Chris Denwood is a karateka, fitness expert, researcher, and the author of “Respecting the Old, Creating the New,” and “Naihanchi (Tekki): The Seed of Shuri Karate Vol. 1.” The latter is easily the most comprehensive book on Naihanchi Shodan fundamentals that I have ever read, and I highly recommend it to anyone who practices Naihanchi kata that can be traced back to Itosu Anko. You can purchase these books, as well as DVD’s, and sign up for an informational newsletter through Chris Denwood’s website. Denwood Sensei has done demonstrations and seminars all over the world, and shared numerous videos with the public, in his pursuit of promoting the old ways of classical Okinawan martial arts. He is one of a few notable instructors who are at the forefront of the “Karate Renaissance” that we are seeing the beginnings of. I am honored and humbled to present my interview with him here on Karate Obsession!
KO: Thank you for agreeing to this interview! Would you like to start us off by telling us a little bit about yourself? Where are you from? What is your martial arts background? Etc.
CD: I was born, bred and live with my family in a coastal town called Whitehaven, on the edge of the Western Lake District in Cumbria, UK. It’s a very picturesque place to live (during the few weeks each year when it’s not raining of course!) and although I love to travel to different places, I’ve always loved it here and have never held any desires to re-locate.
After leaving school I decided to follow my interest in engineering, where I became a graduate specialising in electrical, instrumentation and control systems. I stayed in engineering for approx. 20-years, until I made the decision to resign in order to pursue my ambition of becoming a full-time martial arts teacher. This was naturally met with mixed feelings across my family, friends, dojo colleagues and co-workers, but so far I have no regrets. Although my bank balance hasn’t thanked me for making the move (karate instructors and Lamborghini’s rarely meet), I still consider myself a ‘richer’ individual and our family has never been happier. My partner Jenny is also an experienced fitness professional and together we run E.S.K.K® Martial Arts & Fitness, blessed with kind support from a fantastic bunch of dedicated and enthusiastic members.
My martial arts training began as a child in 1989 and since then has been based primarily on karate. I also have experience in a number of other arts including Taiji, Iaido, Wing Chun, Qi-Gong, Aikido, and Ju-Jutsu, which I’ve intermittently dabbled in over the years to help me gain a broader understanding of budo. The area where I live happened to have a high concentration of Wado Ryu dojo, so this is where my karate journey began and continued for many years.
After spending my early teen years focussed more on sport karate, I then encountered a turning point in my training and began to start exploring my growing passion for kata and its meaning. It was around the time I also began to look at other arts in order to help me more openly investigate the kata movements. So came my first realisation that karate was something much deeper than a long-range punch/block/kick system and from here on in, my study steadily progressed to take on a more holistic and integrated approach.
In recent years and following my desire to take my study of karate back towards its roots, I’ve also had the opportunity to make a number of trips to Okinawa and been lucky enough to work with a range of teachers from various styles. This has had a profound effect on my journey and although my focus has always naturally been towards Shuri-based systems, it’s been very educational to see first-hand how other styles differ and more importantly, how they connect through karate’s common principles and heritage.
Constantly on the lookout for ways in which to develop, I feel very blessed to have had so many wonderful experiences to date and I always aim to take as much as I can from each learning opportunity. Of course, I’m still relatively young and standing on only the first few rungs of a very tall ladder, so I hope that my understanding of karate and the relationship I have with the art may continue to evolve for many more years to come.
KO: How did you get started in the martial arts?
CD: Like many who begin to look towards martial arts, I was bullied at school. Although I was not consciously aware of it at the time, karate gave me a way to channel the negative energy associated with these experiences into a positive driving force that fuelled my development in the dojo. In addition, martial arts films of the 80’s and 90’s (the best era of course) and armed with a pair of home-made nunchaku provided plenty of inspiration. I was instantly hooked and my reasons for turning up to the dojo changed quickly as this new fascination took hold.
During my years of teaching, I’ve always tried to help support those who’ve been affected by different forms of bullying, as I know first-hand how it feels. It’s never a pleasant experience, but as with all demanding challenges in life, the learning and development one can gain from discomfort can be substantial. Using the principles of traditional martial arts, Jenny and I have also developed and led dedicated anti-bullying and life-skills workshops to school children within our local community and the feedback from these has always been very positive.
I often make a point in these workshops to openly thank my school bullies because without the challenges they gave me as a child, I may never have taken that first step into the dojo, found my life’s passion at a young age and been lucky enough to make that pathway into such a fulfilling career. If this can lead to empower even one of the participants to see past the adverse effects of bullying then I consider it a worthwhile day ☺
KO: Who are some of the people that inspire you, or who you look up to, when it comes to martial arts?
This is always a tough question because I’ve been inspired by so many people over the years and in various ways. Maybe I could simply say that I try to take some inspiration from everyone I connect with, as we all have something unique to share. I’d like to also add that my inspirations may not always come from an ‘optimistic’ source. I see inspiration as simply being a result of one’s response to a particular experience or experiences. Therefore, it is how one reacts that makes all the difference, whether the source has been positive or negative. Sometimes, the most powerful inspiration comes from making an informed choice about how NOT to move forward with your life based on what you’ve already experienced through personal interaction.
If I were to name a recent inspiration then that would be Katsuhiko Shinzato Sensei (for all the right reasons), as even the short time I’ve spent with him has driven me to look at the ongoing development of my karate in a completely new light. Even with a lifetime of study behind him, Shinzato Sensei is constantly refining his technique and evolving his art. Compared to when I first met him back in 2010, his karate now looks completely different. I spent some time at his Yonabaru dojo in 2014 and then having the opportunity to practice with him again in Slovenia last year, I wasn’t surprised to see yet another evolution! He is an incredible teacher – Jaw droopingly skilful, extremely humble and genuinely enthused about sharing his knowledge for the betterment of others. For me, Shinzato Sensei represents what true karate study should be about – a constant daily pursuit to learn and develop through an unrestricted mind and without the unnecessary binds of ego-based stagnation. I am very grateful to Shinzato Sensei for sharing a glimpse of his karate with open arms.
KO: A lot of your material focuses on the practice and application of the Naihanchi kata. What other kata do you teach, and what is the reason for the emphasis on Naihanchi?
CD: My dojo curriculum up to Shodan is based on spending time gaining a thorough understanding of Naihanchigata and Pinangata, before then progressing to the Koryugata Kushanku, Seisan, Chinto and Passai. I practice and occasionally teach a number of additional kata too, but I’m very careful not to overload the curriculum as I’d much rather my students practice karate in depth, rather than breadth. The syllabus also requires students to practice and refine Naihanchi Kata from day one and then later, specialise in a particular Koryugata after reaching Shodan, integrating the Naihanchi principles. I try to make this specialisation unique to each individual and is reinforced by a suitable period of mentorship and support.
We emphasise Naihanchi Kata in our dojo as the core framework from which everything else grows from and returns to. We treat the Naihanchi differently to the other ‘application’ kata and use it as the fundamental basis for our approach to karate. It is a very unique and special form that in my opinion deserves in-depth study. This is better appreciated by practitioners once some of the common connections are in place and the integrations between Naihanchi and the other kata movements become more apparent. This was one of the reasons why I decided to pursue the book project, ‘Seed of Shuri Karate’ and I’m grateful that Volume One was so well received by karate practitioners from countries around the globe. I feel that rather than constantly seeking to add superficial variances, it is the understanding and absorption of the common connections that makes the study of karate so valuable.
KO: In addition to being a karate instructor, you are a certified fitness instructor and kettlebell coach, and you have written several articles and recorded several videos on hojo undo. Do you think that supplemental strength and fitness training is necessary for karateka to be effective?
CD: Absolutely! In my opinion, functional supplementary training is (and always has been) an essential part of traditional karate. What kind of chef would try to slice up vegetables with a blunt knife? You see, to learn and perform a technique or indeed understand its application in context is only part of the story – we must also work to develop the body, mind and spirit in order to become an ‘effective conduit’ for those physical expressions to take place. This is where I believe hojo undo fits into the traditional karate jigsaw and helps reveal to practitioners a more complete picture.
Based on this theory, we can say that any ancillary exercise or drill that is performed with the specific aim of enhancing the performance and application of karate may be classed as hojo undo. Whether you use traditional tools, more contemporary equipment, a combination of both or simply the use of your own bodyweight is for the most part irrelevant. What’s more important is that the methodology used has a direct and functional transfer effect on the attribute(s) you’re striving to develop. This is why I also consider activities such as meditation and visualisation, the academic study of karate principles, reading inspiring books, watching instructional videos or even using life’s challenges to strengthen the spirit or evaluate the chinks in your armour as all being part of hojo undo.
If your aim in karate is to become the next world champion then the supplementary training you should undertake would be very different from someone who studies karate purely for self-defence. Sport Kata and Kumite require different attributes, as do longer full-contact bouts. For example, a marathon runner and a sprinter both undertake the same activity (running), but their goals, application and therefore their training regimes will be by definition, quite diverse.
So for instance, performing 10 well-paced 2-minute rounds on a heavy bag whilst working on different hand/foot combinations is a fantastic method of physical conditioning for martial artists, and is a workout I sometimes enjoy myself. However, if you’re training for pure self-defence then this kind of training would not effectively simulate the short bursts of high-intensity exertion and pressure that you’ll meet in reality. For a more applicable and anaerobic-based drill, you could try striking the bag or a pad as hard, fast and ferocious as possible for only 5-seconds followed by a 10-second break, over 5 rounds before sprinting as fast as possible to a pre-determined location at the other end of the room (to simulate your eventual escape). If you also pre-fatigue with a few burpees and spin on the spot to induce a rapid heartbeat and uncomfortable sense of dizziness beforehand, then maybe add a couple of training partners to push you around and shout vulgarities whilst trying to perform the drill, you’ll quickly come to realise that it is the specific methodology of supplementary training, rather than the tool(s) used, that is key to developing direct functional attributes.
Back in my early days, I spent countless hours in the wrong supplementary training environment. I wanted to gain more strength and power, so I began to lift weights. The only problem was that I had absolutely no idea about the kind of exercises to use, the load, cadence, rep range and integration. I tried to fill the gap in my knowledge by becoming a qualified fitness instructor, but again, this did not entirely satisfy my goals as it became quickly apparent that most clients who go to the gym are not generally interested in developing specific attributes for kata application! I was slowly morphing into a conventional weight lifter who also happened to practice karate on his rest days – a skin from which I needed to escape from, and fast.
I found the kettlebell back in around 2005 as it was just starting to gain real popularity in the UK, and I instantly fell in love with it. The big difference for me was the feeling I had when lifting it. The workouts didn’t feel like weight training at all – In fact, they felt just like another karate session! I started to connect some of the kettlebell movements with the kata and almost overnight, I began to change my whole way of thinking. This was a huge eye-opener for me and promptly kicked off a passionate interest in functional supplementary training, with the kettlebell featuring heavily in my routines from there on in. That’s why I recommend that all karate dojo should consider investing in some kettlebells.
Every hojo undo tool will have its inherent benefits and limitations so for my own training, I tend to use a range, both traditional and contemporary. This seems to be the best way to hit a variety of attributes and above all, it keeps things interesting and enjoyable. I feel that the traditional tools such as makiwara, chi-ishi, nigari-game, ishi-sashi, kongoken, tan etc. still have a very useful part to play and now we’re seeing similar tools coming back around in the fitness world once more, and of course we still love to play with the lol community once in a while. Kettlebells, hand grippers, Indian clubs, sledge hammers, battling ropes and Bulgarian bags all have comparable attributes to those tools left to us from the pioneering karate masters of our past. Plus, I would suspect that someone like Sokon Matsumura or Kanryo Higaonna would have been enthused by some of the innovative tools available today, had they been readily available during their time.
KO: The use of the makiwara is a subject you have brought up on several occasions, and something that I find to be very valuable, although often very misunderstood. What role do you feel the makiwara plays in training?
CD: The makiwara is of course a very distinctive tool in traditional karate and a method of practice that I enjoy on a regular basis. Most early mornings you’ll find me facing the makiwara and as well as the physical attributes associated with striking the post, the consistent and repetitive nature of the practice also offers a fantastic way of training the mind and spirit. If practised with mindful intent then the makiwara can become one of your greatest teachers.
Of all the practitioners who advocate makiwara training, I also know many who consider the use of the striking post as being out-dated and no longer required due to the availability of other more contemporary striking tools. It is true that we now have many more options at our disposal, but I nevertheless feel that the makiwara still offers value within a functional-based supplementary training routine due to some of its unique properties – top of the list being the natural spring-like resilience offered by the tapered post. This makes it feel completely different to a focus mitt, heavy bag or impact shield and consequently aims to develop an important principle associated with delivering percussive impact.
Every strike thrown incorporates two dynamic systems – the delivery system and the reaction system. The delivery system is concerned with how force is transmitted from the ground, through the body, into and out from the striking limb. In contrast, the reaction system is concerned with how the body absorbs the resultant forces experienced due to Newton’s Third Law of Motion (for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction). Both systems come into play to varying degrees every time a blow is launched and landed.
Most practitioners looking to improve percussive impact skills will focus almost entirely on the delivery system and only take a cursory glance (if any) at how the reaction system can also be employed to best support their strikes. Since the makiwara features an inherent spring-like quality, the post can be used to find the specific chinks in one’s reaction system. It challenges the practitioner to effectively manage the resultant forces experienced upon each strike. If you can adequately receive more force without breaking structure, then that will have an effect on your ability to convey additional force. Consequently, when you step away from the makiwara and go back to striking a ‘dead’ object such as a pad or bag, then you will tend to find a noticeable improvement in power delivery. This is just one method of using the makiwara.
Furthermore, the repetitive nature of makiwara training can be very beneficial for body awareness and understanding how subtle changes made to the strike can have an effect on the overall output. This way of exploring your body mechanics more internally and using tactile feedback in order to develop your technique, as opposed to visual aesthetics only, can teach you a great deal. Add to that the conditioning attributes from hitting the post and it’s surprising how a simple piece of tapered wood can become so valuable!
In this way, I consider the makiwara to be like any other supplementary training tool. Of course, it has its benefits and its limitations, so should ideally be used in conjunction with other tools in order to provide a more holistic development methodology. Like any tool though, it must be used correctly and incorporating a degree of versatility, as there is much more to makiwara training than perceived at first glance.
KO: How do you feel about the more esoteric aspects of karate, such as tuidi/torite and chibudi/kyusho?
CD: Like all the other jigsaw pieces that make up the art of karate, each are components that make up a greater whole. The more pieces we are conscious of, the more accurate our picture of karate becomes. Each aspect has its natural place, as well as its inherent limitations.
I think that some aspects of karate are at risk of becoming stigmatised when excessive emphasis is placed on them above other, more foundational components. For example, there is no doubt that having an understanding of the weaker areas of the human anatomy would be advantageous in a combative environment. If you are to deliver percussive impact, then it stands to reason that strikes are aimed towards specific targets that would offer the best chance of success. To me, this is kyusho in a nutshell and at the other end of the pragmatic spectrum to the likes of ‘five finger death moves’ and ‘no-touch knockouts’. I see Kyusho as being a support strategy that should never replace the requirement to strike hard and effectively, but instead aims to help enhance this ability. In the same way, kyusho may also be used to enhance such combative applications as chokes and strangles, throws and takedowns, joint attacks and grappling.
It may well be due to my lack of experience in such areas of kyusho, but I would much prefer to identify anatomical targets by western terminology, rather than using the meridian theory of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Those that are listed in such texts as Karate-Do Kyohan or the original thirty six vital points found in The Bubishi are interesting to study. For self-defence, I favour the notion of referencing target rich areas, rather than specific points, due to the sheer difficulty in achieving the level of accuracy required for such nomenclature in the chaos of a live altercation. Let’s face it, step outside of the dojo environment and the goal of delivering sufficient/repetitive impact to any target areas above the opponent’s collar bone in a live altercation, against an aggressive and non-compliant opponent would be challenge enough!
Like Kyusho, I see Torite as another supportive aspect and principally opportunistic in its application. In my opinion, the notion of grappling, restraining and pain compliance is never a primary goal in self-defence, as the very definition of these strategies require one to be ‘attached’ to the opponent for an extended period of time, thus reducing the chances of escape. Having said that, they may of course be necessary in certain circumstances and as such, directly contribute to the holistic self-defence methodology that we call karate. As explained above though, I think that to emphasise and develop skill in torite whilst sacrificing of other more foundational aspects would be fundamentally flawed.
Generally speaking, I consider that all current karate practitioners are very lucky to have access to a wealth of knowledge as passed on through the solo choreography of kata. It’s uplifting to see that karate is steadily being resurrected as far more than just a system of ‘percussive impact’ and greater focus has been given to the other auxiliary combative elements found within the art. It’s exciting to see where this may take us in the consistently evolving understanding offered by today’s karate researchers.
KO: The UK has produced quite a few bunkai experts, such as yourself, Iain Abernethy, John Burke, and Vince Morris. Do you think that there is something about the karate environment there that fosters this type of development?
CD: What a great question Noah and it’s an honour for you to so kindly include me alongside such esteemed company. This is something that I’ve never really considered – I suppose it must be to do with the fact that many of us brits always seem to require an answer for everything, as we’re forever asking questions and seldom satisfied!
Well, Iain and I originally came from the same dojo and I’m sure he’d agree with me that the freedom to explore an ‘individual path’ was always available during our time spent there. I learned a great deal from Iain and grew up in the club as he was making his first steps into exploring kata. His thirst for knowledge inspired me greatly and even though we’ve since taken separate paths, we still share many crossovers in terms of our approach. I hold many fond memories of those early days and I’m very grateful for Iain’s support over the years.
Vince was probably one of the first to really delve deeply into the kata here in the UK and I remember seminars presenting his work as far back as the early 1990’s. Again, his approach is fantastic and the influence he’s had on the global kata bunkai movement is highly commendable. Being from a Shotokan background, Vince’s take on the kata first encouraged me to look for the commonalities between styles and follow a more principle-based approach.
John is a walking talking kata bunkai encyclopaedia and he could probably offer five different applications for a given technique before taxing a single brain cell! Like Iain and Vince, I have great respect for John’s work, he’s a great guy and very open about sharing his views to the karate community.
Although I suspect that the ‘I do, you follow and no questions’ approach is still alive in many UK dojo, the vast majority of keen British bunkai exponents I’ve been privileged to meet tend to display an ‘explorative’ character and are never afraid to question something or actively seek to break the mould. I think that having the ability to look beyond the ‘3K blinkers’ is a fundamental requirement for anyone looking to more thoroughly understand the functional nature of kata.
KO: Some traditional martial artists are opposed to mixed martial arts competitions like JEWELS, PRIDE, and the UFC. How do you feel about MMA, and how do you think it impacts karate?
CD: Although I’m not an avid follower, I’m certainly not opposed to MMA and in fact, hold great respect for dedicated practitioners of this sport, as they are without doubt some of the most skilful, well-rounded and highly conditioned athletes on the planet. I also think that the modern development of MMA has caused many traditionalists to re-evaluate their views and training methodologies with a more critical frame of mind in terms of the context to which their system best functions.
Martial arts is such a diverse term that it’s not appropriate to round up every system under the same banner. Thus, likening traditional karate to MMA is like comparing rap to rock music. Both may use the same musical notes, but express those tones very differently. Like music, traditional karate for self-protection is designed to function within a different operating envelope to competitive MMA. It’s not that one is better or worse, merely different. And like all martial arts, it is not the system itself, but the quality of its delivery that matters most.
As an example of the above, let’s consider the application of throwing. In MMA, this ability is often very highly tuned (skilled vs skilled) and may be actively sought depending on the specific experience of the fighter. In contrast, the felling techniques found in karate kata are often less sophisticated and regarded as an opportunistic secondary tactic to support the primary strategy of percussive impact. Generally speaking, this is a more sensible methodology for self-defence. Furthermore, where an MMA exponent may choose to follow the opponent to the ground in order to increase the chances of victory, self-defence thinking would deem this an unsafe act. As a result, we find that the specific applications found in kata tend to emphasise the requirement for the ‘thrower’ to remain standing (if possible) in order to facilitate a swift and less-troublesome escape. This becomes irrelevant in competitive MMA, since both fighters have already consented to the engagement.
There are of course traditionalists who will hang solely on the ‘self-defence’ argument as an excuse not to develop certain skills. A common example of this is ground fighting, where the age old tactic of eye gouging seems to justify why traditional exponents need little training in this aspect. For me, it’s not that karate practitioners require less training, but instead require to train under a different perspective. So where MMA may emphasise the ability to spend time on the ground in order to maximise advantage or seek a submission, karate for self-defence would prioritise skills to enable one to regain their feet as quickly as possible. The result of these requirements would mean that the specific training drills used to develop such skills would naturally differ across the arts.
I’m a big advocate of martial arts ‘borrowing’ ideas and training methods from each other and in truth, that is how karate was first established. I suppose you could define almost all martial art systems as being ‘mixed’, since they are usually found to be based on a blend of various skills, experience and understanding spanning many generations. So whilst keeping within their own modus operandi, it makes perfect sense for practitioners to share experiences in order for the arts to grow together. I particularly love some of the functional training strategies that comes with modern day MMA and I think that when adapted to our particular context, more karate practitioners would benefit greatly from embracing the requirement for supplementary training to help support holistic kata application.
KO: Finally, what do you envision as the future of karate?
CD: I think that over the past few years, karate has been making steady progress back to the old-school way of thinking. So much so that the traditional and more contemporary based expressions could well be identified as different arts completely. More and more practitioners are beginning to explore and question the origins of karate, the meaning of kata and a more integrated training approach that aims to deliver clear functional goals as opposed to mystical destinations or visual aesthetics. There’s a growing interest in analysing the writings of past masters and the findings of which are driving a more holistic training methodology that’s much more comprehensive than the majority have ever given karate credit for.
The reputation karate once had for endless line work, chambering hands on the hip for no apparent reason, unrealistic combative ranges, punching at thin air and prancing around in white pyjamas has certainly changed, as more are coming to appreciate its traditional ways and actively seeking to uncover its real meaning – not only for self-protection, but also for self-development. The evolution of karate has made it accessible to so many people and for many different aspirations. So, regardless of any technical contrasts and difference of objectives across the styles, we are but one family. It’s always great to see less energy being expended in arguing about what may be ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ and more time spent supporting each other’s growth. Each year we uncover new information about karate, which stimulates fresh theories about its development and I have no doubt that our understanding of the art will continue to change as we move into the future.
Having already successfully stood the test of time, as martial-fashion crazes come and go, I’m confident that traditional karate will always be around. It’s a fascinating art to follow, I feel very fortunate to be part of it and privileged to have the opportunity to share my journey with others.