Iain Abernethy is a leading exponent of applied karate and kata application (bunkai). He has written five books and produced numerous DVDs on his unique approach to kata and traditional karate. Iain is also a member of the Combat Hall of Fame.
Iain holds the grade of 5th Dan with both the British Combat Association and Karate England. He is also in great demand on the seminar circuit and teaches many seminars on his approach to practical karate both here in the UK and overseas. Traditional Karate caught up with Iain to ask him about his views on karate, kata-application and his training.
TRAD: Let's start at the beginning. Could you tell us a little about how you became involved with the martial arts?
IAIN ABERNETHY: I started training as a child. My first introduction to the martial arts was through martial arts movies. That led to me reading a few books on the subject and I guess the seed was planted there. I also got into my share of schoolyard scraps and I was starting to think that it may be useful to know what I was doing. Some of my school friends went to a dojo fifteen miles or so from our home town. The main sensei at the dojo was Doug James. So I decided to go along with them.
TRAD: What was it about Karate that so appealed to you?
IAIN ABERNETHY: I liked the dojo atmosphere. Doug demanded a high level of technical precision. His classes were also physically taxing and he wouldn't tolerate anyone giving less that 100%. It was a challenge. It was very satisfying on the days where I found myself up to that challenge, and very motivating on the days where I fell short. Doug's approach ensured that he got the best out of me.
Doug also taught in a traditional way. As a world-level referee he is obviously heavily involved in the sport side of things, but in the classes he very much emphasised the traditional aspects. I think I would have lost interest very quickly if the club had a strong sporting bias. Not that there is anything wrong with sport karate, it's just that it doesn't really appeal to me.
Like most people, I knew very little about karate before starting training. I guess I could just have easily started any other martial art. In retrospect though, I'm glad I became involved with karate because it really suits me. There's no other art that appeals to me in the same way. That said, I certainly don't consider karate to be somehow superior to other arts; it's just a matter of personal taste.
TRAD: What grade do you currently hold?
IAIN ABERNETHY: I have a 5th Dan with Karate England , which was awarded to me by Doug James 7th Dan. I also hold a 5th Dan with the British Combat Association, which was awarded to me by Peter Consterdine 8th Dan and Geoff Thompson 6th Dan. I joined the BCA as they are the leading group when it comes to the practical side of things. Their instructor courses are superb and give you the opportunity to train with leading people in practical martial arts, CQB and self-protection. Geoff and Peter have also been great mentors to me.
It meant a great deal to me to get 5th Dan from Doug as he's been my karate sensei since the beginning. I also have a huge amount of respect for Peter and Geoff and to have them award me such a grade was a real honour. I also personally feel it's nice to hold the same grade in the traditional aspects (Karate England ) and the practical aspects (British Combat Association) as I've always tried to unify both aspects in my training and teaching.
TRAD: At what point in your training did you start to research kata application, or 'bunkai'?
IAIN ABERNETHY: Kata always fascinated me from day one. I really couldn't tell you why, but it really caught my imagination. I was always naturally drawn to the pragmatic aspects and kata so I guess it was only natural for me to study how they fitted together. I did a few kumite competitions in the early days, but I just couldn't get my head around competitive training. For example, the very notion of training to control strikes is counter-intuitive to me. Why train to make yourself less effective when it really counts? I think my pragmatic bias meant that I was always looking at karate from a practical perspective and kata was just a part of that. However, I guess it's been over the last fifteen years or so that I've been studying kata-application in greater detail and depth.
TRAD: Bunkai means different things to different people: to some it's the carefully choreographed displays associated with kata competition, to others it refers to the use of acupuncture points. Could you briefly summarise what 'bunkai' means to you and your approach to kata application?
IAIN ABERNETHY: I don't class choreographed, compliant displays as bunkai. Real fights aren't choreographed or compliant and therefore such demos are a million miles away from what the formulators of the kata had in mind. It can look cool and it takes a lot of skill to do, but it's not true bunkai.
Hitting a weak point will make an already effective technique more effective, but I don't feel that they are the key to combat or understanding kata. I've always found being accurate in the chaos of a live fight to be extremely difficult. It's very naive to believe that just because you can hit a point on a compliant partner in the dojo, that you'll be able to do the same when it really kicks off. Don't get me wrong, I've seen some really good pressure point stuff, but pressure points are at best a small part of the big picture. As I say, they can potentially make a good technique better, but they won't make ineffective techniques work. Most of the people I know who make practical use of pressure points would agree with me on that. I also have a hard time with the notion of Chi, so acupuncture points don't feature in my approach to kata.
As I see kata, they were created to be a record of combative techniques and principles. Bunkai to me therefore means applying the lessons of kata in a way that is relevant to the reality of combat. I have a four stage approach in order to achieve this. It would be a bit lengthy to explain it all in this interview, but we can cover the basic idea.
The first stage is to learn the actual kata and to continually refine your performance of the solo-form. The second stage is to learn how those movements are applied in combat. I have a set of guidelines that allow people to understand the language of kata and therefore understand what the kata is showing. The third stage is to analyse the combative principles being demonstrated by a kata application and learn how to apply them in a free flowing and versatile way. Masters such as Funakoshi and Otsuka emphasised the importance of this in their writings, but still very few people do it. The fourth stage is to gain live, practical experience of applying the techniques and principles of the kata. We do this through what I've termed Kata-Based-Sparring. If people want a more detailed explanation of this approach, there's a free e-book they can download from iainabernethy.com which is called "An Introduction to Applied Karate". That explains the four stages in more detail.
TRAD: Explain what you mean by Kata-Based-Sparring? How is that different from regular sparring?
IAIN ABERNETHY: Most dojo sparring is based on modern competitive rules. It is therefore very limited and isn't transferable to real situations. When correctly understood, the kata reveal just how wide-ranging and holistic karate is. In the kata we see grabbing, throws, hooks, uppercuts, locks, elbows, knees, chokes, strangles, ground-fighting etc. However, these methods aren't used in regular sparring and therefore the karateka never develops the ability to use these techniques when it counts. I therefore use the term Kata-Based-Sparring to refer to sparring that's more complete and representative of the whole art.
This kind of training obviously needs to be structured so that it is safe and appropriate to the level of the students. The heavy contact, all-in stuff is something that the black belts choose to do and is done away from the class. However, there are plenty of other versions of KBS that are suitable and beneficial for the lower grades. The e-book I mentioned earlier contains more information on KBS. For a detailed discussion of the whole concept, people should check out my Bunkai-Jutsu book.
TRAD: So is everything you do with kata relevant to self-defence?
IAIN ABERNETHY: All the movements of kata should be understood from the perspective of real situations. However, it's important to clearly understand what we mean by "self-defence" and what it really involves.
If you train to be pre-emptive - and you should - one solid strike is all you really need for self-protection. Despite the huge misunderstandings surrounding the doctrine of "there is no first attack in karate" - in their writings, Funakoshi, Mabuni, and Motobu all endorsed pre-emption when physical conflict could not be avoided - it's a must in real situations. Therefore, for the self-protection side of things, our training should strongly emphasise that single pre-emptive strike before fleeing. There's not a lot of training needed for that. Everything else we learn through our martial studies will back up that strike if we fail to escape, but that "everything else we learn" forms a minute percentage of true self-protection.
Martial arts are a life long study, kata is a life long study, but you can teach core self-protection concepts in a matter of hours. As I say, the physical side of it essentially revolves around a singe pre-emptive strike. I'd also like to point out that 95% of self-protection is about awareness and having a healthy attitude to personal safety. The last 5% is the "hard" physical skills. Of that last 5% the majority of it is controlling the situation and being pre-emptive. It's a common mistake for people to believe that fighting skills are the key to self-protection.
Martial artists need to understand the important differences between fighting, self-protection and martial arts. They may have things in common, but they are not the same. Martial artists need to be clear what they are training for at any given time. So in answer to the question, everything in kata is relevant to real situations, but the combative techniques in kata are a minor part of true self-protection.
TRAD: Aside from your traditional karate training, do you train in anything else? Also, do you train under anyone on a regular basis these days?
IAIN ABERNETHY: I haven't studied any other arts formally or on an ongoing basis. However, I regularly train under practitioners of other disciplines as it helps me to enhance what I do and introduce other elements. The BCA instructors' courses really help in this regard as they are always run by top people and the whole aim of them is to help people cross-train and expand their knowledge base.
As regards who I train under regularly, I train under Doug James twice a month. He ensures that I say sharp and that I continually improve and solidify my karate technique. I also travel down to Huddersfield on Thursday mornings to train under Peter Consterdine and Brian Seabright at the infamous "Training Day" sessions. Those sessions are a high-level, high-impact blend of full-contact, free-style and traditional karate. Brian's ability to come up with training drills amazes me. At every session there is something new, and the drills are always very challenging. Peter's striking power is phenomenal and holding the shields for him is an absolute nightmare! Even through the kick-shield I still end up with huge bruises all over my arms and chest. Peter's guidance and instruction is invaluable.
TRAD: I've seen the DVDs of those "Training Day" sessions. How does the reality of those sessions compare with the DVDs?
IAIN ABERNETHY: I was invited along to the sessions by Peter. It's obviously a great opportunity and I committed to attending on a regular basis before I attended my first one. That way, no matter how hard they were, I couldn't back out! I watched the Training Day DVDs and as hard as they look, the reality is infinitely harder. They are extremely hard sessions. In fact, I've never experienced anything harder. To get to Huddersfield on time I also have to get up at 4:30am . so I always sleep really well on a Thursday night! There are normally 6 or 7 people at the sessions and they are all hard trainers and highly skilled. In that environment you can't help but develop. I've learnt a lot from those sessions. People reading this should definitely check out those DVDs.
TRAD: In 2000 your first book 'Karate's Grappling Methods' was published. Tell us a little about that book and the process of getting it published?
IAIN ABERNETHY: My kata study had showed me that in addition to all the strikes there was also a significant amount of fundamental grappling in kata. This had led to me including a wide range of close-range methods in my training. It seemed to me that there were loads of books on the striking aspects of karate, but none on the grappling side of things. Grappling was also undergoing a bit of a resurgence at the time, so it seemed to be the ideal time to put pen to paper.
I submitted a few sample chapters to various publishers and one in the US asked me to complete the book. I finished it off and sent it to them, only to be told that they had now spent their budget for instructional books. I talked to Geoff Thompson about it and he advised me to self-publish. Peter Consterdine and Dawn of the BCA helped me typeset the book and guided me through the publishing process. When I had the book printed, I contacted Summersdale Publishers and they agreed to distribute the book. It's sold really well over the last six years, it has been reprinted three times and it's now been translated into other languages.
TRAD: The next book you wrote was 'Bunkai-Jutsu: The Practical Application of Karate Kata'. Tell us more about that book.
IAIN ABERNETHY: Bunkai-Jutsu is a more in-depth book. Where as KGM concentrated on technique, Bunkai-Jutsu was about the underlying principles of kata. The idea was to produce a kind of user manual for kata. It essentially outlined the process that people need to follow to make their kata training practical and relevant to real combat. The book has also proved popular and has been reprinted a few times now.
TRAD: In recent years, we've seen a huge growth in the information being put out on kata application. Why do you think this is and what do you think about the many approaches to bunkai now being put forward?
IAIN ABERNETHY: I think there is more information being put out now because demand for information on bunkai has never been greater. People simply are no longer content to practice kata without understanding what it is for. As regards the stuff that's out there now, I think some of it is brilliant, and some of it I strongly disagree with. However, the important thing is that all this information is out there as it enables people to look at the information available and adopt the aspects that work for them into their training. I have an approach that has proved popular, that works and that I believe in 100%, but I don't expect people to adopt what I do chapter and verse. It's great that there is a growing amount of information out there and people need to take advantage of it. As I say, study it all and use it to develop an approach to training that holds true for you.
TRAD: How many other books have you now written?
IAIN ABERNETHY: I've written five books in total. We've already mentioned KGM and Bunkai-Jutsu. I've also written a book on throwing called "Throws for Strikers: The Forgotten Throws of Karate, Boxing and Taekwondo" and a book on the arm-locks recorded in kata called "Arm-Locks for All Styles". The most recent book I have written is what I'd guess you'd call a self-help book. It is called "Mental Strength: Condition your Mind, Achieve your Goals". All the books are done with Summersdale Publishers.
TRAD: The 'Mental Strength' book was a bit of a departure from your previous works. What motivated you to write a self-help book and how was it received by those who had read your previous works?
IAIN ABERNETHY: I'm a great believer that we should all continually develop ourselves and this belief is central to my martial arts training and my life. I'm not one for resting on my laurels. Geoff Thompson - who has a lot of success with his self-help books - advised me to take my views and experiences and make a book out of them. Geoff has been a great help to me with my books and his advice has never steered me wrong. I therefore got to work on the book.
It took a year to complete and I'm pleased to say that it's been well received. The people who were into my martial arts books could see that the lessons of martial arts are central to the book and the process outlined could be used to advance their martial arts training. However, it's not a martial arts book and it therefore reached a different audience. It's been great to receive emails from people who have used the process in the book to develop themselves and improve their lives. It's definitely the book I'm most proud of.
TRAD: You've also made a lot of videos and DVDs on practical karate and bunkai. How did you get started with those?
IAIN ABERNETHY: Doug was involved with Video Martial Arts International and he suggested that it may be a good idea to make some videos to accompany the KGM book. I hadn't really thought about videos, but it seemed like a good idea. The advantage of videos and DVDs is that people can actually see the techniques being performed. The videos were big hit with those who'd bought the book. After the Bunkai-Jutsu book was published, I also filmed some videos showing the applications of the Pinan / Heian series, Tekki / Naihanchi, Bassai, and Kushanku / Kanku-Dai.
Summersdale - the publishers of my books - set up a DVD part of their media group called "Summersdale Productions". They contacted me to see it I'd like to convert my videos to DVD and if I'd like to film some more titles with them. At first, I think it was just Geoff Thomson, Wing Chun Sifu Alan Gibson and me that they had on their books. However, they've quickly established themselves as the leaders for instructional martial arts DVDs and they now work with most of the UK's leading martial artists.
TRAD: Do all the martial artists working with Summersdale have much to do with each other?
IAIN ABERNETHY: I know a lot of them through the BCA. Geoff Thompson and Peter Consterdine are the joint chief-instructors, and I met Rick Young and Mo Teague through the BCA instructors' courses. I did a series of seminars last year with Chris Rowen and we regularly chat on the phone. I wrote the foreword to Darren Westwood's and Andy Paskin's book so that's how I got to know them. I first met Alan Gibson through Summersdale. I met Jamie Clubb at a seminar of mine and we found that despite our differing backgrounds, we had very similar views on the martial arts. I train regularly with Peter, but I only see the others occasionally. All of them are really nice guys who really know their stuff.
Last Year Summersdale made a DVD called "Cross-Training in the Martial Arts: The Anatomy of Combat". That DVD featured most of us and we all met up for the filming of that. It's a great DVD and it's been a massive seller. Definitely one to watch for all those wanting to gain an understanding of how other martial arts can enhance what they already do. It will also give people a good introduction to the entire Summersdale team. People should visit summersdale.com and have a look at the range of stuff that is there. Most of the people working with Summersdale will also be meeting up at the Summerdale stand at SENI on the 6th and 7th of May. Hopefully, those reading this will come along and see us.
TRAD: You do a lot of seminars in the UK and overseas. How did you get started on the seminar circuit?
IAIN ABERNETHY: When the first book came out, I was contacted by people looking for hands on instruction and inviting me down for seminars. I think the first was Dan Redmond of the Chujo Karate Association. Since then Danny has regularly invited me over to Northern Ireland. I think my next visit will be my tenth seminar for the CKA. They are a great group. There are also quite a few others who regularly invite me to teach seminars and the number is growing all the time. I would mention them by name, but I'm sure to miss some of them out. I really enjoy the seminars. It's a day spent doing all the things I'm enthusiastic about with people who share that enthusiasm. They are great fun.
TRAD: What does a standard seminar consist of?
IAIN ABERNETHY: There is no standard seminar. It all depends upon what the host wants, the level of the people in attendance, is it a session on kata application, or a session on raw combative methods? One common element is that I do try to explain all the underlying ideas and concepts so that people can easily take what I do and apply it to what they do.
TRAD: With all the teaching, seminars, books, DVDs, how do you find time to train?
IAIN ABERNETHY: I am very busy nowadays, but training is always a top priority. It's my level that permits me to teach, write, make DVDs etc. Training always comes first. It can sometimes be difficult to fit all the other stuff in though. I reached the point a few years ago where it was obvious the time had come to quit my day job as an electrician. I simply didn't have enough time to go to work. Thankfully, the money earned from the seminars, books and DVDs allows me to provide for my family and dedicate my time to the martial arts.
TRAD: What does your own training consist of?
IAIN ABERNETHY: I train 5 or 6 days a week. I have "Training Day" on Thursday. I do 2 or 3 other martial arts sessions a week which are a mix of kata, impact work, sparring, partner work and drills. I also have two gym sessions a week which are heavy weight sessions combined with cardiovascular work. I always have at least one day off, and have one floating rest day that I'll take if I need it.
TRAD: Your training seems to have a strong 'physical' element. Do you think being in good shape is important for the martial artist?
IAIN ABERNETHY: It's vital. From a martial perspective we need to understand that combat is both mentally and physically demanding. It's won't matter how knowledgeable you are, or how good your technique is, if you're not able to deal with those demands. As martial artists we also should have the self-discipline to train regularly and avoid over indulgence. All martial artists should be in good condition.
TRAD: A lot of martial artists say that weight training is detrimental. I take it you've never found that?
IAIN ABERNETHY: Never. I've been weight lifting for over 18 years and I've found that it's made me faster and more explosive. It's also helped me to avoid and recover from injury.
TRAD: How do you structure your weight training?
IAIN ABERNETHY: Low reps and heavy weights. The exact opposite of what a lot of martial arts instructors advise! I also stick to compound exercises (ones that involve more than one muscle group) as I feel they are better for functional strength. There's a lot of nonsense talked about weight training for the martial artist, and most of it originates from martial arts instructors who know little about weight training. I'm a qualified weight training instructor so I'd like to think I know what I'm talking about. My approach certainly works for me.
TRAD: Your website it a popular applied karate resource. Tell us a little bit about your website and how you went about setting it up?
IAIN ABERNETHY: The site is iainabernethy.com and it's been running for around 3 years now. People kept telling me to get a website, but I was a little reluctant at first. Eventually I contacted Richard Barnes of Net-Agents. He's a friend and student of Geoff Thompson and he made a great job of putting the site together. He even managed to set it up so even I can maintain it and update it, which is no mean feat!
We've been adding to it for years and we've now got a huge amount articles on kata application and applied martial arts, free e-books to download, details of upcoming seminars, a free monthly newsletter which now has over 3000 subscribers, and a great message board. The site is proving really popular and gets thousands of hits a day.
There's a really strong worldwide network being formed around the site. We've got a great mix of well-known martial artists and the not so well-known as members, and all levels of experience from beginners to those at master level. Although it's my site, it doesn't solely revolve around my way of viewing things. There are plenty of great people on there who have their own approach to all aspects of the martial arts. We all share information freely and help each other to advance. We also don't go in for the negative, puerile behaviour which is unfortunately all too common on many message boards. The members simply won't have it and all "keyboard combatants" are quickly shown the door. Serious martial artists are always made very welcome though.
TRAD: What projects are you currently involved with?
IAIN ABERNETHY: We recently produced volumes 4 & 5 of the Bunkai-Jutsu DVD series. These DVDs cover the applications of Seishan / Hangetsu & Chinto / Gakauku. People have been asking me to do those since volume 3 was released in 2003. By the time this interview is printed, the DVDs should be widely available.
I'm also in the very early stages of working on some new DVDs. It's probably a bit early to say too much at this stage, but the idea is to make some training DVDs that will depart from the standard martial arts DVD format to produce a completely interactive training tool. Hopefully we'll be making something quite unique and pretty special.
The other big thing on the horizon is of course SENI 2006 on the 6th and 7th of May. As I mentioned earlier, myself, Alan Gibson, Mo Teague, Rick Young, Chris Rowen and other members of the Summersdale team will be at stand 877 in the Classical Warrior section. Last year was a real blast as I spent two days solid talking martial arts with everyone I met! It was great fun. If anyone reading this interview fancies a chat with any of the guys, please pop along and see us. We'll be glad to see you.
TRAD: What piece of advice would you give to readers to help them develop their martial arts?
IAIN ABERNETHY: The key is to keep reaching beyond what you find comfortable. If your training isn't taxing you, then you're not growing from it. In every session, be sure to move outside your comfort zone. That way you can't help but make strong progress. Above all else though, be sure to keep enjoying the challenge that martial arts provides.
TRAD: Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions.
IAIN ABERNETHY: You're very welcome.