The follow article is posted with permission... thank you Seizan Sensei
I think it fits this discussion very well.
YAGAI RENSHUU – More than Just a Good Time in the Country…
Every now and then, Toyama Sensei hosts a yagai renshuu – outdoor practice
-- on the mountainside behind the Zakimi Shubukan. Actually, he's been
doing this for himself and students since he moved to Zakimi in the
mid-70's. We students go out there to clean up beforehand – cutting weeds,
trimming bushes, clearing the terraces, making safe the steps carved into
the mountain between them, and cleaning off the workout areas. Toyama
Sensei enjoys doing much of the really heavy work himself though, making it
part of his daily workout.
It took Sensei about ten years to carve the mountainside to his liking,
flattening out practice areas and leveling the terraces for running,
specifically for this purpose.
When all is ready, the fun begins.
The routine varies, so it never really feels like a “routine”. Normally, we
run down the mountainside along the terraces, descending to the next terrace
via the steps carved into the ground at each end. If we run all ten
terraces full-length (left and right of the central stone steps), this is
equal to about a 2 or 2.5 kilometer run – not fast, this isn’t a foot race.
A slow, easy pace so everyone from clumsy old stiff guys like me down to the
youngest junior can keep up easily. The object is not to exhaust but to
replenish. Not to be out-of-breath, but to deeply breathe in the fresh,
clean, greenery-filtered countryside air.
In the valley below, all the students perform as much of the system as they
know, in dantai (group). Sanchin kitae (Sanchin conditioning) is performed
by Toyama Sensei with the senior students only, then one of the Senpai
(usually myself) leads the rest of the students through Sanchin Kata. For
the rest of the kata and drills, goorei (command) is given by Toyama Sensei,
or one of the Senpai. Usually, I give goorei for my students. Only one
performance of each kata, and if I lead hojo undo, I like 5 of each.
After, we perform kosuriai and koteki tai, sometimes momo kitae (leg or
thigh conditioning), old-style Bunkai, and Dan Kumite.
Years ago, Toyama Sensei set huge concrete blocks into the mountainside to
make stone steps from the small flattened valley below up to his home and
dojo at the top. These steps can be seen in the French video "Les Maitres
D'Okinawa", 1997, Bushido Videos, France.
We walk these 80 or so stone steps back up to the cement parking area
adjacent to the dojo, where we watch bo wari (pole breaking) or batu wari
(baseball bat breaking), usually done by Akamine Yoshinobu-san, whose
excellent conditioning comes from more than 20 years of training at the
Futenma Dojo under Uechi Kanei Sensei and his senior students. This past
month, we walked down the steps, did a Kyu workout, and then all ran up the
terraces for the Dan workout. It varies, but the run is invigorating at any
After all performances and the mountainside workout are finished, we enter
the dojo, kneel seiza, and thank Sensei for his training, hard work in
preparing the outdoor course for us, and hospitality. Then we have a social
with him, and ask questions, share news and jokes, and have a sort of
But some lessons can be lost in all the physical activity and socializing.
What is the real purpose of yagai renshuu?
Well, we do get outdoors – very nice. But we get outdoors all the time, and
we run or take walks for transportation, exercise, or just enjoyment. The
difference is the surface – most of us walk on a sidewalk or road, or run on
a prepared and very smooth track, or a level green grassy PE field. The
Zakimi mountainside is rough – safe and clear, but uneven. The slopes have
bumps and depressions to adjust to when walking or running. The terraces
aren’t completely level, sometimes they slope downward toward the valley,
then twist a bit and slope inward toward the mountain. The runner has to
adjust his balance and orientation with almost every step. This prepares
him for the workout/performance after the run. The point is not exhaust,
but to exercise or stimulate the ability to adjust balance. Vital for the
next step in the routine.
The workout consists of one performance of each kata in dantai, and only a
limited number of repetitive drills such as hojo undo. It’s interesting to
watch people performing on uneven ground for the first time – some of them
fight hard to keep their balance. “Leaning back” is now relative to the
mountainside terrain! Standing on a slope facing upward, “leaning back” may
actually equate to a perfectly upright stance, or even a lean forward.
Standing sideways to a slope, I find my ryu no kamae (dragon-ready stance)
is really hard to perform smoothly without a wobble or even a bit of a
stumble! Length of kata steps have to be adjusted by the performer
instantly, so he doesn’t step off into a bush, tree, or even off the terrace
(we have never had an accident, as Sensei watches like a hawk and will not
allow us too close to the edge -- but the thought is still there that it
could happen)! Every step, stance, and shift calls for a sharpened
awareness of the surroundings and continuous compensation for the necessary
change in balance. Gravity is what you make it – a tool, or an enemy.
Kicking becomes an interesting challenge – kicking up the slope can throw
one off balance easily. Targets on an opponent higher up a slope have to
change, and they have to be viable targets. Kicking down a slope seems
easy, but the supporting foot can slip as the power is thrown forward. Some
of us aren’t used to kicking with footwear, let alone on uneven ground!
We vary whether to use any footwear or not. It varies the personal side of
the workout. But Sensei prefers we use some sort of foot protection when
running because of small sharp stones that cannot be easily seen or removed
from the track.
Just when we think we know exactly where a certain little bump or depression
is after stepping on it several times in drills or kata, Sensei moves us to
another location – either up to the top terrace, or shifts our position in
the group! With frequent changes in the performance surface, we have to
learn to constantly adjust our balance and orientation -- or slip and wear a
“Zakimi mountain bruise” – a reddish-brown smudge of mountain soil that
comes off the ghi only with scrubbing and good detergent.
An important lesson takes place when we are called upon to perform Kyu
Kumite, Dan Kumite, and Bunkai! Now we have to interact with each other – a
dynamic flow and exchange of kicks, strikes, and blocks. Taikawashi has to
be adjusted, so we don’t shift ourselves off the terrace to get away from
the opposing strike. An incoming kick or punch is going to come downward
from uphill or up from below, and the power distribution is different –
sometimes a surprise for both partners. Comparatively, it is easier to
perform kata on an uneven surface, but with an opposing force, the routines
we thought we knew so well become ... VERY interesting!
All of this fun activity teaches us to consider – how will your body react
if you have to call upon your karate training outside the dojo on a
less-than-ideal surface? Will you be fortunate enough to have a level
surface with good grip for your footwear? Can you kick with footwear
anyway? Will you be standing on gravel, ice, soft soil, slippery wet grass,
rocks, or a slope – will you be facing up the slope, downward, or will it be
sideways to your fighting stance – PLUS one or more of the previous surface
conditions mentioned? In yagai renshuu, a “mountain bruise” is a slightly
embarrassing annoyance that calls for a little scrubbing elbow-grease that
evening. But slipping and falling to the ground in a real fight can mean
the end of the fight, and not in your favor.
Sanchin kitae on an uneven surface is also a challenge – how will we react
to a strike or kick when we can’t block it or need to take it (to open an
opponent's guard)? How well-composed and focused are we when being pounded
upon while moving through Sanchin?
So NOW where is all that practiced, relaxed motion and natural striking
power? Do you have to fight to keep your focus, concentrating on each step
and upper-body motion that changes the balance and weight distribution, or
do you just “fit into” the changing surface below, and adjust naturally?
Hmmm… back to Day One, eh… A somewhat humbling experience even for advanced
Yagai renshuu are videotaped, and Toyama Sensei especially enjoys reviewing
the tapes for ideas and helpful training tips. The students, of course, get
a somewhat different perspective on the training and their performance when
they see it for the first – or hundredth – time.
When we see ourselves on video, we see what Sensei sees. Sometimes we
aren’t aware how far forward we are leaning or hunching, that we are
throwing the shoulder or shrugging the hip into a strike, or how low a kick
really is, until we see through the eyes of another (i.e., videotape). We
may laugh to see ourselves slip a bit here and there, but inside we just
might be thinking “Wow – I was killed right there – better work on turning
fast on a 20-degree sideways slope followed by a kick…” Your workout
partner chuckles “You were so busy swatting a mosquito right there, you
didn’t see my punch coming – so a mosquito is stronger than your stance, and
more of a threat than I…?”
On one hand, it’s really humbling to see on tape those powerful kicks and
strong, focused strikes become weak, unbalanced flailing of hands and feet,
as the performer struggles to maintain balance, stance, composure, and
dignity! It's equally humbling to see a well-trained strike, block, or
stance come through with good power and focus. Seeing this is a tribute to
the teacher, and an inspiration to continue on the journey. In retrospect
though, it’s really quite sobering to think about what one would do if
forced to defend oneself on a rough, spongy, or uneven surface – for real.
As did the students who came decades before us (on Okinawa and in China), we
plan to work more on this aspect of training. Everywhere there are flat
level areas, slopes, and a variety of surface conditions to work with. The
uneven ground beneath us will become a friend, unpredictable but workable
through all its moods and conditions. We will continue to hold yagai
renshuu at the Zakimi Shubukan each month if possible, for Toyama Sensei’s
review and critique.
© 2000, Rev. 2005
G. Seizan Breyette
Okinawa KarateDo UechiRyu Zankai