The Nature of Goju Ryu
by Garry Lever (2013)

Ryukyu Matsu
Ryukyu Matsu – National Tree of Okinawa. Shikinaen.

Without saying a word, nature reveals everything.

This is the phrase that came to the forefront of my mind as I checked upon the health of my 14 year old Larch bonsai toward the end of winter in the hope that I would begin to see some life returning to its branches soon. As a keen but rather amateur gardener with limited ability, the end of winter is always an anxious time for me as I hope the harsh weather hasn't killed off my favourite plants. In fact, I'm not a great fan of the winter at all, usually finding it an inconvenient period of relative inactivity and dreary landscapes. My favourite bit of winter is the final couple of weeks when I start to feel the change in the air bringing in the warmer weather and everything returning to life and growth. My initial glance at the branches of my bonsai showed little to encourage my hopes that it had indeed survived, but upon looking more closely, I saw the bulging pods which would soon sprout the light green needles of foliage. These pods showed that there was potential energy, ready to burst forth and expand. In the space of a year, my bonsai had expanded to its natural limits of growth and then retreated inward to preserve its essence in order to survive the winter. What a lesson in the nature of Goju Ryu this was! I realised at that moment that the essence of Goju Ryu could be discovered by closely observing the rhythms of nature, and in particular, trees.

The crest of the Shinsokai represents the Five Element Cycle.

Most plants largely absorb Carbon dioxide and release oxygen during the day, and then change to uptake oxygen and expel Carbon Dioxide during the night. Us humans absorb oxygen upon inhalation, and expel Carbon Dioxide upon exhalation. This can be considered the most basic expression of Goju as the contraction and expansion of the human body is harmonised with the absorption of oxygen, and expelling of Carbon Dioxide, matching the oxygen cycle of trees on a more minute scale. Trees absorb and release into the ground and the atmosphere, epitomising the concept of Ten, Chi, Jin (heaven, earth, man). Throughout China and South-East Asia it is still common to see members of the older generations exercising beneath trees in the early morning. This is because they believed the oxygen to be freshest at this moment, ready to be stolen at the point of release and untainted by the pollution of the day. As anybody who regularly trains alone at dawn will testify, it is indeed a very special time of day as everything awakens from a period of inactivity. Using the natural energy produced from the awakening of life is believed to enhance the health and lengthen ones lifespan. The change from winter to spring is an even greater example of this, and the experience makes the difficulties of winter worth it.

Larch tree branches in winter
Larch tree branches in winter

In winter, deciduous plants shed their foliage in order to conserve water and retain their 'essence'. This is a time of stillness, retention, contraction, conservation, void, and also of potential. It is the point of great Yin. In the Five Element Cycle, winter corresponds with Water which relates to the stillness which is found in death, and also the period of stillness before the birth of new life. Therefore, it should be considered a time of change and potential rather than finality or conclusion. In the cycle of breath, this occurs in the space between inhalation and exhalation. In technique, this is the point between contraction and expansion. It is the essence of softness, and a thorough understanding of this space is required in order to cause the opponent to 'fall' without effort. It is the ability to 'swallow' the opponent. I described in the past how I felt as though I was pushing against a cloud when doing kakie with Kinjo Seikichi Sensei. It was his ability to manipulate me expertly at the spaces between expansion and contraction that caused this. It ensured that there was nothing for me to push against, and nothing to absorb except for my own momentum which would always cause me to fall off balance as I attempted to seize control of the engagement. An understanding of this timing is essential to the effective application of softness in Goju Ryu.

Bougainvillea - Ryukyu Mura
Bougainvillea in Ryukyu Mura.

Spring sees the trees begin to blossom, bringing an assortment of beautiful colour as a reward for enduring the monochrome of an urban winter. From stillness comes movement, from inaction comes action. This is a period of great yin changing to weakening yin/strengthening yang. In the Five Element Cycle this corresponds to Wood, which relates to childhood and the making of new friendships and the early stages of romantic relationships. In breathing, this is the point at which we begin our exhalation, allowing the potential compressed through our inhalation release and expand. It is a period of growth, expansion, generation, emergence, awakening, and of movement. It can be likened to the sprouting of a young plant, reaching toward the sky, or the young new needles of my bonsai breaking free of their protective pod. In bujutsu, it applies to techniques where we expand forward, entering and moving in on the opponent. Techniques such as mae geri, teisho uchi, nukite, etc, are examples. Stances such as zenkutsu dachi, advancing stepping movements, or the rising of the body from a compressed posture as in the opening movements of Sanchin are also examples, as well as the initiation of expanding techniques and the beginning of exhalation in the cycle of breath. In kakie, this is the point at which you initiate the push toward your partner. It is also the skill of 'floating' the opponent.

The vivid sub-tropical colours of Okinawa are believed to bring natural happiness and an easy going nature. Perhaps this is why Ryukyu was known as 'the land of the happy immortals'.

Summertime is the peak of the seasonal energy cycle, corresponding to great Yang. The trees are in full foliage, making the most of the suns strong rays during photosynthesis. In the Five Element Cycle this corresponds with Fire. In our life cycle this period corresponds with the change to adulthood where we discover and strive to achieve our ambitions and move up in the world. In breathing it is the point at which our exhalation is strongest, combining the power of the breath with the expansion of the limbs and the rising of our natural energy. It is vibrant, energetic, active, dominant, and strong. It is the epitome of Go. In bujutsu it corresponds with the moment of hakkei and chinkuchi, where our entire spirit is focused upon one instant. Techniques which advance, smash, overwhelm, and engulf the opponent typify this point of the cycle. In Sanchin it is the point at which we complete our extending movements and exhalation, sealing the breath with the tongue hitting the roof of the mouth. At this point, our energy peaks. In kakie it is the final stage of our push as we extend our energy into the opponent. It is the ability to 'spit'.

Utaki - Okinawa
With strong roots penetrating and drawing from the ground, and supple limbs reaching toward the skies, sacred trees such as this one at an Utaki in Shuri are the epitome of Ten, Chi, Jin and provide a good environment for Kiko training.

In the Five Element Cycle, Fire is followed by Earth. After the peak of strength and vibrancy, there is a period of settling down. The end of summertime and beginning of autumn is one of my favourite periods of the year as the heat of summer subsides, yet the climate is still comfortable and nurturing. In Goju Ryu technique, we often follow striking techniques by seizing and controlling the opponent by either immobilising or knocking them to the ground. This is an example of this cycle in action within our kata. Within our kata, there are also intentional pauses. As I have written about in the past, these pauses are not just for effect, but actually serve an important purpose. To settle and take stock during a situation requires courage and mental fortitude, but it also ensures that we act rationally and efficiently. Often kata are performed too fast (yes, it is possible to be too fast in a fight!), and the subtleties become clouded. The grounding of techniques and postures is an important element of Goju Ryu, and one which is gradually becoming lost as we continue to move toward the visually impressive rather than the efficient and effective.

Autumn colours in Kyoto.

At autumn time, the leaves of the trees begin to turn as they prepare for winter, withdrawing and preparing to conserve their vital essences. In the Five Element Cycle this period corresponds with Metal which symbolises the shedding of excess, withdrawing, retreat, severance, condensing, contracting, drawing in. Here, great Yang changes to weakening Yang / strengthening Yin. In our cycle of life, it is approaching old age and strengthening the close relationships which are important, whilst cutting the ties with those who are considered 'baggage'. It also corresponds with the painful experiences that the severance of relationships produces. In the cycle of breath it is the beginning of inhalation. It is the shedding of foliage. In Sanchin, it corresponds with techniques which are contracting such as pulling back the arm before punching, or drawing in with the blocking movements of mawashi uke. It is the body slightly dropping in our posture in order to draw into the ground as we pull back toward the body. In kata, techniques where we draw the opponent in with softness such as our uke waza, tai sabaki, or moving off line with suri ashi are examples. In kakie, it is the point at which our opponent begins their push and we blend with their movements, drawing them in as we withdraw our pushing arm. It is also the ability to 'sink'.

As hopefully you have seen through this article, the rhythms of nature are closely linked with our own lives on both the grand and micro scale. Through developing an appreciation for the workings of nature, we can see similarities in everything and everyone. I am often left speechless at the power of the natural elements, particularly when the results are viewed through the course of thousands of years' worth of continual effort. I can remember driving through a valley near my sensei's home in Almeria when he pointed out that the valley had been carved through the rock over time by rainwater running down from the mountains. To think that a substance as soft as water can achieve something like that is quite amazing. Similarly, I have had the extremely good fortune to have had the opportunity to cross hands with various martial artists whose command of softness is in my opinion superb. Their apparent lack of effort and the results that it achieved left me in no doubt that there is indeed 'magic' within the martial arts. An understanding of the Do develops an intuitive knowledge which can be applied to many different subjects and areas of life. Martial arts and Karate can develop a familiarity with the Do, and it is through this familiarity that the secrets are revealed slowly over time. Even when the 'secrets' are laid out before you, it is impossible to fully understand and appreciate them until the familiarity has been achieved. I think sometimes we are overly concerned with matters relating to combat to truly appreciate what else goes on under the surface in this fine art of ours.

Hopefully I will see some young new needles return to my bonsai soon...

Garry Lever
Uraniwa Dojo
London England

“No matter how you may excel in the art of Karate, and in your scholastic endeavors,
nothing is more important than your behavior and your humanity as observed in daily life.”