Aside from being the title one of my favorite novels and Neil Young LP’s, on the beach is also one of my favorite places to train.

I’m down at Southern Shores, NC for a few days of vacation. And what vacation would be complete without a bit of transient karate training? It’s nice to have some time away from the demands of work and working on our house, but it’s also great to have a change of training conditions. Vacation doesn’t have to be just a break from home routines. It can also provide a break in training habits and an opportunity to re-evaluate them. And I must admit, training right in front of the ocean, close enough to get your feet wet, is a hell of a lot nicer than the concrete dojo walls. And It’s also a bonus that when I start to overheat, cool salt water relief is just steps away, a rare luxury in my book.

So far I’ve resisted taking the ubiquitous tacky pictures of myself doing roundhouse kicks in the waves, or a textbook reverse punch amongst the foaming surf in full gi. But I have managed to rediscover that moving in loose sand is harder than on just about any other surface. When you want to move fast, the sand slides out from under your feet and your toes dig in. When you maneuver onto one foot, as in Chinte kata, the surface shifts as your foot compensates for the change in balance. It’s pretty damn difficult to make some of the precise movements that a flat floor permits. The ground of my backyard dojo is uneven mountain terrain with rocks, roots and rolling ground, so moving off of a smooth floor is nothing new. But the beach is deceptively challenging.

Niseishi and Tensho kata in particular lend themselves to training in the waves. Niseishi just has a rolling feel to it in the opening movements that synchs right up with the sweep of the tide moving out with a wave, and then it crashes right back in seamlessly to the strike as it returns. Lately  I’ve been moving away from the JKA model and into an older Mabuni-derived version that Harry Cook showed me, and it feels much more intuitive for my body’s morphology and my interpretations of application. Particularly the sequence after the rising block/elbow, which is often shown as a kiba dachi with a side kick/knee lift; it makes more sense as a turn into cat stance with the shin raise to reverse punch.  Turning into the oncoming waves in the cat stance sequence presents a nice test. The sand shifts from under your feet and makes your weight shift in odd directions. Raising the forward leg for the shin block is then quite a challenge to do without wobbling off to one side. But after doing this slowly for several minutes in waist high water, it’s much better defined on the dry sand.

Tensho seems to be tailor made for training in the water. I don’t have anyone here to train applications with, so playing with the dynamics of the kata has been a way to re-examine some of my thoughts about application as related to performance. For example, I’ve noticed that some older practitioners, such as An’ichi Miagi, tend to have a smoothing, rippling motion to their hands in the sequence right before the two closing mawashi uke. Their hands seem to be scooping water up, and then smoothing it down and out across the surface. This feeling is immediately evident under resistance of the water. Moving the hands across the surface, palms just barely touching, provides a satisfying point of focus.

I wrapped up my training this morning with a few runs of the kata that were driven by the rhythm of the surf. The kata takes on a life of it’s own when breathing and movement are dictated by an external source, in this case being the movement of the water. Our group preaches that simple performance of kata without a knowledge of application is useless as far as the aims of traditional karate; but there are times when letting it move and breathe by itself can be just as rewarding. It acts as a sort of ‘reset’ button on habits and tendencies that might obscure other interpretations or overlooked nuances. I’m looking forward to seeing how these experiences will translate into training back at home with a partner to work with.

But for now, back to the beach…frosty Corona’s to follow…