Kata Technique Drift

By Erik Hofmeister

If you watch old videos of kata that we know in Yoshukai, or kata from related arts like Chito-Ryu, you’ll notice some differences.  How did they get there? Is there a reason for these differences, or are they just random? I don’t know for sure, but there are three likely possibilities.

The change is due to deliberate decisions made by higher-ups, like Soke.  There are some specific instances of this. When the WYKKO was formed, our upper block changed from using the lateral part of the arm (ulna) to using the anterior part of the arm (ulna and radius).  Several counts changed in forms, as did some of the placements of the kiai. All of these changes were made by Soke to bring our kata more in line with how they were done in Japan. Soke was also always continuing to learn and improve his karate.  As he had realizations and deeper understandings developed, the movement was changed to be more effective.

The change is due to mis-remembering by higher-ups.  Humans have a problem with memory. Our recollection is subject to so many biases and faults, it’s amazing we can retain anything accurately.  It’s not only high ranks, but, since they often have the responsibility for passing on information, if one high rank remembers something incorrectly, it is more likely to be propagated throughout the students and dojo.  This is compounded by the problem that we have a high degree of confidence in and belief that our memories are true. When confronted with contradictions to our memories, we tend to believe our own memories. This can make correction of misremembered techniques difficult.  I had taught the uraken in Niseishi as having an angle to it for years. Master Culbreth corrected this recently and, looking at videos that were made more than 10 years ago, the uraken was indeed the way Master Culbreth said it should be. How in the world had I misremembered this technique for so long and not had it corrected?  The illusion of memory is powerful, and we need to always be aware of it.

The change is due to mis-learned techniques.  Anyone who has ever taught anything knows that sometimes the student doesn’t learn what you had intended.  I have read answers by some students on an exam and thought, “Where in the world did you get that idea?” The same happens in martial arts- you may intend to teach the technique a certain way, but it isn’t learned that way.  This student then teaches it incorrectly to someone else, and so on.

In general, relying on people to learn and remember perfectly is unwise.  People are fallible. This is why movies and pictures are so critical to preventing kata technique drift.  Deliberate changes by the higher-ups are important, as their understanding and mastery of the art develops.  Accidental changes, though, can lead to frustrated students and conflict among higher-ups.

Video Improvement

By Erik Hofmeister

Improvement in your karate can come from a number of sources.  You may think about karate, imagining yourself doing a kata. Your instructor may observe you and provide feedback.  Your peers may have different ideas to impart. At camps, you may be able to learn different ways to do things from different instructors.  Reading and watching videos can be tremendously helpful. Most martial artists never do one thing to improve their skills. Most organized sports players, particularly on school and professional teams, do this one thing.  They watch themselves on video.

Self video review is one of the most powerful tools we have for improvement, but it is remarkably underutilized.  People hate seeing themselves on video. They are highly self-critical of their videotaped performance. They don’t like how they sound.  It’s hard to set up the camera and then take the time to watch it. Video has many barriers. But the benefits are impressive.

My first time doing self video with the intention to improve was in preparation for the 2014 Athens Tournament.  All of the head instructors agreed we would enter the competition in order to shame our blackbelts into competing.  I chose to do San Shi Ryu, which no one around Athens knew or could help me with. So I recorded myself. I’ve known this kata for a long time.  I tested to 4th degree knowing it. I thought it was pretty good. The video was really just to confirm that it looked good, not really to help me improve.

The first recording was… not great.  Maybe it was good, but I saw about a dozen things I was doing not as well as I knew I could.  So I fixed some of them, and did another video. I did about 4 rounds of this over the 2 weeks preceding the tournament, and my performance improved noticeably.  In teaching students in the classroom and the dojo, I have learned so much by watching myself, and my student evaluations improved as a consequence.

Even if you have access to a knowledgeable instructor, sometimes you need to see yourself doing something in order to understand it.  I have students who do a technique which I have tried to fix in several different ways, with minimal progress. Showing them a video of themselves has resulted in them immediately changing something I had spent the last 6 months trying to change.

If you are training on your own, or are higher ranked than most of those around you, or are preparing for a high-level test, self video is huge.  I regularly do self video to make sure I am constantly _improving_ my karate, not just _doing_ my karate.

Blackbelts by Rank

By Erik Hofmeister

When you attend your first WYKKO function, it’s so exciting! There are students from so many dojo, there are swarms of blackbelts talking and companionably beating on each other, the highest-ranked blackbelts are mingling.  Once the group lines up for a formal bow in, it starts to get confusing. Some people are wearing red and white belts, some black and white belts, and mixed in with all of these are some wearing regular black belts. The blackbelts are arrayed in multiple lines, without any clear visual indication of why they are in different lines.  Welcome to World Yoshukai, where a student wearing a black belt may be a Shodan or may be a Rokudan, and there is no way you can tell just by looking at them.

In some styles of martial arts, such as Tae Kwon Do, it is clear what rank blackbelt a student has by their belt.  They have a gold bar on their belt for each degree of blackbelt they hold. This makes determining the rank of any blackbelt easy and instantaneous.  You know exactly where you stand in relationship to others you have never met before. Why doesn’t the WYKKO use a similar system? I don’t know, please ask Kaicho if you have a chance and tell me what they say.  However, there are some unexpected and positive side-effects of this policy.

You know where you line up, as a blackbelt, because you have attended WYKKO events and know the others in your line personally.  You know them by name, you know when they tested, and you know who they are as people. The organization is small enough to allow this, but it does require vigilance and regular attendance.  A Sandan who does not appear to events for several years will be entirely unequipped to line up at their appropriate place.

While there are differences among ranks, we do not highlight those and push into other’s faces what our rank is.  It encourages humility- a Shodan is wearing the same belt as a Yondan. The Yondan should feel humble and not hold their rank over the Shodan, and the Shodan should feel that they are a peer to the Yondan in some regard.  We do not highlight the differences among the ranks of blackbelt. In World Yoshukai, we are all friends and know each other and should have no ego when dealing with each other.

Knowing exactly what rank a blackbelt holds is absolutely valuable.  But not knowing exactly what rank everyone holds has fringe benefits, which ultimately make our organization more friendly, humbler, and more harmonious.

Forms of Address

By Erik Hofmeister

Respect and manners is the first precept for Yoshukai karate.  We use titles and formal forms of address when addressing or referring to various students.  While it is always preferable to be precise, the intent is important- if you make a slip up here and there, that’s just fine.  For those who want specific instructions, here they are.


Referring to someone

These rules are probably the least stringent.  I prefer using a title which makes it clear as to the context in which I am speaking about that person.  For example, when speaking of my Kyuki-Do training or Hapkido and referring to Ken Blumreich, I will use Sabumnim.  But when referring to him in Yoshukai or judo, I will use Sensei. You may refer to some people solely by title, such as Soke.  Use of an English honorific (Mr./Ms) and last name is the ‘minimum’ level of respect for this type of reference, as long as it is about martial arts.


Addressing a letter

For addressing a letter or email, I go with the most formal title available.  For example, when writing to Mr. Lecut for The Way newsletter, I address it as “Dear Shihan Lecut”.  When writing to Master Culbreth, I will use either “Dear Master Culbreth” or “Dear Kaicho Culbreth”. For Shodan and Nidan ranked students from other schools, I will use either “Dear Sensei X” or “Dear Mr. X”, as this latter is accepted within our organization for all ranks.


Addressing an individual

Use of “Mr./Ms.” and last name is always appropriate in a WYKKO context.  I tend not use formal titles like Shihan or Sempai, but do address Master Toyama and Culbreth as “Master”, and certainly do so for Soke.  “Sensei” without a last name is generally referring to your direct instructor- Sensei Serrian for Athens Yoshukai and Sensei Hines for Clarke County.  “Sensei Lastname” is generally used when addressing any other black belt. An exception can be made when you are working directly with a blackbelt. For example, when Master Toyama is instructing me at a camp, I will often address him as “Sensei”.  This is appropriate because that is that person’s _role_ at that time (situational authority vs. positional or rank-based). Within our dojo, for non-blackbelts with a civilian title besides Mr./Ms., we will usually use that, for example “Dr.”.


At the end of the day, many of these are personal preferences and are not codified.  You will never go wrong with addressing someone as “Mr./Ms. Lastname” in WYKKO. The protocol described here is a more elegant, sophisticated approach.

Student Engagement Pt.2

By Erik Hofmeister

This is the second of a short two-part series.


One of the greatest obstacles to improving student engagement is that instructors don’t know how to engage their students.  Most of us have learned from the apprenticeship of observation- we teach how our instructors teach. Maybe that is a good model for some, but it leaves out the important component of WHY our instructors do certain things.  This post presents some strategies you can implement to improve student engagement. While they work for all ranks, this set is focused on color belt students.


Ask questions according to Bloom’s taxonomy.

If you don’t know about it, Google it.  All students can handle questions aimed at all levels of the taxonomy.  Even simple questions like “What part of the hand do we punch with?” are valuable.  They promote engagement, they allow you to check student knowledge to make sure they are learning what you want them to, and they help the students learn what is most important.  More complex questions like “Why do we punch with the first two knuckles?” helps students reflect on their knowledge. Even more complex questions like “Is the ridge hand or knife hand a stronger strike?” allow students to begin to evaluate their knowledge.  Now, this is martial arts class, not a discussion seminar, so don’t go overboard. Try adding two questions to your classes for the next month and see what happens.


Have students interact with each other.

Students can learn from each other, help hold each other accountable, and increase engagement by interacting.  This can be stimulated by a question- “You three discuss what you think the best response to this attack is and be prepared to show us.”  It can be stimulated by a reflective discourse- “You three talk to each other about the hardest part of this kata for you and what you are doing to overcome it.”  It can be stimulated by a creative exercise- “You two come up with a short self defense routine that you can show the class.” The key is to get students talking and working with each other, not just following your explicit commands at every turn.  Try at least one cooperative learning exercise and see what the students think of it.


Have students demonstrate and describe/explain to the class.

One of my favorite tools is to call out a student who is doing a technique exceptionally well and show them off to the class.  “Everyone pause and look at Sensei Dawkins’ angle- that is how it should be.” This not only makes the student proud- rightfully so- but can be a springboard for a new way to learn something.  “Sensei Dawkins, briefly tell us what you are doing to accomplish that.” This causes the student to reflect- and engage- and they may provide some tidbit that will help the other students. Each time you run a kata or a drill, try to identify one student who is doing particularly well, have them show off, and ask them to share how they are able to be successful.


There are three simple but effective strategies to improve student engagement and enhance learning.  Try them next time you teach martial arts students!

Student Engagement Pt.1

By Erik Hofmeister

This is the first of a short two-part series.


Tell me – I forget.

Show me – I remember.

Involve me – I understand.


Students pursue martial arts for a variety of reasons.  One thing is consistent: if they aren’t engaged, they probably aren’t learning, and they probably won’t stay long.  Engagement means a student orienting to a task, having some interest in it, being challenged by it, and ultimately being involved in learning.  Disengagement is usually easy to get- just stand in front of a class and drone monotonously for about an hour without asking any questions, changing your pacing, or changing your style of presentation.  Many college classes are like this, and are terrible at getting student engagement.

Encouraging engagement is complicated, but it’s not complex.  Give students something to do. Ask them intriguing questions.  Make them active learners and not passive learners. Have them interact with each other.  There are dozens of strategies, some of which we will go over in the next few posts.

Besides this short blog post series, how do you learn about exercises, or drills, or questions to ask to engage students?  Talk to your peers- everyone has different exercises! Books can be good resources- almost every martial arts book has its own set of exercises and drills.  Of course, the internet if filled to bursting- “martial arts exercises” is a fine place to start. Be careful about making everything new all the time.

When Sensei Blumreich and I were first getting to work out together, he showed me many binders filled with elaborate and detailed warmup plans.  This contrasts with my warmups, which are pretty routine and similar from class to class. He initially felt he would be bored by my warmups. After doing them for a while, though, he said he actually liked having a similar routine.  It allowed him to zone out and just focus on his workout and pushing himself, instead of trying to figure out all these different exercises. So change it up a little bit, or on occasion, but realize there may be value in regularity and consistency, too.


What are arguments against increasing student engagement?

Complaint: You have to learn new skills.

Solution: Learning new skills is GOOD for you.

Complaint: You have to practice something different.

Solution: You practice your karate- why not your teaching?

Complaint: It takes too much time.

Solution: If you spend 30 minutes teaching a technique but the students are disengaged, you didn’t teach them anything.  I would rather spend 40 minutes teaching them a technique with engagement, so they will actually learn.


Many instructors don’t understand engagement or know enough about it.  Let’s fix that.


By Erik Hofmeister

At the start of a class, the highest-ranked student has a choice: do a formal bow-in or an informal bow-in.  Generally, if the highest-ranked student is visiting another school, if a promotion is occurring, or if time permits, a formal bow is preferred.  An informal bow consists of the highest-ranked student facing the other students (facing away from shomen) and calling, “Kiyotske, rei.” and everyone bows.  This is tachirei- standing bow.

A formal bow involves the highest-ranked student calling “Seiza!”.  Everyone then kneels, left knee first, to seiza position. The highest-ranked student calls “Mokuso!” and everyone closes their eyes.  Everyone breathes in through the nose, out through the mouth, expanding the diaphragm, and clearing their mind. The highest-ranked student then calls “Kaimoku!” and everyone opens their eyes.

The next command is “Soke-ni, rei!”.  This is a bow to Soke Yamamoto. Everyone holds for a four count (ichi, ni, san, shi) and then comes up.

Assuming one of the directors is not leading the bow, the next command is “Kaicho-ni, rei!”.  This is a bow to Kaicho Toyama and Kaicho Culbreth. Everyone holds for a four count, then comes up.

At a small dojo and when high-ranked visitors are not present, the second-highest-ranked student (Second) now has a choice.  If the highest-ranked student (Highest) is also the head instructor of the school where the bow is taking place, the Second should call “Sensei-ni, rei!”  If the Highest is not the head instructor, the command is “Title-ni, rei!” Acceptable variations in either case include, “Mr/Ms lastname, rei!”, “Title lastname, rei!”, and “Mr/Ms lastname, thank you for today’s training/today’s test, etc., rei!”.

This process is zarei, or kneeling bow.  The zarei is a time for all students to reflect on their role within the WYKKO, and to help cement relationships and the rank structure of each dojo.

Starting a Dojo

Although not every student wants to have their own school, my personal goal is to help every student who wants to open their own school do so.  Starting a school is probably easier than you think, although it depends on the type of school. Starting a for-profit commercial school is like starting any business, requiring a business plan, startup costs, etc.  Starting a club or free school is relatively easy.


1) Talk to your instructor.

This should go without saying, but if you have even an inkling of wanting to start your own school, talk with your instructor and other higher ranked students.  Your instructor has gone through the process, and can provide information, support, and perspective. In the WYKKO, your instructor’s approval is virtually a requirement for opening an official branch dojo.


2) Find a location.

The hardest step is to find an actual place to hold training.  Let’s assume you’re not wealthy enough to buy or rent a commercial space.  Your options are to use your home, a city or county space, or space in an existing business like a gym, dance studio, or yoga studio.


2a) Use your home.

Unless you live somewhere with perfect weather, you’ll probably need an indoor location.  If your house has a single large (500 sq ft) room, it is workable. Some people use their garage, but such a space rarely has an appropriate floor, unless it has been remodeled.  You can also build an addition, but the price for such is around $60-100/sq ft. Enticing students to come to a private home is difficult due to distance from central areas and cultural bias against strangers going to a private residence.  If you live in an apartment complex, a common-use area may be the perfect solution.


2b) City or County Space

The recreation department of a city or county is a good starting place.  If there isn’t a martial arts program in place, they may be willing to accept proposals for starting one.  They may have students register through them, or they may just allow you to schedule the space and manage the school yourself.


2c) Existing business

A related business which has the space and open time slots may be willing to host a dojo.  The easiest arrangement is for students to pay the hosting business the usual rate for classes.  An alternative is to charge students directly and then pay the hosting business. The most important thing is establishing clear expectations and a positive relationship up front.  If the hosting business is hoping or expecting dojo students to eventually sign up for their business (such as a gym), that should be made clear to the students.


3) Get authorization.

Although mostly taken care of by item 1, the parent organization will need to approve your dojo.  For the WYKKO, this requires confirmation by Kaicho Toyama and Kaicho Culbreth. Usually, your instructor will initiate this conversation.  Once you’re authorized, you can begin training students!


4) Marketing and attracting students.

Product, price, place, and promotion are the classic principles of marketing.  Why would a student want to come to your school? What do you offer that differs from their other entertainment options, or even other martial arts options?  Where and how can you advertise your dojo? People are bombarded with so much passive advertising, active marketing is much more effective, but consequently more time consuming.


5) Be patient.

Some days you’ll come to class and no one will show up.  Sometimes there will be only one or two students. This is typical for the first year, and as long as you have some students who keep coming back and having fun, you should persevere.  If you have no students show up or no students come back, you may need to reconsider your approach to be successful.


Opening and running a dojo is one of the best, most satisfying things I have ever done personally.  It hits the three principles of motivation: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. If you’ve done martial arts for long enough to earn a black belt and enjoy teaching and organizing, starting a school is a minor step in contrast.  You should do it.

Shodan to Godan

By Erik Hofmeister

As with every rank, there are expectations of yudansha for time in rank, class hours, learned techniques, and improved techniques.  There is also an expectation of WYKKO event attendance and contribution to the dojo and organization. In addition to all these requirements, I imagine several differences among the ranks of yudansha.


Shodan to Nidan is Precision

To me, the primary difference between Shodan and Nidan is precision of technique.  The nine new forms required for Nidan have to be nearly flawless, unlike every promotion before, where the new kata merely had to be acceptable to good.  The foot position for each stance has to be precise, the hand techniques clear and clean. There are a lot of kata at this rank to help emphasize the precision of each of the techniques.  This is a rank to get everything clean and smooth, similar to how I see 4th kyu.


Nidan to Sandan is Understanding

Once you have precision, what more is there to achieve?  Obviously the Nidan student has not achieved perfection, but all of their older kata should be performable to a very high degree.  What the Nidan student now learns is understanding. Why do the kata do what they do, what is the bunkai for all the kata, and how can that information be best imparted to others?  All of these questions and others should dwell in the mind of the Nidan student. They should seek understanding of the motions, and universal principles which can be applied throughout their martial arts.  They should understand why the technique is done one way and not another, and how to maximize their efficiency of motion.


Sandan to Yondan is Depth

Once you have begun to question your karate, you find there are unknowable depths to plumb.  Thinking about karate becomes part of your everyday life, and the philosophy inside the dojo and outside the dojo become one.  You have been doing karate for so long, and in so much detail, that it becomes an important, integral part of your being. You think of yourself fully as a martial artist.  You explore the history and talk to others endlessly about karate and martial arts conundrums. No longer are you satisfied by what you can learn in class- you seek depth of understanding in all things karate.


Yondan to Godan is Completion

In most martial arts, there is no curriculum above fifth degree black belt.  Once you achieve Godan, you have learned all of the official content of the martial art.  Obviously there is more to improve and other things to learn, but there are no more kata, no more weapons, no more paired exercises to learn.  Therefore, Yondan is your last opportunity to learn everything you can about the style. You need to ask any high rank you can about the techniques, their interaction with each other, the applications, etc.  Obviously after Godan you can still ask these questions, but once you have achieved Godan you will be expected to know the full content of your style.


These differences among ranks were the path I walked, and the one I think best suits most students.  Many students probably walk many different paths. I believe these expectations create an appropriate pattern of growth for the Yoshukai yudansha, and lead to the most adept, mature, and well-rounded student.  They provide clear goals for the student to work toward, in addition to all the written expectations.


By Erik Hofmeister

The actual translation for Yoshu is hard to come by, but it is at least approximately “continued improvement”, which is how we use the word in Yoshukai Karate.  It’s easy to “keep getting better at stuff”, particularly in karate. You always continue to learn in karate, even at very high ranks. Keep coming to class and you keep getting better.  It’s a simple recipe. Yoshu, though, can and should be applied to your out-of-dojo life.

It is my opinion that human beings should continue to get better as people over time.  “Better” is subjective and may include physical, intellectual, spiritual, psychological, etc. development.  This improvement should translate to improvement in your life- in your happiness and contentment. I am always sad when I encounter older people who are angry, discontent, and clearly not enjoying life.  They have, in my opinion, missed the point. You should be “better” at 30 than you were at 20. Better at 50 than you were at 30.

Getting better is hard.  It’s hard in terms of time and cognitive burden.  People resist change, because there is an implicit judgement that how we are right now is not acceptable.  There needs to exist a dual perspective- being happy with who you are but nonetheless wanting to improve. This requires no judgement of your current state- so that you can be happy- and simultaneously motivating yourself to improve without that judgement.

It’s a difficult balance to strike.  Many people have concerns about their physical being, such as being overweight.  It’s unhealthy to be depressed or despondent about being overweight. However, blithely accepting being overweight without any desire to improve is also counter-productive.  People should seek a balance, where they can be accepting of themselves as being overweight while also wanting to improve. Acknowledging the truth without judgement (“Yes I am overweight and I am happy with myself but I still want to get my weight down”) is a healthy step in the right direction.

While it is a comedy website, Cracked has addressed this in ways far better than I can.  I encourage you to read the article below and continue to contemplate: how can I be better than I am now by next year?


4 Simple Changes That Instantly Make You A Better Person



The 4 Kinds of People (And What You Can Learn From Them)



3 Things You Don’t Get Any Better at With Old Age