Shotokan Balance

“If you’re going to be involved in a confrontation, be righteous.”

That was Sensei Lee answering a question last night from a white belt about when it is ‘ok to fight.’ In essence, his reply was that it is best to walk away, but when you cannot, then you must commit.

Poise“There are reasons and situations where you cannot walk away: when the safety of a loved one is in danger; where your own safety is in danger; where a stranger is in need of your help; where the liberty of a human being is jeopardized. Those, I believe are righteous causes.”

He went on to clarify that once you have made the decision that you must stand up for yourself or for another person, you commit – your goal is simple: to end it all suddenly, to end it all fast.

Shotokan, he said, is a never-back-up Martial Art that, when mixed with intention and determination, is very difficult to defend against.

He concluded “I will teach you to fight. You have to balance that with a positive attitude and a solid character.”

I stood there thinking that the questions from the junior belts are often the most valuable…

Karate…As You Do

In Issue 102 of Shotokan Magazine Sensei Bob Remington (pictured below) listed these as components of Body Awareness:

Five Attributes of Body Awareness:

  • Maintain a vertical centerline
  • Move from the center
  • Stay relaxed
  • Keep the weight toward the center
  • Extend intention

GYAKU-HRAs a Black Belt looking forward to my Nidan testing, the one thing that I am working on in perpetuity is body connection, and a technique to develop and test body connection is the gyaku-tsuki (reverse punch).

Last night before class, I was practicing a few reverse punches on-the-spot when Sempai Howse came over. He didn’t say anything at first; he just got into a front stance and went slowly through the mechanics of the technique. He did a couple slowly, and then did one or two full-speed to show how it all comes together.

Between punches, he’d tap his lower belly with the fingers of both his hands to indicate core engagement. Then he would put his hand together like an arrow and push them out from the area just below his belly button (Hara area) to show where the energy was coming from and going (from the center and outward via both power and intention). Then he would ride his draw arm back and forth, tight to his Gi just above his belt, to show that the punch was linear and coming from the body – not the shoulder.  The only word he said was ‘under’ as he demonstrated this in order to remind me that a punch comes from your core, under your shoulder, and no from the shoulder. Finally, he would touch his forehead to remind me about posture: head back, weapons out.

In no more than four or five words he covered the list above from Sensei Remington.

Moral: Karate concepts are deep. Telling a Karateka how to do something is useful; showing them is vital.

Concentration! Master Egami said so…

One of the most fascinating Karate stories I have ever read is the one where Master Egami traveled extensively in search of an effective punch (tsuki). That is, the one that was the epitome of ‘one punch, one kill.’

Egami had developed his body to a point where it was perfect muscle – not unlike Nishiyama Sensei in his prime and the Hollywood Bruce Lee. The result of Egami Sensei’s research was that no one could hurt him with a punch to the stomach – even to the solar plexus. When Egami was at the point where he had lost hope that the Karate punch was effective, he came to a profound conclusion:

“To control the unrest-fulness of [the tsuki] being ineffective I searched for new ways to do a tsuki and ended up Egamiconcluding that karate techniques must include a concentration.The tsuki must be completely effective. To attain this, you must think that you are making the strength go through to the infinite. All the strength must go through the body, not even partially reflected in the moment of contact. A truly mortal blow is the concentration of force on one point. Said in another way, you pour all your being into the body of the opponent. Effectivity will therefore vary in accord to your state of mind.”

In our Dojo, Sempai Howse teaches this very concept, but he uses the term intention: You don’t strike ‘at’ your opponent, or ‘toward’ your opponent,’ you strike through your opponent with a clear and concise objective in mind. The focal point is way beyond your point of contact.

In Karate, as in life, what’s in front of you can only stop you if you let it; effectiveness is truly a state of mind.

See, Sempai Howse, I am getting some of this!


Where is your energy headed?

The image here illustrates something that Nishiyama Sensei used to teach, Sensei Lee teaches, and our Sempai teach: Direct your energy.

top viewShotokan is linear. It is direct. It is straight, and it wastes no energy. Hence, your feet, your eyes, your Tanden and your fist are directed to the center; to the meeting place of your focal energy point. Just as important as all of these is your intention (a good topic for my next blog). In the illustration Intention is the grey, dotted line. Intend your energy to go through your target.

Seems simple enough….But getting this concept to infiltrate your karate movements isn’t. Body connection, posture and intention are concepts that come with time.

Fortunately, in our Dojo we have senior Karate-Ka who can a) explain this concept in detail and b) can illustrate how it looks; how it works.


Mokuso! Switch off, Switch on!

Commonly translated as “meditation”, mokuso literally means silent or still (moku)  + thoughts or thinking (so). Perhaps it can also be read as a still mind, a mind like a mill pond or a clear mind.

In any event, class should start with switching off everything but karate, and perhaps end by switching it back on…

Here’s what I mean.

MokusoMokuso for me is a pause. It’s a moment or two to turn off the mental noise. This comes with practice, but I find that when my mind is especially busy, I go through the simple process of inhaling and exhaling for three long, exaggerated breaths. Initially, I used to imagine my inhale as introducing new, fresh energy to my body, and the exhale as transferring old, tainted energy out.  Now, after a lot of practice, I don’t imagine anything. When I start my first inhale, my mind knows to settle down – Switch off!

It’s preparation for what is to come, providing clarity of mind for what you learn in class. Before you take anything in, you have to make room, so to speak.

Mokuso at the end of class is a different thing. Funakoshi Sensei used to say that dawning a Gi, or entering a Dojo was a time different from all other times – it was sacred to him, and his demeanor visibly changed when he did either of these.  Hence, Mokuso at the end of class is a moment of switching gears again, not meaning to clear your mind of all you just absorbed, but rather to prepare again for life in the outside world where your Shotokan philosophies are still at the forefront, but settle down again from your hardcore training and prepare for life– Switch On!

As Jesse Encamp would say, it’s ok to love karate, but don’t wear your Gi to work!

Switch off! Switch on, Grasshopper!

Pullback and the Drawstring

Imagine that there is a string between the hand that you are going to strike with and your opponent’s hand. If you pull back even a little you’re drawing your opponents attack to you: cueing the opponent, telegraphing your move.”

Jeff Hutchings NL Shotokan Karate Black BeltSensei Lee and our 5th Dan Sempai learned a lot from Nishiyama Sensei over the fifteen years they trained with him, not the least of which was how to make things visual.

So, last night as we were doing our jabs with a subsequent backfist, we were visualizing that if we pulled back at all, we were triggering the opponent’s attack…and it worked! Even in the span of the class time, backfists became shorter, faster and more intense.

This analogy of the string tied to your hand and the opponent served as a reminder that pull back is wasted time and energy. Bruce Lee (the actor) was famed for his one inch punch where there was zero pull back. Upon taking a close look at this, it seems that it is a very complex technique. The organization of muscle fiber, the mental intention, and the coordination of the knees, hips arms and wrist are only part of it. Science shows that Lee’s devastating short punch had a lot to do with how Martial Artists have built up a certain microstructure of white matter in the brain that actually does the complex coordination to allow the delivery of immense power at tiny distances.

Explosive power with zero telegraphing and zero time loss; now, there’s something to work on!

Be all there

“You’ll feel like a Shodan after you’ve achieved your Nidan. “

A statement that seems a bit paradoxical at first, but I found it intriguing when a 5th Dan in my Shotokan class first said it. Somehow, it makes sense.

After I got my Shodan Black Belt there was no, ‘Ok, well, I got that! That’s done!’ Instead, the first time I walked into the Dojo wearing a black belt I felt like I had to up my game. I had a black belt around my waist, and now I had to become one. I had to fix the things I knew were lacking before I started to ‘move on’ to the new things that were ahead of me. I was a Black belt now and I had to live it. I had to tighten up my Kata, I had to refine my body connection and to get my head around the fact that wearing a black belt doesn’t always make you one, and more than swinging a hammer makes you a carpenter.

In his reference to our daily lives Jim Elliott said “Wherever you are, be all there.”

So now, rather than spending my time thinking about becoming a Nidan, I’ve realized something:  concentrating on being an adept Shodan will prep me to become what’s next.

Hangetsu Hand

Funakoshi Sensei Lee loves to take a technique, sometimes a seemingly simple one and apply it in a real combat situation. Take the chudan haito uke, or middle, sword ridge (thumb side of hand) block: a magnificent little technique that serves a double purpose. First, as Sensei Lee stresses its application, is to defend quickly and almost without effort from a punch (especially a Jodan attack), where you almost draw the attacking arms in and only moving slightly to redirect its energy. And secondly, it is a precautionary hand position when delivering something like a reverse punch. After all, as black belts, it makes no sense to deliver an attack with your draw arm pulled back to your side, opening up your entire center line. But bringing your Haito Uke up to your head as you strike allows for a fluid and fast second technique.

After a little research I found that Funakoshi Sensei did this with only his forefinger extended (as in an Ippon-ken position), but either way it is fast, effective and it works!

I am enthralled by the idea of more power and effectiveness with less movement.

So much to learn…

Too eager for change?

I came across this quote recently and it stuck with me:

“Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise. Seek what they sought.”

~Matsuo Basho

Like many karate-ka, I get caught up sometimes in wondering if there is more to karate than I am currently doing, or being taught. I wonder if we have become stagnant. But just as I am in that frame of mind, a Sempai or Sensei says something, or demonstrates something that reassures me that the Karate I am immersed in is like an ocean: deep and wide.

And now, as I approach my Nidan testing and continue on down this path, I will keep in mind that there is a reason that I am still being taught a certain Shotokan style, in a certain way…It is because it is timeless and has always worked.

My Sensei and Senior Sempai are still learning, still striving, and I can only hope to seek what they sought and continue to seek.

Breath out, Belly In

Plenty of Karate instruction resources will tell you to exhale on impact, suggesting that forcing the air out of your lungs at the moment of contact with your opponent (or the Makiwara) increases force.

True, but if not done properly it will simply leave you soft and out of breath.

Enter Ibuki Breathing.

KanazawaUsing your abdominal muscles, you force air out – not all of it – while tightening your core region on impact. This doesn’t come easily or perhaps even naturally, but it gives you two things: power from the core and a sense of connection on impact, as well as protection from a counter from your opponent. After all, getting caught with a soft core after delivering a blow won’t work in your favor.

According to Nishiyama Sensei, breathing in karate is everything : the beginning, the middle and the end.

As Kanazawa Hirokazu (Kancho) shows in the picture, a solid body core after delivering a technique is paramount, and learning to relax partially after Kime (technique fixation) is just as important.

Good breathing, good karate.