Martial Arts: Martial Arts Teaching and Learning
By George Donahue
Aside: What kind of guy spends hours punching wet towels?
Sometimes, when you want a little makiwara practice, there is no traditional makiwara available. At other times a traditional makiwara would be too noisy for the situation at hand. For example, when my children were younger, I often felt a little restless after putting them to bed, and I would crave a makiwara session. I couldn’t use my regular portable makiwara because the noise would wake them up and I’d have to start all over in getting them down for the night. I couldn’t use my heavy bag because of the squeaking of the chains, and even the thumping of an bag on the floor or against a wall could be too much. At other times, I’d be on the road and need to unwind with a late night makiwara session in my hotel room; I suspected that the occupants of the neighboring rooms would be perturbed if it sounded as though I were pounding on the wall.
At such times it becomes necessary to think outside the box—or outside the wood, in this case. One of my favorite solutions for this situation is also one of the simplest. I soak a heavy towel, wring out a bit of the excess moisture, fold it in half lengthwise, and drape it over the shower curtain rod (with the bath mat below, to catch the drips). If there is no heavy towel available, as is often the case in the sort of hotels I can afford, I use two light towels folded together. A few times, when there was no towel to spare, I’ve used a soaked sweatshirt (doubled or tripled dirty T-shirts would do as well). When the shower curtain rod is the spring-loaded type, the sweatshirt is actually the best solution. You can thread the bar through the arms of the sweatshirt, then tighten the rod back in place. If the curtain rod is bolted into place, you can use your travel screwdriver (of course you have one) to take it down, or you can use the arms of the sweatshirt to tie it into place. Either way, the sweatshirt never slips off like a towel will if you don’t frequently mend its position on the bar. And, it looks surprisingly like a human torso.
Okay, so now you have a wet towel or sweatshirt dripping all over the floor. What good does it do? To strike it like you would a firmly braced wooden makiwara would be useless, unless you have a good imagination, in which case it might be very satisfying. But that’s not it. For me, aside from its handy use as a safe stress reliever, the wet towel makiwara is primarily a training tool for developing speed. With a wet towel we can strike as hard as we like and as fast as we can, without risking injury. The towel is soft enough to forgive any imperfection of technique that would lead to an impact injury on a harder surface. At the same time, because of the heavy load of water the towel carries, it also has enough resistance to keep you from injuring yourself via inadvertent hyperextension, as can happen when you’re punching empty air with gusto. On a wooden makiwara or a heavy bag, usually either the speed or the force has to be feathered at least a little, unless you’re blessed with an extraordinary physique. Because my physique tends to run more to the pencil-necked geek* with the washtub ab (think Japanese kokeshi doll) than the Greek god end of the spectrum, a wet towel suits me fine.
Without the worry of injury, we can work full tilt at building raw speed. We can launch individual punches of any sort (or any other type of strike), working to make these more efficient and quicker. Even if we do nothing more complicated than multiple repetitions as fast as we can, our speed will improve. As you practice on the towel, you’ll notice right away that the more relaxed you keep your arms, the faster your punches will fire out. Take advantage of this (in your training and remember in real life). To begin, assume a relaxed natural stance, facing the towel with your elbows down and your forearms hanging loose. You can vary your stances to concentrate on those you feel need work. Fire your punches from this dangling arm position until you are satisfied, for the time being, with the speed you can attain. About five minutes is plenty. Remember to emphasize punches from your non-dominant side. You can also do this exercise with the towel to your side, so that you can speed up your side punches and your square punches.
Now switch to chambered punches. Draw your arms back to your normal static chambering position, with the tightening of the upper arms and lats that comes with that position. However, it’s important that you keep your forearms, wrists, and hands as loose and comfortable as when you punched with dangling arms. You should spend about five minutes on these, too, once again with an emphasis on the non-dominant side. Without the worry of injury on contact, we can sometimes forget to keep good alignment. You can self-check by making sure that your elbows are not winging out and that your wrist is not bending before or on contact.
As you deliver both the dangling and chambered punches, vary the rhythm of your punches. Alternate the punching hand, but also do some series of individual punches with just one hand. I find it helpful to do three punches in a row with the non-dominant hand, then one or two with the dominant hand. I also find that it doesn’t do a lot of good to alternate punches one right, one left. Think of your punches as music, as if you were playing an etude on the piano. As on the piano, you don’t want to use one hand exclusively, then the other, then switch back. You want both hands to work at the same time, independently in the details, but in concert in the effect. One hand might play a whole note while the other is taking a quarter rest and then filling the measure or perhaps playing two half notes. To make the exercise easier and more fun, you can even use background music (not too loud if you’re in a hotel room or your kids are asleep nearby), matching one hand to, say, the guitar, while the other hand plays the piano part. In essence, play the towel with your fists. Think piano, think kodo drum. By doing this we improve our speed and timing, but we also quickly learn what our established habitual rhythms are. Once we recognize these habitual rhythms—the same rhythms that a clever opponent can almost immediately recognize in us—we can fix the problem. We can learn how to be less habitual in our rhythms and to make life harder for those who might try to block our punches.
The second major benefit of training with the wet towel makiwara is learning how to direct the shock wave generated by your punch’s impact and the force of your follow-through motion. In fact, the wet towel is the best way I know to observe the pattern of potential damage from your strike. Anytime one mass collides with another, there is a shock wave generated at the point of impact. This wave travels equally through both the striking mass and the mass being struck, but the speed and intensity of the wave are immediately qualified by the density of the two masses at the impact point and beyond and by the speed at which the striking mass is moving in relation to the target. Another important factor is the size of the striking mass in relation to the size of the struck mass. That’s a bit of oversimplification, and that’s not all, but it will do for towel whacking background. It boils down to this: a fast, hard fist striking a target properly will do more damage to the target than to the fist. In practical terms, by whacking a wet towel we can see how and where we can direct pain and injury into our opponent’s body. We can learn how to optimize the infliction while minimizing the collateral damage (that is, the damage to ourselves).
When I strike a towel to study the shock pattern at home, I more often than not have the benefit of a tile shower wall that isn’t absolutely the cleanest surface on the planet. (It used to be my son’s responsibility to keep the tiles clean, but he never managed it well. I guess he was helping me out, in own his way.) The microfilm of scum on the tiles and grout is a good background for the water droplets that are knocked from the towel. I can see clearly how the water is dispersed. When I practice with the towel makiwara soon after having washed the tiles, it’s much harder to see the droplet dispersal, as the droplets flatten out and cover the tiles in a sheet. At those times, I’ve considered putting a little mud or even food coloring in the water before soaking the towel, so I can see the results better by means of the streaks of residue, but then, why bother to clean the tiles ahead of time? In a hotel bathroom, the tiles are usually so highly polished that the water droplets bead up, making them very easy to see. If you find otherwise, you might be wise to reconsider taking a shower until you get home to familiar bacteria.
If you strike with good speed and drive through the towel with some gusto, and the path of your strike is relatively straight going in and coming out, you will see that the towel splashes in a correspondingly even circle on the shower wall, aside from a slight downward bias due to gravity. If the circle is well formed but significantly lower on the wall than the level at which you hit the towel, you may be hitting at a slightly downward angle or just a little too slowly. Likewise, if the circle is well formed but significantly higher on the wall than the level at which you hit the towel, you may be hitting at an upward angle. This is not a bad thing, but you should be aware of either. If you don’t see a splash pattern at all, or if all the splash is on the shower floor, you’re not hitting hard and fast enough. (As I’ve gotten older, this happens to me more often than I like.) If a lot of the splash ends up on the ceiling, you’re hitting too slowly and either accelerating after the contact or just pushing the towel after the contact. Too much water on the shower floor or ceiling means your strikes need work.
If you strike the towel too low, or too slowly, you might push the towel enough to swing it all the way to the backup shower wall. Speed up your punch and raise your target to the center of the towel or slightly above the center.
Size matters. For a punch that you send straight in and retrieve straight out, you want to develop as tight a circle of droplets on the shower wall as you can. A big circle means you’re not striking with enough vigor—something is lacking: either speed, follow-through, or concentration of your strike into a small area (say, a knuckle instead of the palm). As you fix those, the circle should get tighter. A tight circle means you are successfully concentrating your force into a small area of your target. It’s the difference between driving a nail in point first and hitting it on the side, diffusing the force so much that it is less than effective.
If you notice that the dispersed water droplets form an ellipse rather than a circle, that means that your punches are either not entering the target perpendicularly or that, once the punch has contacted perpendicularly, it is veering off line. If you don’t mean to do this, it’s not good. You can then work harder at gaining target control. However, many of the most effective punches do exactly this when they strike an opponent’s body. For instance, we often use an uppercut that strikes the soft tissue of the abdomen for that effect, driving the punch first inward a bit then upward toward the organs protected within the rib cage or downward toward the interior of the pelvic girdle. The towel makiwara is one of the best ways to refine your ability to redirect energy within your target.
Remember to wring the towel of the remaining moisture before you pack it away or leave it for the cleaning crew.
* My children, by the way, have always said that I’m NOT pencil-necked, but that I just have a big head. They don’t dispute the geek part.
About The Author:
George Donahue has been on the board of FightingArts.com since its inception. He is a freelance writer and editor, providing literary and consulting services to writers, literary agents, and publishers, as well to advertising agencies. He has worked in publishing for more than three decades, beginning as a journal and legal editor. Among his positions have been editorial stints at Random House; Tuttle Publishing, where he was the executive editor, martial arts editor, and Asian Studies editor; and Lyons Press, where he was the senior acquisitions editor and where he established a martial arts publishing program. He is a 6th dan student of karate and kobujutsu—as well as Yamane Ryu Bojutsu—of Shinzato Katsuhiko in Okinawa Karatedo Shorin Ryu Kishaba Juku. He was also a student of Kishaba Chokei and Nakamura Seigi until their deaths. He teaches Kishaba Juku in New York and Connecticut, as well as traveling to provide seminars and special training in karate, weapons, and self-defense. His early training was in judo and jujutsu, primarily with Ando Shunnosuke in Tokyo. He also studied kyujutsu (archery), sojutsu (spear), and kenjutsu (swordsmanship) in Japan as a youth. Following his move to the US, he continued to practice judo and jujutsu, as well as marksmanship with bow and gun, and began the study of Matsubayashi Ryu karate in his late teens. Subsequently, he has studied aikido and taiji and cross trained in ying jow pai kung fu.