Wednesday 7 November 2007

Air karate

Why practice techniques into thin air with power? Isn’t it more effective and safer to train techniques powerfully, when hitting a tangible target such as a makiwara, heavy bag, focus mitt, or impact shield? What then is the purpose of practicing blocks, punches, strikes, grappling techniques, and kicks with 'forced power' into open space (which I loosely refer to as ‘air karate’)? This question must readily be answered, especially by instructors, as so much training time is dedicated to ‘hitting the invisible man’. Instructors, who can’t decisively answer this question clearly have the ‘traditional blinkers’ on.

Here are some points to further illustrate my view:

Air karate is not optimal training for self-defence, or ‘real confrontational’ training, and practical application. A quick glance readily establishes that kihon and kata ‘attacking the micro particles floating around in the bamboo dojo’ can never improve ma-ai (distancing) and ‘fight timing’.

(2) Air karate is highly limited, and certainly, a far from optimal means, of developing ‘impact power’. One should not forget that impact power is the nucleus of ‘budo’ karate! That is, ‘the single finishing blow’, is the trademark of the traditional styles.

(3) The majority of dojo training time (kihon and kata, which I would say takes up ‘at least 60%’ in most clubs. Most probably at least 80+% from my experience) is completely dedicated to ‘air karate’.

Going by the above points, I believe that there is a VERY STRONG CASE against air karate training, and orthodox karate itself, as a fighting art in the real world. It is seemingly a perfect example of self-contradiction. Therefore, we now have to establish “What is air karate training for?” This is especially important for instructors, who need to be able to honestly justify the training schedules they have their students follow.

The Purpose of Air Karate: ‘Karate the Martial ART’
The purpose of 'air karate' is undoubtedly the ‘the perfection of form’. This form is most certainly related to combat, but is primarily a vehicle of ‘self-study’, no different to the study of classical ballet, or even the study of a musical instrument (my wife Mizu is a master pianist, and our approach to training is very similar). In defense of this truth, I can honestly say, that without this artistic core, I would have left karate years ago. No one can deny that the performance of acutely refined kihon, and kata, is undoubtedly what defines a karateka's level. Street fighting ability, and tournament kumite prowess, certainly does not. The ‘perfection' of movement IS "the purpose" of solo kata, and standard kihon training in karate.

Now here is my big question! If the ‘perfection of form’ is the aim of ‘air karate’, then why do people ‘force’ their techniques? Why don’t karateka, when practicing their techniques into thin air, execute them lightly and smoothly, seeking ‘frame by frame’ perfect technique? Because as I have established in this article “What more can hitting the air ideally achieve?” And if wanting to fire techniques out, with full speed and power, do so in a productive manner against a makiwara, bag, foam shield, mitts etc, where they can get immediate feedback, and develop fundamental effectiveness (impact power and good ma’ai). This approach to kata and kihon was what Asai Sensei was advocating, yet very few people ‘physically followed’. Instead they verbally agreed with Sensei, yet continued performing karate in the forced manner he opposed.

Really speaking, can someone achieve more, in the martial sense, when executing techniques into open-space with vigor, as opposed to a hitting something, or someone? Of course they can’t! It is merely what is demanded if one desires to win at competition level, or simply ‘show off their moves’. What’s more, executing ‘air karate’ techniques with forced power interferes with core balance, can detrimentally effect one’s ability to transfer power into a target, can put excessive stress on the main joints of the human body (whilst achieving next to nothing), can ‘shorten’/restrict techniques, and often gives a false 'feeling of power' (and accuracy), which can only be verified by hitting a tangible target. Just visualize a boxer shadow boxing. He does so with lightness, he doesn't punch strongly, he reserves his heavy punch training for the bag, or when seriously sparring/fighting in the ring.

In my article titled ‘Half-way between the JKA and the Shotokai’ (click here to read: I mentioned that the Shotokai do not utilize conscious ‘muscular power’ in their kata and kihon, nor do they focus heavily on form. Alternatively the JKA greatly emphasize precise form and kime (focus/decisiveness), naturally resulting in a more ‘rigid’ execution of karate. I believe the Shotokai, in regards to not using power when doing ‘air karate’ training, is superior to the JKA approach (based on the points made in this article). Likewise, the precise form of JKA karate, is superior to that of the Shotokai. It is my belief that Asai Sensei’s karate is literally the link, or the happy medium, between these two ‘Shotokan ways’. I hope this article, via some constructive thought by you, the reader, can open your mind to Asai Sensei’s karate.

Next time you make a powerful technique when hitting thin air (kihon or kata), ask yourself these four questions: (1) “What am I achieving?”; (2) “Is this improving my fighting ability?”; (3) “Is this interfering with my ability to execute/enhance my utmost precise technical form?”; and (4) “Is this an optimal, and comparatively safe way, compared to other methods, to build karate specific strength, and fitness?”

© André Bertel, Japan 2007

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