Sunday, April 21, 2013

Age and Martial Arts in Arizona

Want to be active and live to be more than a 100? Move from Arizona to Okinawa! If you can’t move to Okinawa, watch calories, eat well, train hard and take evening walks.

There is a misconception in Arizona that martial arts are only for children. When I started training in martial arts in the 1960s, it was unheard of to see children in karate. So what happened?

 The misconception probably began with programs like Little Ninjas. Today, people train at almost any age and as many as 50 million people train in Okinawan karate, worldwide. I’ve had students in their mid- to late-80s training in karate and kobudo (my oldest was in his early 90s): one in particular, a professor at the University of Wyoming, had the fastest reflexes of all my students. So there is no upper age limit.

 How about kids? If you find a good instructor, kids can start very young (it’s recommended to start them young). My youngest was 3 years of age from Mesa, Arizona. But one major problem with children is attention span and maturity, so I suspect the best way to judge if a child is ready for martial arts is to determine if they can handle an entire class (45 to 60 minutes) without losing focus. If they can, it may be time to start them – just be cautious! There are a large number of martial arts schools that have no evidence of lineage (it is suggested as many as 80 to 85% have no proof of lineage or proper certification). And personally, I would also be very concerned about starting a child in judo, jujutsu, ninjutsu and aikido as these martial arts focus on joint manipulation. 

 A recent study on the elderly of Okinawa led to the access of more than 600 Okinawan centenarians. The research indicated Okinawans enjoy the longest average life-span in the world while having relatively good personal health throughout their lives. The study also indicated Okinawan people have the lowest frequency of the three leading killers of Westerners: coronary heart disease, stroke and cancer. Could this good health be a result of favorable Okinawan genetics?

 The research suggests Okinawan longevity is more a result of life-style choices of Okinawa people; particularly since Japanese people outside of Okinawa do not show the same increased benefits, and Okinawans who have been Westernized fall prey to the same health issue issues as Western people.

 Compared to Westerners, Okinawans age more slowly and are 80% less likely to get heart disease. They're also 25% less likely to be afflicted with breast or prostate cancer, they have a 50% lower risk of contracting colon cancer and they are less likely to get dementia. On average, Okinawan people spend 97% of their lives free of disabilities. These benefits are likely a result of diet and exercise.

Pencil sketch of Sensei Gichin Funakoshi – father
of modern karate.

Okinawans have learned the value of pushing away from the dinner table. An Okinawan rule ‘hara hachi bu’ (eat until 80% full) provides a guideline to limit daily calorie intake. Another Okinawan guideline: ‘eat mostly plants’ is very beneficial. The typical Okinawan diet includes green and yellow vegetables, some whole grains, tofu, fish and other legumes. Little sugar, meat, and very little dairy is in their diet. For those of you in Wyoming, this could be an obstacle. When I gave up red meat while a resident of Wyoming three decades ago, I often received strange looks from ranchers when I turned down steak dinners. Most thought I had a few marbles missing.

 The Okinawan people exercise daily in their labors in the fields, gardens and on fishing boats. And being that karate and kobudo originated on Okinawa, a significant percentage of the Ryukyu island chain population trains several times a week. And Okinawan karate and kobudo have been shown to be exceptional for burning calories. Past studies prove intense karate training burns more calories per hour than any other form of exercise. But karate should be practiced with the philosophy of Tim the Tool Man Taylor – with more power!

So what are the benefits to eating right and training all your life in karate and kobudo? The great majority of Okinawan Shorin-Ryu karate masters from the Shuri-te systems have lived to be very old, not only because of their healthy diets but also because they remained active in martial arts. It’s been rumored this does not hold for martial artists from Naha-te systems: naha-te martial artists are rumored to die younger due to intensity of ibuki (breathing). But there are no statistics that I’m aware of to prove this one way or another.

There are many examples of elderly Okinawan karate practitioners. Visit the link of Soke Seikichi Uyehara demonstrating a kata. At 88 in 1992, he was quite agile. Soke Uyehara ended up living to be 100 and taught martial arts to the day he passed on!

Another Shorin-Ryu martial artist, Sensei Teru Hendrey an instructor of Yamashita Shorin-Ryu Karate is still teaching karate. Sensei Hendrey was born to an Okinawan family of samurai lineage in 1927. She was exposed to martial arts in 1941 and began a study of Shorin-Ryu Karate in the late 1980s while in her 60s. She is now 86 with godan (5th dan) certification in Shorin-Ryu. Tadashi Yamashita himself was born in Japan in 1942 and is active teaching Shorin-Ryu karate and works as a stunt coordinator for Hollywood at the age of 71. You would be hard pressed to find anyone in the world at any age, who could punch harder than Yamashita.

Another martial artist - Shugoro Nakazato began studying Shorin-Ryu Karate as a student of Chosin Chibana (Hanshi Chibana lived to be 83) in 1935 at the age of 16. He is now ranked as judan (10th dan) and head of the Shorinkan Shorin-Ryu karate system at the age of 94.

One of many paths on Okinawa. When we think of traditional karate,
we think of karate-do. The way (or path) of karate. Photo by Jesse Bergkamp.
A prominent Kendoka on Okinawa is Sensei Moriji Mochida who reportedly trains daily at the age of 90. Another Okinawan, Sensei Keiko Fukuda began studying judo in 1935 under Jigoro Kano, the father of judo, and has been training and teaching judo for many years. Sensei Keiko is a judan (10th dan) in judo and 99 years young.

Shoshin Nagame, Soke, taught Shorin-Ryu Karate until he died at 90. Nagame was a soke of Shorin-Ryu and author of a couple of significant books on karate.

The father of Japanese Karate, Gichin Funakoshi, introduced Shorin-Ryu Karate (with Anko Itosu) to the rest of Japan. He passed away at the age of 88 and his system of Shorin-Ryu was renamed Shotokan Karate to honor of the great master (Funakoshi had a pen name of Shoto). There are photos on the internet and even a few movie clips of Funakoshi teaching karate at a very late age. At the time Funakoshi was introducing karate to Japan, another great Okinawan master – Anko Itosu, the person responsible for the Pinan katas, introduced karate to Okinawan schools (early 20th century). Itosu died at the age of 83 or 84.

As far as the Naha-te martial arts masters, it would be interesting to have someone compile statistics on longevity. The first karate I studied was kokusinkai developed by Sosai Mas Oyama. Kokusinkai was basically a modification of goju-ryu, a naha-te style of karate. Oyama died at an early age of 70 for a martial artist. But he was not Okinawan: instead was Korean who had been assimilated by Japanese society and changed his name to a Japanese name. There are suggestions his style of karate may provide underlying health problems which stem from ibuki (deep breathing) taught in some kata and due to many injuries and concussions suffered by kokushinkai martial artists. But Oyama’s early passing could also be a result of fighting bulls and trees with his bare hands. He was also known to travel the world taking on any fighters.

Two other great grandmasters of Naha-te and Goju-Ryu karate were Chojun Miyagi a very powerful Okinawan martial artist who died at the early age of 65 and Gogen (the cat) Yamaguchi, who was not born on Okinawa; even so, he lived to be 80.

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