that is mostly white from people’s gis, with some red background from the gym wall and the yellow-brown of the floor. “One, two, three. I’ve already gotten everything broken down into three parts because I squinted and broke it down into the most topography I could see, one, two, three. There’s no detail, I don’t know who you are, but I have actually got 80 percent of the painting done. That’s abstraction for you, and abstraction means ‘to take out.’ Even though it’s not going to be an abstract work at the end, because eventually I am going to start putting in detail, the specific notes, such as ‘that’s a face’ or ‘that’s a belt.’”
Ray described how one might start “[seeing] the shapes” in Tekki Shodan, especially focusing on the dynamics of the movements and keeping everything light. He described Tekki Shodan as a kata that involves a lot of swinging from side to side and a feeling of proximity. He also emphasized the fact that the kata was designed with the idea of one’s back to a wall: “That can be a good thing. If I’ve got a wall behind me, you can’t sneak up on me. I can give all my attention to this.” He gestured to the 180-degree region in front of him and to the side. He emphasized staying relaxed and driving the movements with his tanden.
“When I put my feet on the floor, they’re soft. This is a problem for almost everybody here. When you walk, or move, or get ready, especially face somebody, your feet are kind of hard. That’s the way I’ll describe it. It’s not a very good description, but it’s sort of like you put a lot of tension in your feet. When that happens, it’s almost like you’re skating, just a little bit. And that means you can’t transfer quite as much energy to your opponent.”
He demonstrated the kata, emphasizing making it “smooth, dynamic, breathable.” He also discussed breathing, though he described it as more important to focus on the second philosophical “chunk.” He emphasized keeping the tanden strong by imagining it as a sphere and imagining your breathing as a string pulling along the technique. “Release yourself from specifics, relax yourself up here, and let this,” he pointed to his tanden, “be the engine of how you move. It’s almost like a bellows, so that you feel the energy go out this way, and this way.” He thrust his hips side to side. “There’s more to the kata, but that comes later. If we can be comfortable with that, the next piece we lay on top is going to lay on top of the big broad strokes that I have first.”
Ray described the second chunk as “[taking] what I’ve done and put[ting] edges on it. Emphasis, feeling.” He demonstrates, making a whipping sound to accentuate the movements. “You’re going to punctuate it a little bit.” We practiced Tekki Shodan while applying this idea several times, after which he explained, “The second chunk is very interesting for me because even though I felt like I was beneath my best level, I really couldn’t tell. It’s very close to what the kata would be if we were trying our best to make it perfect.
“That’s one of the reasons why I wanted to say, ‘Don’t think of thirds,’ because [between] the second and last slice, there’s not that much difference. I think the first part is important, because it gives a context of sitting on top.” He reminded us to focus less on the precise, idealized kata we were visualizing in our heads and more on the underlying foundation of the kata. “This business of ‘tightening’ is interesting. It’s not a single thing. It’s like when we move, it can change. If it’s too tight, that’s too much.”
The key idea of the third chunk is to refine important pieces of the kata and make them effective in application. Ray illustrated how having a large feeling when dropping down in the first move following yoi enables one to escape from opponents. “Dropping activates your hips. This is where a lot of the energy comes from, your breathing and your hips.” He showed that extending the right arm following this movement can be used as a strategy to loosen an opponent’s grip on us and then pull them down. He emphasized how useful an uraken to the front is when fighting in close proximity and reminded us to keep the movement light. He also showed that during the sweeping kicks, we should try to shift our weight with a motion similar to a glass of water sloshing back and forth. “It’s like an energy slosh. This is one of those big parts where we’re not sure what it’s doing; maybe it’s a sweep, maybe it’s an escape, [but] you don’t want to lose the initial energy because it’s sort of an energy creator. That’s part of the dynamic.” He demonstrated using that dynamic energy to fight opponents that are close and showed how our pulling hand can also be used to pull our opponents in toward us. He also described how the elbow strikes (enpi) are connected to energy from the tanden, and how, if practiced well, they can deliver a blow from any direction (up, down, or side to side). We spent some time with partners, working on the applications of different components of the kata. Ray reminded us that the kata is “like a menu, a resource for realistic stuff.”
After spending most of the practice on Tekki Shodan, we also studied how his “three chunk” principles can be applied to a very different kata, Heian Shodan. Ray described it as, “That first kata, the one that you do so many times, it’s like your home. You don’t have to think about it.” He once again illustrated the dynamic movements in the kata and reminded us, “Let it be liquid.” In particular, he asked of us, “Be aware how you’re made stronger in this kata.” He showed us how dynamic and explosive the first movement can be, and how there is a big feeling in all of the turns. A particularly salient example that he emphasized was the 270-degree turns; practicing 270 degrees rather than 90 degrees is one way for us to create a bigger and stronger feeling.
For the third “chunk,” Ray first described how the series of three age-uke might not necessarily be blocks, but rather could be interpreted as either grabbing and breaking the arm or as pulling down the opponent to destabilize them. He next discussed how different each of the three oizuki are from each other when delivered in a realistic fighting scenario. He described the first punch as sharp, but not quite enough to hit the opponent, only to “make him think” and lull him or her into a false sense of security from being able to evade the punch. “The second one is a little lighter. It’s not the same thing, because I’m moving. I catch up to him. I gain ground.” The third punch, as the kiai, serves as the final blow.
Ray also reminded us that the only time we actually seriously maim or kill our opponent is during kata. Basically, kata is the violent extension of reality. In a fight, we attempt to save our lives and in kata we destroy that opponent, but this may not happen in reality. It is good to know and appreciate the differences.
Kata practice laid the foundation for the third and final practice of the weekend Sunday morning, which focused on kumite. As with kata practice, Ray first focused on movement and creating openings to move into. We practiced this using a variant of jiyu kumite where we alternated between “receiver” (defender) and “giver” (attacker). Givers would deliver as many techniques as they could complete in a single obvious (vocalized) breath, while the receiver focused on moving away from the attacks. “When we run out of breath, it’s like the line is cut. And then the other guy gets to take his breath. It’s going to sound like a bunch of panicked seals for a while, but actually it’s pretty realistic because, intuitively and transparently, when you move, your breath is carrying you.”
Ray next emphasized that “Kumite doesn’t mean fighting; it means ‘messing around with your hands.’ It sort of implies there’s physical contact.” He described how people are universally hesitant to move in. To address this, we practiced another exercise where two opponents walked towards each other, attacked each other, then continued moving past each other in opposite directions—long distance kumite. Ray reminded us that we would only have this brief moment of interaction to learn from each other, and to make the most of it.
For the remainder of the practice, Ray focused on how we can learn from each other through a kind of play. He described how he had first practiced jiyu kumite with Bob Berryman, “a big guy with reach you couldn’t believe, and he was also a boxer. He had matches that lasted 20 and 30 seconds. He would just come out with his jab and he would knock out a person. And he and I would get together. There were no referees; no one would say, ‘Okay, you can stop now.’ We just got together and we fought. We fought and we landed on our butts and got knocked out and had bloody noses and it was great. It was really great! And that’s where I made my bones.
“Most of you did something similar. You had a friend, a buddy, in the dojo, and you would get together after practice and you would work on stuff.” He described how you could interact and figure out what you missed. “There was no referee saying, ‘No, you have to continue for the next 12 hours.’ You could stop and learn from your buddy. That’s where you get it. Not from going crazy for two minutes, someone raises a flag and says you lost or you won, and you wonder what the hell happened [because] you can’t even remember. So jiyu kumite, I think, happens there in the gym with your buddy.
“Your best friend is the best, because he’s going to be honest. He’s not going to lie to you. If you screw up he’s going to tell you. That’s why you practice with your friend. That for me was Bob Berryman.
“What we’re going to do today is you’re going to find your friend.” He encouraged us to find a partner and begin each round of fighting with the senior showing their favorite technique (for example, oizuki then gyakuzuki or maegeri then maete) and then the junior doing the same. “You’re going to give something. You’re going to receive something, and when that’s over, when you’ve shared your gifts, it’s like visiting someone in Japan, you always bring a present.” He illustrated how in the exchange in techniques would be followed by a round of jiyu kumite. “Then yame, and then you find another friend.”
After we practiced this for several rounds, our last exercise was to experiment with different techniques. He described how, generally, different styles of martial arts are distinctive because of the different distances at which a certain technique is effective. He asked us to take advantage of practicing with a friend to experiment with “a more primitive feeling,” such as striking with the knees or the elbows, that we might not typically practice as a basic but do have in our kata.
Before we bowed out to end the practice and the event, Ray asked two of the seniors (Bobby Bird from Memphis and Maurice Baker from Charlotte) to illustrate how they might “play” at jiyu kumite. It was a wonderful reminder of the major theme of the weekend—of giving and receiving kicks and punches as a metaphor for the lessons and wisdom our seniors give to us—as well as the memories and camaraderie we all share. Even now, several weeks later, I find myself reflecting on the lessons of the weekend with Ray’s voice resonating in my head: “You have been given this gift. How will you receive it?”
Now that I have received the gift of Ray Berry’s teaching at Spring in the South 2019, I hope, reader, that I was able to adequately pass his wisdom on to you.
— Cynthia Hsu, ikkyu, Philadelphia dojo
Every year since the mid-1980s, the Chapel Hill Dojo has produced a unique T-shirt design in order to raise funds for SKA; they are sold during Spring in the South and East Coast summer Special Trainings. This year, the T-shirt features a ukiyo-e (wood block print) by an unknown artist depicting the red crown white naped Japanese crane (tsuru), a national treasure considered sacred and a symbol of longevity and good luck. Since they are monogamous and thought to live 1,000 years, they are depicted on formal wedding gowns, and the tradition of folding 1,000 paper cranes is associated with the promise of health, happiness and peace. A Japanese idiom, “tsuru no hito koe“ (鶴の一声or つるのひとこえ), translates as, “one word from the crane,” meaning the “voice of authority,” namely, one who has the final word and is not challenged.
They are available in the following sizes: youth M and L, and adult S, M, L, XL, and XXL at $20 apiece, plus shipping. All proceeds go to SKA. Contact email@example.com or visit our Etsy DojoShirtShop