I rarely give advice when it comes to technical issues relating to Karate. There are a number of reasons for this, for one a Karate Ka must want to learn with an open mind. And, if truth be known I am continually working on my own Karate, together with being a Sensei to my own students. So of course, I try to refrain from being too concerned with what others are doing.
That aside… I have had more than a few messages of late from both novice and experienced Karate Ka asking for my advice and thoughts on a few differing areas. This being the case, I will offer just a few brief pointers of guidance here that I have received along the way myself over the years from my various Sensei and Seniors. All is in the hope that these may help any serious Karate Ka out regardless of grade. Over the decades having personally achieved a Dan grade or two in both Shotokan Karate and Japanese Goju, all before settling in the ways of practicing Okinawan Goju Ryu and elements of Ti. These words of advice are not then style or school specific, on the contrary in fact. Always remember that “Good Karate is Good Karate” so serious Karate Ka shouldn’t really ever fall into the trap of hiding behind a poor base or lack of understanding. “Ignorance is No Defence when it comes to Law”. Think of Your Karate as being like this and you will be fine….
1, Learn to Relax. Being over tense or rigid is probably the biggest critique of Western Karate Ka (Especially Dan Grades) by Sensei in both Japan and Okinawa. Relaxation isn’t being soft; it allows you to move more freely and naturally, the same in producing power generation. Tamaki Sensei will often say to me “Use your muscles without over tensing them”. Think along the lines of being firm and flowing not hard and soft. Tensing up when taking impact is a natural reflex reaction that should of course be honed. However, over tensing or straining and being rigid when practicing Karate generally isn’t really beneficial at all, especially so when practicing Kata like Sanchin. This can be “Abunai” or Extremely Dangerous as Senaha Sensei says.
2, Think Receive not Block. Uke basically means to receive more than it does block. Yes, at times and within some styles there is an emphasis on heavy firm blocking. However, as you progress also think more about covering the vulnerable areas of your body than trying to block. If an arm is covering your head or an elbow is protecting your ribs. They will naturally then act as a protective shield, thus blocking any incoming strike. Block and counter Karate can lead to a one dimensional way of thinking, just use this as a base to build from. If a speeding car is coming towards you would you really try and stop it? You move, you evade, you cover.
3, Move on Your Heels and Balls. Don’t be fixated by the thinking of just moving on the balls of your feet, because if you do you will be restricting your ability to move. Many of the advanced Tenshin drills in Okinawan Karate require movement by way of the heels, as in reality at times it is the only way that you can move efficiently in transition. As humans when we walk forwards, we naturally go heel to ball, when we go backwards, we go ball to heel. This isn’t always the case though with Karate of course, but learning to, and understanding how to move on both the heels and the balls of the feet together with the sides of the feet you most certainly do.
4, Take the Glasses off. Tucking the Hiki Te (Return/Pulling Hand) firmly into your sides is basic Karate. When you leave them out loosely or sloppy, all then becomes less effective. The Okinawans call this having your eyeglasses on, or Megane. The reason being is that from the front you look like a pair of glasses with holes or gaps under your arms. There are many reasons for this, but a good analogy is if you can imagine competing in a tug of war with your arms pulling out from the body. You just wouldn’t be effective… However, don’t tuck the returning fist to far behind the body as that’s just counter productive, this always needs to be ready in preparation to either cover or strike.
5, Practice Karate Regularly. Doing a little often is the basis of being a Karate Ka who practices regularly and consistently without making excuses. For example, practicing for just fifteen minutes one day, two hours the next, thirty minutes the day after, and then taking a rest day thereafter is all fine, so remember that. The same with turning up at the Dojo for practice say two or three times per week. One needs to understand that the biggest standout when it comes to the Seniors and Sensei of Okinawa, is that they are in the Dojo training and practicing regularly. Mostly for their own wellbeing above everything else, Senaha Sensei practices in the Dojo alone each morning and he’s in his eighties. Yes!! Leading from the front and by example. Grades achieved and years of training is all irrelevant if you are not still practicing regularly now, today. Teaching Karate isn’t training just as talking about Karate isn’t practicing. To be a true Karate Ka one has to be personally training in and practicing Karate in the now… Also, in Senaha Sensei’s Dojo you will start every training session by practising all of the Kata of the Dojo, and for very good reason. As doing a particular Kata or Kumite drill only once every few weeks or months is pretty much pointless.
“Karate should be practiced regularly, but these days many forget this” Brian Hinchliffe Sensei
6, Seek out Quality Guidance. Personally, I feel that seeking out Sensei of deep understanding is one of the most important factors to achieving a deeper understanding of the Art. I have had some truly excellent Sensei and Sempai over the years, but they haven’t just appeared on the next street corner. Put the time and effort in, do your homework, and choose who guides you wisely. Oh and always keep the beginners mind, yes always. You can have the best teacher in the world, but that doesn’t make you a good student.
7, Fingers Hands and Fists. I can’t over emphasize the importance of being able to control your hands correctly in Karate. Fingers can’t just be floating out or around or they will get snapped quite easily. Thumbs should be tucked in, or again they easily become dislocated and broken. Can you imagine a boxer throwing a punch with a relaxed half clenched fist or a kinked wrist!? No, but many Karate Ka think that it’s ok to do this. One must hold their required hand positions whilst understanding how to strike firmly and effectively. And there’s no better way than hitting things. Also, flowing and moving through the various open and closed hand positions is of major importance. Lastly, always make sure the hand is where it is supposed to be and not just floating around anywhere, you need to be in control at all times. So, is the hand on the hip, higher up around the breastbone, on the solar plexus, or half out in preparation. So concentrate and remain focused.…
8, Physical & Mental Wellbeing. My own personal Karate is based off these two areas: Effective self-protection and physical/mental wellbeing, all with the emphasis on living a good quality life. Others may say competition or sporting elements too which is fine. Now, your aim as a Karate Ka isn’t towards running a marathon fitness wise, but a bi product of being a regular practicing Karate Ka is that you will be in half reasonable shape physically, so if not, one really has to wonder why this is. Lack of regular physical training maybe!? What is and isn’t going to work effectiveness wise as far as self-protection goes, one will need to work this out for themselves, but not with blinkers on. Longevity and health really are the keys here so always be wary of poor exercises and practices that are detrimental to yourself in the long term, especially on your knees, hips, shoulders and back. It’s no good training to defeat others if through practice you end up destroying yourself.
“Karate is not for rank, glory or for revenge. It is a way of life: A way to protect yourself, a way to build health, and a way to bring people together” Minoru Higa Sensei.
9, Areas to Protect and Strike. The body will take a lot of punishment under duress and in confrontation, more than most people actually realise, including strikes to the groin too. In some ways we all have an outer protective shell just like a tortoise. However, there are few places on the body that you really don’t want to be hit or struck in as they are extremely vulnerable. So be firmly focused on protecting the following vulnerable areas. 1, Head (Neck/Throat, Jaw, Temples, Eyes, Eye Sockets, Crown.) 2, Xyphoid Process (Solar Plexus.) 3, Ribcage. 4, Knees, And yes, the Groin too…. Leaving any of these openly exposed is at your peril, and for an opponent to leave them exposed is of course to your advantage.
10, Tenshin & Tai Sabaki. Many modern-day Karate Ka only really think along the lines of moving out of the way, as in evasive Tai Sabaki. Footwork and body movement practices and drills are though essential, often referred to as body displacement or Tenshin in Okinawa. Being able to move with, into, out, under or even around an opponent is crucial. Can you imagine a boxer not working on footwork?! So as a Karate Ka it is priority, whilst understanding that footwork and body moving is to be done in unison. Therefore the hips are of major importance here when it comes to both movement and generating speed or power, as they need to glide and be flowing around naturally.
11, Strike Swiftly Effectively and Efficiently. The most effective weapon or tool that we have is our brain, so as a Karate Ka we need to be using our intelligence as this really is paramount. Yes, the charge of aggression and spirit and rough and ready will get you far in battle, and it will certainly win some. Budo though is based off being wise, and in being prepared, not only towards ourselves but by out skilling any possible adversary too. Focusing on good technique should initially then take priority. Wyatt Earp said it perfectly with these words “Fast is fine, but accuracy is final. You have to learn to be slow in a hurry”. In any profession when learning new skills, you work on your technique and obtaining good form or practices first, Karate is just the same. Poor form is a bad starter and poor habits are difficult to lose. Punches that are swirling around in say Sanchin Kata or the habit of throwing out techniques without any deep thought or good body alignment, isn’t economical. I learned many years ago whilst practicing Judo as a youngster, that when it came to Randori all of the talk goes out of the window. The only way to get success under duress or with an uncomplying partner, was to keep working on individual techniques to the point of breaking them down into minute details. The focus was on being clean, accurate and decisive with speed and power generation to match. Only then and after much trial and era could techniques be executed swiftly and effectively. I always work on the notion of practicing slow, medium and then full speed, then repeat. As understanding timing is crucial. Oh and always look before you move too…
12, Training Partners and Equipment. Work with a variety of training equipment and partners as they are all individualistic. Working with the Makiwara compared to say the Chi Ishi is like chalk and cheese. However, both are invaluable pieces of equipment that offer ways to improve differing areas of your Karate. This is why we have different types of Kumite drills, different Kata’s and different types of training equipment, as they are all working on different elements. Also, always get used to facing different training partners regularly in the Dojo for this very same reason. Change as we all know is inevitable, so being able to adapt to partners that are stronger, bigger, smaller, more aggressive or down right boney or awkward is a must.
13, Bunkai and Imi. Many Karate Ka get caught in the trap of basing their Karate off Kata applications. Important maybe, but the way of thinking that if an opponent does that, then I will do this, is a poor one. You only need to look at the basis of Kata to see this clearly. For example, if you have fifteen Kata in your school or style and learn just ten applications for each, then that’s 150 kata applications for you to store to memory!? The thinking is so wrong. Firstly refer to all that is mentioned above and work on achieving an effective Karate base that is simple, decisive and highly effective through fundamental Karate training drills and it’s Kata. Only then does application practice, as in Bunkai and Imi become more highly efficient. Don’t run before you can walk, as learning lots of Kata applications from a poor Karate base is of little use at all.
14, Just be Nice. Funakoshi Sensei spoke of Karate Ka having a perfectionist character for good reason. Nobody truly likes a person with a bad attitude or a bully who tries to intimidate others. The same with someone who is rude, disrespectful, arrogant, or violent by nature. Always remember this, as it’s not a nice character to have so it has no place in true Karate. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t train hard and have spirit in the Dojo, on the contrary. But, being chilled and nice really is simple and makes one feel happier for it, so surround yourself with polite positive people and help others when they need it too. Karate starts and ends with courtesy so always remember that to hurt people is easy, to help then is much harder. Plus, Karate is about destroying ego not building it up.
Please note that this really is only a basic fundamental guide as there are so many other areas that need to be considered and fully understood by the Karate Ka, especially Chin Kuchi. And I’ve only scratched the surface here with brief detailing. The list to studying true Karate really is endless. Regardless, this is a good place to start so I hope that the above helps or at least reminds. Glyn.