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The Narrowing Path of Karate

A while ago I was sitting alone in the Dojo after my testing for my 3rd Dan, considering what comes next. My testing consisted of Kihon, Kata, Kumite, Ippon Kumite, Jiyu Kumite, and Self Defense. Interestingly, my thoughts didn’t turn to all things new like different and better techniques, or new Katas or combinations.


In my head, I was immediately starting to revisit what I had just done. I was rekindling notions of taking an even deeper dive into Nijushiho Kata, breaking apart the Kihon on the Sandan syllabus, and spending more time on pressure, distance, and timing in Kumite (Sensei Brian Power’s maxims).


Instead of looking forward to what the next level had to bring, I was excited to polish what I knew.

Maybe this was what becoming a Sandan was really all about: not just to learn more, but to refine and internalize what one already knows. As Sensei Dwayne Weidendorf said to me: it’s about making your Karate cleaner.


I knew there were places in my Kata where the movements weren’t as crisp and fluid as they can be; I knew I was fighting my Yoko Geri Keage; and I knew my Kumite was tentative….to name a few.


In recent years I am beginning to understand that Karate training begins like whitewashing a fence: broad strokes with basic movements and little skill, but as you progress it becomes akin to attempting to paint an intricate landscape. Like painting, in Karate you have to know the tools you have at your disposal, and how to use them. Taken further, if you plan on teaching Karate, just like teaching someone to paint, you have to test the techniques and devise methods that work. The tiniest, most precise movements are important.


Sensei Owens poses with Asai Sensei

Sensei Don Owens says there comes a point when Karate needs to turn to the technical. Last week he had us do Heian Kata in Sanchin stance, partly to get us thinking outside the box, and partly to get us analyzing inward stance pressure and details in movement.


Early on in training, doing a technique such as a gyaku-zuki starts out by getting in a stance and thrusting your opposite fist forward, hopefully using some hip rotation. Further down the line of training, it becomes a lot more complex: mental intention, ground force, posture, consciously engaging the right torso muscles at the right time, limb-to-body connection, front knee stability, and on it goes. In time, the reverse punch changes from releasing a load of buckshot, to a single, deadly-straight bullet. Movements become techniques.


The very word technique suggests there is something scientific or artistic in it. For Karate practitioners, the four-lane freeway starts to become the footpath less traveled where attention to detail is required in order to make the ascent.


This image by Rick Hotten Sensei is a perfect depiction of this, I believe.



Of course, there are many Karate practitioners who never take it to this level, and there is nothing wrong with that. Many simply want to do Karate for its health benefits or to learn to fight. For them, the Karate path is often constant and filled with repetition and hard work, whereas for the Karate ‘scientist’ the path gets steeper and narrower as they strive for efficiency and effortlessness; Karate where they can do more with less.


As a blue belt, for example, I didn’t care much about the concepts of Maai, Tame, Seme, or Ukimi. In fact, I didn’t know what they were. I was more concerned with higher kicks and harder punches, and being young, I figured that getting stronger and practicing more would do it, and for a while it did. But as time went on and I got older I encountered Kata such as Empi, for example, brute strength and physical prowess weren’t enough.


Unfortunately, as Karate participants age, many feel that Karate has given them all it can. They’re no longer interested in drilling up and down the floor, doing the same Kihon in the same order, or calisthenics in the dojo. Well, neither am I.


We have lost countless black belts after Shodan, sometimes because they continued to be taught - and have to do - the same things they’d always been doing: the same old road forever. Yes, repetition is important, but it has to evolve. Karate has to become smarter and practitioners have to train according to their own physical abilities and health. Again, the broad road of doing any and all techniques at full speed and agility needs to become a personal, more concise, path of choice and ability.


Yudansha have to find different roles in the Dojo as they age. I’m not an old man yet (although sometimes I feel so!) but I have focused my attention and have begun rethinking some movements such as the jumps in Empi or Heian Godan. Kihon takes on new meaning for me now as I work on their clean and effective execution, or I am attempting to teach it to younger participants. For me, breaking Kata into individual elements and examining their usefulness with a partner gives them new life.


None of this means watering down Karate. In fact, it is just the opposite. The narrowing path of Karate should mean the tightening and precision of it; the granular understanding of it.


At Power Karate we have guest Sensei come into the Dojo regularly. These Sensei, like Sensei Toru Shimoji, don’t visit us to teach more of the same but to offer new perspectives and propose knowledge that might not have been otherwise discovered. They challenge us in new ways and have us reevaluate what we already know. They share their discoveries and encourage us to make our own. In general, they help us learn to navigate the narrowing karate path up the hill, and, quite frankly, they reenergize us. As Nishiyama (like many others) used to say, karate needs to be stirred and kept hot for it to stay relevant and interesting.


It can be said that the narrowing path on the Karate journey means narrowing your focus on the subtle things. It’s like Karate training is Kime in a sense.


No one can tell you what your Karate journey should look like, or what path it takes. It’s up to you.


I guess it comes down to whether you want to paint a fence or start a work of Art.


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