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Karate Doesn’t Discriminate

Hear the one about the guy who couldn’t do Karate because he wasn’t an athletic body type?

No, neither did I.

As a society still pathetically hung up on body shape and type, I am glad to say that Karate doesn’t care if you’re big, tall, small or somewhere in between. Yes, a quick look back over the history or Karate and its predecessors may seem to show – on the surface – that the Masters were a small, strong build type.

What does this suggest?


Toiji Kase and Masutatsu Oyama weren’t slight, picture-perfect builds, but they were masters nonetheless. Asai and Nishiyama Sensei were slighter men but had the ferocity of a dissatisfied lion.

So, what’s my point with all this? A few things, really: karate doesn’t discriminate - anyone can train and excel, and there’s no correlation between body type and karate mastery.

Another point might be to add that saying you’re too out of shape to start – or to return to – karate is a farce. If you’re in a good dojo you train at the pace that your physical condition allows. Also, if you’re in a dojo where the most you do is drills up and down the floor, or if your progress is based on your physical endurance, I’d suggest looking for another dojo.

In 1902, at the age of 13, Kenwa Mabuni was taken to the most famous martial artist in Shuri, master Ankoh Itosu, to improve his health. The literature says he was a frail child at the time. My thinking is that Karate isn’t designed to make us athletes, but it can help improve our agility, coordination and stamina; no matter your physiological makeup.

We’ve heard the stories of the early JKA days when everyone conformed to mindsets of strength and flexibility, etc., no matter the cost. In today’s dojo, I believe the narrative has shifted, and as instructors, we need to look at individuals as opposed to a class. Ages can range from the teens to the seventies in any given karate group, and having the expectation that everyone will perform the same way, and get to the same level of adeptness, isn’t realistic.

Karate Skill Isn't Anatomy Dependent

Having said that, there are some factors to consider. Progress in Karate has to include the effort being applied. Do we look at individuals who are not great performers of Kata and simply say, ‘that’s ok, that’s all you can do,’ and pass then the next level belt? I don’t believe so.

Not everyone can manifest the same way when it comes to Karate technique, but they can still be taught the principles and theory of the technique, and then apply them to the very best of their ability. It comes back to the notion of “perfect for you,” meaning that there is always a place to strive toward. Kata is a perfect example. In a Saturday class a while ago we watched an older gentleman do Junro Shodan. The movements weren’t blistering or aggressive, they were deliberate, concise, and fluid. It had Kime and looked like a purely natural progression of movements that were a pleasure to watch. It had compression and expansion and excellent posture and tempo.

There are different gauges of perfection.

I recently watched a video of a black belt teaching how to do the jump in Unsu. He was very enthusiastic and he went through three or four methods to train yourself to jump two feet off the floor and land in various positions. There’s nothing wrong with that, and there will be a portion of every dojo that can do the Unsu jump flawlessly. However, there was no talk of doing what your body allowed you to do, or of the reason for the jump in Unsu in the first place, nor of the body dynamics employed and why.

Are we putting too much emphasis on optics? A side thrust kick to the throat looks better than a side thrust kick to the knee, but both Karateka can display the correct leg lift, rotation, foot position, and hip thrust, to perform the technique.

Some of these concepts came to the forefront for me what a kid who is heavy set told me he couldn’t do side kicks: “I can’t get my leg up there!” I simply replied that if he could raise his foot off the floor he could do a side kick.

Watering down Karate isn’t what I’m suggesting. If you don’t go to the Dojo and give it your all, then you will never get the most out of it. We can’t simply look at a technique and write it off immediately without attempting it. We need to find out for ourselves if we can do it – or at least do a reasonable replication of it – and then work hard at it. Sweat is a product of good effort.

For Karate to survive and thrive we need to keep teaching it as close to the original Art as we can, but we need to understand the various levels of physical ability in our dojos. We don’t give free passes to students who are lazy or not interested, but we can give leeway to someone with a torn hip flexor or dislocating shoulder.

Sensei Power often tells people to listen to their bodies; to push themselves but don’t be stupid! Similarly, Sensei Owens tells me that if I am going to be a good teacher I need to know my students and their abilities.

As karate teachers, I think we need to expect a lot, but in a manner that makes students the best they can be - from where they are.

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