One of the main characteristics of traditional karate is the emphasis on simplistic and direct techniques that stay close to the body and are free from any excessive motion. This is of course desirable in self-defence and within these outwardly straight-forward movements there can be found numerous scientific principles and sophisticated body dynamics. Indeed, the functional strategies of traditional karate may be expressed through a comparatively small toolbox of body positions and motions, all of which are linked together via a common thread. However, one must always have in mind that it is this central thread that represents the true essence of the art, not necessary the plethora of individual techniques.
A key principle of motion that I'd like to write about here is that of 'circularity' and the difference between square and curved movement paths when executing tenshin, tsuki, uchi, uke and keri. One of the best ways to imagine this principle in action would be to think about how one would drive a car around a bend in the road ahead. If the bend happens to have a gentle curve then you'll easily be able to make small adjustments to the steering wheel with hardly any use of the brake. In contrast, if the bend happens to be sharp (such as a right angle or hair pin), then employing the brake would be more of a certainty and in some cases, the car may have to come to a complete halt before changing course in order to safely negotiate the manoeuvre.
In traditional karate practice, we aim to smooth out any sharp corners so that the fundamental movement patterns become more 'spherical' and 'natural'. Think of the difference between a square and a circle. For instance, drawing a square on a piece of paper requires four separate stop/starts as the angle changes sharply. Every stop/start requires energy to be re-generated and issued in a different direction. However, drawing a circle can be achieved in one continuous and efficient path by making small adjustments with the pen and utilising the same perpetual energy throughout the entire shape.
I often like to use my blog to record certain ideas and principles that I'm currently working on and although I may not yet be advanced enough in my study to claim full expertise in these particular subjects, it's always useful for me to write down my thoughts for my own benefit...and of course for anyone else that may happen to gain some insight whilst reading them!
Lately, I've been working on the principle of circularity and how specific shapes prescribed through the fundamental technique in karate can have a great effect on their functional potential...
From a two-dimensional circle, the next progression in training would be to prescribe a three dimensional helix path of movement, which may progressively decrease in size so to dramatically enhance acceleration and output power. This is the basis of understanding how a circular path can indeed create a direct energy transfer.
As an example, consider the execution of gedan barai (low-level sweep). If the preparation movement (arm raising up and towards the opposite shoulder) directly opposes the so-called 'blocking' movement (arm sweeping down and to the side), then this would have the same feeling as drawing a square or driving a fast car around a sharp bend. However, if the preparation movement and the 'blocking' movement are integrated together to become a single circular motion, then the technique will become instantly more efficient in terms of functional potential. Thus the reference points seen throughout the basic uke (reception) techniques in karate should not be viewed as a place to stop and change direction, but instead merely a point in time along the circular path of the movement and are used as guideposts to ensure that the correct path is being followed.
If we now look at the basic outline shape of a helix we can create a triangle or in three dimensional terms, a cone. This principle of compressing and focussing energy like a laser beam into one single point is a trademark of traditional karate and one of the methods for how exponents who may be small in physical size, are able to generate blinding speed and power.
Imagine the koshi (waist) as being like the core of a flexible whip. The upper limbs may be likened to the length of the whip, with the cross sectional area progressively decreasing away from the core via the major joints (waist, shoulder, elbow, wrist etc). As the koshi shakes, the shoulder, elbow and wrist joints respond not together, but in sequence to facilitate the energy as it perpetuates through the arm and transferred into the target.
Just like the whip, as the elbow is smaller than the shoulder and the wrist is smaller than the elbow, the transmission of energy increases in acceleration though a progressively decreasing cross sectional area. The koshi is snapped back towards the end of the motion to generate the 'crack' of the whip and subsequent focus/release of energy.
The body and mind must remain as relaxed as possible, thereby minimising the counter-productive effect of antagonist muscle activation (opposing muscle groups fighting against each other). At the point of energy transfer, the musculature of the body is momentarily locked into a structurally strong position in order make effective both the delivery and reaction systems in accordance with Newton's law of motion - for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Thus, the resultant force from the impact must be comfortably directed back through the body. For the effective application of karate principles, one must take into account 'both sides of the coin'.
Of course, a circle is not the only shape that can be prescribed through a single motion and the koshi does not simply rotate, but instead, a sophisticated three dimensional movement pattern may be produced that precedes the associated upper body techniques through the correct application of sequential delay. That, which occurs above the waist should always be a direct consequence of that, which occurs below it. generally speaking, the koshi can rotate clockwise and anti-clockwise, lift to the left and right or rock forward and back. It is the integrated combination of these fundamental dynamics with accurate timing and fluid motion that provides karate with true and life-long, away from mere physical strength that of course declines naturally with age.
In traditional karate (as in many other martial arts), energy is sourced from the ground, gathered up through the legs, amplified by the koshi, accelerated by the upper limbs and then transferred through the fist into the target. It became clear during my last trip to Okinawa that if one is not becoming faster, stronger and more powerful with age and experience, then that person is not practising true karate and instead, is simply performing a physical exercise that's reliant solely on muscular contraction. Indeed, you don't need to travel very far in Naha to find an ageing karate teacher who is a living example of this principle in practice and to personally witness one of these individuals in action is inspiring to say the least!
For karate to be a lifelong art, emphasis needs to be placed on natural movement, plus the preservation/development of health. After all, I suppose that our vitality is the ultimate factor in all aspects of personal protection - for without it, everything else becomes insignificant!
Yet another principle that goes hand in hand with circularity is that of compression, expansion and what many people refer to as 'wave energy', This adds a whole new component to the body dynamics found in karate and maybe my thoughts on this can be the subject of a future post!
Thanks for reading and keep training deep,
Chris Denwood has been studying martial arts since childhood and specialises in the practical application of karate's traditional principles for civilian self-defence, personal development, life integration and discovery.