KishimotoDi style patch designed by Fredrik Nyberg
The art of KishimotoDi (AKA, Kishimoto-Ha Karate/Shuri-Te) is an interesting look into the Shuri-classified (or Tomari-classified, if you prefer to look at it that way) karate of the past, before its popularization by Itosu “Anko” Yasutsune and his disciples. As this style is is rare, only a small number of practitioners around the world study it, so it has been largely untouched by the preferences that drove the development of the karate most people see, today. If one were to compare the solo kata practiced in KishimotoDi–of which their are only 4–to their more popular counterparts, one can see a softer approach in the KishimotoDi versions, reminiscent of Chinese “internal” martial arts. Luckily, the majority of the applications for these versions were passed down along with the solo kata, so we have a fairly clear understanding of the methods being conveyed, and we can use this to explore other applications and kata, from a variety of other styles, as well. This article will be focusing on a recurring theme in KishimotoDi–the “scissor” or “wedge” throw. Popularized in the current era of mixed martial arts by karateka and former UFC champion, Lyoto “the Dragon” Machida (who has used it numerous times in the UFC: LINK), the “scissor” or “wedge” throw is a concept that appears time and time again in Tachimura no Naihanchi, which is the base kata of KishimotoDi. The idea is fairly simple–put your leg on one side of the opponent, and arm on the other, and use a scissoring motion of the limbs to throw the opponent over your leg. There are many different ways to accomplish this, but we will focus on three main principles for study: twisting, sinking, and rising.
Ulf Karlsson, the first person to be granted a Shihan license in KishimotoDi by Higa Kiyohiko of the Bugeikan, demonstrating the footwork used in the wedge/scissors throws of the art
In all of these, the entry and leg/foot placement are important, and before one can employ the three principles that will be addressed, below, one must understand how to fit themselves into the proper position. Since the leg must be in a solid position to act as a barrier, over which the opponent is to be pushed, it must be in an effective place. Ideally, the thrower should have their foot as close to the opponent’s rear foot as possible–touching it, or even stepping on the foot (as previously discussed, here: LINK). In the process of stepping into this position, it is important to step in as straight a line as possible, which can be difficult, as people learning these throws have a tendency to try to go around the opponent, rather than “through” them. The problem with this is that it will cause the step to be circular, and when contact is made with the opponent, it will actually push the thrower away from the opponent, so that the throw cannot be completed. The thrower should also try not to collide with the opponent, as that collision can also push the opponent out of range of the throw. Even if the collision doesn’t move either party, it can stop the forward momentum of the opponent’s attack, which makes the throw harder to complete–ideally, the opponent should be in the process of moving past the thrower as the throw is being executed. Another component to the footwork of these throws, in KishimotoDi, is that the entry lands in kokutsu-dachi (back stance), first, then shifts into shiko-dachi as the throws are executed, thus driving the thrower’s hips into the opponent and locking the stance in place for the throw.
The author demonstrating a movement found in Tachimura no Naihanchi which directly illustrates the lateral twisting at the waist that is a key component to KishimotoDi methods
The first method of performing the “scissor” or “wedge” throw that must be explained is not the first application typically taught in the exploration of Tachimura no Naihanchi, but is vital to its function–twisting. In the kata, this principle shows up quite frequently, but is most clearly expressed by the tekko-gamae (steel turtle posture), or meotode-gamae (husband and wife hands posture), being twisted to the side in shiko-dachi, as part of the nami-gaeshi (returning wave) sequence in the middle of the kata. The same twisting can be seen in other versions of Naihanchi, and other kata, as well, which is not surprising, given famed karate master and fighter, Motobu Choki, once said that “twisting to the left or right from the Naifuanchin [Naihanchi] stance will give you the stance used in a real confrontation. Twisting one’s way of thinking about Naifuanchin [Naihanchi] left and right, the various meanings in each movement of the kata will also become clear.” In different versions of the kata, one can find that the hands are held in many different formations during this sequence but, as was the case with the gedan-barai example, these do not affect this application. There are, of course, other applications which make use of the hands, themselves, but even then, the formation of the hand should be adjusted to fit the task, the way different arrowheads were used against different types of armor in medieval warfare.
Ulf Karlsson demonstrating the twisting tekko-gamae posture in application
The tekko/meotode-gamae throw is focused purely twisting, without adding sinking or rising actions to it. As mentioned, the movement of the hands should not be the focus when executing this technique. Indeed, the arms, themselves, are merely a structure which is pushed into the opponent’s body. The power for this throw comes from the core muscles, so focusing on the shoulder can be helpful for making sure that the thrower can effectively push the opponent. This may require the thrower to twist away from the opponent, first, so that there is enough room to fit the shoulder in front of or behind the opponent (depending on which side of the opponent the thrower’s leg is on). Once fitted into place, the stance is shifted and core engaged to twist the arms, which effectively block the opponent’s upper body and force it to lean over the thrower’s leg. Even then, unless one has trained to twist their body at the waist as far as they can, with power, this can be a difficult movement to do. For this reason, it is important to ensure that one twists strongly when practicing the solo kata, which will develop the strength and coordination needed for the technique. Hojo undo (supplementary training) to strengthen the core can also be very beneficial.
Ulf Karlsson performing the first sequence in Tachimura no Naihanchi, which features a sinking gedan-barai followed by a rising, twisting mawashi-tsuki
The first application that is generally taught for Tachimura no Naihanchi is the use of gedan-barai (low level sweep) as a throw. This is not an unusual application, and many other styles teach it, as well (Enoeda Keinosuke of Shotokan demonstrates a version in his instructional video on kumite methods: LINK). What stands out in KishimotoDi is the explicit demonstration of the body mechanics used to perform the throw. In other versions of Naihanchi, it is common to teach that the practitioner’s head height should not change throughout the kata, but in Tachimura no Naihanchi, you see a good deal of sinking and rising, which is difficult to do in the more modern versions of Naihanchi, which utilize a variant of the horse stance with the toes pointed forward or inward, as opposed to the outward-pointed feet of shiko-dachi (sumo/four-corner stance) used in Tachimura no Naihanchi (which has been discussed in a previous article: LINK). In particular, the kata sinks as part of the execution of gedan-barai. This sinking action explicitly tells us the principle being used to achieve the throw, in this example. You can also see this expressed in other kata, in various styles, by the transition from a higher stance, such as a neko-ashi-dachi (cat foot/leg stance) or han-zenkutsu-dachi (half front stance), into a lower stance, such as zenkutsu-dachi (front stance), or shiko-dachi, even if the performer doesn’t sink after reaching the stance in their kata.
The author teaching the gedan-barai takedown of Tachimura no Naihanchi
It is possible to throw someone with a gedan-barai in this way, without sinking, but sinking makes it easier. The reason for this is fairly simple–the gedan-barai movement of the arm travels downward, so in order to add power to that motion, you must lower your body in order to put your weight behind the technique. Another important point in this application is that the elbow leads the hand in gedan-barai, and it is the elbow which actually forces the opponent to essentially sit down over the leg that is braced behind them. The hand at the end of the gedan-barai ensures that the motion isn’t cut short, but focusing too much on the hand tends to cause the thrower to attempt to use the deltoid and rhomboid muscles to push the opponent back over their leg. Focusing on the motion of the elbow, instead, tends to result in the use of the latissimus dorsi muscles, which are decidedly stronger. This throw also incorporates the core muscles by twisting at the waist as you sink, which means that the lats are vital for ensuring that the arms are firmly linked to the torso. By focusing on the elbow and twisting, you make the best use of your muscular strength, and by sinking into your stance, you make the best use of your body weight, making the throw as efficient as possible.
Ulf Karlsson performing the “double arm” or morote-tsuki sequence of Tachimura no Naihanchi
The third principle for executing this type of throw that this article will address is rising, which the kata expresses through the morote-tsuki (double thrust) motion of the arms. This is quite evident in Tachimura no Naihanchi, as that movement follows the nami-gaeshi sequence, dropping into a low shiko-dachi and twisting the arms down low to one side of the body, then rises into a higher shiko-dachi as the arms swing up and twist into place. In most modern versions of Naihanchi, since head height is kept level, the rising action is not as explicit, but even then, the arms are typically still brought into a lower position on one side of the body, before being moved to the higher ending posture of the movement. As with the sinking example, there must be twisting involved in this application, as well. In fact, while the end position of the arms is uneven, with one arm further extended than the other, KishimotoDi twists the body far enough to bring both fists to an even position to the side, then pulls one back as the body returns to a neutral position.
Ulf Karlsson demonstrating a scissor/wedge throw as an application for the morote-tsuki/double-arm motion of Tachimura no Naihanchi
In order to apply the rising “scissor” or “wedge” throw, one must first lower their level, which is generally done as part of the entry against an attack from the opponent (the four entry methods of KishimotoDi were covered in a previous article: LINK). From the lowered position, the thrower’s arms can rise up beneath the opponent’s arms, or even their head, rather than attempting to move them by applying pressure to their torso, alone. This gives the throw additional leverage to bend the opponent over their leg, making it even more difficult to regain their structure and balance. In Tachimura no Naihanchi, the twisting of the torso to make the fists meet evenly out to the side ensures that the shoulder can be used as an additional point of contact with which to push the opponent over the thrower’s leg. That use of the shoulder means that the thrower does not have to rely solely on the small muscles of the shoulder and upper back to move their arm and execute the throw. In more modern versions of Naihanchi, which do not tend to twist so far on this movement, the “rear” arm can be used to strike downward into the opponent’s torso, in order to block an opponent from attempting to push their hips away from the thrower’s trapping leg in an effort to maintain balance.
All three of these examples are merely illustrations of different principles being employed to realize a singular concept, and as such, they cannot fully express all of the possible variations and adjustments that can be incorporated into the application of those methods. As with any fighting techniques, these can be augmented and altered, as needed, based on personal preferences or limitations, environmental considerations, opponent physicality and reactions, etc. For example, one might utilize a foot sweep in order to further off-balance the opponent while executing the twisting throw, which is merely using the nami-gaeshi movement of the foot together with the twist, as opposed to separately, as is shown in the kata. In the sinking gedan-barai variant of the throw, one can use the mawashi-tsuki (turning thrust/punch) that follows as a leg scoop, which tends to be relatively easy to add, since the initial pressure of the technique will typically move the opponent’s weight off of the foot nearest to the thrower. The same leg scoop can be incorporated into the rising morote-tsuki throw, as well, effectively turning it into the sukui-nage (scooping throw) of Judo. The beauty of understanding these methods in this way is that each karateka can find different ways to explore and express the principles of the kata to best fit them, which should be part of every martial artist’s journey, following the learning concept of Shu-Ha-Ri (Obey-Digress-Transcend).
An example of the kokutsu-dachi (back-leaning stance) used in modern Shotokan, compared to the kokutsu-dachi depicted by Funakoshi Gichin (founder of Shotokan) in his book, Retan Karate-Jutsu
Karate has, like all things, changed over the course of time, for a variety of reasons, from sociopolitical considerations, to sports science and movement theories, to simple aesthetics. Breaking down the myriad changes that have taken place within it would be an impossible task, but one can isolate some specific examples for study, which make for an interesting look at the development of the art over time, by different people. One such example would be how head height is managed within the practice of kata. This is a topic which many karateka are unfamiliar with, and may seem inconsequential in the solo practice of kata, but becomes important in its application. There are four approaches to this which will be discussed in this article; maintaining a level head height, changing height based on stances, changing height within stances, and changing height regardless of stance.
Angel Lemus demonstrating Naihanchi Shodan, which maintains a level head height and focuses on rotational power
In some styles, the idea of maintaining a level head height throughout a kata has become a strict requirement. Most often, the reasoning given for this is that having a lower stance makes a person more grounded, and therefore allows them to generate more power, so there is no reason to rise up and lose that power. In truth, maintaining a lower, rooted stance can actually rob a technique of power, depending on what that technique is doing (which has been discussed in a previous article: LINK). Primarily, the limitation with this approach is that keeping a lower stance does not allow a karateka to effectively generate upward power for techniques that move upward, such as jodan-uke (high receiver/”block”), or age-ura-tsuki (rising under thrust/uppercut). Additionally, keeping oneself in a lower stance makes it difficult to lower any further, which means that it is difficult to benefit from gravity by dropping your body weight into a technique that moves downward, such as gedan-barai (low sweep/”block”). In some cases, these lower stances can also be difficult to move in and out of, effectively making it more difficult to deliver power by moving your body directly into the target (or away from it, in the case of pulling techniques). There are kata, however, where there may be little to no need for the karateka’s head height to change. For example, the Naihanchi kata of Shorin-Ryu utilize the same stance throughout, and due to the focus on rotational power, there is no need to change levels. Similarly, the Sanchin kata found in Naha-Te styles do not typically utilize level changes, since they also use the same stance, throughout, and tend to focus on structure.
The author demonstrating the opening sequence of Pinan Nidan, which features sinking and rising based on transitioning between stances of different heights
In other styles, head height is allowed to change throughout a kata, provided it is changing in accordance with the stances being used. This is evident in the Shorin-Ryu (Kobayashi) version of Pinan Nidan, for example. From the initial yoi (ready) position, the next stance is a neko-ashi-dachi (cat leg/foot stance), which is lower. Then, the karateka steps forward into a han-zenkutsu-dachi (half front stance), which is higher than the previous neko-ashi-dachi, before turning around and dropping into a zenkutsu-dachi (front stance), which is lower than the han-zenkutsu-dachi before it. On the other hand, when transitioning between stances that are the same height, the karateka’s head height stays level, for the most part. This allows a person to move more freely, and generate power in more ways than maintaining a level head height at all times, but it does tend to focus on fixed representations of stances, which can also be limiting in application. It is important to remember that one must transition between stances as appropriate for the situation (as previously discussed, here: LINK). The late Richard Poage (Renshi, Godan), was a strong proponent of this approach to movement in kata, and covered it regularly in his classes (as seen in this video: LINK).
Ulf Karlsson demonstrating sinking in shiko-dachi as part of Tachimura no Naihanchi
While there may be sufficient power generation involved in the transition between stances, the stances, themselves, can provide for additional power, range of motion, and evasive methods (as discussed in a previous article: LINK). It can be easy to look at the postures of kata and believe that stances are static, as if they were photos in a book (as they often are), but many stances do provide additional range of motion within their limits, depending on how strictly one defines the stance. How low can a shiko-dachi (four corner/Sumo/horse stance) be before it is no longer correct? How high can it be? How far forward or backward can a zenkutsu-dachi be before it is no longer a zenkutsu-dachi? Likely, depending on the style, there will be many different answers for this. By exploring the full range of motion possible within the stance, we can find additional uses for the techniques being used in conjunction with it. Additionally, one gains the benefit of being able to move more fluidly, making it easier to maneuver themselves around an opponent, either for evasive purposes, or to apply a technique. This is a major factor in the Tachimura no Naihanchi kata of KishimotoDi (as discussed in a previous article: LINK), but it also features in other styles, such as Goju-Ryu, where powerful drops are used in their grappling methods.
A demonstration of the beginning of the ITF form, Won-Hyo, which begins the same way Pinan Shodan does
In some arts, the exploration of head height changes goes beyond the stances used on the kata. For example, the International Taekwon-Do Federation espouses a theory of movement they call the “Sine Wave Method” for generating power. This method is based on the idea that dropping your body weight into a technique allows you to generate more power which, as previously mentioned, is true for certain techniques. The way this is done in the “Sine Wave Method” is by sinking slightly in your stance, rising up, then dropping back down as you execute the technique. In some cases, you will see practitioners of this method actually rise completely out of their stance before sinking back down. This can help maximize the amount of body weight drop behind a technique, which is helpful for those which move downward, in particular. The rising action could be beneficial for techniques which move upward, although that seems to be rarely done by those who utilize this method of movement, which limits its utility to one of support (allowing for a greater distance to drop into the stance). If one were to use the rising action to support an upward motion, and then follow with a downward motion supported by the drop, they would get the most efficiency out of the process.
Higaonna Morio demonstrating a sequence from the kata, Sepai, which features both head height changing due to different stances, and dropping within a stance
As with most things in the martial arts, there is no “one true way” of doing something. Each of these methods has its place, and its own pros and cons. There are general principles which can be used to help understand them, and determine how best to implement them, but the best way to learn martial arts is through practice. Simply knowing that these different approaches to managing head height exist will not enable one to benefit from them, but knowing that they exist is a good start. By looking at the kata you practice, and experimenting with the stances and transitions in order to explore these varying approaches, you will likely find that consistently using just one of them may not seem as fitting as it once did. In application, each of these methods can be used effectively, given the right situation and technique, and it is only through thorough practice and experimentation that you will find those which work best for you.
“Karate” is a broad term, which covers many different martial methodologies and styles originating on Okinawa and, later, Japan. There are a number of misconceptions about what karate is, although there has been a movement–a sort of “karate Renaissance”–in the past decade, or so, which has been making more information about karate available, and promotes a practical approach to the art. With this knowledge comes the understanding that karate is a broad-spectrum martial art, rather than a specialized one. Some have gone so far as to say that it is “the original MMA,” and it is, indeed, a mixed martial art, of a sort. The Okinawan nobility who practiced martial arts were no strangers to cross-training, and blended methods from different instructors, different styles, or even entirely different countries, so long as they found it to be functional. They practiced grappling arts, and weaponry, and police tactics, among many other subjects which, over time, worked their way into the practices that would one day be known as “karate.” Thanks to this open-minded developmental process, old-style Okinawan karate can be seen as consisting of five primary elements–not the esoteric ki/chi/qi elements (fire, earth, metal, water, and wood), but real, physical elements that cover a wide array of combative skills.
Ulf Karlsson Sensei demonstrating a striking application for Tachimura no Naihanchi
The most common and obvious element of karate is striking–so obvious that most people think that it is the one and only element of the art. This is misconception that was noted even as far back as the 1930’s, when Mabuni Kenwa (founder of Shito-Ryu) famously stated that “the karate that has been introduced to Tokyo is actually just part of the whole,” and specifically felt the need to point out that there was more to karate than just kicks and punches. That said, striking methods of various sorts are the primary methods of karate, with the rest being used to facilitate, support, or augment the strikes, or to find alternatives when striking fails. The striking methods of karate are typically divided into three types–tsuki-waza, uchi-waza, and keri-waza–although there is enough subtlety and variation within these categories to blur the lines, a bit.
Nishiyama Hidetaka, of Shotokan, breaking boards with gyaku-tsuki
Tsuki-waza, or “thrusting techniques,” are quite popular and common methods of striking in karate, although they tend to appear more in modern sport-karate than in the older kata. These are typically described as being linear strikes, performed with the arms, and include techniques such as seiken-tsuki (forefist thrust/”punch”), nukite-tsuki (spear hand thrust), and shotei/teisho-tsuki (palm heel thrust). In reality, there are techniques classified as tsuki-waza which are not entirely linear, because the key to this category of strikes is that they “thrust” outward from the body, and that is their primary method of delivering force. This would include techniques such as age-ura-tsuki (rising “underside” thrust)–similar to the uppercut in boxing–which thrusts upward, but tends to follow an arcing patch, rather than a purely straight one.
Shinjo Kiyohide of Uechi-Ryu demonstrating kote-uchi (wrist strike)
Uchi-waza is a comparatively broader term, as the word “uchi,” in this case, is a variant of the word “utsu,” which simply means “to strike, hit, or pound,” meaning that uchi-waza translates to “striking/hitting techniques.” Indeed, you could consider tsuki-waza to be an example of uchi-waza. In karate, however, you will often find that the word “uchi-waza” is most commonly used to refer to striking techniques which are circular in nature, including strikes such as kote/ude-uchi (wrist/forearm strike), haito-uchi (ridgehand strike), and enpi-uchi (elbow strike). These tend to rely on swinging the arm in order to generate impact, therefore moving primarily in arcing or circular motions. These types of strikes actually appear more frequently in koryu (old style) kata than tsuki-waza.
Motobu Choki demonstrating a variety of keri-waza
Keri-waza, or “kicking techniques,” are relatively straightforward in their classification. These are techniques where the legs are used to strike, in a variety of ways. In looking at kata, these tend to consist mostly of mae-geri (front kicks), yoko-geri (side kicks), mikazuki-geri (crescent kicks), and suki/sukui-geri (shovel/scoop kicks), in various forms. Other kicks, such as mawashi-geri (turning/”roundhouse” kicks) and kakato-geri (heel kicks) are not generally present in the kata, although they can be seen as variants of the kicks and principles found within the kata. Striking with the knee is also classified as keri-waza, being named “hiza-geri” (knee kicks), although there are some styles which prefer to place them into the uchi-waza category–likely because, in English, “knee kick” is confusing, and we call them “knee strikes” instead.
The author using harai-goshi (sweeping hip)
Less widely-practiced, but still an important component of karate, are takedowns. In the context of karate, this element consists of any technique (that is not a strike) that is specifically intended to remove an opponent from their feet and put them on the ground. This would include not only proper “throws,” but trips, sweeps, and various other methods of putting an opponent on the ground, as well.. In Judo, which specializes in throwing techniques, there are four classifications of throws; te-waza (hand techniques), koshi-waza (hip techniques), ashi-waza (leg/foot techniques), and sutemi-waza (sacrifice techniques). Iain Abernethy, an authority on the practical application of karate, actually has three classifications of the nage-waza in karate; lifting, leg-trapping, and posture-disrupting throws. One could use either method of classification, or combine them to more accurately describe a particular technique, as the Judo classifications are based on how the thrower executes the technique, while Abernethy’s classifications are based on what happens to the person being thrown. As with any categorization system, there will be some degree of crossover between the categories.
Itoman Morinobu demonstrating seinosu-nage (back-riding throw) in his book, “The Study of China Hand Techniques”
“Lifting throws” are, quite simply, throws which life the enemy off their feet before throwing them to the ground. A popular example of such a throw would be the shoulder throw, which Funakoshi Gichin (founder of Shotokan) called tani-otoshi (valley drop), Kano Jigoro (founder of Judo) called ippon-seoi-nage (single back-carry throw), and Itoman Morinobu (author of The Study of China Hand Techniques) called seinosu-nage (riding back throw). This throw can be found in martial arts from all over the world, as well. Using the Judo classification, this would be considered a te-waza (hand technique), because it primarily utilizes the arms to perform the throw. Other examples, like the similarly-common hip throw, called o-goshi (big hip) in Judo, would be included in the category of “lifting throws,” but would be considered koshi-waza (hip technique) in Judo, as the throw relies on the placement and use of the hips to perform the throw.
Funakoshi Gichin, founder of Shotokan, demonstrating ude-wa (arm ring)
“Leg-trapping throws” can be a fairly broad category, as the opponent’s legs can be trapped in a variety of ways with both the thrower’s legs and arms. A simple example of this would be a trip or foot sweep (ashi-barai), which is found in the vast majority of martial arts, in some form or another. By sweeping the foot, you are preventing the opponent’s leg from being placed where intended in order to maintain their balance. The kick-catch takedowns that can be seen in kata like Passai and Kusanku, not to mention the variety of other martial arts which utilize such techniques, can also be seen as “leg-trapping throws,” as they hold the opponent’s leg off the ground, and allow the thrower to apply leverage to the opponent and throw them to the ground. There are also a number of methods found in karate where your stance is used to trap the opponent’s foot or leg, and apply pressure to their leg in order to cause them to lose their balance, which would fall into this category. Karate also has methods of applying leverage to a standing opponent’s legs while the defender is on the ground, which would also be considered “leg-trapping” in nature. The double-leg takedown, which Funakoshi called ude-wa (arm ring), and Kano called morote-gari (double reap)–and would be classified as te-waza in Judo–can be seen as a leg-trapping throw, although it can also be a lifting throw, depending on how it is executed. If the thrower simply wraps their arms around the opponent’s legs and drives into them to knock them down, it would be a leg-trapping throw, but if the thrower wraps their arms around the opponent’s legs and uses that to pick the opponent up and throw them down, it would be a lifting throw.
Ulf Karlsson, of KishimotoDi, demonstrating how a takedown application from Tachimura no Naihanchi works by disrupting the opponent’s posture
“Posture-disrupting throws” encompass a wide variety of techniques which manipulate the opponent in such a way that they fall down. The koma-nage (spinning top throw) that Funakoshi published in his books is one such example, as the opponent can be put face-down on the floor by applying an armbar to them in such a way that they must move away from the pain, or allow their joint to be dislocated. Funakoshi’s tsubame-gaeshi (returning swallow), which is similar to the shiho-nage (four corner throw) seen in jujutsu and Aikido, would also fall into this category, as the opponent is forced to lose their posture–and therefore, their balance–by moving to relieve the pressure of a joint lock. Such throws are not generally as elegant as trained uke (receivers) make them look, however, as discussed in a previous article (LINK). Techniques where the opponent’s head is pushed, pulled, or twisted to force them to the ground would also be included in this category. The scissor/wedge throws that are prevalent in KishimotoDi are primarily posture-disrupting throws, but they are only able to disrupt the opponent’s posture because the stance used in the throw is trapping the opponent’s legs, preventing them from stepping out of the throw and regaining their balance.
Ryan Parker showing Ed Sumner key points of a joint lock from Pinan Godan
As mentioned, above, there are a number of joint locking methods found in karate, which has been discussed in detail in a previous article (LINK). To summarize, there are generally three types of joint locks–hyperextending, compressing, and twisting–and they can be practiced in a number of different ways, for various reasons. There are also compound locks, which make use of two, or even all three methods of affecting the joint of an opponent. Most of the joint locks found in karate are used against standing opponents, often to clear the way for strikes, or to facilitate takedowns, but there are some that are meant for use on the ground, as well.
Richard Poage, the author’s Sensei, demonstrating an armbar application for Pinan Yondan
Hyperextending joint locks are typically simple, and relatively common, as they are performed by forcing a joint (usually a hinge joint) past its natural stopping point. The classic armbar is an example of this, where the arm is bent backward at the elbow in order to hyperextend it. Most people will be familiar with an armbar performed on the ground, with the person using the lock is lying on their back, which is seen frequently in MMA and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. In Judo, such a lock is called juji-gatame (cross hold/lock). The same concept can be applied in many different positions, however, as seen in Funakoshi’s koma-nage, or the chest-lever armbar application of manji-gamae (swastika posture), or some of the restraining techniques seen in the karamidi (“entangling hand”) methods of karate. Knees, wrists, ankles, fingers, and toes can also all be hyperextended, and even if one is not taught a joint lock specifically intended for those joints, they can apply the same principles they used for the armbar in order to get the desired effect. From there, small details in the execution can be tweaked and improved to make the lock more effective.
Richard Poage, the author’s instructor, demonstrating a “gooseneck” wrist lock as an application to the end of Naihanchi Shodan
Compressing locks are generally performed by forcing joints together, or closed, sometimes with a “wedge” of some sort inserted into the joint to cause it to separate. An example of this, which is often demonstrated, is a counter to a lapel grab, where the attacker’s thumb is pressed into their palm in order to get them to release their grip due to the pain.”Gooseneck” wrist locks are also a type of compressing lock, which is often used as a come-along for security and law enforcement. An application for the crossover stepping in the Naihanchi/Tekki/Chulgi kata can be seen as stomping on the opponent’s knee which, if done from the back of the knee, will drive the joint to the ground. This can be done in such a way that it applies a compressing lock on the knee, as well.
Uehara Seikichi, of Motobu Udundi, demonstrating twisting joint locks
Twisting joint locks can be applied to most joints, and in many cases, twisting can be incorporated into hyperextending or compressing locks in order to make them more effective. The most common example of a twisting lock would be rotational shoulder locks, such as the one seen in Funakoshi’s tsubame-gaeshi, the ude-garami (arm entanglement) of Judo, the hammer lock of Catch Wrestling, and the Americana, Kimura, and Omoplata found in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Many wrist locks are also rotational in nature, such as the Nikkyo/Nikkajo of Aikido, although they frequently incorporate compression, as well. Such rotational locks are frequently found in Motobu Udundi (Palace Hand), which was the martial art taught to members of the royal family on Okinawa.
Eddie Bethea, of Shorin-Ryu Shorinkan, demonstrating the beginning of an “air choke”
Within martial arts, it is common to refer to “chokes,” but from a medical perspective, such techniques would be classified as “strangles.” While it does not technically matter what terminology you use, as long as everyone you are training with understands what is intended, it can be helpful for clarification. “Chokes” are something that happen from within the airway, such as food becoming lodged in the throat, or the throat swelling due to an allergic reaction. “Strangles” are something that happen from the outside, compressing the neck, potentially cutting off air (often called a “wind/air choke”), cutting off circulation to the brain (often called a “blood choke”), or simply just causing pain (sometimes called a “nerve choke”). Regardless of what they are called, such techniques are dangerous and effective, although they tend to provoke different reactions.
Funakoshi Gichin, founder of Shotokan, demonstrating a simple “air choke” following a kick-catch
A common complaint about karate, and its kata, is that the stances are impractical–that one would never use such stances in a “real fight.” This goes along with the general complaint about kamae (postures) found in kata being impractical guards for fighting from (as discussed in this article: LINK). This tends to stem form the fact that the word tachi (which changes to “dachi” when it is a suffix to another word) literally means “stand,” which implies a static, inactive position. Indeed, Chibana Chosin (founder of the Kobayashi branch of Shorin-Ryu) preferred calling them steps instead of stances because of this, and his insistence that there were no static postures in kata. According to Pat Nakata, Chibana said that “we do not take stances, but rather the ‘foot work’ ends up in a position that is moving the body weight (or hara) for the transmission of the technique. (LINK).” In other words, the way you have to move your body in order to apply the technique in the kata is such that you end up moving into the positions that most people call “stances.” They are not intended to be “fighting stances” that you stand in and move around, waiting for an opponent to attack, or waiting to find an opening in your opponent’s guard. Karate was intended to be used in situations where this is not done–you simply transition into the techniques of the kata directly from whatever position you find yourself in when you are attacked. The stances are also not simply varying but irrelevant platforms for your upper body techniques in the kata–they are integral to the function of the techniques you are using.
Andre Bertel demonstrating zenkutsu-dachi (front leaning stance)
Consider zenkutsu-dachi (front/forward leaning stance), which is a very common stance found in nearly every style of martial arts, in some variation or another. Putting aside the minutiae of requirements like length, depth, angle of the foot, etc., the classic front stance accomplishes two major things. First, it moves your center of gravity (usually located in your hara–the lower stomach–as Chibana called it) forward and downward at the same time, if you assume that you are moving from a neutral position into the stance. Second, it braces you against pressure from the front by having one leg extended behind you. This means that transitioning into zenkutsu-dachi generates power for techniques that move forward and downward, as well as giving you the ability to maintain forward pressure against resistance. The most basic example of a technique utilizing these features would be throwing a straight punch downward into the opponent’s bladder, which benefits from dropping your bodyweight into the strike, as well as advancing forward to penetrate into the target, and having support to ensure that the force of your strike doesn’t push you back on impact. Strikes are not the only techniques that benefit from such movement, however. Throws, even simple ones, such as the application for gedan-barai/uke (low level sweep/receiver) that Iain Abernethy teaches as part of Pinan Nidan (LINK), make use of the same transition.
Another example to consider is neko-ashi-dachi (cat foot/leg stance), which also shows up in a number of martial arts, again with varying minutiae of requirements. In general, your body weight is mostly supported by your rear leg, which is beneath your center of gravity, while the lead leg is extended in front, to some degree–usually, but not always, with the heel lifted off the ground–and carries very little bodyweight. Transitioning to this stance from a neutral standing position will generally result in either dropping your bodyweight down and to the rear, or straight down while reaching the lead leg forward. This transition of weight frees the lead leg to be utilized in a number of ways. Most simply, as can be seen in Muay Thai, it allows the lead leg to quickly lift to throw a kick or knee strike, or to check an opponent’s kick. In truth, though, if you were standing in a more front-weighted stance, and wanted to use your lead leg for such things, you would likely transition through a neko-ashi-dachi type of posture as you shifted your weight back. Aside from the striking perspective, the same weight shift can be useful for foot sweeps, such as the sasae tsurikomi-ashi (supported lifting pulling foot) or deashi-barai (advancing foot sweep) seen in Judo.
Sumo Yokozuna, Hakuho, in shiko-dachi as part of a traditional opening ceremony for Sumo competitions and demonstrations
Shiko-dachi (Sumo/horse stance) is another commonly-found stance, with several variations, but is bit different from zenkutsu-dachi or neko-ashi-dachi, in that it distributes bodyweight evenly to both feet. This stance is very versatile because of that, and can be used to move your bodyweight down, as well as in any direction away from your starting point, although the even weight distribution does mean that less of your bodyweight moves in that direction than it might with a different stance. For example, one can move forward and drop into shiko-dachi, and gain power by doing so, but less of their bodyweight will go forward than if they had stepped and dropped into zenkutsu-dachi. In exchange for giving up a bit of power, shiko-dachi grants a good deal of balance and stability, which makes it very useful in grappling exchanges. Indeed, the jigotai (defensive posture) of Judo is a variant of shiko-dachi, and Sumo (which is actually where the name of the stance comes from) features it prominently as well.
An example of stance transitions applied in a flow drill, as seen in Waza Wednesday 3/14/18
Of course, stance transitions do not always happen from a neutral, standing position. Sometimes, based on the techniques being used, you will transition directly from one stance to another. My late Sensei, Richard Poage, often brought this up in training to emphasize the importance of stance transitions in power generation (LINK). This often shows up in the case of takedown techniques, where the opponent is off-balanced prior to the actual takedown, or when dealing with an opponent that has resisted your initial technique, and you must transition to another one. For example, if one looks at the takedown found near the end of Pinan/Heian Godan (seen demonstrated by Yamashiro Yoshitomo on Naka Tatsuya, here: LINK), most versions perform some sort of offensive technique, then lift their arms and, in some cases, their stance, before turning (or jumping) and dropping to the ground to finish the throw. This is, essentially, the kata going through the three stages of a throw, as described in Judo; kuzushi (off-balancing), tsukuri (positioning), and kake (execution). As an example of transitioning between techniques, one can consider this sequence (click here to see the full video: LINK) from Passai, where the first naname-zenkutsu-dachi (slanted front stance) is used to avoid the initial attack and get beneath it, then rising into hachiji-dachi (figure 8 stance) is used to apply an elbow wrench, before shifting back to naname-zenkutsu-dachi in the other direction to counter the opponent’s resistance and apply another armbar, and then shifting forward and behind the opponent with neko-ashi-dachi (cat foot/leg stance) in order to take them down if they resist the second armbar.
Kinberly Novaes transitioning into zenkutsu-dachi to pressure Heather Jo Clark against the cage in their fight in Invicta FC
It can sometimes be difficult to see how these stances manifest themselves in actual fighting, especially if all one ever sees is static examples. A good way to see these positions and transitions in action is to watch a combat sport that incorporates standing grappling, such as Muay Thai, Sanshou, MMA, etc. Of course, since such combat sports tend to be fast-paced, and the techniques are done with intent, it can be helpful to slow the footage down for review. In this example, you can see MMA fighter, Kinberly Novaes, step forward with her left leg into zenkutsu-dachi as she pressures her opponent, Heather Jo Clark, into the cage. By doing this, she made it more difficult for Clark to slide along the cage, and is able to lower herself down to a position where she could get a stronger grip on Clark’s left leg in order to attempt a takedown. This is not very different from a technique which can be found in Kusanku (LINK), and gives a simple example of how the stances of kata can manifest themselves during fighting. Such examples can be seen quite frequently, once a viewer is tuned in to look for them.
Map showing Okinawa in relation to Japan, China, and Southeast Asia
Much is made of the influence of Chinese martial arts on karate, from the “36 families” of Kumemura (LINK), to the Oshima incident (LINK), to the mysterious Hakutsuru kata (LINK), and of course the more solid connections found in Naha-Te styles like Goju-Ryu and Uechi-Ryu. While Chinese martial arts would certainly have had an influence on Okinawan martial arts, given the history of trade and cultural exchange between the two nations, it is hardly the only influence. The Ryukyu Islands stretch across the East China Sea between Japan and Taiwan, putting them in a perfect position to act as a layover for any ship traveling between Japan and Southeast Asia, which is a very large and diverse collection of countries. That region–the continental portion of which is sometimes called “Indo-China”–includes modern-day Java, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Singapore, Philippines, and many more. The Okinawan people, as a sea-faring nation that relied heavily on trade, would have certainly had encounters with people from this region, and it is plausible that they would have exchanged not just goods and services, but weapons and cultural practices like martial arts. Indeed, we have written records to indicate that such exchanges occurred, and noted diplomat and academic, George Kerr (LINK), wrote in his book, Okinawa: The History of an Island People; “It is noteworthy that songs, dances, and festival sports incorporated many elements which came from overseas in the high days of Chuzan trade in the Eastern Sea; boxing (karate) in which both the hands and feet are used had come from Indo-China or Siam; “dragon boat” racing from South China; the use of teeterboards from Korea; and wrestling from Japan.” This article will specifically explore the connection between Okinawa and the Kingdom of Siam, which we now call Thailand.
Tony Jaa, lead actor in the Ong Bak series of films, dressed in kard cheuk Muay Thai garb
Most martial artists, and fans of combat sports, will be familiar with Muay Thai, also known as Thai boxing or kickboxing. It is known for brutal, often bloody, full-contact fights, generally held in a boxing ring while wearing boxing gloves, but incorporating kicks, knees, and elbows into its striking repertoire. Some may also be familiar with “kard cheuk” Muay Thai fights, where knotted ropes are used in lieu of hand wraps and gloves, as seen in Kickboxer, and the Ong Bak series of films. Recently, prolific Muay Thai fighter and writer, Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu, competed under that ruleset (LINK), making her one of the first women to have done so, and bringing more awareness to it in the process. The kard cheuk ruleset is inspired by Muay Thai’s ancestor, Muay Boran (lit. “Ancient Boxing”), or Toi Muay, which was a more comprehensive fighting art intended for self defense and military training, as well as sport fighting. As is often the case with older systems that evolved into competitive sports such as baseball or soccer that people practice using equipment as soccer cleats from sites as http://ohpsoccer.com/. If one compares Muay Thai to what most people see from karate, they will tend to only see the basic similarities of two striking arts, but by comparing Muay Boran to old-style Okinawan karate, we can see much more crossover.
Comparison of Siamese, Okinawan, and Western bare-knuckle boxing stances, from an unknown Muay Boran fighter, Motobu Choki (infamous Okinawan karate fighter and master), and John Sullivan (a champion boxer)
Many of the kamae (postures) of karate can be found in the postures of Muay Boran, which should not be surprising, given the crossover that can be seen across all fighting arts. Of course, there is bound to be crossover in the preparatory fighting stances of unarmed martial arts, particularly when they use little to no hand protection. Such “guard” positions tends to make use of “Clayton’s gap,” which Dan Djurdjevic Sensei has written a good article about (LINK). Beyond that, however, are a number of combative postures, which go beyond simple “guard” positions, and get into actual fighting techniques (which I have written about previously, here: LINK). These are postures which essentially act as a freeze-frame representation of either the beginning, ending, or midpoint of a technique. As “guard” positions, they are often poor choices for anything but intentionally leaving yourself open for an attack, in an attempt to bait your opponent. As active techniques, however, they become functional, with effective combative applications. In order for these techniques to be seen in the kata of karate, understood from a combative perspective, and recognized in the postures of other arts, one must study them by applying bunkai (analysis) as a process (which have I written about previously, here: LINK). Without that understanding, it can be very difficult to see the presence of kata movements in the fighting methods of other arts.
A fighter from Tiger Muay Thai demonstrating a Muay Boran technique, compared to Uechi Kanei (son of Uechi-Ryu founder, Uechi Kanbun) demonstrating a posture found in Sanseiryu
Muay Boran contains a number of techniques, some of which have transferred to Muay Thai, but many of which have not, which can also be found in karate. Obviously, the presence of punching, kicking, elbows, and knee strikes, are no surprise when comparing any striking martial arts. Given the connection between the Ryukyu Kingdom and the Kingdom of Siam, however, one would expect to see some more specific examples of similar techniques and methods. Indeed, many such examples can be found when looking at the techniques of Muay Boran and the kata of karate, covering not only striking techniques, but joint locks and takedowns as well. The details of the execution of these techniques may vary, but the underlying principles remain.
Side-by-side comparison of a Muay Boran technique, a posture from Gojushiho, and a posture from Naihanchi
This Muay Boran technique makes use of a principle frequently found in Okinawan martial arts–using three of your four limbs at once in order to control and damage the opponent. In this particular example, you see that the attacker’s head has been grabbed by the defender’s right hand in order to set a datum (reference point) for striking with the left downward elbow, while the right leg executes a shovel kick to the knee. This is quite similar to an application for Passai, where in the kata a crescent kick is thrown to the open hand, followed by an elbow strike being thrown across into the open hand (LINK). For somewhat more static examples of a similar posture, one can reference these kamae found in Gojushiho and Naihanchi Shodan, respectively. Obviously, these three karate examples are not exactly the same as the Muay Boran technique pictured, as they do not explicitly show a downward elbow, although some versions of Naihanchi Shodan do a large, circular, dropping backfist motion prior to the sweep, which can easily be applied as a downward elbow strike without any changes to the movement. Regardless of the differences, however, they can all be applied by setting a datum with one hand, striking with the other arm, and executing a shovel kick to the opponent’s leg at the same time. Additionally, karate frequently exchanges striking techniques between solo kata performance and kata application, so it would not be unusual to see this Muay Boran technique taught as a karate kata application.
An example of a kick-catch takedown from Muay Boran, taken from the Fight Vision YouTube channel, which is also common in karate
A number of sweeps and takedowns are present in Muay Boran, several of which carried over into modern Muay Thai, and many of them can also be found in karate. Quite possibly the most popular example would be the classic kick-catch takedown seen in this animated GIF. If you were to freeze the clip as the takedown is being performed, and remove the opponent, the person performing the takedown is in manji-gamae/uke (swastika posture/receiver: LINK). Indeed, this is a commonly-taught application for manji-gamae/uke amongst many karateka, including Nakazato Minoru, who is the head of the Shorinkan (which is the organization my dojo belongs to), and Iain Abernethy (LINK), who is well known for his practical approach to kata bunkai. Variations of this takedown can also be found in a variety of other kata postures–from the sukui-uke (scooping receiver) movements found in Passai (LINK) and Kusanku (LINK), to the elbow motions of Pinan Sandan (LINK) and Seipai (LINK, LINK).
The technique, “Mighty Bird Battles the Serpent Snake,” from Master Lee’s book, Muay: Submissions, Breaks and Locks of Muay Thai and Muay Boran
In Master Lee’s book, Muay: Submissions, Breaks and Locks of Muay Thai and Muay Boran, another example of manji-gamae/uke applications can be seen in the technique called “Mighty Bird Battles with Serpent Snake.” The book shows two variations, the first of which is the setup for a combination armbar and neck wrenching technique, while the second is a combination armbar and head control takedown. In the case of the first technique, one hand gains control of the opponent’s wrist, while the other arm wraps around their neck, pinning their head to you, at which point the opponent’s extended arm is pulled across the chest to apply an armbar. This is essentially the setup for the karate version of this technique, where we then use the arm wrapped around the opponent’s neck as a lever, hooking their chin with our hand and dropping our elbow behind their back, in order to painfully twist their head to the side while applying the armbar. If you were to take away the opponent, the arm wrenching the head is the raised, bent arm in manji-gamae/uke, while the arm controlling the wrist is the extended arm. The other variation shown in the book still has one hand in control of the opponent’s wrist, but the other arm extends in front of the opponent’s head, pressing their head and neck backward in order to take them off balance and throw them down. This is essentially applying manji-gamae/uke in the other direction, as the raised, bent arm is controlling the opponent’s wrist, and the extended arm is controlling their head. This is a very common karate technique (you can see Nakazato Minoru teaching it here: LINK, and Jesse Enkamp teaching it here: LINK), and although some smaller details may change from style to style, the principles are the same. In both cases, this technique can also be seen as an application for the morote-tsuki (double thrust) found in Naihanchi Shodan (as demonstrated by Funakoshi Gichin, founder of Shotokan, here: LINK), as leaving the arm wrapped around the head in the first version already resembles that posture, and simply pulling the opponent’s arm lower across the chest in the second version will change it to fit the morote-tsuki posture, as well. Of course, as with most fighting techniques, this is not isolated to just karate or Muay Boran–indeed, we can see this same technique in medieval European martial arts treatises, such us the Flos Duellatorum, written by Fiore dei Liberi (LINK).
“Thai Dance Break” found in Master Lee’s book, Muay: Submissions, Breaks and Locks of Muay Thai and Muay Boran
There are many more examples of karate techniques that can be found in Master Lee’s book. One of these is a technique that actually makes use of both a cultural reference and a bunkai concept that can also be found in karate. The book labels this technique, “Thai Dance Break,” and specifically makes the connection between traditional Thai dancing and fighting techniques found in Muay Boran. The technique, itself, is a method of hyperextending the opponent’s knee by using your stance–in this case, zenkutsu-dachi (forward leaning stance). This is a popular ashi-waza (leg technique) in karate for disrupting the opponent’s structure, and is actually included as a drill called ashi-kakie (crossed/hooked legs), which you can see Paul Enfield and Taira Masaji demonstrating here: LINK. The way this is represented by the dance posture pictured actually follows a tenant of the hosoko joko (supporting/supplemental rules) of kaisai no genri (principles for developing solutions), which Toguchi Seikichi wrote about in his books on Goju-Ryu–specifically, the idea that touching part of your body can indicate touching your opponent. In the dance posture, the knees are touching in a stance karateka would recognize as kosa-dachi (cross stance), indicating that your are using one of your knees to attack your opponent’s knee, as shown in the application. This stance can be applied in precisely this way in karate, as well. Notably, this stance appears in the opening of Passai/Bassai (LINK), but it can be found in a number of other kata, as well, from Naihanchi to Sepai. Additionally, the connection to traditional dance is one that is frequently made in Okinawan martial arts, particularly in Motobu Udundi (Motobu Palace Hand). You can see Uehara Seikichi demonstrating some of those connections, here: LINK. In fact, traditional Okinawan dance even includes some postures that are very similar to the Thai dance posture shown in Lee’s book (LINK). The hand and arm positions are also similar to those found in the kata, Seisan (performed, here, by Angel Lemus: LINK), and even the crossed leg position of the dance posture can be seen as indicative of the full step done in the kata to transition from one side to the other.
The technique, “Elephant Whips its Trunk,” as seen in Master Lee’s book, Muay: Submissions, Breaks and Locks of Muay Thai and Muay Boran
Yet another example of a karate application found in Lee’s book is called “Elephant Whips its Trunk,” which traps the opponent’s wrist between the neck and shoulder with one hand, while the other hand rolls over the top to apply an armbar or shoulder wrench, forcing the opponent down. A very similar technique is fairly commonly taught as an application to the “elbow wing” sequence of movements found in the kata, Naihanchi Nidan, as demonstrated by Nakazato Shugoro (founder of the Shorinkan) in this animated GIF: LINK. We can see such a tuidi-waza (seizing hand technique) application for that movement in vintage photos of Motobu Chosei (LINK), and back in 2016 this application was featured on Waza Wednesday (LINK). Lee’s book also features a joint lock where you wrap over the top of your opponent’s arm to wrench it, called “Elephant Raises its Trunk,” (LINK) which is essentially the opposite arm movement of this technique, and is an application found in the circling arm movements of Naihanchi Sandan (demonstrated by Chibana Chosin, founder of Shorin-Ryu, here: LINK).
Khru Yai Sergio Donato demonstrating a takedown found in Muay Boran
In this clip, you can see a takedown found in Muay Boran which, at first, may not appear to have much connection to typical karate kata. Some karateka may recognize the ending posture as being similar to that of the opening movement of Enpi (shown by Funakoshi Gichin, here: LINK), but while the ending position is similar, the movement of the kata does not fit the movement of the Muay Boran technique. Despite the difference in appearance, a very similar technique can be found in the Naihanchi kata. Specifically, this takedown can be used as an application for the crossing forearm motion seen in Naihanchi Shodan (demonstrated here by Ryan..
Richard Poage performing Gojushiho at his Godan (5th Degree Black Belt) test in the Shorinkan honbu dojo in Naha, Okinawa, Japan
At 2:04am Pacific Standard Time, on Wednesday, December 27th, 2017, the world lost an amazing martial artist, a fantastic role model, and a great man who impacted more lives than I can count. Richard Michael Poage was my Sensei, but he was also my friend, and the older brother I never had. He was truly the embodiment of “sensei,” which translates to “one who came before,” not only in that he was older than me, and my teacher, but in that he would actually show his students the path to get to where he was. Richard wasn’t one to rest on his laurels, or settle for “good enough.” He was always training and practicing, trying to improve even has he taught his students to do the same. Even when he was teaching, he couldn’t resist jumping in to practice the drill he just demonstrated, or hit the bags, or get thrown around, or spar with his students. He always said that he never wanted to be the kind of instructor who considered themselves “too good” to get in there and mix it up with their students, and he thought that led to instructors developing a false sense of superiority. Richard would often tell me how important it was for him to train and spar with his students, and people from other schools/styles, so he could keep himself sharp.
My Sensei, Richard Poage (Renshi, Godan), demonstrating a Naihanchi application on me
Without him, I hate to think how long I would have struggled to learn what I have under his guidance. I came to his dojo in 2010 having spent 2 years training in Illinois, and 2 more years training and studying on my own after moving to Arizona with the help of some Seattle Movers, and wanting to evolve my karate into something new. He had just tested three of his students for their Shodan (1st Degree Black Belt) ranks, and they were just bowing out. When he finished with the class, he bowed off the mat and sat down to talk to me about what I was looking for in a dojo. It was clear that he was just as excited about karate as I was, and our perspectives on it lined up very well. My first class with him was a brown/black belt class focused on Nakazato Shugoro Sensei’s yakusoku kumite drills. It was the first time I had done any partner work in karate for two years, so my reactions and coordination were terrible, but he was very supportive and helpful the whole time. That class was a little disheartening, since I felt like I had gotten so rusty, but it also re-lit the fire in me to improve, and I threw myself back into training with renewed vigor. All of the things I had read about and seen in videos in my 2 years of self-training and research began to make even more sense, and I began to develop the ability to actually do those things, thanks to him. Every compliment I have ever received on my karate isn’t really a compliment for me, but for him, and I will forever be in his debt.
My Sensei and I after my shodan test
When he was hospitalized, it was a shock to everyone–you don’t expect a 32 year old martial arts instructor who had just recently booked his first doctor appointment at https://www.urologygeorgia.com to suddenly fall prey to a cancerous tumor. His biggest vice was caffeine, and he drank more of it (usually coffee and Monster) than he did water, a lot of the time, so when he complained of headaches, that’s what everyone (including him) chalked it up to. It was a complete shock to all of us. We set up a GoFundMe to raise money to help cover some of his medical costs, and were blown away by the amount of love and support we received from the martial arts community. Unfortunately, now that he has passed, his family will still have bills to pay for his care and final arrangements, so we are keeping the fundraiser going. If you are able to donate, please visit and share the GoFundMe page (LINK).
An example of kansetsu-waza from the book, Seipai no Kenkyu, written by Mabuni Kenwa (founder of Shito-Ryu)
While many joint locking techniques (kansetsu-waza) exist within karate, there are still karateka who are unaware of them and, frequently, people look at the joint locks of karate from the perspective of other arts. We know that such techniques exist within karate, not only because of karateka who kept them in their curricula into modern times, such as Uehara Seikichi (LINK), Oyata Seiyu (LINK), and Tetsuhiro Hokama (LINK), but also because can see examples of these joint locks in books written by old karate masters like Itoman Morinobu (an Okinawan police officer who learned karate prior to its introduction to the school system), Motobu Choki (an infamously skilled fighter), Funakoshi Gichin (founder of Shotokan), and Mabuni Kenwa (founder of Shito-Ryu), who famously said that Goju-Ryu had not been fully introduced to the mainland of Japan, and that it contained a variety of locks and throws (LINK). We also know that one of the sparring methods of old-style karate was kakedameshi (lit. “crossing/testing of spirits”) which Nagamine Shoshin (founder of Matsubayashi-Ryu) described in his book, Tales of Okinawa’s Great Masters, as including joint locks (LINK). On top of this, we know that Okinawan youths regularly participated in tegumi/muto (folkstyle submission wrestling) which is described by Funakoshi and Nagamine as including throws, chokes, and joint locks. Additionally, we know that many Okinawan masters highly regarded the Bubishi/Wu Bei Zhi (LINK) as a source for historical Chinese fighting methods that carry over into karate, and it contains several joint locks. Of course, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of Chinese martial arts styles, and most of them contain joint locks. George Kerr also wrote in his book, Okinawa: The History of an Island People (LINK), that the martial arts of Okinawa originated from Siam (modern-day Thailand), and Muay Boran (the ancestor art of Muay Thai) contains joint locks (LINK). In other words, we have a great deal of information to support the presence of joint locks within the curriculum of classical Okinawan karate. As Iain Abernethy Sensei recently addressed (LINK), it is fairly common for people to associate certain techniques with certain martial arts, and that can lead to misconceptions and confusion. Often, this results in people seeing a joint lock from karate, associating it with another martial art (typically Japanese jujutsu, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, or Aikido), and assuming that it is meant to be applied from the perspective of that art, which may have a different context, making the technique seem as though it would be ineffective. Other times, the joint locks of karate are simply demonstrated in a manner that is meant for skill-building, and not direct combative application, which can also lead to a belief that the technique is impractical. In order to understand the plethora of tuidi-waza (seizing hand techniques) the exist within the methods of karate, you not only need to understand the mechanics of how they work, but also the context in which they are meant to be applied, and train accordingly.
Motobu Choki demonstrating tuidi-waza from Naihanchi Shodan
To begin with, as I see it, there are generally three primary types of joint locks–hyperextending, compressing, and twisting–and many joint locks are some combination of those types. These categories are my own, and other martial artists may be more granular in their categorization of joint locks, but I find that most can fit into these types. Hyperextension is simply moving a joint past its intended stopping point, which is typically done to hinge-type joints, since their range of motion is already fairly limited. Compression is a bit more complicated, because it can be driving both halves of a joint into each other, or closing a hinge joint (hyperflexion), usually with something inside of it. Twisting is a fairly straight-forward concept, which is to twist the joint past the connective tissue’s ability to hold it in place. All of the joint locks that I can think of can fit into one or more of these categories, although there are many ways to perform these actions on a joint, and many joints to apply them on.
Funakoshi Gichin (founder of Shotokan) demonstrating koma-nage (spinning top throw), which is an armbar found in Naihanchi
Hyperextending locks are probably the most common across all of the martial arts that contain joint locks. Hinge-type joints, such as the fingers, elbows, and knees, are the easiest targets for such locks, because you just have to figure out a way to fully extend the joint, and then force it past its stopping point. The example of this that most people will be most familiar with is the armbar. That word will typically conjure up a mental image of the classic juji-gatame (cross hold) of Judo–the same armbar taught in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and frequently used to win MMA fights–and if you were to do a Google Images search, you would see pages and pages of exactly that, people used to bet on athletes from MMA flights, and they were large amounts of money betting, even with money gotten from a check out cic, fans would look for the best tipsters in order to bet all their money, MMA is a full contact sport where fighters use different fighting styles to their strategic and tactical advantage including karate, judo, jiu-jitsu, boxing, kickboxing, wrestling as well as other emerging interdisciplinary technique, Betting on MMA has evolved as the sport has grown in stature, but in order to stand a chance of winning you have to understand the particulars of betting on MMA, and then get the best available odds, usually found at Pinnacle. The trouble with that is that an armbar is an armbar based on principles, not a specific example of a technique. The standing armbar commonly seen in karate is just as much an armbar as the one seen in BJJ, despite looking very different. This is because they are both using the same principles, but in different contexts. The biggest difference, of course, is that BJJ typically applies armbars on the ground, and often in a sporting environment, as opposed to karate applying it from a standing position in a self defense or law enforcement context.
A compressing wrist lock called “carrying a basket” from the book, Chin Na Fa
Compressing locks are less common, in their purest form, but karate has some very useful compressing locks, and compression adds a very significant augmentation to hyperextending and twisting locks. Spearing the shoulder joint, which is sometimes done following an armbar, would be a pure compression lock, driving one half of the joint (the ball of the humerus) into the other half (the shoulder socket). Another example of a more common compression lock would be a gooseneck wrist lock, in which the wrist is hyperflexed and squeezed while the elbow is held in place to form a base. There are many variations of this, from “come-along” methods to restraints. Those who are familiar with the 1936 compendium of Chinese law enforcement grappling methods, Chin Na Fa (LINK), can find this in the “carrying/lifting a basket” techniques pictures in the book. Often, compressing locks can include some sort of wedge being inserted into the joint as it is compressed, which can be seen in the calf-slicer technique used in BJJ and MMA to lock the knee joint. Karate uses the same principle fairly often–particularly in Naihanchi–by stepping onto the back of the opponent’s knee and driving it to the floor. As with the hyperextending lock examples, these do very much the same type of damage to the joint, but look very different due to the context.
A shoulder wrench from Hans Talhoffer’s manual on medieval combat
Twisting locks can be applied to most joints, with varying degrees of success, and are nearly as commonly found as hyperextending locks. All of the joints in the human body are held together with connective tissues, and twisting a joint to the point where these tissues fail will cause a great deal of damage. For example, a ball-and-socket joint, like the shoulder, is meant to twist and rotate, but the tissues that hold the joint in socket can only provide support up to a point. This means that the shoulder can be locked, but because it is a very mobile joint, it has to be brought to a position where it can no longer hold itself in place. A “chicken wing” or “hammer lock,” where the opponent’s elbow is bent and their hand is brought behind their back, can effectively accomplish this. Such locks can be found in a variety of arts, from karate, which does it from a standing position, to HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts), which does the lock with a dagger or sword, to BJJ, where most people may be familiar with the omoplata shoulder lock, which is done on the ground using the leg. Again, all of these are doing the exact same lock, using the same principles, but in differing contexts. I recommend doing this exercises drug free, because drugs overdose or substance abuse can cause addiction and it can affect your training, check this article to learn more https://firststepbh.com/blog/detox-will-kickstart-rehab/.
Uehara Seikichi of Motobu Udundi demonstrating a wrist lock
The question then becomes, what context are the joint locks of karate intended for? Myth and legend would tell you that they are for farmers to fight Satsuma samurai but, as I’ve discussed before (LINK), that is false. Historically, karate, under many different names, was practiced almost exclusively by the Shizoku classes and royalty of Okinawa (LINK). These include scholars, guards, police, military, and princes, to name a few, and they all may have different needs in their martial studies. A scholar, for example, may be more interested in the study of how the body moves than fighting practicality. Police may focus a great deal on restraining methods in order to detain people without causing grievous bodily harm, while royal guards might be more likely to go for the kill to keep their charges safe. We have to keep these types of possibilities in mind when considering the contexts in which karate was meant to be used. Itosu Anko (LINK), who was responsible for formalizing and kick-starting the popularity of karate by introducing it to the Okinawan school system, included this in his Ten Precepts (LINK), stating that it can be studied not only “for your own benefit,” but also “avoiding injury by using the hands and feet should one be confronted by a villain or ruffian, because sometimes these injuries are not even your fault” and says that you must decide if your training is “for your health or to aid in your duty.”
Oyata Seiyu demonstrating a restraining wrist lock
This wide array of possible contexts is partially the source of the various styles of karate that exist today, and makes the study of karate very complex. With this in mind, we can not only break down the joint locks of karate by mechanical types, but also into four methods; restraint, disruption, destruction, and education. These methods tend to coincide with the specific needs of the practitioner. Restraining methods are meant to restrict the opponent’s movement, often through pain compliance, without causing any more damage than necessary. Disrupting techniques are typically meant to distract the opponent with pain, or force them to move and take their balance away (kuzushi). Destruction methods are generally intended to dislocate joints, or cause enough damage to the connective tissues that the opponent’s limb becomes useless. Educational joint locking methods, unlike the other three methods, are often complex or difficult to accomplish in combat, but are intended to teach the underlying principles of joint locking, and to teach the practitioner how the joints of the body work and what their limitations are.
Shinya Aoki wrenching an armbar to take down Keith Wisniewski–whether the intent was to disrupt or destroy is debatable, but the joint did dislocate
The interesting thing about these different methods is that the same technique can be used in several methods, and simply be applied differently. If we consider an armbar, for example, different people will have different needs when they use it. A police officer may need to force a suspect to the ground so they can be handcuffed, without dislocating the elbow (which would actually result in the loss of the lock). In order to accomplish this, they would have to apply the lock somewhat slowly, to give the opponent time to react to the pain of the technique and move appropriately, and use the lock to guide the opponent to the ground, often by turning and sinking. An MMA fighter, on the other hand, may want to disrupt their opponent’s balance and distract them so they can go for a takedown or land a strike. To do that, they would have to wrench the armbar quickly enough that their opponent doesn’t have enough time to consciously move away from it, but not so forcefully that the joint dislocates. A civilian protecting their family from a home intruder, however, would likely benefit from doing as much damage to their opponent as possible to prevent them from doing any further harm. This would mean that the lock would be done as fast and forcefully as possible to ensure that the joint is dislocated and/or the connective tissues are so damaged that they cannot hold the joint stable and allow it to move. For someone who is simply studying the way the body works, and how it can be affected, there is no need for speed or force. Such a student may focus on experimenting with minute changes in angle and rotation which would be too difficult to apply in combat, but which further the understanding of how the armbar can be made more effective. All of these methods have value, but obviously they are suited to different types of situations, and karate, as a lifelong pursuit that stems from a variety of needs, includes all of them to some degree.
Uehara Seikichi of Motobu Udundi demonstrating locks in an educational manner
So how does this affect your training? That will largely depend on why you study karate. If you are seeking the fullest karate education possible, or want to learn practical skills for self protection, then you will need to study all of these methods. The trouble that most karateka encounter with joint locks–and which make other practitioners question the practicality of them–is that many dojo only practice them as restraining methods, or educational methods, and may not work them in a practical manner, or pressure test them. This results in a knowledge of how the locks work, but not the knowledge of how to get to them and make them usable. These are things that can be difficult to address on a dojo level, let alone an organizational level, because as traditional martial artists tend to do, many practitioners will cling to “the way we’ve always done it.” Even so, individual students or instructors can still find like-minded individuals in their dojo or organization to start introducing more effective training practices, and that can work its way into the community over time.
Working various joint locks with my “poor man’s kakiya/kakete-biki”
When it comes to training to be effective, if a student is only ever taught restraining locks or educational joint locking methods, then they are learning very “gentle” and “slow” (comparatively) techniques. These certainly have their place, but disrupting and destroying methods are faster and more brutal, which is very valuable when your life is on the line, but can be scary in training. You have to practice techniques with these methods in mind, while remaining controlled enough to not injure your partner. These techniques are often said to be “too dangerous” but, just like a punch to the face, they are only as dangerous as the person doing them makes them, and if they have proper control, they can put enough of a jolt into the joint to get the desired response without damaging the joint. To practice the locks fully, students would have to employ training tools such as kakiya/kakete-biki (which I mentioned in this article: LINK), or even something as simple as a rope or belt tied to a post to act as a substitute limb, so that no one is injured.
An example of a joint lock from Shaolin martial arts practices, demonstrated against an exaggerated attack
We must also consider the way that the joint locks are presented, taught, and practiced. Often, it is easier to teach (and be understood) outside of the context the lock is intended to be used in. Fighting is chaotic, and messy, and if a technique is taught solely in context, it can be very difficult for students to clearly visualize and understand how the technique is supposed to work. For this reason, many instructors will teach joint locks to the arms, for example, against long range punches or pushes, because it gives students a lot of room to see what is happening, gives them the right motion to be able to get to the lock, and often students have already spent time training how to block/receive punches, so this is an easy transition. This is often not very realistic, however, as karate is intended to be used primarily at close range, and the locks tend to come into play much more at that range than at the long distance often used for demonstrations and teaching. Joint locks are not the only technique that suffer from this, and karate is not the only martial art that does this–the same approach can be seen in Chinese arts, for example, or even HEMA (Historical European martial arts), where techniques are sometimes taught “out of measure” for safety. Teaching and practicing in this manner is not a bad thing, in and of itself, but it is very limiting from a practicality aspect. Essentially, the long range, simplified entry into the techniques is a good introduction, but training should go beyond it.
As much as I love training and researching, I also love teaching, and it’s something that I have been doing, in some capacity, since I was a yellow belt. I’ve gone from helping a white belt learn the most basic aspects of a block, to teaching classes and seminars, and it’s been a wonderful adventure, as well as a learning experience for me. When it comes to teaching, everyone learns differently, and has slightly different goals. For me, I tend to teach some things from a structured, “scaffolded” approach, and some things from a more open, Socratic approach. My primary teaching goal is to make students prepared for as many situations as possible, so there has to be a bit of each in order to get the necessary skills across to the student.
Kihon-geiko in front of the Shuri Castle, led by Gusukuma (Shiroma) Shinpan
Most people learn things the best when they are organized in a manner that builds on previous knowledge, which is called “scaffolding.” For example, it is easier to learn how to multiply if you have already learned how to add, because multiplication can be broken down to a longer addition problem (eg. 4×4 is the same as 4+4+4+4) for easier understanding. From a karate perspective, you could say that it is easier to learn basic kata, like the Taikyoku series, for example, if you have already learned the basic movements for the techniques contained within the kata. Even as you advance, and begin to see compound movements within kata, they will be easier to learn if they can be broken down into their component parts. This is actually part of why kata are often taught and practiced by the count, which was likely introduced to karate in the early 1900’s when it began to be taught to larger groups as part of Itosu Anko’s primary school karate program. When you are going to be teaching a large group, it’s easier to make sure everyone is doing the right thing if you lead them through it by a count, and have them stop regularly to make sure they are in the correct positions.
My Sensei demonstrating a tuidi technique on me
This approach can be used with kata applications just as well as it can be used with learning the form and pattern of the solo kata, itself. For example, if you want someone to be able to apply an armbar like the one depicted in this GIF, it may be difficult for them to pick up if they haven’t worked some of the component movements first. There is a lot going on, and it is easy to get confused if you haven’t already been introduced to the methods it contains. If the student has already learned gyaku-tsuki (reverse thrust), chudan-uke (middle receiver), and morote-uke (double receiver), and drilled parries with the palm of the hand, parries with punches, the classical “parry-pass,” kicks to the leg, using their stance to break down the opponent’s structure, and the basic armbar without an attack, all separately, then it will be much easier for them to put them together then to try to learn the entirety of the technique at once.
Youth students in our dojo practicing a basic offensive uke-waza drill
In situations where you are attempting to teach very specific techniques, this works very well. In situations where you are trying to teach a methodology or concept, however, it can sometimes be beneficial to use more of a Socratic approach to teaching, where the student is asked questions in order to provoke more creative thought on their part. This isn’t something that can be done all the time, or very early in a student’s training, because they have to have a foundation of techniques to use as examples in their thought process. When a student asks how to apply a movement in kata that they haven’t learned an application for previously, or they want an alternative application, you can provide them a starting point and ask them what they could potentially do from there, using the movements of the kata. This gives them a base to work from, but also allows free thought and problem solving on their end, using techniques and methods they already know.
The ridgehand/elbow strike sequence from Naihanchi Shodan
For a simple example, we can take a look at the supported elbow strike found in Naihanchi Shodan. The elbow comes after the other hand extends outward, usually in an arc, and is usually described as a haito-uke (ridgehand receiver/”block”) or haishu-uke (backhand receiver/”block”). Depending on where you put that hand, and the student’s previous training, the way the elbow strike is used can vary. If you start with the hand on the opponent’s neck or head, chances are good that the student will grab the head and use the elbow to strike it. If you place the hand on the inside of the opponent’s arm, perhaps the student will use the elbow to strike the body. If the hand starts on the outside of the opponent’s arm, and the student has learned armbars and the bunkai concept that touching your body can indicate touching the opponent (something I have previously written about, HERE), then they may use the elbow strike to actually apply an elbow lock to the opponent. There are many different ways to apply the movements of kata, depending on the starting position, what the opponent does, and the experience of the practitioner.
Two of our black belts, back when they were kids, learning tuidi-waza
There must be a balance in your approach to teaching martial arts. If you only ever teach strictly structured, perfectly standardized material, then you will end up with students who develop strong basics and mechanics, and can perform techniques by rote, but cannot think creatively about what they are doing. If you only ever teach with an open, Socratic approach, you can end up frustrating your students before they get the chance to really benefit from their training, and they may not be getting enough precise feedback to develop solid fundamental skills. The same things can happen if you only teach techniques, but never explain the principles and concepts behind them, or only teach principles and concepts without giving students enough example techniques to work from. Finding this balance can be frustrating for the teacher, as well as the student, but I personally find it to be a very interesting endeavor, and finding the right way to teach a student and have them “get it” is very rewarding.
Of course being able to relax is also very important. I already looked into the best shower radio so that I can install a couple, to have some music to relax while getting ready to either start a lesson or leave from a hard day of training. I’m looking forward to it actually to lighten up the mid a little bit, the environment here can at times get very strict, slightly stressful.
Teaching Pinan Sandan application at our Waza Weekend at Mires Martial Arts in 2017
Keeping all of this in mind, you can structure your curriculum to be more effective to teach a wide array of skills, since you will be able to carry over both fundamental mechanics and concepts. There are five general ranges to martial arts: long range, medium range, close range, standing grappling, and groundwork. While there are martial arts which specialize in just one, or perhaps a few of these, even they typically evolved from a more extensive art which incorporated all ranges. Boxing, for example, focuses on punching at medium and close range, but used to include kicks (long range) and throws (standing grappling). While specialization leads to a very highly-developed set of specific skills, and can be vital to competitions with rulesets designed with that specialization in mind, it can be limiting. To be well-rounded, a martial artist should be competent in all five ranges, so they have to be trained accordingly, if the goal is to develop a martial artist who can protect themselves effectively in as many scenarios as possible. Admittedly, not all martial artists will have the interest in doing this, so the teacher must be able to adapt, at least somewhat. Some students will need a wider range of material, while some will need a narrower focus, and it is important to remember that students will tend to learn material better if they have an interest in it. As an instructor, you should do your best to make the material interesting and engaging, both for the students’ sake and your own. It is easier to learn if you are interested in the material, and it is easier to teach students who are interested in the material.
Oyama Masutatsu, the founder of Kyokushin, breaking boards as a demonstration of power, technique, and focus
Karate is not a single, homogeneous practice, but rather is made up of a wide variety of styles, all of which are eclectic blends of native Okinawan arts, Japanese arts, Chinese arts, Indochinese arts, and more. While the human body only functions in so many ways, there are actually quite a number of approaches to doing most things, including generating power, so it should be no surprise that karate is not an art with one singular, standardized approach to doing so. Indeed, even across the wider martial arts spectrum, there are many ways of achieving power. There is bound to be a good deal of cross-over, of course, and underlying principles that can be universally applied, but it can still be beneficial to explore the wider array of methods available to you, as one may fit your body or approach better than another. Most karateka are familiar with koshi no hineru/kaiten (twisting/rotating of the hips) to generate power, of course, and the simplest approach to this is fairly commonly taught. Stepping in various directions is also a built-in power generation method that can be found in kata, although not always explored as such. Sinking and rising are less commonly seen in modern karate, as the desire for a level plane of movement has become a popular aesthetic in kata, but can be very effective at adding force to a technique. Twisting the body without the use of the hips is a method of generating power that many karateka feel is simply not correct, and yet it can be found in old Uchina-Di (Okinawa-Te), as well as some other martial systems around the world. These approaches can be blended, and worked with various timings, in order to find the most efficient and effective methods for generating power in differing circumstances. It is my belief that restricting oneself to a single power generation method is unnecessarily limiting, and by exploring other methods, one can find power that fits different movements and body types, which they otherwise may never have had available to them.
Vintage Shotokan instructional footage showing basic koshi no hineru/kaiten
It is common knowledge that power comes from the ground up, and this is certainly true of torquing the hips to generate power. When it comes down to it, the hips do not move independently of the rest of the body–the legs are what move the hips–so when your hips twist, it is indicative of your legs transferring power up through your hips and into your upper body, when done correctly. A popular drill for learning to do this is to stand in a 45 degree shiko-dachi (Sumo stance), then drive with your back leg to shift into a zenkutsu-dachi (bend forward stance) as you execute a technique. Usually, this is done with a gyaku-tsuki (reverse thrust), but it can be applied to various other strikes, and even uke-waza (receiving techniques). Additionally, this can be done in different ways to emphasize different components of a technique (which you can see here: LINK). At it’s most basic level, this can simply be a back-and-forth twisting used to drive either side of the body forward by rotating around the center, as if a line was drawn vertically through the center of the body to act as an axis. This action means that one side moves back as the other side moves forward, but one can also move that vertical axis to the otherwise rear-moving hip, so that it stays in place and more body weight is moved forward. In both cases, it is common to see people cock the hip back before twisting it forward, in order to set themselves up for more power. It is important to remember that the cocking action can be used to generate power for a technique, as well, so that the setup for your more powerful strike isn’t simply dead time. Additionally, these twists do not need to necessarily move in a strictly horizontal, back-and-forth manner. By incorporating pelvic tilt, which is a key component of gamaku (which Ryan Parker Sensei wrote about, here: LINK), you can not only create a more direct link between the upper and lower body for the transmission of kinetic energy, but also alter the path that the hips move through in the process of generating power. Typically, when moving the hips back-and-forth, they stop moving before changing direction to generate power on the other side of the body. When incorporating arcs (part of the kuruma (wheel) concept I have previously discussed, here: LINK), it is possible to keep the hips moving as you change their direction, giving you a smoother transition. Additionally, the core compression involved in gamaku can provide downward and upward power, by either dropping the upper body’s weight into the hips, or whipping it up from the hips.
The second basic form (Kihon Nihon), created by Chibana Chosin, features simple steps forward and backward
The simple act of stepping forward, backward, or side-to-side is a controlled loss of balance, during which your entire body weight is moving. That, in itself, adds your weight to your technique, plus however much force you use to drive yourself in that direction with the muscles of your legs. This is a very natural way to generate power with the human body, and is present in every kata that I am aware of. Outside of martial arts, humans use this all the time doing things from pulling open a heavy door to pushing a broken down car. Stepping can add a good deal of power to your techniques–in addition to accomplishing sabaki (movement), tenshin (shifting), irimi (entering), or hikkomi (retreat), and acting as an opportunity to kick or knee strike the opponent. The problem that it runs into is that it is relatively slow. Of course, one can train to move quickly, but stepping requires you to move your entire body, and is naturally a slower action than moving just an arm, for example. For some techniques, this is not much of a concern, but for those where speed is necessary, you can still incorporate power generation through stepping by experimenting with timing.
Stance changes for power generation - YouTube
Sinking and rising are two sides of the same coin, from a directional perspective, but work in very different ways. Sinking, of course, lowers your body weight through the utilization of gravity, while rising moves your body weight through the muscular engagement of the legs driving upward, against gravity. The use of gravity is a relatively easy way to get power, as it doesn’t require much energy to do, up until you have to arrest your descent. This can be used for everything from strikes, to throws, to joint locks, and is a natural way for the human body to exert downward force. Rising, while taking more effort, becomes very important when you have to transition from a low position to a higher one, or when one must strike or otherwise apply pressure in an upward direction. This is really where hojo undo (supplemental training) with barbells, particularly squats, deadlifts, and Olympic lifts, will benefit a karateka, by building explosive power. Both components can be applied in very subtle ways, with just slight shifts in height, or in drastic ways, such as jumping or dropping to the floor. Like stepping, these are also power generation methods that are built into most kata. Unlike stepping, however, these have been lost in many styles over the course of their development, due to the aesthetic preference for maintaining a level head height throughout kata. If one looks at older examples of kata, you can often find instances of sinking and rising in the transitions between lower stances and higher ones. For example, in the beginning of Pinan Nidan, one has thrown a punch to the side in shizentai-dachi/han-zenkutsu-dachi (natural body stance/half bend forward stance), then turns to the front and executes gedan-barai (low sweep) in zenkutsu-dachi, before stepping forward into shizentai-dachi/han-zenkutsu-dachi to execute a jodan-uke (high level receiver). Because zenkutsu-dachi is naturally a lower position than shizentai-dachi/han-zenkutsu-dachi, there must be a change in elevation, and this can be used to generate power. My Sensei, Richard Poage (Renshi, Godan), explains this briefly in the video, above.
Ulf Karlsson demonstrating an application for Tachimura no Naihanchi that employs twisting at the waist
Twisting to generate power in karate is often rigidly associated with the twisting of the hips, but simply twisting at the waist, using your core muscles, can be an effective method of generating force. Motobu Choki–the late Okinawan karate master famed for testing his skills in street fights–once said: “In the Naihanchi kata, twisting to either the right or the left is a stance that can be used in actual confrontation. Thinking of twisting to either the right or left in the Naihanchi kata, one can start to understand one by one the meaning of the movements contained therein.” If one looks at Tachimura no Naihanchi, which is practiced in the KishimotoDi system (which I have previously written about here: LINK 1, LINK 2, LINK 3), this twisting action is very evident. Additionally, unlike most extant variants of Naihanchi, it does not use the hips to drive the twist of the upper body. This type of power generation can be especially helpful when applying techniques where your stance is being utilized to directly attack your opponent’s structure. If you have stepped behind your opponent’s legs, for example, and are using the stance to compromise their balance, it can be difficult to move your hips because their legs are restricting yours, and moving your legs too much could disengage your stance from theirs. Twisting at the waist in this manner is fairly difficult, at first, as it requires explosive contractions of the abdominal, oblique, latissimus dorsi, and erector spinae muscles in cooperation with each other, but does become easier with practice. It should also be noted that this approach still generates power from the ground up, in a way. Instead of driving with the legs to generate power, the legs must be used as a stable base on which to twist. If the stance is not structurally sound, then twisting the body can shift the legs and dissipate the power one is attempting to generate.
Sanchin kata is an exercise in breathing, chinkuchi, tension, and relaxation, meant to build structure and control that can be widely applied to the combative methods of karate
With any of these methods, transmission of power through the body is vital to being able to actually deliver the power to the target, and part of that transmission is the use of relaxation and tension. As a general rule, most karateka are familiar with the idea of staying relaxed until impact, at which point they tense all of their muscles. This tension at the end is typically called “kime,” the shortened form of the word “kimeru,” which can mean many things, including “to decide/resolve,” or “to carry out successfully.” The human body cannot be completely relaxed and in use at the same time–we would simply collapse without some degree of tension to keep our skeletons upright. Thankfully, muscles are not binary devices, consisting of only “tense” and “relaxed” states, but cover many degrees of those states. Additionally, the human body is not an “all or none” system, so different muscles can be tensed or relaxed to varying degrees independently, although some muscles obviously must work in conjunction with each other. This can make for some very complex sequences of muscular engagement, but that also allows us to fine-tune our body mechanics. To do this, it is important to evaluate which muscles are tensing at what times, because tension in some muscles will slow a movement, while tension in others will speed it up, and speed is going to generate more power. Additionally, chinkuchi (muscle, tendon, bone) is important to successfully transferring your power into your strikes, locks, and throws. Chinkuchi is a structural concept, which focuses on using angles and planes of movement that are as structurally sound as possible, so that your body doesn’t collapse or give way when it should be strong, and reduces the amount of muscular tension needed to maintain the structure of your technique. Returning to the idea of kime, it should be noted that kime and chinkuchi are not the same, although they can appear that way when a karateka locks their body into a chinkuchi position. Additionally, kime is intended for stopping a strike, so it will actually slow the technique down, and should really only be used when performing kata and techniques in the air, or when you are holding back from striking your partner. If you intend to actually strike something, some tension is obviously required, but locking down your body in this manner can actually reduce the power of your strike.
Roland Warzecha demonstrating the “true time” of HEMA from his perspective
These methods can also be augmented by timing, which can be used in different ways to balance out power and speed. Many karateka are taught to settle into their stance before executing a technique. The idea behind this is that, because you generate power from the ground up, you must have rooted your stance before throwing a technique in order to generate the maximum amount of force, but as this article has discussed, that is not true, because movement adds to your power, rather than subtracting from it. Additionally, this is a slower method of reaching your target if you are striking, as the feet and body move more slowly than the hands, and those must be moved before the hands when using this method. That said, it can be useful for techniques where you must fit your body into a position before executing the technique, such as some throws and joint locks. Another way to approach timing is to use the hands, body, and feet at the same time–in KishimotoDi, this is called taigi ichi (body and technique as one), and is one of the style’s three guiding principles. This approach is a good balance of power generation and speed for arriving at the target, although it isn’t always easy to accomplish. In historical European martial arts (HEMA), there is a concept called “true time,” which describes the idea of moving the hands before the feet. The idea behind this approach to timing is that because the hands can be moved more quickly than the feet, the strike can travel to the target much more quickly, albeit with less power. Of course, when using a weapon–particularly a bladed one, as is often the case in HEMA–a good amount of damage can be done with a smaller amount of force than with an unarmed attack, because weapons are a force multiplier. This can be applied to unarmed methods, however, especially in the case of joint locks. If one intends to strike as a method of distraction or shock, this timing also works well, as it can be done very quickly, and then a more powerful strike can be delivered afterward. As with tension and relaxation, timing is something of a gradient, and can be adjusted in minute increments to find the most efficient approach for a given person or technique. Timing can also be addressed in a more granular manner, by adjusting which muscles and joints move at what time during the execution of a technique.
Two human pelvises which, although they are fundamentally the same structure, are built quite differently
The human body is built generally the same way across the world, and so we tend to find the same collections of power generation methods in every system, but they are often implemented in different ways. This can be for purely stylistic or cultural reasons, but often they have stemmed from the personal preferences of instructors over time. People’s skeletal structures can be different depending on the region they come from, genetic traits, and congenital “deformities” that differ from what is considered “normal” in a given population (which is shown quite well in this article on why different people will perform squats differently: LINK). Additionally, people have different heights, weights, body compositions, and muscular types. All of these mean that, although we all have the same pool of methods to choose from, they may not all work as well for us as they do for someone else. It is important to explore all of these methods, and experiment with them to find which ones fit you the best, and what situations they are most suited for. In the end, you will likely find yourself using a blend of all of these power generation methods, to varying degrees. That is part of what makes karate an “art,” as it must be experimented with, and made to fit and express the karateka on an individual level.
A clip from a Japan Karate Association tournament in Tokyo in 1985
Sport karate has long been known for its fast in-and-out approach to fighting, largely because of the way points are assessed–you want to get in and touch your opponent, and get away before they can touch you. It’s also known that the best way to practice Karate is with the Vessi Footwear. Lately, though, the kumite used in the increasingly popular World Karate Federation (WKF) competitions seems to involve the “in” component, but not so much the “out” component, with competitors often simply running straight into each other at the end of combinations. Even so, there are still many sport karate competitors who maintain the in-and-out approach, and for good reason. As Mr. Miyagi said in Karate Kid 2; “best way to avoid punch, no be there.” The idea behind this is that you don’t have to block something if you aren’t in its path. Now, sport karate does this by fighting at a long distance, finding an opening, and building up a great deal of speed to shoot in and land a strike, before shooting back out of range again. This certainly has its place, and catches attention when sport karate competitors cross over into other realms of fighting, such as mixed martial arts competitions. It is not unusual for MMA commentators to say that fighters with sport karate backgrounds are “difficult to hit,” for this very reason. Moving straight forward and straight back are not the only types of evasive maneuvering in karate, however, and exploring these other ways of moving can benefit both your sport fighting, and your self defense application. In Japanese, the evasive methods of martial arts are generally referred to as sabaki–either tai sabaki (body movement) or ashi sabaki (foot/leg movement)–and tenshin (shifting).
An overhead view of the typical happo no kuzushi diagram
To get started with the basics, it must be understood that there are 8 primary directions one can move in–forward, backward, side-to-side, and to the angles in between. In judo, jujutsu, and Aikido, these same directions are referred to as “happo no kuzushi,” which means “eight points of off-balancing.” While those arts are generally talking about the balance of your opponent, they also use the same term to refer to the directions which you can move, which makes sense if one considers that stepping is just a change in balance. If life were two-dimensional, and viewed from above, these would be our only real options of movement, but life is three-dimensional, and we have the ability to change our angles of movement within a 360 degree sphere around our body. This can still be divided into eight primary directions, but because of the shape of this metaphorical sphere of movement, arcs and circles become more accurate representations of possible planes of movement, rather than lines. For those who have researched old-style karate and Uchinadi (Okinawa-Te), these circles (and points associated with them) come up often, and are called kuruma (wheels). As an example, you can see Jan Dam Sensei of Genten Kai, formerly a student of Onaga Yoshimitsu Sensei’s Shinjinbukan, demonstrating some basic kuruma that can be found in Naihanchi in this video. Since kuruma can also be attributed to the arm and leg movements of karate, separately, this can seem a bit overwhelming to think about, because there is so much movement to consider, but with practice the kuruma will begin to make more sense. In truth, it is rather difficult to convey a visual concept through a text medium, such as this one, so thoughtful practice will be the key to understanding how the arcs, circles, and spirals represented by the kuruma concept are applied to a person’s movement.
UFC fighter and Kenpo Karate black belt, Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson, stepping to the angle as he retreats to avoid counter punches
Whether you are fighting in some form of competition, or for self defense, stepping to angles can help you both in closing distance, and in creating distance. Imagine facing an opponent, head on, who shoots forward to try to throw punches at your face. You can step straight backward, of course, to create more distance and move yourself out of your opponent’s reach, but chances are good that they will continue to move forward. Since most people move more quickly forward than backward, they will probably catch you eventually, and because you are moving backwards it will be hard to mount much offense, unless you are specifically baiting them into overreaching so you can counter them. Moving straight to the side, in either direction, will take you off of your attacker’s line of movement, forcing them to have to turn to face you. This can be highly advantageous in sport fighting, because you can then move yourself back to the center of the ring, and force your opponent to the outside, limiting their movement. It doesn’t usually set you up to counter your opponent, unless your step to the side is rather small, so you have to be wary of your distancing if you plan to use the side-step to counter. If you move forward at an angle, however, you can slip past your attacker’s punches, because the step moves your head (the target) away from its expected position in space, which takes you out of the path of straight punches, and puts you too close for circular attacks to have much impact. The same step, because it is bringing you forward and toward your opponent, will allow you to throw your own strikes in response. Once you have done this–unless you have knocked out your opponent, of course–it is likely that your opponent will turn to face your new position, so that they can mount a counter attack. This is where retreating to an angle comes into play, because you can create more distance between you and your opponent, while again moving your head to an unexpected position, and out of harm’s way. It is important to note that the “8 directions” idea is a simplified one, because there are infinite degrees between any two angles that a person can take. For this reason, karateka should not limit their idea of “angled stepping” to moving at exactly 45 degree angles from their current position.
The first move of Taikyoku Shodan, which features a drop in height from hachiji-dachi to zenkutsu-dachi
Another component to this is altering your height, which will start to make your movement more of an arc, as illustrated by the kuruma concept. For example, if you are in an “orthodox” fighting stance, with your left side forward, and you press forward and to the left angle, you can bend your knees along the way to drop the height of your head and, thus, the targets your opponent is trying to reach. You effectively are stepping toward, to the side of, and underneath your opponent’s attack, all at once. This very same concept is present in the beginning of most kata, where you start in some sort of “ready position,” and then shift to another direction and drop into a stance. Both the angle you move to, and the change in stance height, although slight, have an impact on the evasive components of the technique. Sometimes, you may also want to go from a lower position to a higher one, either offensively, to strike, or defensively, to absorb a punch with your body instead of your head, or to avoid an upward strike, such as an uppercut or front kick to the face. Of course, both rising and sinking in stances is applicable to much more than just striking and evasion–when you start working limb control and the grappling components of kata (which I have previously discussed, here: LINK), the changes in elevation become even more important to the application of your techniques.
Former UFC champion, Anderson “the Spider” Silva, demonstrating some basic boxing-style head movement using slight shifts in body and head angle
So far, these methods assume that your body, as a whole, is being moved–this is what sabaki is generally referring to. Smaller, but just as important, are things like body tilt and rotation. These would fall into the category of tenshin. Such shifts in position are often overlooked, because they are not as easily seen as full-body movements, and because they do not provide much of a margin for error, making them a bit frightening to rely on. For example, just tilting your head to the side can take it out of the path of an oncoming attack. Without stepping in any direction, simply turning your upper body reduces the surface area that is open to being struck from the front. Combined with a slight shift in balance, and you can completely move your head and body off the line of an attack, without ever taking a step. If we map out these movements, we get a lot more curving planes of motion, once again fitting in with the kuruma concept. While it is possible to use these small shifts in position to avoid attacks, they tend to be more effective when combined with the larger sabaki methods. A very basic example of this type of shifting can be seen in the opening of Naihanchi Sandan, where you start with a lateral step, but also lean and pivot the upper body, before pivoting back without moving the feet, straightening the body, effectively moving your head out of the way of two potential attacks.
Ulf Karlsson Sensei demonstrating a basic application for Tachimura no Naihanchi, starting with tenshin achieved by shifting to kosa-dachi
If you combine a tilt of the head, a twist of the body, an angle of the body, a drop in height, and a step to an angle, you will have moved your head–the likely target of an attack–along a convoluted, curving path around the likely trajectory of your opponent’s attack, and without taking any more time than simply stepping away. Of course, nothing is foolproof, or 100% effective, because you cannot truly predict exactly how your opponent is going to attack, but this type of evasive movement does make it very difficult for your opponent to predict where you will be, in order to adjust their strikes to hit their target. This type of evasion is very important in sport fighting, of course, but it also appears in some kata applications. Some of the clearest examples of this can be seen in the opening of Naihanchi Shodan, where you step into kosa-dachi, sink, and then step out to whatever version of a horse stance your system uses (variations of which I have discussed previously, here: LINK). At first glance, Naihanchi does not appear to be a very evasive kata, as it simply moves side to side, and most systems insist that the head height be maintained throughout the performance of the kata. If we consider older methods, however, such as KishimotoDi, the tenshin components become a bit more evident. Kosa-dachi has many uses (which you can read more about, here: LINK), and one of them is tenshin. Whether you step to kosa-dachi, or twist into it, the nature of this cross-legged stance angles your body and, from a standing position, will lower your elevation, and adding a slight lean to your body will add yet another arc to the evasive potential of the stance. KishimotoDi uses this type of tenshin to “avoid by an inch” (one of the three principles of the system, which you can read more about here: LINK) and slide past the attack in order to counter it.
A spherical diagram of happo no kuzushi
There are many other ways to accomplish sabaki and tenshin, and many more ways that the kuruma concept can be used to illustrate them, but the examples here should give karateka at least a basic understanding of how to recognize them. Additionally, it should serve to illustrate that karate–often derided as being a rigid, head-on, linear fighting system–actually has soft, circular components to it. This applies not only to the evasive methods, as described in this article, but also the strikes, locks, and receiving techniques. It is important that we not get locked into the idea that karateka must move in straight, level lines, because we will be missing out on important classical Okinawan fighting methods. Whether you train for self defense, sport fighting, or just the enjoyment of it, these methods can greatly benefit your training, because they open up a great deal of possibilities.