Wednesday 29 September 2021

Variations of kihon for advanced karateka: A brief example of hips and shoulders

Today I’d like to use two major joints/regions of the body to elucidate the essential ‘advanced variations’ in karate as bujutsu. Today, a brief case study of the hips and shoulders. Of course, the hips and shoulders are the base joints for all four respective limbs, so their utilization—technically and level of control and flexibility—is of paramount importance.

Classical training underpins freestyle but cannot effectively work without it.

In saying that, I’d like to shift away from the technical execution and turn to their use in actual fighting, at least at an entry point.


Obviously, pure kihon (the 'standard foundational techniques') is the baseline for everything else. Nevertheless, while this is always a major aspect of practice, to reach a high level in karate 'as bujutsu' (that is, karate as an optimal unarmed combat system), one cannot train only at this baseline. Irrespective of “ good one becomes at the ‘standard kihon’ (also kata, and 'karate centric kumite'), this alone will not fully translate into effective techniques in the real world”.


Rather, from the reference point of the base kihon, “ must spontaneously deviate accordingly, in response to any given circumstance of violence, and do so in relation to one’s own unique attributes”.


Now, returning specifically to today's topic: the hips and shoulders...


Firstly, let me begin with koshi (the hips). It’s important for people who don’t speak Japanese to understand that Japanese mean your back and butt when they mean ‘the hips’; also, ‘the waist. Often I find westerners get fixated on the kokansetsu (the hip joints). Instead of doing this, to properly ‘use your hips’ you must focus on using the entire aforementioned region which, of course ‘includes the kokansetsu’.


Of course you can rotate the hips into various degrees of hanmi and gyaku-hanmi, from these positions to and from shomen, simultaneously thrust the hips forward or do so independently, drop the hips, raise the hips, and tilt them.


These are all ‘standard’... Moreover, they all vertical and, occasionally, straight line horizontal postures.


In actual fighting, outside of karate matches, this upright posture is often dangerous. That is why, breaking the posture of the hips in defense and for more spring in offensive techniques is an important skill. The most obvious example of this is Asai Sensei’s posture, which he was and still is, often criticized for. That is, he allowed his koshi to relax rearward to slightly fold his body. In actual fact, this position allows much more cover, is far more mobile, and as said before—allows greater thrust/spring for attacks (like the pulling back of a bow string). Yes, it’s not the beautiful standard straight postured position, but this position is like a person holding a bow but yet to pull back the string to fire it. But again, in saying that, without the standard position, one cannot maximize this more practical position.


Secondly, allow me to explain kata (the shoulders) from this advanced perspective. I’ll just give one example today.


Of course, in the majority of tsukiwaza the shoulder is kept down and relaxed. This is utterly essential for speed and connection to the torso, most obviously to connect and harmoniously interact with the latissimus-dorsi muscles.


However, in real fighting it is often very important to raise the shoulders and/or lower the head in relation to the shoulders as we make our tsuki. In this way we gain maximum coverage from the opponents blows in that moment.


Again, the reference point of standard kihon is essential, but one must also practice ‘practical variation from this point’. I was taught that yama-zuki—with both closed fists (Bassai Dai and Wankan) and with open hands (Roshu, Hachimon, Kakuyoku Sandan, Senka etcetera) is, amongst things, representative of this application.


To conclude, I believe (actually, I know) that when we practice karate techniques in more natural and practical way the standard kihon, kata and yakusoku kumite gain even greater value/importance in one’s training regime. However, if people merely stick to these aspects, one’s karate becomes limited to the context of karate; that is, Dojo Kumite and Karate competitions. While this is fine, it is not the full art of karate nor fulfills its original purpose: of being Bujutsu.


The wonderful thing here is that, with strong standard karate and conscientious effort, the springboard for developing bujutsu karate is already there. It’s just a matter of further refining these standard skills and, most importantly, expanding on this by training the variations from these respective baselines. This point has been a high priority of my karate thanks to the guidance of wonderful seniors: both here in Japan and abroad.

Ura-mawashi-geri. Kamakura, 2002.

© André Bertel. Oita City, Japan (2021).

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