Friday 1 December 2023

太極 (Taikyoku)

The three 太極 (Taikyoku) kata—Shodan, Nidan and Sandan—were an integral part of Funakoshi Gichin Sensei’s karatedo. The name means ‘Grand Ultimate’ and is read in Chinese as ‘Tai Chi’.


Master Funakoshi stated: “due to their simplicity Taikyoku can easily be learned by beginners; however, as the name implies, these kata are of the most profound character and, upon mastery of karate, the expert will return to them as the ultimate training form” (‘Karatedo Kyohan').


Ironically, within the larger mainstream Shotokan organizations, while Taikyoku Shodan is sometimes practiced, however, more than not, it isn't. Furthermore, the second and third Taikyoku are rarely trained. In most groups 平安初段 (Heian Shodan) is the first kata one learns. The logic behind this is that it encompasses Taikyoku, which is logical but by no means totally right. But I'll get to that later via some points. 


Some groups claim there are higher versions of Taikyoku; nevertheless, these were not from Master Funakoshi or his son. There is also a kicking drill based on Taikyoku, which is taught by a significant number of JKA (日本空手協会 / Japan Karate Association) instructors. We do not do this as we have 乱雪 (Ransetsu, also known as ‘Rantai’), 脚戦 (Kyakusen), and other ‘leg focused kata’.


Following Asai Tetsuhiko Sensei’s teachings I usually focus on Heian Shodan as the initial kata, but we also have 序の型 (Jo no kata) which a simple preparatory form. This is a ‘training form’ for the fundamentals as opposed to being an 'official kata'. Again, for us, Heian Shodan is still the start. Others are compliments to bolster kihon.


Insofar as Taikyoku Shodan is concerned I often find it to be excellent for moderation of my form, zenkutsu-dachi, shomen and hanmi, gedan-barai and chudan oi-zuki (jun-zuki). Also. All the various turns that occur with gedan-barai. Note, the defenses always coincide with a body shift and the attacks apply the entire mass via fumidashi. Often concentration on the relationship between kakato and tsumasaki when moving, shisei, zanshin, and other points can be really isolated/concentrated on with Taikyoku training. Of course, you can do this with other kata, but the simplicity allows one to home in on specific details and find, and refine, depth of skill. Zenkutsu-dachi is particularly important as the fundamental and its transformation to Fudo-dachi for the advanced. In sum, the forward projection of energy/power.


On personal and nostalgic note, Taikyoku Shodan was the first kata I ever learned when I was a young boy. I remember finding the turns difficult (to learn) until I learned ‘the trick’; that is, “…you always turn towards the center of the I”. From that point I learned the importance of the enbusen. Looking back, I guess that's kind of cute!


For me, when I was a little boy, it was great to especially not have to deal with kokutsu-dachi and shuto chudan-uke when learning my first kata. And, in particular, to really focus on zenkutsu-dachi shomen and hanmi in relation to tenshin and fumidashi. That really helped my kumite abilty.


Referring about what I said about ‘Tai Chi’… Tai Chi is called 太極拳 (Taikyoku-Ken) in Japanese. Some say this is the origin of the flow in the movements of the  松濤会 (Shotokai). Interestingly, the Shotokai remain the intensive practitioners of these three forms. One thing is for sure... Indeed, Shotokan and Shotokai are very different forms of karate.

Some of you may remember my 2007 post: 'Half-way between the JKA and the Shoto-kai', regarding Asai Tetsuhiko Sensei's Karate: André Bertel's Karate-Do: Half-way between the JKA and the Shoto-kai ( That's the link if you'd like to read more.

Consider also questioning “What did Funakoshi Sensei mean?”—in the quote above—when he said: Taikyoku is “...the ultimate training form”? Why did he say that? My assumption is that he meant what he said in other publications, which can be summarized: “the most simple actions are the most important”. Nonetheless, this is only an assumption. Perhaps the movement of Tai Chi, hence the name of the kata, is the underlying reason. I have researched this a lot over the years as I believe it has some substance. However, that is not to say one must deviate away from classical Shotokan but, rather, utilize internal energy/biomechanics/natural energy to bypass one’s maximum muscular capacity. Perhaps, the simplicity of Taikyoku allows advanced practitioners to focus on this point in near total isolation? I certainly do not claim to have concrete answers in these regards, but constantly practice in the dojo to physically investigate such aspects. Consequently, internal self-understanding and external speed, power and precision can be improved; moreover, receptiveness/ mindfulness.

In this sense, perhaps Taikyoku is best for Shihan-level karateka, again, reflecting Master Funakoshi's sentiments? Regardless, this is an interesting thought. For me, on my karate journey, "any thoughts that motivate training and physical investigation/evaluation" are valuable. 

Irrespective of whether one practices it or not, Taikyoku (especially Shodan, sometimes referred to as 基本型 / Kihon-gata) holds an important place in Funakoshi Sensei’s legacy and his style: which came to be known as Shotokan-Ryu.

 © André Bertel. Oita City, Japan (2023). 

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