Friday, September 24, 2010

Shaking, extraneous movement and inefficient technique


I was going to call to call this article “For goodness sake, don’t do the hippy hippy shake”. But then I realised that this would prompt readers to think that I was referring to my old pet peeve, pre-loading the hip (or the “double hip”).1 This article is not about that subject (which is only obliquely relevant). Instead, this article is about the kind of shaking that results from extraneous and uncontrolled movement (rather than deliberate, if contextually inappropriate, hip loading).

Punching with “hara”

It was in 1988 that I first trained with Graham Ravey, founder of the TOGKA and former deshi of Higaonna Morio. At that training a certain local goju kai teacher (who shall go nameless, but who introduced himself as “Shihan […]”) pulled me aside and said: “You have good technique – but you have no ‘hara’. “Hara,” he told me, “means ‘heart’. Your techniques have no heart.”

Of course, “hara” is a Japanese term that is used in the martial arts to refer to the dantien or tanden (your centre of gravity located at a point just below your navel). It is not a reference to the heart. But I got his message anyway, particularly when he started to mimic my punches with soft, insipid movements. Then he demonstrated his “hara” version. This involved “powerful” punches: punches that caused “Shihan’s” body to shake almost as if he were convulsing.

Having “corrected” my “insipid” technique, he dismissed me with a wave of his hand and continued speaking with another black belt.

“Phantom impacts”

I knew then, as I do now, that looking powerful and being powerful are 2 different things.2

The same applies to techniques that feel powerful vs. those that are actually powerful. I already knew back then that if you can feel the “power” of your own "air techniques", then something is definitely wrong.

Bear in mind that you are not striking a target, so there is no impact to transfer force back into your body. You should not be feeling any “power” as such. So where does the feeling of “power” come from? Most of the time the answer lies in this: you feel your own “power” because you are reabsorbing it. At least some of your force that was being directed outward is being pulled back into you.

I discuss this in the video below.

I discuss the issue of shaking in basic techniques

Imagine for a minute a bullet flying through the air: it doesn’t gyrate or have sparks flying off it. It just flies. Ditto with a katana (Japanese sword). When a good kendoka (sword practitioner) does an “air cut”, you might hear the “swish” of his blade through the air (caused by the speed of the movement) – but that’s it. It is only when the bullet or the katana strike a target that they experience the force of the impact.

So the kendoka doesn’t gyrate because of the “power” of his air cut. He simply cuts. In fact, the kendoka works very hard to eliminate any extraneous movement or shaking, endeavouring to bring the sword to sudden stop without any “shake”. This is because the kendoka is practising “kime” or focus.3

A karateka also strives to develop kime, and accordingly brings his or her punches to a “dead stop”.4 But if you take the “stop” out of the equation, the karateka’s punches are no different to a boxer’s, especially in this respect: in neither case should the practitioner “feel the power” of a blow that doesn’t land. Both understand intuitively whether an “air punch” is going to be effective, that much is true. They discern this from the momentum generated in the punch, and their experience in gauging the likely consequence of a punch with that momentum. But neither the boxer nor karateka should experience some sort of “phantom impact” that causes “shaking”.

Shaking as a function of inefficiency

So what is the consequence of shaking and gyrating from a “phantom impact”? Clearly, some of the force you are generating is being applied to your own body. And this component of your force is accordingly no longer available to be applied to a target.5 To apply the same force to a target as someone punching efficiently (without reabsorbing force), you have to generate far more force overall.

Looking at it from another perspective, if you shake with each punch, some of your energy is being used to shake. That energy is not being applied to your task (punching an opponent). In order to land a punch with the same force as someone who is not shaking, you have to use more energy than he or she does. In other words, you are not using your energy efficiently.

It is no compensation to say that you are “more powerful”. Yes, you are being “more powerful” – in that you’ve worked harder in the same time (P = W/T). However you’ve worked harder to get the same, or a lesser, result. The power you’re feeling is, in a sense, a Clayton’s power.6

Shaking and hip use are not the same

I’ve already had some emails on this topic from various martial artists around the world. Some have said: “Well, I’m not “shaking” – I’m just using my hips. I need to do this movement that you call “shaking” because I’m training my hips to deliver powerful techniques.”

If that were the case, then I query why, in the "shaking" way of performing basics, the hip is more often than not being pulled back just before impact. Furthermore, why does this movement cause the whole body to vibrate with the strike? It might not comprise the exaggerated shaking that I perform in my video at the start of this article: it might be a mere "rattle". But it is there nonetheless.

Nor does "returning the hip to position" account for this rattle. If it did, you would see 2 clear movements - not an uncontrolled vibration.

It seems to me that there is more happening here than just necessary hip use.

For that matter, in my video I demonstrate my own hip-assisted punching. I do the same in the videos below. I don’t shake, yet I’m fairly sure you’ll agree that my hip use isn’t all that bad. And I didn’t develop this hip use through “shaking”. I developed it in tandem with the ability to control extraneous movement.

I demonstrate a drill where lateral hip use generates more force. Note that there are 3 hip movements – one for each of 3 punches.

I demonstrate the use of the “rising hip” to generate more force

So hip use does not necessitate “hip shaking”. Consider also the first part of the video below of Minoru Higa (doing the double punches): Yes, there is hip movement, but that movement is confined to the task of the particular punches. The only reason it looks like a “shake” is because there are 2 hip movements – one for each punch. And you’ll notice that the hip movement does not persist after the punch has landed (ie. there is no lingering “rattle”).

Minoru Higa, 10th Dan demonstrating hip use: note in particular the double punches at the start, which are in contrast to the later naihanchin performance.

The double hip isn’t the problem – at least not always!

I’ve mentioned previously that when I refer to “shaking” I’m not talking about the double hip. I don’t think the double hip is the reason so many karateka “shake” when air punching. I believe most shake because they simply haven’t developed the control to move without shaking. The justification/explanation of “hip use” arrives after the fact.

However I did say that the double hip is obliquely relevant to this article, and here’s why:

In some schools virtually every basic and kata technique is performed with a hip pre-load. And when you pre-load I think it goes without saying that it is almost impossible to avoid shaking. So if you spend all your time doing the double hip, and if you never practise isolating your punch (without hip movement), you never learn to move without shaking.

In other words, focussing undue attention on developing the double hip might lead to more than contextually inappropriate hip use: it might inhibit the development of a very important ability. The ability to control one’s body.

It’s all about having control of your own body

The problem I have with “movers and shakers” is that I feel their shaking is a often a cop-out. They aren’t aware of (or won’t admit) the importance of learning to control their bodies so as to eliminate extraneous movement. Instead, they focus on the “power” they feel (and others see). They ignore their own lack of attention to detail and invoke the “bigger picture” of “effectiveness/practicality”, while deriding controlled punches as “quaint”, “overly formal/stylised” or as “show karate”. As the aforementioned “Shihan” said to me: “it might not be pretty, but it works.”

Quite evidently there are many “untidy” karateka out there who are formidable fighters (“Shihan” wasn’t one of them, by the way). As in boxing, or any other combat discipline, there are those who are technicians and those who are brawlers. And brawlers can be viciously effective.

But this doesn’t lessen the importance of striving for efficient movement. Such efficiency is what gives the smaller, weaker and less aggressive person the chance to hold his/her own. Efficient technique is, self-evidently, desirable, particularly to the thinking person. And extraneous movement in the form of shaking is the opposite of efficiency.

“Shaking” isn’t practical in any event

But quite apart from the above, I’m fairly certain that “shaking” doesn’t make sense – even to the brawler.

I’ve noticed that “movers and shakers” will air punch one way, and punch a makiwara/bag/shield in another.

Once again, consider the first video in this article. In it, you will note that I demonstrate how punching a target does not necessitate “shaking”. If there is any “shake”, it comes entirely from the force transmitted from your target into your body when you impact. The more resistant the target, the more you will experience this force. But if the object is not particularly resistant (eg. a phone book or a person’s face!) you shouldn’t experience much impact force at all. And when you are punching air, there should be none.

I haven't been able to find any "archetypal" examples of shaking on the net. It seems that pretty much the only karateka to post videos of basic techniques are the shotokan practitioners, who are generally very good at basics.

With that in mind, consider the punching in the following video: It isn't the most obvious case of "shaking". And it looks powerful, I'm sure you'll agree. It looks so powerful that some readers might start to wonder whether I've lost my marbles with this argument. After all, isn't his power self evident?

An example of punching with some shaking (not the most obvious example, but there are few on the web). The practitioner looks very powerful indeed. And he probably is. But I think it is self-evident that he is reabsorbing an unnecessary component of his (substantial) force.

But why does his punching look so powerful? I think it is because the practitioner is absorbing a significant component of his own (substantial) force (causing him to "shake" at the point of impact). Otherwise, why would it look "powerful"? He isn't hitting anything! Again, the bullet and sword analogies spring to mind.

An effective punch needs just 2 things: mass and velocity. Accordingly, an air punch shouldn't look "powerful": it should just look fast.

A well focused karate punch should have the added feature of stopping suddenly. But such a stop doesn't require shaking, gyrating or other "visible power".

The above karateka is a very hard hitter; of that I'm certain. But in my opinion this video is not illustrative of the way he would punch a target. Like many karateka, I'm sure he has developed 2 ways of punching: one for "air" and one against targets.

I don't have a video of the gentleman above punching makiwara, but if I did, I bet it would look something like the video below. You'll notice that the shaking is entirely absent - except for the shock from the actual impact.

Yahara Mikio demonstrating makiwara. Note the lack of shaking, except that caused by impact.

“Shaking” is bad for you

I have tried virtually everything in my martial arts career. I’ve even tried “shaking”. But there is a major reason, apart from inefficiency, that leads me further and further away from it: It hurts.

Shaking the body means you’re absorbing a lot of your own force. This force has to do some damage – particularly if you’re punching very “hard”. Over the years I’ve found that this kind of “hara” punching causes my tendons to inflame, particularly after a long session.

The major problem areas are the shoulders and the elbows. The elbows are particularly problematic if you lock them when you punch. Other parts of the body can also feel the effects: I’ve hurt my back (particularly my lower back) and even my neck.

For a brief period, I thought that “shaking” might be good for you: I thought it might “toughen you up”. I was wrong. If you’re interested in conditioning your body, there are far more effective and scientific ways of doing it. Uncontrolled, explosive actions that lead to extraneous movement are a recipe for disaster – especially to an aging body.

Distinguishing Chinese “shaking” arts

Some schools of Chinese martial art teach a kind of “shaking” in conjunction with other types of movement. I’m thinking in particular of “shaking crane” and the “fajin” of the internal arts.7 I don’t intend to dwell on this subject for too long, but I will make the following observations:

The role shaking plays in these arts is, in my opinion, very different to the “shaking” one so often sees in karate basics. For a start, the shaking does not occur with each technique. It is an occasional thing. A taiji practitioner for example learns to move without any shaking at all and spends the vast majority of his or her time perfecting such “non-shaking” movement. Occasionally he or she will demonstrate “fajin” – an explosive release of energy. But this has little in common with absorbing your own force over thousands of standing basic punches.

Second, the type of shake is very deliberate. It is not uncontrolled. It is not a by-product of your power – it is the goal. I’ve often heard it said that the action approximates that of a dog shaking itself dry. This is a far cry from a shake produced by a “phantom impact”.

Rattle and hum: you too?

Almost every karateka I know (including yours truly) has a little "rattle" with his or her standing punches. This "rattle" is hardest to avoid in standing basics.

I reject completely the notion that "tremendous power" in punching necessitates shaking, just as I reject the notion that the shake is deliberate hip use. In most cases the extraneous movement simply comes down to this: the student has insufficient control over his or her own body to move without it. I believe we should all be striving continually to achieve the greatest possible level of this control so as to achieve the greatest possible efficiency in movement.

So how does one learn to eliminate extraneous movement?

The first step is to acknowledge that it is there.

Most karateka I know are unaware that they are shaking. Consider the video below: the practitioner is clearly quite skilled, but he would probably reject out of hand that he is "shaking" (at least, to any significant extent). True, it is nothing like the shaking I've seen elsewhere. But it is still not like makiwara punching: the body still "rattles" as each punch lands. Compare this gentleman's slow punches with his fast punches, noting in particular how much his belt moves when he punches fast (where it doesn't move at all when he punches slowly):

The shaking in this video is typical of examples on the web. It is very mild. However it is a kind of shaking nonetheless. Note the "rattle" with each fast punch (watch the belt move). Contrast this with the makiwara punching above or with my controlled punching in the first video.

I'm sure you'll agree from my opening video that I have gone some way at least to minimising such extraneous movement. And I believe that I have done so without losing power. I make this observation merely in order to evidence that it isn't "impossible" as many seem to think. The "rattle" is not an inevitable side effect of standing basic punching.

The second step to eliminating extraneous movement is to use traditional stances. As I demonstrate in my opening video, shiko dachi (sumo stance) is excellent for this: If you hold a stable shiko dachi, you simply cannot "shake, rattle or roll". You are forced to move without extraneous movement. This is, in my view, one of the most important reasons for basics performed in stances.

Consider, by way of contrast, the level of extraneous movement in following video:

Extraneous movement doesn't often manifest with slow punching; when it does, it doesn't bode well for the efficiency of fast punches.

The karateka bobs up and down with each punch despite the fact that he is punching quite slowly. I strongly suspect he would move a lot more if he were punching hard and fast (given that this is when one loses control). Here is one student who would benefit from practising basics in deep, stationary stances.

"Does it matter," I hear you ask, "if you don't have 'perfect' technique?" To the extent that we should all be striving to improve our skills, I think it does. If you can't control extraneous movement, you don't have much control over your own body. As a result, you can't be efficient and you can't avoid telegraphing (think of the wind up of the "power" karateka featured earlier, or the "bob" of the chap in the above video).

Whether you think this "perfection" is important or not depends on whether you see yourself as a "brawler" or technician". I incline very much to the technician. I think you have to fight smart (or as smart as you can).

As an exercise, do some basic punches in heiko dachi (parallel stance) and try not to shake at all. If you can't, ask yourself why. Drop into a shiko dachi and try it there, then go back to heiko dachi. It is my view that this is what standing basics are primarily for - not for "double hip" practice. I'd wager that those who scoff at my suggestions simply don't have the control to avoid shaking - or have never even tried to avoid it.

A summary video in which I demonstrate some techniques with minimized shaking or other extraneous movement


If you perform your basics with a “shake” in each movement, ask yourself whether this is deliberate and controlled - or the opposite.

The fact that shaking is quite common (we all have it to some extent) doesn't lessen the importance of minimising your extraneous movement through controlling your body. I wrote this article to alert karateka to this issue, not to denigrate anyone.

I get the feeling that for most karateka, any “shake” that accompanies their basic punches is an unconscious by-product of trying to be “powerful”. In reality, force is determined not by how “hard” you punch but by the simple variables of your mass and your velocity. “Hard” punching translates to punches that you “feel”. You feel them because you’re reabsorbing some of your own force. And force that is reabsorbed is force that isn’t being used productively.

So for goodness sake – don’t do the hippy hippy shake.


1. See my articles:
    Whole lotta shakin’: pre-loading the hips”.
    Whole lotta shakin’: an addendum”.
    Whole lotta shakin’: contextual hip use”.
    The importance of flow”.
    Flow: why it is an essential component of kata”.
2. See my article: “Visible force vs. applied force”.
3. See my article: “Kime: soul of the karate punch”.
4. See my article: “Karate punches vs. boxing punches”.
5. See my article: “Hitting harder: physics made easy”.
6. For a discussion about what “Clayton’s” means, see my article: “More about the Clayton’s gap”.
7. See my article: “Understanding the internal arts”.

Copyright © 2010 Dejan Djurdjevic

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Flow: why it is an essential component of kata


I have written previously about my views on the importance of flow or connectivity between movements and the role kata plays in this process. In particular I have noted the importance of connecting a series of related techniques (eg. a block/deflection and counter) so that they comprise one cohesive sequence rather than separate, disconnected movements.

In my article "The importance of flow" I used a specific example of a movement from Aragaki seisan as researched by Patrick McCarthy and as performed by Erik Angerhofer, a student of McCarthy Hanshi’s respected International Ryukyu Karate Research Society (IRKRS).

I chose to compare Erik’s and my performance of the same movement for a very specific reason: I did not do so in order to assert that I was "faster than Erik". On the contrary, I chose Erik’s example because I felt that he and I were moving at more or less an identical speed. What the comparison was intended to show (and which I feel it demonstrated conclusively) is how the presence or absence of flow can affect the time it takes to complete the same sequence of movements.

Erik was emphasising “koshi” – the use of the hips to generate power, while I was emphasising the connectivity of movements that I felt (and still feel) are properly part of one sequence (in that case, a block/deflection and its related counter).

One response to my view on "flow" has been that within associations such as the IRKRS kata are not used for the purposes of developing flow: in the case of that particular association, if one wants flow one should look at their 2 person flow drills.

Should kata and 2 person forms embody different concepts of flow?

The IRKRS 2 person flow drills are exceptionally good. I encourage readers to look at Patrick McCarthy’s material online (or attend one of his seminars) if they have not already done so. The research McCarthy Hanshi has done in developing his material constitutes a very important contribution to karate in general and provides some of the most effective training methods around today. These drills are all the more impressive in that they are designed (as karate was intended, in my view) to be responses to what McCarthy Hanshi has termed “HAPV” (Habitual Act of Physical Violence). Grooving effective responses to HAPV is, I think, what civilian defence systems like karate are all about.

why should there a be a difference between the flow in 2 person drills and the flow (or lack of it) in kata?
Clearly one can supplement kata with an almost inexhaustible array of effective 2 person “flow” or other fighting drills. As I have argued in my article "Really USING your kata", such 2 person drills should ideally have some sort of nexus to the kata of the system, however more commonly they do not. Regardless, I don't see any reason why kata and 2 person forms should have different concepts of flow. In fact, I feel it is imperative for the flow to be the same in both. Why? The answer lies in the function of kata.

How kata function demands the same flow as that found in 2 person forms

At some point the question must be asked: Why have kata at all? Why not dispense with kata and simply do 2 person drills – particularly if those drills catalogue all the essential techniques/principles of the particular art?

My answer to this is as follows: It is helpful to learn certain principles solo before they are applied (with increasing resistance) against a partner. The initial absence of resistance allows you to refine your movement and be more efficient. More importantly, it avoids you defaulting to brute force or using a tried and trusted, but different, technique or principle to the one that you’re learning.

So you might be learning tactic B, yet you are more accustomed to using tactic A. Under pressure you might default to tactic A every time so as to avoid getting hit. And yet, tactic B might provide a far more elegant and sophisticated way of dealing with that attack; it’s just that you can never find a way of “grooving” it sufficiently well to trust yourself to try it under pressure.

However a solo form lets you groove the hand, foot and body movement in isolation and without resistance, never mind the stress of being hit. You have the chance to make the sequence of moves reflexive – at least to some extent. And even once you’ve started applying it against a resistant partner, the solo form allows you re-examine your technique and see refinements in angle, position, footwork posture, etc. This is particularly so as you contrast your form “under pressure” with your form in an “ideal” state. Having an “ideal” gives you something to which you can aspire.

But we now get back to the same issue: why should solo movement be different to the 2 person movement? If we are going to catalogue certain techniques/principles in a solo form, and if we are going to move from the solo form to a 2 person form, shouldn’t the type of movement be the same? I believe they should.

For kata to be at all useful, they should inculcate the same kinaesthetic habits and movements as those found in 2 person forms or even in free sparring or fighting.

Yes, kata movements are often fuller, more complete, more "formal" movements (see my articles "Form and formality in martial arts techniques" and "Abandoning form: the paradox of the 'shrinking' martial art"). But the same principles should underly both solo movements and partner movements. And, more importantly, it is my view that the connectivity between related techniques should be identical.

It is one thing to assert the above and another to prove the assertion is correct. I will attempt to do so by positing a couple of examples of a series of movements that are commonly performed in kata without flow (ie. in a disconnected fashion) - but where 2 person performance of the same movements clearly dictates that those moves are completely ineffective unless they do flow (ie. they are connected in a way that makes them one cohesive stream of movement rather than separate, disjointed, albeit powerful, movements).

Examples of the need for flow in both kata and 2 person performance

There are 2 examples that immediately spring to mind:
  1. one from the shorin kata pinan nidan or heian shodan (which is substantially similar to our fukyugata ichi); and
  2. another from the goju ryu kata seipai.
Pinan nidan / heian shodan and the hammer fist sequence

The kata pinan nidan or heian shodan has a sequence in which the performer retracts from a full forward stance (zenkutsu dachi) into a half stance (han zenkutsu) while performing a breakout and a hammer fist strike. The performer then follows this with a step forward and a punch.

It is common in many schools to insert “koshi” (an extra hip preload) before both the hammer fist strike and the following punch. For example, consider the performance below at 1:06 to 1:07:

A performance of pinan nidan / heian shodan with koshi. Note in particular the techniques (and the hip use) at 1:06 to 1:07.

The problem I have with this performance is that the extra hip "wobbles" disconnect the hammerfist from both the breakout and the following punch (see the adjacent animation).

"Yes," I might hear you say, "but the purpose here is to train the use of the hip in adding power to each technique."

The problem with this argument is that, when this particular series of movements is applied in a 2 person setting, there is simply no time for the added hip motion, bearing in mind that if someone has grabbed you by the hand, they will probably be in the process of trying to hit you. They won't stand there idly while you use your hips to both (a) break out and use your hammerfist and (b) punch.

In my view, it is necessarily implicit that kata movements like this are (or should be) far more connected than a basic analysis of the kata might suggest. Indeed, the movement must be connected to work in a dynamic setting - where your opponent is continually moving. What we see in a basic, standard, performance of the kata is only the first layer of understanding. I don't think that the layers get any deeper by disconnecting the movements. Rather, I've found they get deeper by connecting them.

On this point, when one conducts a deeper analysis the footwork of the kata, one discerns that instead of following the literal stepping pattern (pull back, hammerfist, step forward, punch) one might well roll the movements into one, using what some call "replacement stepping" (hiki ayumi ashi). Consider the following video in which I demonstrate such stepping, in particular at the beginning where I discuss the same hammer fist sequence:

Some examples of hiki ayumi ashi or replacment stepping - something that requires "connectivity" or flow. Note in particular the opening sequence from our fukyugata or pinan nidan / heian shodan.

As I have said, I regard this sort of footwork as necessarily implied by the kata - not as a "long bow to draw". I'm not alone in this either: many senior karateka have demonstrated hiki ayumi ashi in their bunkai of kata, Morio Higaonna of the IOGKF being just the first who springs to mind.

Such footwork certainly makes sense in a 2 person framework. However it is impossible to do it if one does the “koshi” version. It just can't be done because the movements are disconnected by the insertion of non-contextual hip loading.

I'll make the assertion here that any 2 person drill is unlikely to feature such extraneous hip movement. I certainly haven't seen one (at least one that was performed convincingly). This is because all 2 person forms must flow (in the sense of connecting related movements) in order to be effective. Any hip movement arises naturally and contextually - ie. there is no "pre-loading" or "double hip" action.

And if a kata catalogues techniques that you would apply against a partner, one might expect the performance of the kata to be consistent with this. Otherwise you are inculcating 2 completely separate concepts; one that applies against a partner and one that does not.

Yes, the “koshi” version one might well be teaching one how to load the hip. But this can already be done in practising isolated basics (kihon). I see no valid reason to see kata as a series of separate, isolated kihon exercises; particularly when they are brimming with 2 person applications.

In summary, I feel that applying the hammer fist sequence from pinan nidan / heian shodan is completely inconsistent with the “koshi” performance of this kata.

Seipai and the Okinawan kokutsu dachi sequence

Another good example is to be found at the beginning of the goju kata seipai, where the performer deflects a kick using a forward tenshin (evasion) in an Okinawan kokutsu dachi (back stance), followed by a scooping deflection of a punch (sukui uke) and a chopping action (shuto uchi) (see the adjacent animation).

It is quite common to see an extra hip "wobble" being inserted after the low deflection (gedan barai) and before the punch deflection (sukui uke). I suppose the theory is that it adds power to the sukui uke.

But the problem with this theory is 2 fold:

First, if you've moved into your opponent to deflect his kick (as the kata dictates), you will almost certainly face a follow up punch or strike to the face (again, as the kata anticipates). That follow up punch or strike is going to happen very quickly. You just don't have time to "add power" by inserting an extraneous hip "wobble". Indeed, your priority is to get arm up to protect your head - either by deflecting any such attack, or simply to occupy the space so that the attack is thwarted before it begins.

As part of this process, your hip will, if anything, be starting to turn towards your opponent (as it needs to if you have connected your movements into one flowing sequence). The last thing you want to do is throw your hip the opposite way.

Second, why is "extra power" from the hip necessary for this deflection? I've experimented with it for years: the sukui uke slips/parries/scoops the attack in a very soft, but effective manner. Even if the attack has a roundhouse action, the "hook" in your wrist can ensure that it is safely scooped away. In other words, the deflection operates on both a horizontal and vertical plane to deflect an attack using minimal force.

I discuss both these issues in some detail in the video below:

I discuss the particular movement from seipai, noting the need for flow or "connectivity" in order for the technique to work.

As with the pinan nidan / heian shodan example, the seipai movements not only benefit from flow or "connectivity" - they require it in order to work.


I have illustrated just 2 examples in this article of kata movements that cannot be applied if they are "chopped up" by extraneous hip movement. There are, however, many thousands more: the same analysis applies to virtually every group of related techniques in every karate kata.

I have yet to hear/read any logical reason for why solo performance of kata requires "chopped up" movements, where 2 person performance dictates that they "flow" one into another.

Indeed, it is my view that the basic function of kata dictates that solo and 2 person performance be identical in this respect. I can see no reason why you should practice kata as a series of disconnected kihon drills - not when the component parts are clearly part of a related sequence of events.

Learning connectivity between related movements is nothing short of critical when it comes to managing what I have called the "melee". And I personally take every opportunity to be aware of this connectivity - whether it is in kata, in 2 person drills or sparring.

Copyright © 2010 Dejan Djurdjevic

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Really USING your kata


In my previous articles (eg. "Kata as a vital training tool" and "Applying forms in combat") I discuss the function and usefulness of kata in general terms. But can a discussion about kata ever move from general statements to more specific examples? I will try:

Kata as a comprehensive catalogue

It is my view that kata provides a means of cataloguing the techniques and, more importantly, the principles of traditional martial arts like karate. In this regard, kata is (and I feel should be) the mainstay of karate. Your kata should comprise, as far as possible, a comprehensive catalogue of the techniques/principles of your art, providing a neat and efficient mnemonic for remembering (and practising) all your techniques or principles.

This is to be contrasted with a system which might have hundreds, if not thousands, of “stray” techniques/drills that have no particular order or hierarchical structure. In this context, the desirability of having, say, 10-12 kata which comprehensively summarise one’s art should be obvious.

Our first kata, fukyugata ichi (a variant on Shoshin Nagamine’s kata of the same name and the shorin ryu kata pinan nidan/heian shodan). While it is quite basic, it nonetheless teaches some very sound principles

Of course kata can’t realistically catalogue all techniques: Some (such as ground fighting or other grappling skills) are hard to effect on a “solo” platform.

For this reason, while I teach a kata-based system I am also happy to supplement the kata with various 2 person drills.

I do however make every effort to connect my 2 person drills with the kata.

Kata-related striking drills

For example, each of our kata has a 2 person “striking” form associated with it which we call an “embu” (demonstration). The embu don’t attempt to put every single kata application in a 2 person context since the applications are far too numerous. Rather, the purpose of the embu is to embody and demonstrate (hence the name "embu") as many of the essential principles of evasion, deflection and counter attack as are taught (or implied) by a kata - and to do so in a 2 person form.

As discussed above in my article "The 'oh shit!' moment: more about 2 person forms" our embu take the form of a looping cycle of mutual destruction along the lines of the “rock/paper/scissors” game. Why? As I have mentioned in that article, one of the most important factors in the striking arts is, in my opinion, understanding the process of “conversion” or change (within the meaning of the baguazhang classic text, the Yi Jing or Book of Changes).

Very rarely does one get a chance to complete a technique. Mostly one’s strikes are intercepted, evaded or otherwise interfered with. In the melee to which I have frequently referred, fighting is typically chaotic. Understanding the process of change is central to understanding this chaos and converting it to your advantage.

However most karate-based 2 person striking drills I see out there suffer from 2 essential problems:
  1. They bear no relationship at all the the kata of the particular school, making their inclusion in the syllabus ad hoc.

  2. They have little to no emphasis on understanding the process of change; rather they comprise what I have previously called "attack strings" - ie. where you get to execute (and complete) a wide variety of counter attacks against a largely stationary and/or non-resistant partner. Where your partner does resist, this resistance is token or unrealistic (at least in the sense that it does not comprise an optimal answer to your counter attacks).
It is my opinion that in order to be truly useful to a traditional karateka (ie. one who is using a kata-based system), a 2 person drill must address both of the above issues.

The inclusion of (sometimes) hundreds of ad hoc 2 person drills raises the questions: Why bother with kata in the first place when your system is really found in these myriad 2 person drills? In what way does kata still form the mainstay of such a system?

And while attack strings can be useful, they are not sufficient to provide a platform for learning how to use techniques in a free-form environment like sparring: you just aren't ever going to get the chance to complete such attack strings. They can look and feel very impressive; nothing is quite as satisfying as "bulldozing" your way through an opponent with a flurry of unanswered, chained attacks. But such as scenario bears no resemblance to how most people fight - no matter how advanced they might be. The only time you can execute such a series of chained attacks is once your opponent is "on the ropes", so to speak (ie. he or she is utterly and totally overwhelmed and can no longer put up any effective resistance). And pressing your attack once your attacker is so overwhelmed is both legally problematic and morally questionable.

In my view, if you are serious about civilian defence your time is better spent:
  1. learning effective defence in the form of deflections/blocks and evasion; and
  2. understanding how your counters might be thwarted and ensuring that you can deal with this moment of "change".
The latter is the very essence of exerting some sort of control in a chaotic environment - and turning the situation to your advantage. If you doubt me, think of your last sparring match (or, if you've been unlucky, civilian defence encounter) and consider what went wrong (not what went right!): the punches that didn't land, the throw that you mis-timed, the lock from which your partner/opponent wriggled free. Improving your performance means understanding what went wrong - and making sure it doesn't happen again. One learns principally from one's mistakes - not so much from one's triumphs.

Accordingly I believe 2 person forms should attempt to provide each side with optimal defences and optimal counters. This means that if your opponent in a civilian defence encounter does anything less than optimal, you will have covered all your bases.

We use the "rock/paper/scissors" paradigm to effect this result: we take kata principles and apply them to create these optimal defences and counters for each side. Yes, you are grooving a "rehearsed response" - but when it is an optimal one, why not? And what better way of applying movements from kata in sparring (as opposed to doing your "usual", favourite techniques - which might default to what I've called faux boxing)? I have yet to see an attack string applied in sparring, but I see the principles of our embu applied by our students whenever they spar. Maybe not neatly and cleanly - but the more experienced they are, the better the principles are evidenced.

The "rock/paper/scissors" format is not a recent innovation: xingyiquan - arguably China's oldest extant fighting system - has enshrined this principle in its 5 elements (which have a "destructive" and "constructive" cycle along these lines: see my article "Cracking the xingyi code"). This training format might not be "sexy", but it works.

Which poses the question: what sorts of kata principles are implemented in our embu?

Some tenshin from fukyugata which is used in our embu for the same form

I think a good starting point is the footwork / body movement: one should work from the ground up, and the footwork (ashi sabaki) and general body movement (taisabaki) directly from, and implied by, the kata should provide your foundation.

The term that encapsulates both footwork and body movement is called "tenshin" (evasion). We base our kata bunkai (applications) directly on the tenshin from, and implied by, the kata - so why not the embu?

Our embu based on the fukyugata forms. You will note that it departs substantially from fukyugata ichi, being an advancement on that kata and fukyugata ni: it starts to apply the principles of evasion (tenshin) from, and implied by, the kata some of which are set out in the previous video.

The added benefit of encapsulating such foot/body work in a new form is that this extra (implied) material is catalogued in much the same way as the lead principles are catalogued in the kata itself.

For this reason I'm not terribly concerned that the embu does not "look just like the kata". In fact, I'm glad it doesn't. As I've said previously, minor variations in the kata sequence are largely pointless. If you're going to have a new drill based on the kata it must add value: it must act as a supplementary catalogue, not a restatement of the initial catalogue.

Creating 2 person forms that have slavish adherence to the original kata template suffer from one further problem: Most, if not all, karate kata were not designed for 2 person performance. The examples I've seen of "forced" 2 person adaptations are so artificial, so unlike "real fighting", that they are of questionable worth. Yes, they can provide some basic (kihon) training - but nothing over and above kata practice and basic kihon and sandan kumite (basic pre-arranged attacks and defences in basic stances). [In this regard I invite you to compare our gekisai embu with the traditional Shoreikan gekisai 2 person form illustrated in my article "The 'oh shit!' moment: more about 2 person forms".]

Kata-related grappling drills

I have also devised a 2 person grappling drill for each kata, utilising its biomechanical and kinaesthetic principles. Each drill can be applied either standing or (with some minor adaptation) on the ground.

The standing lock flow of fukyugata. The various locks and holds utilise the biomechanical principles inherent in movements such as the hammerfist and jodan/age uke.

I have structured our own grappling drills so that they take the form of lock flows – ie. a series of locks that flow one into another along the lines of the opponent’s predicted “escape path”. Compare this to the striking 2 person striking drills discussed above which take the form of a “rock/paper/scissors” type exchange.

The ground lock flow of fukyugata. Note how the movements have been adapted to ground use but retain their essential biomechanical structure.

Why would a grappling drill not take a “rock/paper/scissors” form?

Quite simply, locks (and grappling techniques generally) rely on a far greater efficacy of application – predominantly because they have to “hold”, at least for more than an instant. A punch to the face is a punch to the face; in a particular instant it either works or it doesn’t. A lock has to restrain, set up for a counter or to break a joint. In any of these cases, it has to be held for more than the mere instant it takes to punch/strike/kick. Accordingly locks place a premium on getting it exactly right – so that it works. Correspondingly they place a premium on ensuring you know what to if (or when) the lock weakens and your opponent slips out of your lock. This necessitates understanding the lines of escape to which I have previously referred.

Adding kata to "plug the gaps"

I've spoken about how, ideally, your kata will provide a comprehensive catalogue of techniques. But what if your kata simply don't contain all the techniques you might need?

In our system we have adopted kata to address such issues. An example would be my brother’s and my adoption of the naihanchi/naifunchin/tekki kata.

Some naihanchi/naifunchin/tekki bunkai

Naihanchi/naifunchin is so unlike goju that it was an obvious choice for addition to our system. The bunkai above detail some locks and other grappling techniques that we feel are congruent with the biomechanics of the kata. Put them together along the "lines of escape" and you get the lock flow below:

The tenshin (body evasion) implied by naihanchi/naifunchin is even more unique, facilitating a very different 2 person striking drill or embu. However, this is something upon which I shall have elaborate another time.

The naifunchin embu which is based on a foundation of the implied tenshin or taisabaki using the kiba dachi (horse stance).

In other cases we have collated stray techniques into entirely new forms, namely my 2 nagegata forms which comprise collations of stray qin na and throws from my studies in the Chinese systems.

The second of my nagegata forms: note some of the applications below.

Some applications of the nagegata kata: to perform the throws correctly, learning the footwork in isolation is a must.

Wing chun's muk yan jong (the wooden dummy form) provides yet another example of a form we've added to "plug a gap" in our arsenal. And so it goes...


Accordingly, while the “holy grail” of a “complete” kata-based system is probably not achievable, the desirability of encapsulating as much as possible in your kata is not lessened by this observation.

Furthermore, kata can and should can be supplemented by drills - however these should be kata-derived or related as much as possible for the kata-based system to have any real function. Stray or ad hoc techniques should be kept to a minimum, otherwise the whole function of kata as a cataloguing tool is undermined.

And where your kata don't cover all the principles you feel are essential, nothing should stop you from adding a kata or katas that you feel would "plug" this gap.

So, for kata to be truly useful, you need to use them. If kata are just some kind of anachronism - a like a quaint vintage car you pull out of your garage for the odd Sunday rally - then you might as well abandon them altogether in favour of a non-kata based system.

Copyright © 2010 Dejan Djurdjevic