From Twickenham People - February 2014
Little is known about the evolution of karate, developing as it did out of a series of weapons bans imposed by Japanese rulers on the small island of Okinawa, south of the mainland, from the 15th to 17th centuries.
Robert Herincx, Head Coach at the Tora Kodo Karate Kai club in Twickenham, describes the benefits of practising karate and how relevant it is to life today.
The martial art whose name variously means "empty" or "hand" was practised in secret as a means of unarmed combat using closed fists, arms and legs.
However, it also owes its origins to China and the Shaolin Temple where it was devised over a thousand years ago as more than a means of combat. It was a way of life, a set of systemised exercises designed to strengthen the mind and body. What respectively became known as the "karate do" and the "katas".
From the 1920s onwards, karate gained in popularity and was introduced to mainland Japan by one of its main proponents and masters, Gichin Funakoshi, who founded the Shotokan school. The Shotokan style is the most well known and Gichin Funakoshi is widely reputed to be the founder of modern karate.
It is these origins that Tora Kodo Karate Kai, the Twickenham-based karate club, aims to replicate in as practical a way as possible. Its lessons are open to people from all walks of life, with varying degrees of fitness and to students of all ages from 8 years and up.
Now housed at St Mary's University College, the school itself is steeped in its own history. It is thought to be one of the first karate clubs in the country and was formed in the 1960s in Chertsey, Surrey. In 1967 Sensei Michael (Sandy) Beach, well renowned for having trained with some of karate's master practitioners, became the school's Chief Instructor and in 1971 the club name was changed to Tora Shotokan Karate Club.
Although the school moved to Twickenham in 2004, the spirit of the original club remains today. Current instructors have trained with some of the most eminent names in karate and the emphasis is on continuing to teach the martial art as a means of self-defence and way of life as opposed to just coaching students to win competitions.
Sensei Robert Herincx, the club's Head Coach explains: "Unlike other clubs, we believe in the importance of being able to coherently explain and demonstrate our training methods and their reasons. Discipline is applied fairly and rigorously and we emphasise that Shotokan karate is a martial art that should be studied for its own sake and not as a vehicle for self esteem. Most importantly, the core of what we teach is that karate is a martial art, not a sport."
By this, he means the school teaches a range of techniques that would be effective against an assailant but could not be used in a sports competition.
"If you train solely to win competitions a lot of techniques that work in reality are neglected and the ones that win in competition are overly concentrated upon," he continues. "You can also see this same scenario with the kata. I have met a lot of karate practitioners who can perform very visually pleasing kata but have absolutely no idea how to use them in a real-life aggressive situation. So we teach the kata in its correct form and we also pull it apart for use in reality."
The kata are detailed patterns of karate techniques and there are 27 practised by the Shotokan school which are taught at Tora Kodo Kai. Each kata contains a variety of movements which are executed in specific ways and present the performer with different scenarios of attacks and appropriate responses to them.
Sensei Herincx also describes them as a direct link to the fighting system of the master who constructed them, a way to transfer the knowledge from instructor to student.
But although the past is a constant theme, the school also continually makes the leap to the present. For Sensei Herincx, it is important that the karate he teaches is relevant to the present day.
He is very clear on what the modern benefits of practising karate are, aside from keeping fit: "In my own experience over the years it has given me a balance in my life between the mind, body and spirit and has given me a good grounding. But I have also seen these things in our students as well. I have seen them get fitter and stronger, gain confidence, become more focussed and become better individuals."
In the katas he sees a means of fulfilment, of reaching answers to questions that may lie unconscious below the surface: "If you practice your kata properly it can be a conduit to answering many things from, how do I make my karate work in reality, to questions on directing the mind and staying in the moment. However, the practice of kata over many years allows you to find your own answers to questions that you have formulated."
And, asked if there might be a link between the repetition that forms part of the katas and meditation, he says: "I have a deep interest in meditation and karate has indeed been described as moving meditation. Meditation allows you to clear your mind of some of the clutter that we all carry from the past and the future. How many of us are really ever here in the present moment? We go through our lives possibly missing many things, caught up in unnecessary thinking when the only place that we can ever really be is in the present moment."
Training sessions at Tora Kodo Karate Kai are held at St Mary's University College, Twickenham on Wednesdays: 19:30 to 21:00 (Adult Fitness) | Fridays: 19:00 to 20:30 | Sundays: 09:30 to 11:00
As well as karate lessons, the club offers one-to-one private tuition and specific self defence courses. Find out more by calling 0203 376 6469.