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Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture
How do you drill Bunkai?

Hi All,

To kick things off on the new forum – and to prime things up for some videos I’ll be uploading to the website early next week – I thought it may be interesting to share ideas on bunkai drills.

Once a student has been shown a particular piece of bunkai, how do you get them to drill it? How do you structure your bunkai practise? Just let them do it? Putting the bunkai with a formal drill format? Combine several bits of bunkai in a single drill?

All the best,


Leigh Simms
Leigh Simms's picture

Hi Iain, 

At the moment I have been trying out different ways to drill bunkai.

If we use the application of say the  "armbar from HeianShodan/Pinan Nidan, then step through and finish with a lead punch".   Gedan Barai step Oi Zuki.   

I would get the students drill the first stage (the armbar) back and forth (on the same side). Then on the fifth the student finishes their partner with a finishing move (the example from the kata being a punch) .

The students have told me that this way they get to grips with the application itself, and by constant repetition they remember it more and also their finishing attacks are more flowing as they "just go" rather than think about it.

It is similar to the "thing" in Judo, where they step into to do a throw a few times, before throwing them. 

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Hi All,

The trouble I often see is bunkai being treated as an intellectual exercise or a puzzle to be solved. “Knowing what a move is for” is not enough. As I say at the seminars, “I know what an aeroplane is for, that does not make me a pilot!”. It’s being able to apply that knowledge that is key and hence we need to train accordingly.

In a fight we use the information in kata, we don’t use the kata. In the same way a chef uses the information in a cookery book; but they don’t eat cookery books! “Knowledge” is only part of it. The chef needs a knowledge of recipes, but they also need to cook and to test the food by eating it. Likewise, martial artists not only need to know the information within kata, they need to make use of it and test their ability to apply it in training too.

As most here will know, I have a 4 stage approach to kata:

1 – Learn and continuously refine the solo kata

2 – Learn the bunkai

3 – Identify the underlying principles of that bunkai so we can adapt and vary in accordance with those combative principles

4 – Gain live experience of applying those techniques and principles

I therefore have basic bunkai drills which help the student learn the bunkai within a specific combative context (as shown on The Pinan / Heian Series: The Complete Fighting System DVDs).  Stage 2.

We then start to combine and vary those drills into a more free flowing form of practise. I’ll be adding some basic clips showing that to this website soon. This then progresses to more “full on” free flowing drills where the uke’s actions are not scripted. I’ll also add some footage to the site soon to show that and we’ve shown the process in-depth in the forthcoming Beyond Bunkai DVD. Stage 3.

The final part of the process is live experience and we do that through a host of kata-based-sparring drills; each type of drill designed to develop specific combative attributes and the opportunity to develop and refine the application of the knowledge gained in the preceding stages. Stage 4.

The drills reflect the process so we are don’t fixate on “technique” but also progress to principle and application. In basic terms and using a broad brush, technique gives us the “what”; principles give us the “why”; and application is the “how” and the “when”. There is obviously some overlap, but that’s the basics of the structure we adopt and we feel it covers all the bases.

Hope people train kata and bunkai is a fascinating subject and I hope we can give the members and visitors of this site plenty of good ideas. Thank to all those who have contributed so far!

All the best,


John Homerstone
John Homerstone's picture

Hi Iain and Leigh

My training partners/students train bunkai using the reciprical drills that I teach. We start by performing the drill in a slow precise way then start to add the particular bunkai that we wish to practice, still at a slow, methodical pace. In this way we get to practice the proper triangulation ie are we head on when applying or do we need to be at a 45 degree angle to our partner. We also attempt the bunkai against the same attacking punch with our right side forward as well as the left in this way we start to discover the variations to the techniques within the kata. Once confident that we know the application speed and power is increased (until gloves and headguards are worn.

At this stage we introduce the next reciprocal drill and try to apply what we have learned against another attacking move

The first drill is against a straight right punch the second is against a right hooking punch the third is a right backfist number four and five drills are against elbow and knee attacks with the 6th against an uppercut.

I hope to show some of this type of training on youtube in the not to distant future and will place the links here (or can we upload clips directly to this site Iain)

Mark B
Mark B's picture

Hi Iain, all,

We tend to concentrate on Naihanchi for our in depth study. We begin by practicing an  application in isolation on both sides concentrating on the principles of what makes that particular motion work. As the student gains confidence with an application the ''bad guy'' will apply the offensive technique with greater intent, choosing which side they will grab/attack without warning the student, a great deal of control is still used, the student is, after all, still attempting to learn a single isolated technique.

The kind of attacks we train to deal with are always the things you would expect in a real encounter, many taken from personal experience on my part.

As the student becomes more proficient with single applications we tend to flow them from our cover,crash flinch response. We use this as our ''go to'' application should the rules of self protection ,awareness, avoidence, de-escalation, pre-emption fail us and the ''bad guy'' gains the initiative.

As the individual begins to better understand the principles of motion we start teaching ''flows'' from re-gaining the initiative, dominating the opponent, dealing with attempted spoiling techniques, clearing limbs etc.

As I consider Naihanchi to be a stand alone system we also drill various throws, locks chokes, these also flow from cover,crash. We do stress that these types of techniques should not be sought in favour of hand strikes, the idea is to deal with the opponent and get safe. Some drills last for several techniques but we always remind our students that they're ''just drills''.

We also apply simple Bunkai on your back, under the mount. We keep the options small and simple.

Sensitivity drills are a way we practice single motions. the ''good guy'' willclose their eyes, the partner will apply a particular single technique ,eg, wrist grab or clash of arms, the ''good guy'' will apply only the primary motion that would gain the initiative. This helps to prepare the student to deal with physical contact in a tactile rather than visual way.

The final stage is pretty much as Iain put it,Kata Based Sparring, we always have a ''good guy , bad guy'' scenario. The ''bad guy'' will try and spoil and obstruct, the ''good guy'' must gain and maintain the initiative, as Iain has said before, ''my go, my go, my go''

Thats a basic overview of how we approach Bunkai drills, hope it makes sense

All the best


Jock's picture

We are a young club where most of my students/mates have only been training for 18 months.

I have a generic drill based on mawashi-uki which is the initial reaction........

now I know that pre-emption is considered the best (apart from legging it) tactic. However none of us are doormen or in any occupation that exposes us to violence every day. Nor are any of my mates of a violent disposition so we are probably less inclined to go pre-emptive. In the last 30 years I have never 'chosen' to hit anybody outside the dojo although there have been numerous occasions where I would have been justified. This is my interpretation of self-protection. Therefore although I do teach pre-emptive strikes as the safest option as sure as a cat's a puss none of my students will choose it. 

Back to the drill....this generic mawashi uke is the initial reaction we practise it so we don't have to decide which technique to use, no thought just do. It can also be used as a pre-emptive slap but in the main it is reactive. Our sparring 'yoi' position is a 'social' stance with hands up in a fence position.

When some competence in the generic drill has been gained (this is usually fairly quick) I shoehorn in a few bunkai examples of the kata we are studying. We are not at the stage of going free yet but that will be the next evolution.


Andrew Paxton

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Hi All,

Just a very quick note - as I'm frantically busy approving memberships :-) – that this is fantastic! The original forum was awesome and I really want this one to be every bit as good, if not better, a source of good quality information for the 1000s of visitors we get each day. The above is superb and I can’t thank you all enough!

All the best,


shoshinkanuk's picture

OK, quick and dirty awnser -

1. I tend to teach a section of kata, then it's simple Bunkai, then another section of kata then it's simple Bunkai

at this stage the Bunkai piece is fairly rigid, ie said attack comes in, do the bunkai - learn from it, we might then lead the attack with a push to work the idea of not being in physical balance, we may grab first and then attack - but keep the Bunkai in place.

Once we get to the end of the kata the student will have a handful of application sets, all against common methods of assault. We will then drill them alot and begin to change -

1. the type of assault 2. the intensity of the assault Then we will begin to allow the Bunkai to 'change' according to your distance, requirements, or luck.........This then shows the bredth of the core karate movements and allows a more spontaneous responce.

Finally we pad up and go as near as possible full bore with it, we may also get into some simple flow drills with it, we muck about with the delivery - ie attacker goes hard, soft, hard, ie three reps - then switch and you go soft, hard, soft - it just stretches the mind and creates chaos in the body which we have to deal with, mental breakdown is common in real life..............................LOL.

I find this method is effective, but not pretty, it develops a principle led approach rather than snap shot karroty!

Final stage is we work against some karate like attacks, personally I do this after base level self defence has been delivered. A challange match from the rival school may be just around the corner.............

Mark B
Mark B's picture

One thing i find to be close to impossible to do is to pad up and drill Bunkai by ''going at it''.

The reason for this in my opinion is that certainly with the Bunkai I practice from Naihanchi virtually every application creates the advantage and then delivers stikes to vulnerable targets, eg. the base of the skull. If we practice and are not applying the techniques to the correct targets then for me we are not practicing Bunkai in the correct fashion.

Consider an application that is relatively simple, opponent grabs lapel, clamp the grabbing hand same side, strike into the arm on the ''crease '' which gives a predictable response of the opponents head moving sharply towards the Soto Uke which follows the arm strike. Even done with extreme control great care is needed to avoid driving the strike into the opponents jaw.

For this reason we tend to practice with due care, applying the technique that creates the advantage with reasonable vigour but taking care with what could possibly be a knockout technique.

For myself practicing Bunkai means becoming proficient in creating the opening and targeting the most vulnerable area available. Obviously opinions and approaches differ but I believe kata gives us the information as to the appropriate target areas ,so to practice anything else is inefficient  where Bunkai is concerned

All the best


shoshinkanuk's picture


Yes padding up has it's limits of course, but you can take things pretty far with the following kit -

full head guard with face mask full body armour mma gloves shin pads groin box mouth guard for me using this technique doesn't really focus on accuracy, which is more of a myth in reality anyhow - it allows shock to happen, which can't really be done without the pads without injury. My point, detialed 'Bunkai' with pads and going at it isn't the main point of the drill - contact is from both perspectives. (giving and recieving).

Combine that with no pads and control Bunkai work, for detail, I believe your getting a rounded view thats about as close as most of us can really get. Also you would be surprise how many strikes will penetrate the pads and armour and put someone down when delivered right.

Mark B
Mark B's picture

Hi Shoshinkanuk, all,

The application I described with Soto Uke is not dependent on accuracy, I agree that during a real confrontation accurate strikes are unlikely (pre-emptive, non telegraphed strikes apart) . The Bunkai we drill is always in support of cover, crash and counter, we don't practice for toe to toe tear ups. Therefore the aforementioned technique and the other Bunkai we drill are at closest possible combative range, we attempt to clear or control limbs and deliver strikes to areas , anywhere from the neck up, we don't aim for specific targets , the hand to elbow is the striking tool.

The reason we don't pad up and go full tilt is simply because in controlling or clearing limbs you facilitate predictive response, which in turn tends to present the most vulnerable areas, consider a forearm smash to the base of the skull, in my opinion impossible to do with anything but minimum impact.

Obviously different people have different approaches, this is the way we do it.

Kyoshi's picture

Hello All

I did this flowdrill as a companion to my article for one of the Jissen Issues.

I work bunkai back and forth, from a so called "Core-drill". The core drills is the repitition of movement back and forth, with the same attack/defense.

Examples of core drills:

Hubad,latsau,lapsau,play-of-grips-chisau-kakie-pushing hands

For instance-  the heian shodan bunkai - depending on your solution, the low block strike could be from the lapsau core drill position, to snatch down the top hand, clear the width and strike either heigh of low.

Tell me if your could use what i wrote - thanks


David Price
David Price's picture


Hi Iain,

Currently we have been starting with close range sparring, using your playing for grips exercise where you have to catch your training partner in a bear hug. And also incorporating shoulder tag to simulate the striking element. Once the students have a good grasp of this idea I’m planning to teach maybe 2 bunkai/boon Hae drills per grade

David Price
David Price's picture

Hi Iain,

Just been browsing and spotted this. Being pretty new to bunkai / boon Hae in terms of teaching it, we’re currently drilling individual bits of bunkai in a formal setting, but once they’re happy with the mechanics I plan do make it more dynamic and train it in different “live” ways 

Jeb Chiles
Jeb Chiles's picture
I usually teach the sections by applying them and then we'll get the techniques down for the kata and then we'll do Iain abernethy style flows for each kata with variations ! https://youtu.be/m6JXNvzFnP0