Understanding Sabaki

To Master the Supreme Philosophy of Enshin Karate, Look to Musashi's Book of Five Rings for Guidance!

In the martial arts, we voluntarily subject ourselves to conflict in a training environment so we can transcend conflict in the real world. After all, we wouldn't knowingly train in a style that makes us weaker or worsens our position. The irony of all this is that we don't want to fight our opponent. We prefer to work with what an opponent gives us to turn the tide in our favor, to resolve the situation effectively and efficiently.The Japanese have a word for this: sabaki. It means to work with energy efficiently. When we train with the sabaki mindset, we receive our opponent's attack, almost as a gift. Doing so requires less physical effort and frees up our mental operating system so it can determine the most efficient solution to the conflict.In this essay, I will present a brief history of sabaki, as well as break down the sabaki method using Miyamoto Musashi's five elements


​Brief History

Musashi was a samurai who lived during the 17th century. In feudal Japan, he was regarded as a kensei, or sword saint. Toward the end of his life, he wrote The Book of Five Rings, a classic on strategy and philosophy. It delineates the elements of air, water, fire, earth and the void. The timeless beauty of this text lies in the way it can help us understand those elements in a way that improves our skill in combat, as well as our ability to comprehend human nature.

For most of us nowadays, the martial arts are not needed for survival on a daily basis. We have laws and firearms to protect us. This fact makes the mindset and spirit of the martial arts even more important because they are what help us combat stress, handle people with opposing views and endure conditions that otherwise might threaten our well-being.

In the 1970s, my father Joko Ninomiya had a huge impact on the world of full contact — specifically, on kyokushin, the style of karate developed by Mas Oyama. In Japan, my father is known as the prince of karate and a modern-day Miyamoto Musashi. Why? Because when he fought, he used angles, leverage, positioning, timing and sensitivity to overcome bigger opponents. He didn't rely on brute strength; he relied on sabaki.

In 1988 he created his own style of full contact called enshin karate. The name means "heart of the circle." Enshin signifies not only the spiraling nature of sabaki techniques but also the authentic connection between ourselves and others, as well as the community at large.

Mike Ninomiya (left) faces his opponent (1)

​Book of Air: Discernment

When we work with energy, a fundamental idea is that we can consciously give direction only to something we're aware of. To effect change, it's essential to be aware of that thing. Take, for example, a tire that's slowly leaking. It requires us to discern that something is wrong and then devise a strategy to change or repair the tire before it bursts on the highway.

In the martial arts, we don't just get hit out of nowhere; something happens, and we pick up on it. My father likes to say, "Your hands are like antennae." Our mental space must be bigger than our opponent's, and our hands should project that power with sensitivity. In sabaki, we want to be in an ideal position in which we know everything about our opponent and his movement potential is limited.

Air is also responsible for our ability to develop and use strategy in combat. If we cannot follow directions pertaining to strategy, usually we are very earthy. This is because the element that's in opposition to air is earth. If we are earthy, we're grounded. That can make us more susceptible to sustaining continuous damage. On the flip side, if we have too much of the air element, we're more susceptible to getting swept.

Another important role of air is its influence on our mental space. Ideally, we won't get hit, but if we do and our mental space collapses, we become more vulnerable.

How to enhance the air element: Eat foods that are less dense. Take a course in public speaking to learn how the mind is used to project what you feel. Simulate defending against multiple attackers. Keep a structured journal.

Enshin karate instructor Mike Ninomiya (left) and his opponent square off (1).

Book of Water: Attachment

Water relates to feeling, fluidity, timing and rhythm. As my father always says, "Put your mind into what you're doing." When we put our mind into our opponent, we can feel his rhythms and interrupt them. In sabaki, we use the concept of kyushu to connect with the force of our opponent. Kyushu means "to absorb and cushion an incoming attack." It's the tool that bridges awareness and lets us feel what's actually happening, which is superior to being forced to simply react. Kyushu and the water element in general represent a movement that's in opposition to the fire element. It expands out and away from us.

Kyushu, on a more social level, refers to putting ourselves in another person's shoes. Many courses on conflict resolution involve being the person we have a problem with, all in an effort to make us realize the trigger is a barrier we set up to isolate and protect ourselves. The name of my father's karate is enshin, which refers to the heart of the circle. It's not only the physical heart that circulates blood in our bodies but also the energy that allows us to feel and have empathy. This empathy is an attachment and harmonization to another person's feeling or intention.

Musashi wrote a poem titled Senki (War Spirit) that explains the water element: "The moon, in a cold stream like a mirror." The mind is calm and unaffected like the cold stream that keeps moving while reflecting the emotions (the moon) of the opponent. So even though we're separate from our opponent, we're calm and can feel everything he's thinking.

When we use kyushu to respond to an attack, we absorb it through a solid structure that has elasticity embedded within it like a trampoline. This trampoline-like strength relies on opening and closing the joints and the fascia, the web of connective tissue that has a strength and sensitivity greater than muscle. While a muscle requires oxygen, the fascia is avascular, which means it doesn't have blood vessels because it doesn't need oxygen. This frees up the oxygen in our bodies so it can be used by the brain and vital organs. When our operating system has freed up some of its resources, we can feel what's happening more accurately.

To do kyushu with proficiency requires a mind shift from that of fight or flight, which is encoded in our DNA, to that of releasing muscular tension and using the body's natural intelligence of the fascia and bone alignment. Something interesting to note in the kihon (basics) of enshin karate: The blocks are technically not blocks according to that word's conventions, which conjure an immovable and hard structure. The blocks of traditional karate are rigid and linear, with a start and a stop. The blocks of enshin use spirals, which are the language of how energy is transferred along fascia. A spiral has no start or stop, which results in a continuous stream of connected power.

Once kyushu has been established with an incoming attack, we can move toward a position that's more advantageous. In this position, our movement potential is amplified, and our opponent's movement potential is limited. As soon as position has been established, another critical concept enters the picture: kuzushi. Often referenced in the grappling arts of judo and jujitsu, kuzushi means "to borrow the opponent's balance." When we have to stabilize our balance, it's very hard to simultaneously defend against a strike. Using kuzushi, however, we can choose how to respond — with a strike or a takedown. The sabaki method uses both options.

How to enhance the water element: Take up yin yoga, a gentle form of yoga that uses relaxation to create space. Practice giving and receiving. Play and interact with music, song and dance. Hit a heavy bag while moving in and out in sync with the bag's swinging. Volunteer to do something that resonates with your higher purpose, such as teaching a skill or donating money without expecting anything in return.

Book of Fire: Will

The fire element is expansive in nature and deals with any percussive strike. On a personal level, it calls on the will to materialize an action. Someone who has a strong fire element has a strong will. When things get tough, we can harness this element to dig deeper — this is called fighting spirit. The person with the fiery personality is often the life of the party. Fire is spiritual, rules philosophy and connects to intuition.

Fire is the only element that doesn't exist in nature without the application of an external force. It requires a balance of other elements to ignite it. When fire is in excess, we can be irritable, moving and attacking with a lack of focus and purpose. When it's in harmony, we can maternalize our reason for fighting (water), discern when to do it (wind) and be grounded enough to not get carried away throwing wild punches (earth).

A pivotal point in Musashi's career occurred when he learned that the reckless actions and duels in which he'd participated had no direction or purpose in life. Legend says that a Zen priest named Takuan Soho taught him to cherish his life first so he would know what's worth fighting for. When we care enough about something, he learned, we will fight for it.

In Musashi's fire book, he spoke about how different movements and strikes embody different kiai. Essentially, he said the kiai should match the action. He also highlighted the gaze, which should be focused and composed.

In sabaki, once we discern an attack or detect an opening, we use the water element to connect to the opponent. Then we can choose to strike depending on the circumstances. In kihon, we use correct form to learn how the bones and connective tissue transmit striking power. The traditional stance known as sanchin dachi, a pigeon-toed position that relies on the stability of the triangle to connect the hands to the feet, is hard-wired energetically. When the stance is freed up in free fighting, we learn how to connect all the moving parts.

How to enhance the fire element: Learn to strike and kiai properly. Develop single-pointed focus in standing meditation with your eyes open to prolong the time you can act before reaching the threshold at which you want to quit. Engage in resistance training with light weights and explosiveness. Do high-intensity interval training that focuses on body mechanics and breathing.

FIRE ELEMENT: The opponent unleashes a body punch (1).

​Book of Earth: Persistence

In a nutshell, the earth element teaches that how we do one thing is how we do everything. On a deeper level, this means connecting to the rituals that underlie our daily habits. It's really the earthly persistence of how the other three elements interact to embody a skill while maintaining integrity on all levels.

Many skilled martial artists can tell just by sight if they come across someone who trains in the arts — and often they will know which art the person practices. This level of embodiment in a person and the ability to detect it cannot be forged overnight. It takes years of doing the one thing until it becomes part of you.

In a practical sense, the earth element keeps us grounded and gives us the ability to use the techniques we've practiced without having to think. One of my father's favorite quotes, one that he often renders in Chinese calligraphy, is "A drop of water repeated over time makes a hole in stone." This is the secret to success that we must remember: Just keep training.While the rootedness of earth can make it challenging to throw or sweep someone who has too much of the earth element, it's often easier to strike such a person and then use kuzushi to borrow his or her balance before throwing or sweeping.

While this element may seem like the most mundane, it also is a reflection of the divine. This means that the rituals and care we see in the dojo remind us not to take our practice for granted. If we follow an empty ritual or do something only because it seems fun, in the future, we may become bored and never grow deep roots. The source of the bow in Japanese culture represents grounded humility. Reference the rice plant: As it matures, its head drops toward the ground so others can eat it and grow strong. The reverence that arises from an authentic bow instills a sense that there's always more to learn. As the Japanese say, "With true strength comes humility."

How to enhance the earth element: Learn to stand on a stability ball. This is one of the most direct ways to develop a real root, as opposed to a physical root. (A real root is an energetic connection that runs deep into the ground and takes advantage of intention. A physical root involves widening one's stance and dropping one's center of mass.) Develop a daily schedule and create a routine to document your progress. Eat foods that are denser in nature.

EARTH ELEMENT: Pinned against the wall with his right arm immobilized (1),

Book of the Void: Emptiness


This is the most mysterious element in that it represents the mind itself. In the martial arts, mushin refers to the state of "no mind" — in other words, a mind that's empty. The mind has two parts: the active mind, which has one pointed focus, and the passive mind, which is voluminous and wide.

How to enhance the void element: In the spirit of Musashi, train your mind to be like a sword: extremely sharp yet so polished that you can lose yourself in its reflective nature. Meditate in your quest to attain mushin, striving to have your active mind focus on emptiness and your passive mind gently observe. Such a goal can be difficult to attain on your own. It's best achieved through participation in retreats that teach meditation.

Mike Ninomiya is a four-time Sabaki Challenge world champion. He has an eighth-degree black belt in enshin karate, a black belt in judo and a brown belt in jujitsu. In addition to martial arts, he teaches meditation, energy work and yin yoga. For information about his retreats that use The Book of Five Rings, visit mikeninomiya.com. For information about enshin karate, visit enshinacademy.com.

ROOT: Mike Ninomiya uses a stability ball to practice the enshin karate concept of a real root to the earth.

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