If you're a student of Japanese or Okinawan karate, you've been introduced to the first of the five heian or pinan kata.
From a standing position with your feet slightly apart and your fists in front of your thighs, you pivot 90 degrees to your left and execute what's usually called a left downward block.
Do you understand it?
Many karateka not only would say they do but also would regard the question as vaguely insulting. It's a basic technique, after all. Black belts have done it thousands of times. Of course they understand it.
So tell me this: From the beginning position of the kata, which part of your body moves first? Do you look first to your left? If so and if you've perceived a threat, looking at it before moving is going to put you behind in your response, isn't it? You're looking to your front, and a guy on your left launches a punch. Can you turn and look at it and receive it effectively before it lands? You must be fast. Or he must be a slow puncher.
Do your hips move before your knees flex, or is it the other way around? Which direction do your hips rotate? To the left? If so, how do you generate the power to make the block? If you just rotate your hips to the left, you look like a robot without any real power. If you counter-rotate first, moving to the right to generate power, you're making two moves. Your attacker is making only one. You must involve your knees, right? How? Do the muscles in your hips relax to allow knee rotation?
Where are you in the rotation of your hips when your left foot starts to move? Where is your center? Is it behind the movement of your foot, or does it move simultaneously? If it's the latter, how do you maintain stability?
In this kata, the block is achieved by pulling your left arm back so the fist comes almost to your right ear; at the same time, your right arm stretches out to the left. Then you reverse this to make the big, swinging movement that gives the block enough energy to interrupt an attack. So your left arm comes down, and your right fist comes back to rest on your right hip. Ever see that work in a real confrontation? Me, neither. So why do you do it? Again, it's making two movements, both of them rather large, that are supposed to address a single direct attack. The math doesn't add up.
Now, remember that this is a basic movement from a basic kata. You understand it.
Perhaps you're thinking, It's a kata. That's not how we fight.
OK. Then what's the kata for? Karate is a fighting art. You're telling me that not only is the kata not meant to teach fighting but it's also actually counterproductive to learning to fight?
Or maybe you're insisting that the big movements of the kata are for developing gross-motor skills and that as you advance, you're supposed to be able to compress the movements and make them more efficient.
OK. How does that work with this pivot and block? If you make the movement smaller and faster, where does the power come from that will make it strong enough to work? Can you create enough vibration in your hips to come up with that kind of power? Have you actually tried it against a kick or a punch to your side?
If you're going to make this movement more compact, how wide is your stance? In the basic kata, stances are deep. Once you develop the right muscles, it's a stable position. But how stable are you with a much shorter stance? And long or short, where are you in taking this stance when you make contact with the attack? Are you already set in the stance at contact, or are you moving into the vector of the attack, sliding in to meet it?
Putting that right fist on your hip looks good in performances of the kata. Is that a good place for it? Again, do you see a lot of fights where skilled combatants have a fist cocked at their hip?
So is the kata wrong? If not, what's the lesson?
Here's the truth: There are excellent answers to these questions. All of them can be found in the kata — when the kata is taught correctly by those who know what they're doing.
Here's another truth: About 99 percent of those claiming to teach "traditional" karate don't have the answers. That's why their karate is so often superficial or incoherent when they try to insist that "kata is just as important as free fighting." It is, but you'd never know it from the caliber of their teaching.
Here's yet another truth: There are karate sensei who can answer these questions, demonstrate those answers and convey the information to students. I've been in dojo and watched while students are exposed to these teachers, students who for years have been doing a very shallow kind of karate and who suddenly get a glimpse into the depths. When their faces are transformed with this realization, it's a beautiful thing.
Here's a final truth: If you quit assuming that you understand the basics and instead take a long, hard look at those basics and feel for the messages contained within them, you can see for yourself what karate really is.
Of course, this topic is one you can read about here and then turn the page in search of something more interesting. If you're like most people, you won't give serious contemplation to the notion that you might not understand one of the very first movements you learned.
Maybe, though, you are different. Later on, you'll find yourself alone. With no one watching, you'll take up the posture described above and slowly, while thinking about it and trying to feel it, you'll be mindful of a dozen points you've never entertained before. Then you'll make that pivot and execute that block.
Congratulations. You've started learning karate.
Dave Lowry has written Karate Way since 1986. For more information about his articles and books, visit blackbeltmag.com and type his name into the search box.
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