Thoughts on Sensei Ravey’s “The Elements” seminar

When I arrived at the church hall a few minutes before 10, I was surprised to see so many families preparing for Mass. Ivan found me, and we discovered the venue had been changed without notice. (Kancho had posted it as a comment on the photo of the flyer on facebook. Yes, it’s exactly as obscure as it sounds.) Not disheartened, we arrived at the new venue early and Nemanja and Matt joined us and we walked to a nearby park to warm up. We practiced kata as a group, finishing with Miyagi sanchin, and I felt strong and invigorated in the morning light.

Arriving at the correct venue, I felt a combination of apprehension and excitement as the hall slowly filled with black belts. After a while, I got over my nervousness and approached an older man and inquired about the duct tape on his feet. We joked a while, talking of taisabaki and trivial things, and he had mentioned training with Higaonna in Yoyogi. I wondered, then, if he might be Sensei Ravey, but he hadn’t been training as long as forty-seven years so I thought perhaps he was a close friend. I noted his soft, faded belt and pondered whether he was a sensei before returning to my friends.

I promptly discovered he was indeed Sensei Ravey, though he had given no hint of his skill and knowledge. Even when I had asked which school he was associated with, he had not scorned me for my ignorance but had answered openly and kindly. There was no fanfare when he arrived, no authority about him as he sat on the floor by himself loosening his joints. He struck me as warm, friendly and passionate about karatedo. As the seminar started and progressed, it was clear he was all of these things and more. His Japanese was heavily accented, yet he preserved the spirit of each command. Every phrase he uttered and translated (“Hojo undo, warm up exercises!” or “Moichido, again!”) was said with such spirit that I was compelled to obey him. I was particularly enamoured by his Japanese recitation of the five dojo-kun.

The seminar was based on the four elements: earth (form, technique, strength), water (flow, body movement, blending), air (breath) and fire (spirit, kumite). Any one of these in isolation is easy to obtain, but a balance of them is hard to manage. I personally felt that reducing all of martial arts to just these four specific elements was limiting (I prefer to think of them in terms of body, mind and spirit), but I could see the merit in training under this philosophy. You could say to someone “More fire!” or “Your movements need more water”, or “Time to train earth”. But before all that, we had to warm up.

There was about forty-five minutes of warming up before the actual training began, and we did movements I’d never thought of before. Massaging tendons, rolling toes and hugging knees was just the start of it. Once we had sufficiently warmed up the lower half of the body (from toes to waist), we could safely practice explosive movements. Knees shot out, legs were swung and balance readjusted. With some dismay, I nearly buckled after holding shiko-dachi for just one minute, so I think I have some further conditioning ahead of me.

As we warmed up the upper body, we buddied up for some partner drills. I turned to the man next to me and we gave one another the “How about you? Yeah, you’ll do” look, and bowed. He introduced himself as Terrence, I introduced myself as Xin and we proceeded to do kakie (pushing hands drill). Kancho later asked me if I had been inspired to seek out the biggest, toughest person I could find to train with. Sensei Terry Lyon was the head of his own dojo and, I’m told, had been known to give workshop participants concussions as gifts to take home with them.

All of this I did not know as we practiced trapping and striking and he kept hitting me with unerring precision in the solar plexus. When we moved onto ude tanren (literally “tempering steel”, or “forearm beating”), his teisho (palm heels) were like hitting stone, and I bruised my hand quite badly with a misplaced tetsui. I kept waiting for Sensei Ravey to announce the call to change partners, but no such call came. We proceeded to pound arms, which actually wasn’t as bad as I thought it could be. When we moved on to punching each other in the abdomen, though, I did not weather them as well. I conscientiously placed my moderately-strong blows across his abdomen, but he dug his knuckles into the same spot over and over. After receiving a few of these, I wondered whether to tell him that wasn’t the idea of conditioning. For reasons I didn’t fully understand at the time, I chose to stay silent and carry on. I know now that it wasn’t pride that held my tongue; I wasn’t trying to look tough, but when animosity faced me I wanted to see if there was enough mettle in me to stand up and take it. And so I did.

Shortly after that we began doing taisabaki drills – body movements and evasions. As well as doing some increasingly complex ashi sabaki (stepping and footwork), we went on to what I call the “kick chase drill”. As I stepped back and turned, Terrence would chase me with a front kick. And every single time he overextended to reach me, often digging his toenail into my abdomen. I tried speeding up my retreat and increasing the angle of my evasion but he was determined to kick me. As he landed I started countering faster to show him the danger of overextension, but he still didn’t correct his error so I started pulling my kicks so they kept the speed but hardly any of the force. In hindsight, knowing his experience and reputation, I wish I had kicked him harder so he knew I could “give as well as I got”.

Unfortunately after that my heart condition started to affect me more than it ever has before. The palpitations recurred twice or thrice despite the gradual warm-up, so much so that my chest began to ache. Reluctantly I excused myself (with the permission of both Terrence and Sensei Ravey) and watched as everyone practiced kumite (fighting) drills. It looked like a lot of fun to practice minimising telegraphing, tracking movement and holding ground, but as Kancho is fond of saying, if my heart had exploded it would have ruined my whole day.

I gently eased back into the training with a sanchin kata that seemed neither Miyagi’s nor Higaonna’s, and tensho. We practiced panting to saturate our cells with oxygen (what Kancho would later identify as a yogic breathing practice called bellows-breath, I think), and I found it very hard to sustain for more than a few seconds at a time. It was difficult to maintain a rhythm, and I was very impressed with Sensei Ravey’s excellent diaphragm control. He went on to say that it’s natural for the body to pant after exertion, but it takes discipline to breathe properly. While I can see the merit in replenishing an oxygen debt quickly and with control, I’ve also heard of people fainting after hyperventilation. I wonder where the line is.

Sensei Ravey also revisited the misunderstood and little-practiced art of kiaijutsu. His kiai were so gravelly, so terrifyingly like a growl that it’s a wonder he isn’t known as “The Bear”. Somehow, despite what I thought were very impressive kiai, he managed to inspire us to raise our spirit (and our voices) to even greater heights, and then proceeded to punish us for holding out on him in the first place. This included a bit of “toughening up” by racing up and down the hall on our knuckles while he whipped us with his belt. In my haste, I tore the skin off my unconditioned second knuckles (and I noticed I wasn’t the only one!).

All in all it was a truly marvellous event. Sensei Ravey easily organised the group of 50+ people, and he inspired me with his impressive physical condition, his technical knowledge and application of concepts, and his unrelenting warrior’s attitude. Most of all though it was just really good to train with so many high level karateka, and I hope we all learned from one another. I’m looking forward to next time!

Sensei Ravey

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