Float in Shotokan?
A couple of guys I know were at a club 'downtown' a few years back. One was a weightlifter and the other was an overconfident black belt. Long story short, the black belt was looking for trouble and found it. A few drinks in they ended up outside where the black belt squared off with a street brawler. The brawler made a haymaker swing and the black belt stepped back into a long, wide stance and blocked it.
That long, low stance looked great, and realistically, the street brawler couldn't have taken him down with a wrecking ball. But, of course, he didn't try to take him down. Before the black belt moved out of position, he danced around him, landed a one-two and knocked him out.
As a brown belt at the time when I heard this story, I was confused. I knew this black belt. He was strong, flexible and fierce in the dojo. He was rock-solid.
But. at that point in our training, we understood one thing about stances: they had to be as strong as a mighty oak tree. That's great, but if you need that mighty oak to move, it's gonna take some time!
In my time, I've only seen a handful of Karate practitioners who can explode out of a long, wide stance (not to seem too dojo-patriotic, but Sensei Brian Power Jr. can spring across a room from any stance like an angry cat). It takes athleticism and agility - not something every karate person has to their advantage.
Some certainties that came out of training long, wide stances - in perpetuity - were misaligned knees and worn out hip joints.
I queried Sensei Don Owens on the deep, wide stances, and he noted that we teach beginners such stances for stability and balance. We then teach them stances that we use for Kihon training, and stances we use in Kumite - neither of which involves assuming a stance where the ends of your belt touch the floor!
Sensei Brian Power, in our current classes, is teaching the concept of "Ukimi" - a floating feeling while maintaining essential contact with the ground. I reached out to Sensei Toru Shimoji and he gave me this: "Uki means body, and Mi is to float." The feeling of a floating body.
So, if Shotokan is a 'Rooted' martial Art, how can we float?
Essentially, according to Sensei Power, we have to get out of the mindset of dead weight. We envision using our connection to the floor to allow us to move easily - with no telegraphing to the opponent that we are about to. Our connection to the floor is a living relationship: we ground ourselves to it, we push off of it, we shift over it - we're not dead on it.
Sensei Rick Chernoff of the WJKA and Vancouver Shotokan Karate, offered me this when I inquired about stances: "...low, strong foundation will contribute to powerful effective (destructive) technique. And then naturalization/relaxation for stance change and shifting."
Here the 'naturalization/relaxation' allows us the floating feeling, I believe. So, the balance is a strong foundation when we focus (Kime) through the floor, alternating with a relaxation that allows up to move, transition or explode.
The might oak needs wings.
Sensei Chernoff goes on to say "Older, more experienced karateka tend to train higher, in a more natural way, but they exploit more refined timing and spend more time improving the sharp exploitation and use of correct kime/tanden. They do a lot with a little, like any advanced athletic practitioner."
There's enough there for another Blog post, but the point is that higher stances run the risk of losing power and stability form the floor, but there are exceptional ways to compensate. I believe that the key of moving through the Dan ranks is doing a lot with a little.
So, we're not boxers and we're not elephants, and Ukimi is the answer to the somewhere in between.
Like all great things karate, this one deserves some study and practical application in the Dojo.