Thursday, 17 March 2011

Thoughts and discoveries about karate training part 2 – learning the basics

This is part 2 of my review of posts I have written over the last year or two. In this post I look at how I am learning to understand my own body and my attempt to master control over it through training the basics of my art…


Every martial artist comes to appreciate the importance of training in the basic or fundamental ways of moving for their art. In karate the basics are generally thought of as the range of different punching, kicking and blocking techniques along with the various stances that can be used. We generally refer to this as kihon training. Most kihon training is done as whole class teaching with the students standing in rows, punching and kicking the air, moving up and down the dojo in various stances or working in pairs punching and kicking against a pad.

However, during the last couple of years training and through researching and writing for this blog, I have come to the realisation that basics are even more fundamental than kihon training. It’s about how we actually move our bodies at all, how we balance, how we align our muscles, bones and tendons, how we coordinate and time our movements and how we internalise and remember our techniques. In short, it’s about understanding and mastering our own bodies and minds.

My general approach to my own personal training and development in martial arts is to identify my weaknesses (or have them pointed out to me, which is what generally happens) and then follow through with that at home to discover why it is I am making a specific mistake and what I can do to correct it. For example, some of my most fundamental problems have revolved around leaning and having a fairly shaky dynamic balance.

I explored my leaning problem in If I had a pound…. and concluded that the leaning was related to my balance problem. This lead me to research into what balance actually is, how our bodies control balance and how we can utilise that knowledge in martial arts. This led to one of my most popular posts so far – Martial arts – a balancing act.

However, there is no point in researching or writing about it unless I’m going to practice what I preach, so I do actively try to think about the principles of balance when I’m training in order to stop my leaning and wobbling. I think I’m making some progress in this respect and my instructor has not told me I’m leaning for several months now. I still occasionally wobble when turning but I realise immediately why this is so and take steps to correct it – I’m finally starting to understand my body!

Still on the topic of body movement and alignment I became fascinated by the principle of nanba aruki after reading something about it in a book (Empty hand, by Kenei Mabuni). Initially I found it hard to believe that a couple of hundred years ago Japanese people used to walk with the same arm and leg moving backwards and forwards together (nanba aruki walking). It seemed so counter intuitive.

I set out to research the subject and discovered that the principle of moving the same arm and leg together so as to pivot around your centre line was inherent in all martial arts systems and led to greater efficiency of movement. The maxim, ‘Don’t force, don’t twist and don’t disconnect’ comes from the application of the nanba aruki principle. I now see nanba aruki in action in pretty well all my karate techniques and use it as a bench mark to decide whether I’m executing techniques correctly or not.

Of course there always has to be an exception to the rule and in karate this is the gyaku zuki punch (reverse punch) which definitely does not utilise the nanba aruki principle. I wrote about this in Gyaku zuki – odd punch out? I’d read somewhere (possibly in Kenei Mabuni’s book) that this punch was a modern 20th century addition to karate, introduced when karate became a sport. However my own research suggests that the reverse punch has very much been a part of karate for a long time as it is present in several old kata. Odd punch out or not, the gyaku zuki remains an important weapon in the karateka’s arsenal and is practiced extensively during kihon training.

Another fundamental principle of movement that we need to master and is notoriously difficult to do is the principle of hard/soft. By that I mean tensing muscles when you need to and relaxing them when you don’t. We gradually come to appreciate as we train that punches are harder and faster when muscles are not all tensed up.

I wrote about this problem in karate – hard not tense and suggested that one way of learning to relax during the execution of techniques was to participate in a softer style of martial arts and that for me this is sword training. To get clean, fast sword strikes you have to relax and let the sword do the work. I am trying to adopt the same thinking in karate i.e. let the fist do the punching (not the bicep) but it remains a work in progress!

And finally, how do our bodies remember how to do all these basic, fundamental techniques and ways of moving? I tackled this subject in the post, Muscle memory – it’s all in the mind! I described how the learning and remembering of new skills was a staged process in which, through repetitive practice, led to the development of new neural pathways and the laying down of ‘memory maps’ in the brain – a process that can take months or years to complete depending on the complexity of the skill. These memory maps can then be executed quickly and subconsciously whenever we meet a stimulus giving us the impression that it is our muscles that have remembered what to do when in fact it is our brains.

I feel I have come a long way in understanding how my body moves and how I can align my limbs and torso to maximise efficiency yet generate maximum power in technique. However, I’m also aware that I still have a long way to go – like I said, those memory maps take a long time to lay down and become stable! When I watch my instructor moving with such speed, grace and fluidity I feel like a dancing elephant in comparison but I can also see that I have made progress and there is no reason to why more progress can’t be made if I continue to train – in the basics.
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7 comments:

Charles James said...

I have to say, Kudo's to you Sue! Your view is so advanced than most karate-ka here.

You said, "I am trying to adopt the same thinking in karate i.e. let the fist do the punching (not the bicep) but it remains a work in progress!"

There is more here ya-know ;-) (yet, I suspect you know already :-)

Journeyman said...

There's nothing wrong with a dancing elephant. Funny description of a strangely familiar feeling...

Like I mentioned in your first part, I think it's great and important that your opinions refine, strengthen and/or change over time. Our development isn't static, so our opinions shouldn't be either.

Not my words, but the quote "Advanced techniques are the basics done better" seems to apply more and more the longer I train.

SueC said...

Charles, thank you but my mind's way ahead of my body! And yes, I am aware that there's so much more to a good punch - that's what makes in so hard! Still, must keep marching onwards and upwards - you never know, I might make it in the end ;-)

Journeyman, "Our development isn't static, so our opinions shouldn't be either".... Well said - an open mind is crucial for development. I also think looking outside of your own style to the wider martial arts community is also important for gaining further understanding and the blogosphere is such a great place to do this.

Online Degree said...

It is great to see their excellent work and I really like your article very much. With your extensive knowledge, we can learn from your wonderful contribution. Thank you.

SueC said...

Online Degree - thank you very much!

Tina said...

Thanks for sharing this very informative post to us. With your extensive knowledge, we can learn from your wonderful contribution and this will serve as our guide in learning karate.

SueC said...

You're welcome Tina, thanks for leaving your comment.

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