Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Book Analysis: Ed Parker's Kenpo Karate

The Law of the Fist and the Empty Hand

This was the first of many books that Kenpo Grandmaster Ed Parker wrote on the subject of karate. It's written as an introduction to the history and specific techniques of the style he popularized, and forms the foundation for the style he would create and refine throughout his life.The book itself is split into two main sections - a beginner's course and an intermediate course. They were very different and each warrant their own analysis.

Course 1:

After the introduction, where Parker shares some of the history of the style and some basic precepts, he covers in extraordinary detail one item that is surprising both in the amount of space he dedicates to it and the extent to which it seems to have been largely lost by modern western martial artists (and, as far as I can tell, Asian ones as well). That item: the proper folding of the dogi karate uniform. Given that the uniform was not generally familiar to a western readership back in the 1960s, it's not surprising that he would cover how to wear and tie both the dogi and the obi, or belt. But he spends a surprising amount of time in both words and pictures detailing how to fold the dogi trousers and jacket, ultimately folding them inside each other and wrapping the entire package in the obi (belt). It's a fascinating insight into what Parker was taught and considered important at that time, and how much things have changed in the U.S. martial arts since.

Another interesting section focuses on breathing. Parker goes into considerable depth about inhalation, exhalation, and the effect of breathing on the power of your attack and defense. It was information I had learned back when I was first training in Tae Kwon Do, and again while training in Aikido, but interestingly it wasn't really something I heard in nearly as much depth while training in Kenpo. Which may have been coincidence that I just missed those particular lectures or perhaps I wasn't paying good enough attention, but Parker certainly was. I thought it was an excellent section that did a really good job of underscoring the effect that breathing has on physical activity, especially hand-to-hand combat.

The section after went into quite a bit of depth about training and conditioning equipment. Without using the Japanese terminology, Parker writes at length about the Makiwara striking board, including very specific directions about how to build one. He also discusses a wide array of other calisthenics, stretches, and methods for conditioning the hands, limbs and feet. These tools and techniques - called Hojo Undo by the Okinawans - have never seemed to be popular or well-known in the western practice of karate, so I found it fascinating that Parker was not only intimately familiar with them, but actually included them in his book.

Another topic that Parker investigated in detail in his book was human anatomy. He includes detailed anatomy charts that actually highlight those areas most likely to cause death. He discusses the anatomy of the martial artist's body weapons - punches, kicks, and other strikes - as well as opponent targets.

Out of all of that, however, the most fascinating thing about Course 1, for me, was that all of the movements that I've always seen taught as blocks (with one exception, below) are in this book clearly taught as strikes. This includes all four of the primary "blocks" typically taught in the west - the inward and outward block, the upward block and the downward block. In Parker's novel, these are all strikes. I learned them as blocks in Tae Kwon Do. I learned them as blocks in both forms of Kenpo and Kenpo-derived MMA I've been studying for the last year. My wife learned them as blocks in the style of Goju-Ryu karate she trained in for many years. In fact, the only time I'd ever considered that they could be strikes was when I was training at Syracuse Jundokan under David Oddy. Clearly the karate that Parker learned in the 1950s and wrote about in his book is closer to traditional Okinawan karate than what's been taught in my neck of the woods over the last twenty years or more. Amazing!

Now, to be fair, the book goes on to explain how those same strikes can be used as blocks, but it's clearly not their primary function. They're actually closer to the atemi I learned in Aikido - painful, distracting blows to the nerve centers that punish an immobilize an attacker - than simple blocks meant to ward off an opponent's attack.

So to summarize course 1 - wow, how things have changed over the last fifty years. The karate Parker learned and wrote about in his book barely resembles what I've seen and been taught over the years. Tomorrow - course 2!

1 comment:

  1. Excellent overview. Thanks for sharing your observations and review of this portion of Mr. Parker's book.