The study of body dynamics in traditional karate can go as deep as you'd like it to and exploring the subtleties found in the art can be a very addictive process. Indeed, exploring how you may best use positional advantage, move between stances efficiently, make use of natural strengths, exploit natural weaknesses and interact with an opponent to achieve the best results can prove a very seductive pursuit. So much so that we sometimes forget to keep at the forefront of our minds the fundamental requirement for simplicity in self-defence, with the real risk of 'pure function' creeping further and further away from our dojo training. As they say, simplicity is the ultimate sophistication!
Percussive impact makes up Karate's primary strategy for dealing with an imminent physical threat to one's safety. If avoidance, escape or dissuasion are not valid options to pursue or have already been exhausted, then the order of the day would be to employ swift, aggressive and overwhelming ballistic strikes. either pre-emptive (ideally) or reactive, with the aim of switching off either the ability or the inclination for the opponent to continue posing a significant risk, thus facilitating the opportunity to make a safe escape.
The above strategy may sound rather brutal to some and I suppose in truth, it is. However, it also happens to offer the best chance of maximising safety (the main objective in self-defence), so long as the training to support such a strategy has been formulated from both functional and combative perspectives. Furthermore, if this tactic were to be employed in a genuine civilian protection scenario then not only would it be considered lawful (well, certainly here in the UK), but I also feel it aligns honourably to the traditional karate maxim of their being no first attack, even if your 'physical' engagement happens been pre-emptive.
"There is a precept known as “karate ni sente nashi.” Properly understood, this indicates a mental attitude of not being eager or inclined to fight. It is the teaching that just because you have trained in karate does not mean that you may rashly strike or kick others.
For a combative self-defence strategy to have any chance of working under the chaotic stresses, scenarios and variables experienced in a real violent confrontation, then it needs to be simple, quick to learn, easy to retain and facilitate swift access when required. People who want to learn fundamental self-defence don’t want to, shouldn't need to and often don’t even have the capacity to spend years studying the intricacies of a particular system. Simply put, if it’s taking years to develop a sufficient level of competence, then we have a big problem on our hands. And top of the list for physical protection is learning how to hit hard.
So although a deeper study into percussive impact may serve to develop a more comprehensive skill-base over time, in terms of essential self-defence, we require only a small tool box of well-honed gross motor techniques supported by a simplistic methodology for generating sufficient power and aggression. Thus, by definition, the curriculum of traditional karate should (and does) possess the capacity to teach quick and workable strategies.
It's vital that during the study of kata bunkai, we learn how to develop effective habitual body movement patterns through correct and repetitive performance of the solo form. Furthermore, the reverse engineering we undertake to explore the possible self-defence applications associated with each technique, represents only part of the picture. In actual fact, how we efficiently transition our body in space is more important, for without this aspect we will never be able to deliver our applications with functional effectiveness.
"Whether you have in your hand a paint brush, pencil, spray can or piece of charcoal is completely irrelevant if you possess absolutely no skill in drawing!"
The methodology of traditional karate is less about collecting tools and more about understanding the commonalities around how best to use them. Being able to regurgitate one, two or even ten applications for a given sequence in kata means very little if you're unable to move your body according to the universal principles that govern how we move and have developed the functional attributes necessary to do so effectively.
For me, the methodology of traditional karate is like a two pronged fork. Firstly, it's vital that the fundamental components of an effective self-defence strategy are firmly set in place. This underpinning framework may then be used as a foundational platform for more advanced studies, development and specialisation according to the specific requirements of each individual practitioner. The main conduit for disseminating the fundamental framework is through what is considered to be the core Kihon or Tanrengata such as Sanchin (Naha) or Naihanchi (Shuri). It is the repetitive characteristics and symmetrical choreography that set these forms apart and reveal the way in which they may be explored and functionally applied.
Once the core framework is in place then further progressive study below the surface may commence. This would be comparable to approaching a jigsaw puzzle by finding and organising the corner pieces, followed by the edges, before progressing towards the centre. Of course, a more accurate view of the picture would be directly proportional to the number of pieces you have successfully set down in the correct position.
So, in taking this idea back to percussive impact, learning how to strike with functional effectiveness should be of primary concern to any karate practitioner who is looking to study the art for self-defence. Initially, this requires a simplistic fundamental basis coupled with further opportunity to expand this skill-base in more advanced ways. It's no coincidence that Naihanchi Kata happens to contains all the elements in order to achieve this and is a subject I'll be discussing in more depth within Volume Two of my Seed of Shuri Karate book series - SIGN UP TO MY MAILING LIST for news on progress and provisional release date!
For now, let me briefly share with you how the arrangement of my own dojo curriculum addresses fundamental skill development in achieving powerful strike paths for percussive impact.
From beginner level, we introduce Naihanchi Kata and align five fundamental movement patterns with the upper limbs (regardless of what tool or technique is being used) These are as follows:
Note that the kihon waza found in most karate styles - choku-zuki, plus the four basic uke (age/soto/uchi/gedan) predominantly focus on the above listed movements. A coincidence...I think not!
We then develop these landmark movement patterns by using the following five basic dynamic principles:
There's nothing sophisticated going on at this stage, just large gross movements that allow each practitioner to understand how the body may be used to help support the strike.
So a rising strike would emphasise kinetic chain extension, a dropping strike would predominately employ the use of gravity and a swinging strike would rely heavily on the rotational use of the waist. All strikes should make use of sequential delay in order to perpetuate energy through the body, then into and out from the striking limb.
In terms of the specific techniques within our curriculum, we practice the application of these movement patterns and incorporating the dynamic principles for generating impact, as well their use within simple kata applications. We also emphasise the commonality of each pathway and how different tools may be superimposed. For example, the functional pathway for a straight punch or palm heel thrust is identical, as is the functional pathway for a hooking slap or forearm swing.
As an example of how the above may be practised and integrated, we can consider a common movement pattern in kata where the arm drops down, either to perform a specific technique (such as otoshi-uke or tettsui uchi) or as in so-called 'preparation' for another. By focussing solely on sequential delay of the limb - if we were to transition the whole arm as a single unit, then this would not efficiently transfer energy due to excessive tension (antagonist muscles working against agonist muscles etc.), plus support from the force of gravity will also as a result, be impeded. Instead, by sequencing the transitional release of the three major joints (shoulder, elbow, wrist) a more relaxed and free-flowing action can be created that will transfer energy from the core out into the hand. Add to this some well-timed sequential action from the lower body and the movement will become even more functional.
In terms of actual application, the dropping motion of the arm described above may be considered to be a strike (a downward slap for instance) or maybe a snatching motion to pull down the attacker by grabbing their collar or neck/hair. The choice of application and I suppose, whether it is historically accurate, is of little importance compared to the functional effectiveness of the movement pattern. Of course, the same rules apply if the arm is being raised, thrust out, pulled back or swung. Specifically, the way in which the body works to create and express potential should always be a pre-requisite for any kata application. When you begin to look at kata in this way then you come to appreciate the key commonalities, rather than the superficial differences.
To take practitioner into the next phase of their study, we then explore the fact that additional movement pathways (e.g diagonal up or down) may be achieved by simply combining body dynamic ratios of the fundamental five. So a strike path going from outside to inside and also high to low would employ components of a swing and drop. This is an important consideration, because in application for self-defence, you may be required to strike at all sorts of strange angles. If all you have practised are nice comfortable jabs, crosses, hooks and uppercuts then applying power in more abstract directions, at different ranges and changing course mid-flight is a whole different ball game.
To culminate this learning phase and to act as a rite of passage into some of the more advanced dynamic principles to be found in karate, we employ a specific training exercise on focus mitts that we call the 'clock-face drill'. This drill tests the ability to apply functional power to a variety of strike paths by employing a combination of different ratios from the dynamic principles described previous. It also confirms the aptitude of the practitioner in terms of delivering sufficient percussive impact and builds confidence in this aspect of their primary strategy for self-defence.
The clock-face drill is a pretty straightforward exercise and incorporates many benefits. Start with the pad facing towards the floor in order to launch a rising strike (age uchi). Once this strike has been performed, the pad holder then changes the angle of the pad slightly about an 'imaginary clock-face'. This process is repeated numerous times (10, 11, 12, 1, 2 'o' clock etc.) until the pad is finally held facing upwards, prompting a downward strike.
A better way to explain this drill would be to share the following video taken from our member's tutorial series...
Of course, there are more aspects to consider in terms of developing a holistic percussive impact strategy for self-defence strategy, so maybe I can address some of these these in future blog posts. In the meantime, thanks for taking the time to drop by and I hope this article was useful :-)
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.