Kata is the foundation of Karate. But why is that? What does it mean? Where does it come from? And do other martial arts also practice it? In this article, TD McKinnon with friendly support of Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Herbert is going to answer all your questions you ever asked yourself about Kata.
Kata: its place in the teaching and cultural heritage of Karate
I can just hear the sighs, moans and groans: ‘Not another Kata article!’ and, ‘How many things can you say about Kata?’ or, ‘You are either a fan of Kata or you are not!’
Let me just clarify that; if Karate-Do is your ‘Way’… Kata, in its varying forms and patterns, is the defining ‘Path’; with the many capricious names serving as the guiding road signs along its length.
The etymology of the word Kata in the way that we use it
Kata of course is a Japanese word (型 or 形) meaning, quite literally, ‘form’: and in Karate it refers to a detailed pattern of movements designed to be practised alone. There are actually 16 different kanji that are pronounced ‘Kata’ but only the two below which can be used for ‘a form within a martial art.’ In the sporting world the 形 kanji is mostly used, but both are technically correct.
Personally, I agree with Jesse Enkamp, the 形 kanji, broken down, means vessel and water and the 型 kanji means punishment and ground… I prefer the 型 kanji. However, on the technical intricacies of the subject of its kanji, I am happy to defer to our, ‘The Dojo’, resident expert on Japanese culture… Professor Dr Wolfgang Herbert.
An in-depth look at the Kata kanji by Prof. Dr Wolfgang Herbert
The characters used for writing ‘Kata’ is quite a long and ongoing discussion. We should recur to the meaning the Kanji have in their usage, which reveals slight differences. Just a cursory look into some of my books/dictionaries shows:
型 means the basic form/norm or pattern, habit, convention, traditional set form, mould, matrix.
形 means the outer shape, form, appearance or manifestation during performance, allowing for individual adaptations, even deviations.
Nagamine Shôshin prefers 形 and claims the 型 has “no life”, because it implies formality, no character (!) of individual expression.
Hokama Tetsuhiro prefers 型 because it has the meaning of “archetype” and is more “spiritual” than 形 which only designates the material form.
Nakazato Tsunenobu claims that the writing 形 comes from Kendo and Judo and that in Okinawa 型 was the general way to write it. He further comments that single techniques or a short combination of them can have a prescribed form, i.e. 形, whereas a Kata in the sense of Karate-Kata like Seisan or Kushankû as a long sequence of defensive and offensive movements should be written with 型. (discussion in Hokama Tetsuhiro: Okinawa Karatedô, Kobudô no shinzui. Haebaru/Kanagusuku: Naha shuppansha 1999, pp. 107-111)
Funakoshi Gichin and Motobu Chôki indeed use the Kanji 型 in their writings. JKA uses 形, SKIF (Kanazawa) prefers 型.
One author, Nakayama Takatsugu) explains that Kata evolves in the sense that as long as you train the basic forms and learn the moves and handed down techniques you perform 型. Once you incorporate it in the sense of adapting them to your individual body type and also in practical application according to your body or interpretation you perform 形. There is a saying in Japanese: kata o yaburu 型を破る= “to break the mould”.
This corresponds to the shu-ha-ri 守・破・離 principle. As long as you learn the basics you are in the stage of “shu”, preserving the tradition (you do 型). Once you “break” with tradition ( 破) in the sense of finding your individual way to express it or even transcend (離) it you practice 形. Thus, Nakayama remarks, Kata evolves from 型 into 形 during a lifetime practice of them. (discussion: Nakayama Takatsugu: Dakara, Karate wa tsuyoi! Himeta pawâ o dasu, dentô no shintai gihô. BAB Japan 2013, pp. 214-6.)
WKF has decided to write Kata with 形 and this has become the more common way to write it as far as I can see in Japanese martial arts magazines. The irony is that Kata in WKF style lack individuality and look all quite the same and robotic, because the athletes perform them in a way they think will please the judges rather than as a way of personal expression.
Personally I think either way to write it is legitimate, but if a preference is shown, it should be plausibly explained.”
Thank you, Professor Dr Wolfgang Herbert, for your insights.
Maintaining the Neural Pathways
In most Japanese martial arts, Kata is seen as an essential teaching and training method by which successful combat techniques can be preserved and passed on. Practicing it allows the Karateka to train, in a repetitive manner, the ability to execute tried, proven techniques and movements in a natural, reflexive manner. This does not mean that a given Kata is meant to rigidly represent a complete combat situation.
When you practice it you reinforce the neural pathways (something I used to refer to as cellular memory). I am not going to delve into neuroscience here. Basically, you practice something enough (as in a technique that you fully understand) in response to a certain trigger (as in a particular attack) and eventually the required response happens, seemingly, automatically. For this to happen you need to not only practice your Kata, repetitively, you need also to be aware of the Bunkai within the it. If, as I claim, Kata is the essence of Karate, then Bunkai can be said to be the essence of it.
Bunkai (分解): ‘Analysis’ or ‘Disassembly’
Bunkai… Even the seemingly obvious techniques can be deceptively, elusive. In fact, there can be many stages in the depth of understanding of Bunkai applications. Through the passage of time and in-depth study, the Bunkai can evolve to be simplicity itself, or to be as complex as the Karateka who is interpreting them.
Many years ago, I performed Kata for competition; and I performed it the way I was taught. As I grew and developed as a Karateka I performed it differently, to more suit the way I interpreted the Bunkai, with more realism. Today’s competition performances take Kata in an entirely different direction. In fact, it seems that I am watching a completely different concept. There are a couple of different reasons for this trend.
The ever widening gap between sport performance and real Bunkai
One of the reasons, I believe, is definitely the concept of sport that more and more Karateka believe Karate is all about. Instead of training for self-defence (defence against attacker/attackers), Karateka train to fight each other, with rules. The distancing for sport Karate – or any conflict where two parties voluntarily agree to take part in some form of combat – is probably double the distancing of that in an attack from an antagonist in an adverse situation. The flow through of that kind of training is that Kata becomes viewed and performed with the same kind of distancing in mind as viewed from the sport… Consequently, the original techniques and body movements are completely misinterpreted.
The other main reason for the ever widening gap between reality (transferring into realistic Bunkai) and competition might be the multi-style competition arena. It appears – particularly in the multi-style arena – that particular Kata seem to dominate: the clipped, staccato type of performances with over emphasized, melodramatic pauses, almost like a martial tango. And I find the Bunkai demonstrated in team competition almost comical in its dramatic, acrobatic presentation. A performance that is more about flash and entertainment than it is to do with reality.
Kata: what is it good for?
I understand the reasons it has gone this way; and I can tell by the “Oohs” and “Aahs” of the spectators that that is what’s expected: entertainment. However, to me, and I believe to rest of the Budo Karate community, it all seems a little staged. When I began performing Kata I aspired to emulate Danny Bryceland Sensei, Kawazoe Sensei, Enoeda Sensei and Kanazawa Sensei who all appeared to me to be in the midst of battle and not, as it now appears, a theatrical Karate dance.
During Kata performance, my goal is to internalise the feeling tones, the holistic sensation of the movements and techniques. Along with proper understanding of the Bunkai – in that adverse situation we hope will never come – the movements and techniques can be adapted and executed, without thought or hesitation. Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.
Over the years, I can’t count the amount of times I have been asked, “What good is Kata training to real conflict situations?” I’ve found the simplest way to answer is with a question, “Think of Kata as a kind of shadow boxing exercise… What good is shadow boxing?” Invariably, they will just nod, with at least a little understanding.
Kata History: Where it came from and the different martial arts that use it
It is accepted now, by most Karate practitioners, that the very origins of most Karate can be traced back to Bodhidharma and the Shaolin Priests’ method of self-defence. A major part of the Shaolin Gung Fu, or Kung Fu, method of continuing the cultural transmission is via their Kata, or more accurately, Taolu; of which there are literally hundreds.
In fact, the number of Kata , Taolu, Lul (Korean), Ram Muay (Muay Thai), or simply combinations of fighting techniques (the label does not matter) would probably number in the thousands. If you think about it, almost any fighting art has combinations of techniques that represent attack and defence procedures. A Kata does not need to be a long, complex combination of moves. For instance: Iaido is almost entirely practiced through the learning and perfecting of 12 Kata with the number of Techniques in each Kata varying between 4 to 10 moves only.
Judo practitioners learn the principles of techniques through Kata practice, and utilise it to demonstrate their knowledge and skill during advanced gradings, and they consist of only a few techniques.
Traditional Muay Thai, or Thai Boron is the original battlefield martial art, and has many forms or Kata; also weapons. Muay Thai, the combat sport, is often referred to as the ‘Art of 8 Limbs’ and has many and varied combined punch, kick, knee, elbow, practiced strikes and blocking combinations: anywhere from 2 to 15 techniques.
Boxing has more practiced combinations than you would think; from 2 punch to 10 punch and body movement Combinations.
The Himitsu of Kata
The literal translation of Himitsu would be ‘secret’, ‘undisclosed’ or ‘hidden’. However, to avoid the inevitable clash with those who would arguably say there are no secrets in Karate, I prefer to see Himitsu as meaning that: the purpose of the Kata, or certain moves within the it, is not obvious. Every Kata has its own essence (underlying principles). Once the basic pattern of the it has been learned, the Myō (meaning ‘essence’ in this case) must be studied…
Over time, each Karateka will find their individual level of understanding in regard to the Myō and interpret the Kata accordingly. The Myō is generally not readily seen by the novice Karateka; however, a more intense study, when the Karateka is ready, will reveal the Himitsu within.
Lao Tzu: What we can learn from him about Kata
Lao Tzu, the 6th century BCE priest, philosopher, and founder of Chinese Taoism, purportedly wrote:
The Uses of Nothingness
Thirty spokes meet in the hub, but the empty space between them is the essence of the wheel…
Pots are formed from clay, but the empty space inside is the essence of the pot…
Walls with windows and doors form a house, but the empty space within is the essence of the house…
A single movement may be anything from one simple delivery, to the entry of a dozen applications. The same sequence of Kata moves may be interpreted in radically different ways, resulting in several completely different Bunkai. After learning the classical Kata pattern, Karateka should be encouraged to seek out the Myō of it
When a Kata is performed to capacity, no matter who that Karateka is or where they are performing it (a competition, an examination, a demonstration, a student for his sensei, or simply done to experience the intensity) it should be performed with Zanshin, Mushin, Fudoshin and Senshin.
Personal Kata training at 70 years of age.
Now, at 70 years of age, Kata is the majority of my Karate training. In fact it forms the basis of the preponderance of my entire martial arts training. Committed to my memory are: 29 Shotokan, 2 Goju, 2 Shito Ryu, 12 Iaido, 2 Shaolin, 1 Thai Boron (Muay Thai), 4 Bo and Jo, and 2 Nunchaku/Taolu/Ram Muay/Forms. Also, many boxing, Muay Thai, and close-quarter combat (armed and unarmed) combinations are committed to memory and practiced. I meditate, I write, I train, and I assist my wife to rescue and care for abandoned and abused cats. That is my life.
Hikite has advanced to Karate’s most controversial topic in the last decade. In this article, we give an overview about the debate and suggest some aspects about the topic that must be illuminated to bring the discussion about the topics further.
Hikite (引手) is Japanese for ‘the pulling hand’. It is a foundational aspect for most Karate techniques.
Hikite is a technique utilized in most Japanese forms of martial arts, i.e. Karate, Judo and Jujitsu. The name refers to the hand, which is pulled back, for instance, to the hip during a strike, while the other front-hand strikes, blocks or throws. Both hands travel in opposite directions during the execution of a technique. Therefore, it is not a waza in itself. It is, however, a constitutive and signature basic element of the Shotokan Karate Do style that can be found throughout the whole spectrum of techniques.
Two Schools of Hikite
Two main schools of thought regarding the hikite exist. One stresses the role of the “puling hand” for destabilizing an opponent through grabbing and pulling him. Another school supposes a vital role of the back-hand in generating power.
Hikite for Destabilizing Opponents
The “destabilizing” school claims that hikite is meant for destabilizing opponents by pulling, for instance, limbs, clothing or hair, to assist in a capture, throw or take down. Proponents of this position usually offer two arguments to legitimize their conviction:
Gichin Funakoshi, the founder of Shotokan Karate Do, wrote in his book Rentan Goshin Karate Jutsu: “The meaning of the hikite is to grab the enemy’s arm and twist and pull as much as possible in order to break the enemy’s posture”. Therefore, their argument focuses on the purpose Gichin Funakoshi assigned it to the motion in this specific publication.
Hikite poses a disadvantage during a real fight, if it is not used for the destabilizing of the opponent. This argument is, therefore, a definition ex negativo. The prerequisite for the arguments lies in the refusal of the idea of “power generation” through pulling the hand. If power generation is not possible and thus cannot be the purpose of hikite (negative) then the destabilization of opponents is the only valid application. Because a passive pulled back hand could serve a better purpose as a cover for the face, for instance.
This position is especially prominent among practical oriented karateka. They refuse classical conceptions of the power generation approach and stress instead the direct functional relevance of the motion for self-defense. Thus, they also refuse the pulling of the hand with the argument that it creates “bad habit”. Karate students should learn straight from the beginning a defense-oriented way of punching. To teach them a disadvantageous before first and then to teach them how to behave in real fight situations deem some commentators as inefficient.
Opponents of this position argue that the once assigned purpose or function of a technique can evolve. Over time more aspects become visible. To rely only on Gichin Funakoshis intention for the pulling hand blocks out other possible functions and applications.
They also criticize the misinterpretation of power generation by this group. In their opinion the pulling of the hand does not serve to generate additional power beyond the actual capacity of the karateka. Its major function lies in its power saving and speed generating aspect (see below).
Hikite for Power Generation
Another school, however, focuses on the technical aspect of hikite related to power generation. It argues that the body works around an imagined central pivot. When arms and hands work in unison together the pulling hand serves as counterbalance. From here proponents of this position have developed two physical concepts to describe how the pulling of the hand generates power:
“Slingshot-effect“: This concepts assumes that the hikite-hand becomes loaded due to muscular and fascia tension when it is pulled back. Like a slingshot the hand can be released and the pre-loaded energy creates a forward momentum of the arm. This effects, therefore, focuses on the pretension of muscles through pulling the hand. The front hand, which pulls back, supports the forward motion of the pulling-hand by transmitting rotational energy over the center axes.
“Whip-lash-effect”: In a slightly different direction argues the concept of the “whip-lash-effect”. Here hikite generates the effect of a stabilizing anchor for the forward moving hand. When both hands come to a hold the backhand serves to tension-up the upper body. So, the forward energy can be fully transmitted by the front fist. However, the punching arm stays relaxed and works like a “whip”, while the hikite hand works like the anchor of the whip. Similar concepts are known in other martial arts like Kung Fu and Wing Tsung.
This position has the highest prominence among orthodox “traditional” karateka. Proponents of this position often argue that utilizing one of the two above mentioned effects makes it possible to punch with less energy but creating the same power and even more speed. Because the pretension within the muscles can be set free fully relaxed. Thus, karateka can solely focus on quickness. The whip-lash-effect makes it possible to transmit power without spending much forward energy.
In the recent years, this concept has caused some critic. Practical karateka doubt that the pulling hand generates the supposed physical effects. Some see in a counter motion a hindering factor for the transmission of energy. A backwards motion blocks, in this understanding, the free flow of energy to the front. They also refer to examinations with other martial artist like boxers who do not apply hikite. Their punching power is allegedly equal or higher as the one of karateka. Thus, hikite can be spared and the backhand used for defense purposes.
Conclusion and Research Questions
Both concepts have proponents and opponents today. However, both position define the extreme polls of a spectrum. Especially when it come to kumite many karateka make flexible use of hikite. In kihon and kata most karateka deem the pulling of the hand as mandatory.
Further research should illuminate the physical effects of the pulling hand.
Does it generate or safe energy?
Is it an effective means for pre-loading of muscles?
Which effects does it have on speed?
Does it support kime?
Another research direction, which appears to be necessary to tackles, refers to the educational effects of kime. While some critics deem it as counterproductive to teach students hikite, others stress its relevance for the development of kime. Students only learn kime through the execution of “exaggerated” motions. Later, when they have a better control over their body and know to manage tension and relaxation the pulling of the hand becomes less important. This hypothesis has not been examined under scientific conditions but seems worth to study.
The conceptual expectation of the outcome of hikite has probably a effect on the actual execution of hikite itself. Thus, it might have several effects and purposes at the same time. The karakteka must decide how to perceive and deal with hikite.
Abernathy, Iain 2019: The TRUE role of Hiki-Te. In: Iain Abernathy. The Practical Application of Karate, Jan 3, 2019.
Enkamp, Jesse 2012: 3 Widespread Misconceptions of Modern Karate (That You Need to Know Today)! In: KaratebyJesse.com.
Rika Usami is by far one of the most famous contemporary Karateka world wide. She is best known for her Kata victory at the World Championships in Paris 2012. In this article, we present you 10 astonishing facts about her life and Karate career.
Rika Usami trained Goju-ryu first and moved then to Shito-ryu
Rika Usami was born on February 20, 1986, in Tokyo Japan, and began Karate with 10 years. However, while she is known today as one of the top Shito-ryu representatives she started her Karate education in a different style, namely Goju-ryu. She explained the reason for this in an interview with Jesse Enkamp a few years ago:
“The reason was because one day I saw a cool female fighter on TV, which made me really curious about the martial arts. Back then, my older brother had already been practising Karate for a while, even letting me wear his gi on occasions, so that helped me a lot when I decided to eventually start practising Karate myself.”
We do not know exactly when she moved on to Shito-ryu. But a lot suggest that it was when she met legendary Yoshimi Inoue (1946-2015), who later became her Sensei in 2005. Inoue, whose athletes collected 20 world championship titles over the course of his career, was one of the major Shito-ryu masters of the last 40 years.
Rika Usami started competing with 12 years of age
Rika Usami began competing with 12 years of age. Back then, she was a green belt as Patrick Donkor found out. After a few local tournaments she attended the national school competition in 2001. While she already showed some talent at that time, it took her two years until she won the first bigger title in 2003: the national high school championships.
9 years later, she reached the ultimate goal and became World Champion in Paris. Rika was 28 back then. Between her first competition and her victory in Paris lay 16 years. Thus, Rika is also a great role model when it comes to perseverance and endurance. Nothing comes easy and without many years of hard training – even for Rika Usami.
Yoshimi Inoue made Rika Usami the champion she is today
The foundation of her success has been, of course, her dedication and hard work. However, both needed excellent guidance to flourish. This guidance came from Yoshimi Inoue as mentioned earlier.
How important he was for Rika Usami show two instances. Firstly, she moved from the vibrant metropolis of Tokyo to the Tottori Prefecture in the north-west of the Honshu peninsula, where Soke Inoue ran the Keishin Kai Hombu Dojo. For people from Tokyo, the Tottori Prefecture appears to be a hicksville at the end of the world. Unlike the industrial belt at the south cost of Japan, the north is less populated, poorer, and winters can become long and harsh. Thus, one needs a very good reason to move from Tokyo to the the boonies. In case of Rika Usami, it was the master tutelage of Yoshimi Inoue.
Secondly, shortly after joining his Dojo, she won her first international Kata title at the 4th World Junior & Cadet Karate Championships held on Cyprus. This first big success was followed by several victories at several All Japan Karate-Do Championships and a third place at the World Championships in Belgrad in 2010 before she finally became World Champion in 2012. The tutelage of Yoshimi Sensei had, hence, a very positive effect on Rikas Karate and competition performance.
Strength Training is very important for Rika Usami
While Yoshimi Inoue had a great influence on her technical precision, he also focused on another aspect of her Karate: physical conditioning. Older pictures of Yoshimi Inoue show his splendid physic.
Until today, Rika Usami stresses the importance of conditioning the body for Karate:
Even during seminars, she shows how she exercises in order to strengthen her body and to develop the physical foundation for her strong techniques.
Best Kata performance of All Times
On 21 November 2012, the finals of the 21st WKF World Karate Championships took place at the Palais Omnisports de Paris-Bercy in Paris, France. Rika Usamis opponent was Sandy Scordo from France, who also belong to the Top 5 of the Kata world. Thus, the audience was ready to witness an excellent heads competition between two elite athletes.
What happened instead was a stunning performance by Rika Usami that many deem as the best Kata performance during a championship ever. Rika chose the Kata Chantanya Kushanku (for the Kata see video below) from Shito-ryu. The Kata is characterized by several fast changes of the direction and height. Even the fight from below is demonstrated. While it omits high kicks but incorporates a rather simple jump – compared to Unsu, for instance, – at the end, the Kata requires a tremendous body control and balance. Especially, the generation of power through the quick rotation of the body is crucial for an excellent execution.
Sandy Scordo, on the other hand, chose Gojushiho Sho, a Kata, that is nothing less complex and challenging like Chatanyara Kushanku. And Sandy delivered a splendid performance. However, Rika Usami was unbeatable on that day.
Her presents, grace, and spirit created the impression as if she was made for that moment. Being full in her flow, letting the rhythm, execute itself, and maintaining nothing but the highest technical standard she delivered the Kata performances of all Kata performances. She set the benchmark, what Kata is or must be, new during these two and a half minutes.
The audience recognized this true historical moment and started cheering for her even before she finished the Kata. Afterwards, she gained the deserved standing ovations.
Rika Usami Kata Performance has been watched more than 16 Million times
And her performance still enchants the masses. On Youtube, Rika Usamis final Chatanyara Kushanku has been video more than 16 million times, which makes the video, without a doubt, one if not the most watched Karate videos in the history history of the internet. Watch it right below.
She is a Karate instructor at Kokushinkan University
Rika Usamit retired from competitive Karate only one year after her World Championship victory. However, she has not left Karate. While in Tottori, Rika Usami already worked for the Tottori Prefectural Board of Education. Becoming a teacher or Karate instructor was, thus, a logical next step for her. To do so she had to graduate from University first. And she chose the Alma mater of her mother: Kokushinkan University in Tokyo.
Kokushinkan University is also a stronghold of martial arts education in Japan. Especially the Judo club has produced several Olympic Gold Medalist. Also legendary Karate masters like Mikio Yahara studied at Kokushinkan.
Since her retirement, Rika Usami has not solely taught at Kokushinkan. She has held many seminar in different countries throughout the years. Therefore, nobody has to worry: You will have the opportunity to experience her magical Katas sooner or later. Just watch out for a seminar close to you.
The movie they shot was meant to be an introduction to the disciplines of Kata and Kumite. Beside that it should make the wider audience of non-Karateka acquainted with Karate during the Olympic Games. As Miki Nakamachi stated did the production company find them through YouTube and approached them. This comes as no surprise considering the success of Rika Usamis video of the finals at the 2012 World Championships.
Rika Usami is a mother of a 3 year old boy
What comes as a surprise for many is the fact that Rika Usami is a mother of a four year old boy. She gave birth on June 9, 2017. Find a picture of Rika Usami and her boy here.
The father is unknon to us. But we know that Rika got married two years earlier. Rumor has it that he is not Japanese.
However, we do not want to convey rumors but wish the greatest Kata champion of all times and her family a long, happy, and satisfying life. All the best to Rika Usami!
Dojo (道場) literally means: the place (jo 場, Japanese reading: ba) of the way (道 do, Japanese reading: michi), the place where the “way” (e.g. a martial art) is practiced. A correct transliteration of the term dojo must include two circumflexes: Dōjō. They indicate that the below must be pronounced in a long way. For better recognition, following we leave the circumflexes out.
Dojo has three distinct, but inter-related meanings:
1. Originally it was the translation of the Sanskrit term bodhimanda. This indicates the spot under the tree, where the historical Buddha Shakyamuni experienced his awakening (bodhi). The manda (= dojo) is therefore the place, where the “essence” of enlightenment is present.
2. In Zen-temples it denotes the hall or room, where sitting meditation (zazen) is practiced. In a broader sense it signifies every site, where one follows the “way of the Buddha” (butsudô 仏道), e. g. temples or assembly rooms for buddhist practices.
3. For the Karateka the dojo is the place, where he hones his skills in his martial art (budô 武道). In this sense it became widely used only since the end of the 19th century. It actually is the abbreviation of budojo 武道場, which was besides keikoba 稽古場 (training place) the common denomination until then.
Do as a “way” of cultural practices
A dojo can be a separate building or a temporary space used for engaging in some martial art. The “do” (道dao in Chinese) in “dojo” has an extensive philosophical meaning in Daoism as the ultimate essence or natural order of the universe. In Japan it also denotes a “way of life” in the sense of being dedicated to an art, craft or study.
Since the Edo-period (1603-1868) it was used to denote traditional “ways” like chado/sado 茶道 (tea ceremony), shodo 書道 (calligraphy) kado 華道 (flower arrainging), kyudo 弓道 (archery), judo 柔道 (the “gentle way” of grappling and throwing), kendo 剣道 (swordsmanship) etc. In the latter cases it replaced “jutsu” 術 (“technical skill, method”) as in jujutsu 柔術 or kenjutsu 剣術. The implication was that these martial arts where meant not only for refining physical or technical skills, but also for mental and spiritual training and development. A clear distinction has been drawn between bujutsu 武術 (classical martial arts of self-protection) and budô 武道 (classical martial ways of self-perfection).
From Karate-jutsu to Karate-Do
Funakoshi Gichin still used the term Karate-jutsu in the title of his second book published in 1925. Karate-jutsu was then streamlined along the concept of “do” and appropriated by the Japanese on the main island as a form of “budo”, thus renamed “Karate-Do”. Hence the place, where Karate is exercised also became the dojo. In the Japanese understanding a dojo is not just a sports facility, but a space where body, mind and spirit are trained in unison. It is a place to strive for self-perfection. Therefore when entering and leaving a dojo, one should make a bow as a sign of respect.
(Zen-)Buddhist meaning of Dojo
The Mahâyâna-buddhist scripture titled Vimalakîrti-sûtra (Jap. 維摩経 Yuimakyo) is highly appreciated and widely read in Zen-circles. Its protagonist Vimalakîrti is a lay practioner and householder, who teaches the doctrines of nothingness and non-duality and silence as an adequate expression thereof. He serves as an example for someone, who attained the highest buddhist wisdom whilst leading an “ordinary” life.
One line out of the Vimalakîrti sûtra is often quoted by martial artists, and it recurs to meaning 1 of dojo: Jikishin kore dojo 直心是道場. Verbally this means: “Where the mind is straight, there is the dojo.” Thurman translates it as: “The seat of enlightenment is the seat of positive thought because it is without artificiality.” (Thurman 1976:36). The “seat of enlightenment” is translated into Japanese as “dojo”. In a broader meaning it can be interpreted as: the dojo is everywhere, where an activity is pursued with total dedication and mindfulness.
The Zen monk Genyu Sokyu states: “In the end everything in Zen is about everyday life.” (Genyu 2003:153) He illustrates this with some famous Zen-sayings. The most salient among them might be: “Meditation in the midst of activity is infinitely superior to meditiation in stillness.” 動中の工夫、静中に勝ること百千億倍 Dochu no kufu, jochu ni masaru koto hyakusenokubai. (Genyû 2003:153) This was actually a bold calligraphy brushed by the eminent Zen-monk Hakuin (1686-1768) three days before his passing. The chu (“midst”, Japanese reading: naka 中) is emphasized by thick strokes and by prolongation of the line in the middle of the character (Stevens 1999:100).
All life is a Dojo
Every Japanese “do” is inspired by Zen and infused with Zen-idea(l)s, exactly because according to these every activity can be transformed into a meditative act or spiritual exercise. In this spirit the 8th principle in the Shotokan niju-kun, The 20 Guiding Principles of Shotokan, by Funakoshi Gichin can be understood: 道場のみの空手と思うな. Dojo nomi no Karate to omou na! Do not think that Karate training is only in the dojo. The acute mind nurtured in the dojo should be shown in everyday life. Good practice in the dojo will have good effects in our daily life and undertakings other than Karate. Many a Karateka will attest to the fact, that Karate-training had/has positive consequences for their lives. The whole life can be a dojo!
A Keiko Gi is “a symbol of your preparation for life” writes our columnist TD McKinnon in his latest article for Karate Essences. Like many traditional elements the Keiko Gi has also become challenged in recent years. However, there are many good reason why we should stick to the classic plain white Karate Gi for training.
The Origin of the Keiko Gi in Judo
Keiko Gi (稽古着) is the Japanese name for the karate training uniform. The origin of the uniform or training kimono starts over 100 years ago in Japan. Its introduction as a martial arts uniform is generally attributed to Kano Jigoro, who developed judo from jujitsu, in the early years of the 20th century. Kano Jigoro, the founder of Judo, decided that he needed to create a uniform for his students. He wanted something that would show uniformity; also something able to take a beating from the constant throwing, pinning and choking techniques of the art.
The story goes that Kano based his uniform on ancient jujitsu training attire, which was made of unbleached linen and cotton, a kind of coffee colour fabric. Apparently, due to the effect of sweating, intense rubbing of the training practices, plus repetitive washing, they would eventually turn white. So Kano decided to start with a bleached white Gi; and, using a thick, reinforced weave – a style of weaving that was mainly used for farmers’ or firefighters’ garments – and the modern long-sleeved Judo Gi was born in 1906.
The Introduction of the Keiko Gi to Karate
Kano Jigoro and Funakoshi Gichin were good friends. In 1922 Kano invited Funakoshi to mainland Japan, from Okinawa, to demonstrate Karate to some assembled dignitaries at Kano’s Honbu dojo. Funakoshi was persuaded to wear a Judo Gi, to present a more professional demonstration. Thereafter, Funakoshi adopted the Judo Gi as training apparel. Generically known as a Keiko Gi, it was soon universally adopted as the official training uniform of most Japanese martial arts.
Sharing a common origin, the Karate Gi is somewhat similar to a Judo Gi; however, the material and cut of the uniform is much lighter, with a looser fit. The heaviest Karate Gi being 16 ounces compared to the 35 ounce Judo Gi. Because of the nature of Karate training compared to Judo, emphasising striking and kicking over throws and grappling, the Karate Gi has evolved in a different direction.
Is the Traditional Karate Keiko Gi Still an Essential Item?
Since its early inception, the Karate Gi has morphed many times in cut and style as well as in weight and functionality. Now, in certain sporting organisations, there is a Gi for Kumite and a different Gi for Kata.
The competition Kata Gi is more like the old style, traditional heavyweight Gi; made from a heavy cotton, light canvas style cloth. The main reason for this, it appears, is to utilise the swishing and snapping sounds (for effect) during the stylised, competition kata performance.
The competition Kumite Gi is very different: made from an acrylic fabric, it is a super lightweight Gi, and with (because of the manmade fibre) lots of venting devises. The reason for this design is aimed at less resistance and more ease of movement, supposedly endorsing more speed for competing. Personally, I think this style of Kumite Gi makes a mockery of the traditional Gi; however this adaptation is not surprising. Training for competition Kumite has taken some seriously different directions too.
There are various Dojos, some styles of karate, and some organisations that do not lend themselves exclusively to the traditional white Gi. The International Sport Karate Association, for instance, do not insist on the use of the traditional white Keiko Gi. There are many debates fuelling arguments for and against the traditional white Gi.
During my own martial odyssey, following whichever martial system I was studying: for instance, I have worn the black cotton Keiko Gi and Hakama of Iaido, and the hand wraps and loose satin shorts of Muay Thai. However, for me, when practicing traditional Karate, nothing is more appropriate than the white Keiko Gi. Washed and ironed, fresh and clean, it mirrors the fresh and unencumbered frame of mind (Shoshin) that assists the Karateka to derive the optimum from their Karate-Do.
Keiko Gi: A Symbol of Your Preparation for Life
Any competing event, or indeed any training or learning event begins with the mental and spiritual preparation. Part of that mental and spiritual process is preparing the attire that will be worn for that event. This concept is not exclusive to karate or even the martial arts in general; it applies to life.
Prepare your own Keiko Gi
When I began the traditional Karate chapter of my martial odyssey I intuitively understood this concept. As a member of my high school gymnastic team, as a boxer, and as a British Parachute Regiment soldier it had already become an intrinsic part of me. Most people can relate to the kind of mental preparation that the physical preparation prompts.
Every Karateka should, themselves, prepare their Karate Gi. Even the very young Karateka should be shown how, with the view to eventually conducting their own preparations. It helps to cultivate humility as a human being, while developing pride in the art; encouraging a healthy, lifelong habit. For instance, by the time my sons were 7-8 years of age they were ironing their own Keiko Gi in preparation for training, competition and grading. I believe that preparation discipline was part of what later assisted their achievements of becoming World Champions in their chosen combat sport of Muay Thai Kickboxing.
Keiko Gi Preperation as an Exercis in Mindfulness
For more than fifty years now I have prepared my Gi: for training, for competing, for receiving instruction and knowledge from those more knowledgeable than myself, and for teaching others. At the start of any Karate event, my Gi is spotlessly clean, scrupulously ironed and prepared for the event, even as my mind, body and spirit is prepared. Preparing the Gi is a symbolic representation of the ongoing process of mindfulness: a constant preparation for life.
Preparation, Preparation, Preparation
One can never be complacent about preparation. Complacency, in life, can mean the difference between smooth success and painful failure.
You can get away with being unprepared for a time; here, I am referring to being generally unprepared for life. I could cite many instances, especially from the early part of my life, as an example of unpreparedness… However, preparation is an ongoing thing, like readying your Keiko Gi for each occasion.
So, I will cite an event that took place at a time I should have known better; a time I should have been entirely prepared:
I had been working as a bouncer for years; and this was just another night at work.
Earlier in the evening there had been an altercation: a powerfully built, six feet plus guy in his twenties, after yelling at and hitting his girlfriend, had knocked out a security operative who tried to restrain him. I put a sleeper hold on him, and evicted him.
Later that evening, while I was controlling the front door, ‘girlfriend-hitter’ tried to enter the premises again and I stopped him.
“I’ve already been in…” he said, irately, “My girlfriend is in there!”
“Yes, I know,” I said, “I evicted you for hitting her and assaulting one of the security personnel.”
He immediately attacked with a head-butt, but I tucked my chin and he broke his nose on the top of my head instead. He was tenacious, and obviously had some boxing training. As he took an involuntary step back he threw a fairly useful right cross… but, simultaneously, slipping inside his punch, I dropped him with mae-empi (Sen no sen).
“Come on, young fella, I think it’s time you went home before you get yourself really hurt…” and I reached down to help him up… That’s when he grabbed my privates in a vicious, steely grip.
During my time as a working bouncer, most of the time I had worn a groin guard, but there was the odd occasion that I forgot to wear the said piece of personal protection equipment (PPE). On those occasions I had assured myself that it was fine because I’d never had an occasion to be thankful I’d worn it; wearing it was just a precaution… tonight I had forgotten to wear it.
A gedan barai broke his grip and then I broke his jaw, but I was in severe pain. I spent the night in a hospital bed, sedated on pethidine, with an ice pack between my legs, feeling very sorry for myself.
It all Begins with your Keiko Gi
I never forgot to wear that particular protection device, or any other PPE, again. More importantly, I was never again negligent with any preparations. Over the following years, my obsession with preparation saved me from injury many times. In fact I have no doubt that it saved my life. It all begins with the mindfulness of preparing your Keiko Gi.
Breathing in Karate plays an odd role. On the one hand, every Karateka agrees on its importance for vitality, great technique, speed, and power. On the other hand, most Karateka do not know much about breathing in Karate or how to breathe correctly. Neither do they know much about how to train it and what exercise to utilize to breathe better. In this article Punito Aisenpreis is going to give an extensive overview about the Dos and Don´ts of breathing in Karate and how one can become a better Karateka through breathing.
In Karate a specific type of breathing is necessary. Then in training and in competition the same rule applies: When we lose our breath we lose ourselves.
Thus, this article deals with breathing in Karate and the many possibilities to use it consciously. I intend to give the Karateka guidance to train more efficiently, more easily, more consciously, and with more motivation through apply effective breathing techniques.
There is no first breath in Karate!
We breathe about 500 million times between our birth and our death. Since our phylogenetic ancestors came ashore, pulmonary breathing has been essential to generate energy. Our breathing is slow when we are relaxed or asleep, and fast when we are moving or become emotionally – positive or negatively – aroused.
The breathing process runs automatically. Only in thin, sticky, hot air, when we “run out of breath” during exertion, or when we suffocate we really become aware of our breath.
In Karate, on the other hand, we try to establish a consciousness for our breathing. When beginners start Karate training, they often become overwhelmed by instructions regarding breath control. Their unconscious patterns of “stress breathing” emerge, learned early in childhood, and over steer any well-intentioned attempt at “the right” breathing in Karate.
General Breathing Mechanics and Physiology
“Understand first your own breath, then the breath of the opponent.”
Before we go into the specifics and techniques of breathing in Karate we have to clarify first some general breathing mechanics and the physiology behind breathing.
Outer and inner Breathing
When we understand, how our breathing works and how it gets out of rhythm, then we can control it more efficiently.
The outer breathing, for instance, works simplified as follows: When we inhale, special nerve cells of the breath center in the brain become activated. They stimulate peripheral nerves that initiate the contraction of our diaphragm and our deep lateral neck muscles (MM. scaleni).
The contraction of the muscular diaphragm moves it down towards the abdomen and pushes the liver, stomach, spleen, kidneys, and intestines towards the pelvis. The chest space (thorax) above it becomes enlarged. The lung fill with air due to the resulting vacuum.
From a mechanically standpoint on can say: A pump handle movement describes breathing at best. As more relaxed the fascia and muscles of the thorax are as more the lung can inhale (up to 5 liters).
The inner breathing happens as gas exchange between the pulmonary vesicles (alveoli) and the blood of the pulmonary circulation. Fewer environmental toxins, dust, and tar on the fine alveolar membranes of the lung mean better transfer of oxygen to our muscles, organs and nerves.
Cell Breathing and Energy Supply
Breathing, however, has a chemical reason. Red blood cells transport O2 molecules to cells because they require oxygen. At the cell membrane the oxygen diffuses into the cell and is replaced with CO2, the waste product of cell respiration, which then becomes transported back to the lungs. In the cells the mitochondria, our so-called cell batteries, metabolize sugar and O2 into CO2 and water.
In doing so, energy in the form of ATP (adenosine triphosphate) is generated. ATP is our cell fuel, which is needed and used up in all cells. During Karate training ATP is mainly utilized in muscles, the heart and the brain. Thus: as higher the O2 uptake of the body as more energy can be provided. Nourished, regenerated and connected cells mean better body performance.
The Role of the Autonomic Nervous System
At rest, relaxation and in sleep, adults breath between 5 and 18 times per minute. If we are positively or negatively aroused or physically active or stressed, we breathe up to 30-60 cycles per minute. The autonomic nervous system (ANS) controls our breath rate and breathing volume, which consists of the three components:
The sympathetic (activation, fight-flight),
Parasympathetic (relaxation, regeneration) and
the “Old Vagus system” (digest, freeze).
As more aroused we are, e.g. in a combat situation, as more the sympathetic nervous system stimulates the respiratory center. This, on the one hand, provides more energy, on the other hand, it poses the risk that we breath too fast and “get out of breath” and “lose our head”.
Breathing Disorders and Breathing Therapy
“Karate begins and ends with proper breathing!”
Understanding Breathing Disorders
In one of the basic works of traditional Karate, the Bubishi, the authors discuss vital points and the accumulation of “Ki“. Itosu Anko, the teacher of Funakoshi Gichin, warns about breathing too much “Ki” in the head, as it can result in a red head and high blood pressure. The breath should be directed down into the “field of Vermillion” in the lower abdomen (Hara).
Early childhood breathing disorders with an overactivation of the “freezing-system” of the ANS can, for example, lead to asthma and restrictions during inhalation. A Karateka, who tends to have asthma, has difficulties to exhale the air completely, because his or her bronchial system tightens.
Even a rigidly inflated chest, which looks powerful and tries to show domination, leads to movement restrictions. Especially during rotational movements it makes the throat and neck immobile. So, during the execution of a Kata the Karateka has to spend way too much effort and yet it will look strenuous in succession. Instead, of the abdominal press, without fine perception of the abdominal organs, the “lip brake” will have to be used for the accumulation of the breathing air, which does not allow for powerful techniques.
When present, a respiratory dysfunction is best treated play with a respiratory based therapy. After thorough analysis of the body structure, the fascia system, the oxygen uptake of the metabolic system in volume and frequency (spirometry) and the respiratory mechanics of a Karateka are used in various forms in the therapy:
Fascia therapy for diaphragm, intercostal muscles, Scaleni muscles, abdominal wall and the ancessorial breathing muscles. The ribs, the sternum, shoulder girdle and spine are treated osteopathically to create more balance and mobility. Respiratory therapy detects unphysiological breathing patterns and induced physiologically correct breathing. In the Dojo, the trainer has to perceives the breathing patterns of the students and if pre sent, can detect respiratory dysfunction. He/she should then be able to give assistance to the students, as to correct and induce performance-oriented natural breathing patterns.
Exercise: Bodhidharma Heart-Hara Breathing
Before we dive into breathing in Karate, let us do a small breathing exercise while you read this article. So, breath slowly with abdominal and chest breathing by counting to “four”. Imagine the oxygen from the breathing air entering your heart area. There you hold it approximately two seconds and then let it flow slowly over the back, counting to “six”, into your lower abdomen while exhaling. Feel how the entire abdominal and pelvic space fills up with energy. Let your center of gravity slowly sink into your Hara (belly).
Breathing in Karate
What is breathing in Karate about? The first concept, I want to describe is: Kokyu also know as breathing power.
Kokyu: Breathing Power
“Hard and soft, tension and relaxation, slow and fast, – all in combination with the right breathing”
Breathing and karate are firmly interwoven. At the center stands Kokyu: breathing power. Karateka know the concept by heart. When a techniques becomes executed Karateka exhale with force. The effective use of a Karate technique depends to a large extent on the right breathing and the appropriate breathing rhythm.
In Karate inhaling leads the air deeply into the abdomen by lowering the diaphragm. When exhaling, the diaphragm arbitrarily tightens in accordance with the abdominal muscles and thus stabilizes the trunk. This stabilization creates together with the muscle groups of the back, the possibility to connect the upper and lower body to an effective and stable unit.
Through increasing the pressure in the lower abdomen it to support the acceleration of a technique with muscle strength, the weight and movement of the total body. The body, thus, becomes a “projectile” with which the Karateka strikes at the opponent. When inhaling the body should then fully relax again.
Kime and Kiai
If Karateka can coordinate all muscle groups involved in breathing they also achieve a stable posture. Another important effect is the direction of energy. If the optimal tension of the abdominal cavity is given, a Karateka can transmit the energy generated at the pressure point of the heel through all necessary fascia, bones and joints into the fist. The force follows, therefore, the intended direction.
With the snapping of the stretched fascia system, breathing also comes to an abrupt stop. Thus, it amplifies the chain of action of the body structure and stabilizes the power transfer to the endpoint. The battle cry (Kiai) naturally comes from the depth through the belly, when the air escapes at the moment of Kime. Moreover, letting flow the breath freely allows a better kinesthetic sense of all the body fascia and allows to unify the body perception into a continuation from toe to head.
Karate Warm-up Exercises for Breathing Muscles
1. Spinal Twist
The spinal twist works as follows:
Both sit bones touch the ground.
The right leg is placed on the sole of the foot over the outstretched left leg.
The body turns to the right.
From here the left elbow presses from the outside against the right knee.
The right hand touches the left knee while the right arm supports it in a stretched out and straight line to the ground.
The head turns further to the right back.
The spine stretches up right while being twisted.
The lateral abdomen and the intercostal muscles are stretched.
The large chest fascia is stretched in continuation with the hip and pelvic fascia.
2. Knee Seat
The knee seat is another warm-up exercise for better breathing during Karate training. It works as follows:
The body turns backwards.
The arms go backwards over the head and leave the lumbar spine long and uncompressed while, stretching the entire front fascia system.
The front chest and trunk muscles as well as the intercostal muscles are stretched as well as the anterior diaphragm attachments.
3. Zenkutsu Dachi Hip Stretch
Zenkutsu Dachi can also be applied for a breathing warm-up. The hip has to show towards shomen. The heel is puched back and both arms are stretched up. The Lateral fascia system is stretched as well as the intercostal muscles, the lateral neck muscles and the fascia.
Patterns of Breathing in Karate
But Karate offers several breathing patterns and approaches:
slow exhalation when performing a technique,
slow inhalation while reaching out,
rapid inhalation and slow exhalation when performing a technique,
slow inhalation and rapid exhalation when performing a technique,
half breathing out with two consecutive strike techniques.
In addition, the air is exhaled either until Kime and then stopped. Or Kime takes place exactly after the complete exhalation.
However, different areas of Karate also require but also offer distinguished breathing approaches. The concepts of breathing in Jiyu Kumite differ from the ones in Kata, for instance.
Breathing Techniques in Jiyu Kumite
In Jiyu Kumite breathing can be utilized in the following ways:
One can attack while the opponent inhales and has thus difficulties to react.
One can also can breathe to be more insensitive to the impacts of the opponents attack.
A strong exhalation ends with Kiai to make the belly press even more effective or to irritate the opponent.
“Let your breath be thin,” says an unknown Chinese quote (so that the enemy cannot discover your breath and act on it).
In case of nervousness self-control can be restored by a long exhalation.
Find it out for yourself: Inhale, exhale, and ask yourself what makes a technique slow, what makes it fast, weak or strong? Then try to reflect about the question: What is best breathing pattern during an attack and during defense?
Breathing in Karate Kata´s
Kata´s, on the other hand, offer a different set of breathing patterns. Hangetsu, for instance, is a Kata with 41 techniques from Naha-te, called Seisan, which originally comes from China. Actually, this is a Kata for practicing the stances (Hangetsu dachi) and unusual techniques.
However, it is also excellent for breathing training (Kokyu ho). Then it comprises different breathing patterns.
To reach a deeper understading of breathing in Kata Karateka should ask themselves the following questions:
How long, short, and how loud is the Kiai in the different Kata?
What are breathing techniques and breathing rhythm that the kata dictates through its respective techniques?
Mindfulness Breathing in and outside the Dojo
When greeting and closing (Mokuso) the conscious breathing is usually carried out too short. Our thoughts often wander around. In Kata, in Kihon and in Rei the appropriate way of breathing to the technique can be trained. Breathing while practicing combinations (e.g. Sanbon Zuki) can lead to interesting insight. Thus, breathing can be seen as the fourth factor of an effective Karate technique – Yon ten riki ho (four areas of power) – in addition to the compression of the joints, the hip rotation, and the shifting of weight.
Breathing is special in many ways. It is the only body function that can be executed both fully aware as well as unconsciously. Thus, it represents a bridge between mind and body. Such a connection between the unconscious and the conscious emerges when one contemplates about ones own breath without controlling it.
Breathing can be a key to health and well-being. Karateka have the opportunity to learn to regulate their respiratory function and to develop and improve a physical, emotional and mental well-being. However, only a few Karateka learn how to use their breathing.
In fact, breathing patterns can be controlled. Karateka with foundational breathing techniques can reduce stress, lower their blood pressure and regulate many physical systems without medication. Breathing has direct connections to the limbic system (emotions) and to the ANS (auton omous nervous system).
Following I present some breathing techniques that are prominent in different Karate styles.
“Ibuki” Breathing of Gôjû-ryû vs. Shotokan Breathing
Ibuki breathing is the name of the forceful “pressure breathing” of Goju-ryu Karate. To do so Goju-ryu Karateka close their voice box to let only a small portion of audible breath in and out at a time. This practice aims at strengthening the breathing muscles, ventilating the total lung space and leading to a high air- and blood pressure in the body.
The effect of this breathing method stimulates the vagus nerve through the pressure receptors in the aorta and the carotid sinus. However, it might also lead to a permanent high blood pressure if overdone.
Andre Bertel talks about the difference between Shotokan Karate breathing and “Ibuki” breathing of Gôjû-ryû especially in the Kata Hangetsu:
“It is important to note here, insofar as breathing is concerned, that Hangetsu does not encompass Ibuki style breathing that is audible; like, for instance, in Sanchin Kata. Nevertheless, some instructors have incorporated this element into Shotokan-Ryu (of ten via Hangetsu). That being said, it is claimed that “…the original version of this kata, in Okinawa, did not feature audible breathing” but, rather, the breathing was done in a stealthy manner. This method is what is maintained by the JKA. – One point, which his Master Asai Senseistressed, was that “The breathing in the Nihon Karate Kyokai (J.K.A) Hangetsu must not be audible like that of the Naha-te Sanchin, it must be deep and undetectable.”
Buddhist Karate Breathing vs. Daoist Tai Chi Breathing
Abdominal breathing can be executed it two different ways: in the Buddhist and the Daoist one. The Buddhist way is usually practiced in Karate. The underbelly gets inflated when inhaling and deflated when exhaling.
Daoist breathing, on the other hand, works the other way around: while inhaling the underbelly is drawn in, when exhaling it is ballooned out. This kind of breathing is preferred by experienced Taijiquan practitioners. In a personal exploration the two different ways were measured with a HRV scanning device in order to detect and quantify the autonomic regulation effects. At least in my personal trial the “Buddhist” Karate breathing produced overall about 10% more autonomic nervous system response than the Daoist breathing.
Breathing, Heart rate and Regeneration after Training
Breathing and heartbeat are interdependent. The heart rate variability describes changes in heart rate over a period of time, controlled through the ANS (autonomous nervous system). As stronger the short-term changes of the heartbeat, controlled by the parasympathetic Vagus nerve, the more adaptable the organism is.
One could compare the overall regulation of the ANS with the “Ki”. The graphic on the left shows that slow breathing with 5-6 cycles per minute achieves the best regulation values. Breathing with 20 cycles per minute is the worst. At 5-6 breaths per minute the body relaxes fast and regenerates after a strain. Breathing and heartbeat control can be used very well with “HRV Biofeedback Breathing Training”. Both can be executed after training or after work. It also works for training and load control of competing Karateka.
I would like to add the 4711 formula. Scientists have found out that daily 11-minutes of breathing exercises with 4 seconds inhalation and 7 seconds exhalation can stimulate the vagus nerve in such a way that body and mind are immersed in a very special state of deep relaxation and regeneration. That can bee seen as the counterpart to stress responses. If this breathing exercises is performed over 9 weeks, it can lead to a change in the brain structure to more stability, relaxation, and awareness.
If the bodies oxygen uptake at rest falls below a certain value, the cell respiration can no longer function correctly. The metabolism must produce lactate even at low loads to meet the energy demand. This leads to a great loss of performance and an increasing acidification of the body, which results in pain, stiffness, and other problems.
In this case, a training at artificial height with reduced oxygen exposure comes into play. Such a training situation forces the body of Karateka to alternately breaths reduced amounts of Oxygen and intermittently breathes over saturated air. This will improve cell respiration and metabolic capacity. Even in preparation for championships, this procedure already showed in some studies its power-enhancing effect.
Breathing in Karate: Between Technique and Natural State
Breathing training has been around for centuries. It was already used in India in the Vedic Scriptures (1500 BC), the Upanishads (700 BC), and mentioned in the Yoga of Patanjali (200 BC). There, breathing exercises and meditations are adequately described as “Pranayama” (prana = Ki (breathing). From there, the path of breathing and awareness training went to China (Bodhidharma, Chan, 500 A.D.) and came with Zen Buddhism to Japan (Dogen 1200 A.D.).
Breathing training and mindfulness training are inextricably linked throughout Asia. Through the mindful observance in Zen (Shikan Taza), a transparent and shapeless sitting, the breath-counting (Susokan) or the breath-observing sitting (Zuisokan), the body relaxes and Ki can be accumulated in the lower abdomen (Hara).
Karateka, who practice the above breathing training also outside the dojo, sharpen their mind, improve their responsiveness, increase self-regulation and regeneration and develop their character. They learn how to be strong and happy through breathing.
That is why Karateka should take away the following five summarized statements of breathing in Karate:
Conscious breathing strengthens and stabilizes the center for transmitting Kime from bottom to top;
Conscious Breathing initiates and strengthens regeneration (via the Vagus nerve);
Conscious breathing controls and moderates emotions – fighting spirit, penetration;
Conscious breathing relaxes, sharpens and soothes the mind.
Punito Michael Aisenpreis: Born in 1958, coach, therapist, researcher and trainer in Munich and Murnau, martial arts and meditation teacher. Fascia therapy since 1981. Shotokan Karate since 1975, currently 4th Dan JKA and DJKB Trainer. Ki Aikido with Koichi Tohei. Regular karate training in Japan. 1994 Founding of the German Society for Myofascial Release e.V. Since 2013 Bodhidharma Karate Dojo Murnau at DJKB. Mail email@example.com; www.bodhidharma.de.
Jukuren Karate, elderly friendly Karate, is not very prevalent yet. But demographic changes and the growing interest of elderly to learn and keep practicing Karate make it necessary to develop a Jukuren Karate that fits the needs of senior practitioners. Then especially Shotokan Karate focuses on athletic movements and military-like classes. But does this approach suit elderly? Do they maybe need a different training regime? How should this look like? An analysis and proposal by Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Herbert
Jukuren Karate for elderly barely exists
Nowadays, many Dojos have kids classes or beginner courses for children. Hardly do I see “classes for the elderly” or “beginner courses for seniors” advertised on Dojo websites. This is remarkable. After all the overall population in industrial countries is over-aging and the age of Karate practitioners is also rising.
The reason for this is that Karate was introduced to the USA and Europe in the 1960´s and boomed with the Bruce Lee craze in the 1970´s. Therefore, many Karateka from this early period still train actively Karate, compete in Master classes, and teach in Dojos. They are well in their 60’s, 70’s or even 80’s. With 60 I consider myself part of this generation although still on the younger side.
Jukuren Karate: The Aim of this Article
But what about our training? Has it adjusted to our increasing age? Do we still practice the same routines in the same way as we did when we were in our 20`s? And how should a Jukuren (熟練) Karate for elderly Karateka look like? What must change in order to make it more suitable for seniors, so that they can still train despite their advanced age? I will propose some answers to these questions in this article.
As a caveat: I will generalize many of my observations (some laudable exceptions might exist) and mostly speak about Shotokan, since this is the style I practice and I am most familiar with. The setting to keep in mind are seniors (beginners and veterans alike) training together in a group. In fact, I teach an open lecture at my university called “Karate-dô for Health and Fitness” for more than eight years (see opener picture). The median age of the participants is around their mid-sixties. This course is my laboratory to reassess traditional concepts and develop Karate and Quigong (Taijiquan) exercises appropriate for people of an advanced age.
Why Jukuren Karate? Insights from Hirokazu Kanazawa
The late Kanazawa Hirokazu, an eminent teacher of Shotokan Karate, has in his autobiography and numerous interviews talked about how Karate training should change over ones lifetime. Let me pick out his statements made in an interview with Seamus O’Dowd in 2002:
“… everyone’s personal training should change as they go from youth to being an adult and then again as they get older. It is natural for training to change.
If a person is always training the same way all their life, then this is not natural. For example, for people up to thirty or forty years, physical power is the main power, generated through the muscles, with the power of the internal organs and power of the spirit working in harmony to support the physical power.
After forty the muscles start to become weaker, but the internal organs remain strong, now these become the main source of power … After sixty the internal organs also become weaker. The human body has limits, and it is natural to become weaker. Nobody can live for 150 or 200 years, so this is natural and should be accepted. But your spirit can always remain strong and even become stronger indefinitely, if people train correctly every day.
Therefore, after sixty, the power of the spirit is the main power in the body, with the power of physical muscle and internal organs used to assist and channel this power. Therefore, as we get older we must adapt our training to utilize the correct power sources in our bodies. Techniques must change and training methods must change.”
Shotokan Karate Magazine 143/2020: 10
In another interview Kanazawa jokingly remarked:
“… I think training from baby to grave is something that I must do, but for other people it is as I have said before, one must train as one grows in different ways. If I did not do this then when I reached 70 or 80 years old Unsu and Enpi will be impossible. Maybe I could do some Shito-ryu or Goju-ryu kata, maybe, but I know I could do Tai-Chi until I die. Because it is more internal than physical. If I only did Shotokan, after 70 or 80 it would be ‘Bye, bye.’”
Shotokan Karate Magazine 143/2020: 7
In his autobiography Kanazawa states:
“ Sure enough, when I reached my sixties I noticed that my physical condition had deteriorated and ki-ryoku had become the driving force for my karate. I let this development take its natural course and continued to develop it further. Muscular strength, and the strength of your innards certainly decrease with age, but mental and spiritual strength can be increased as you get older.”
Hirokazu Kanazawa 2003: 293
Kiryoku is written 気力 in the original book (Kanazawa 2002: 344) and thus means the strength of the subtle energy Ki. I would figure that the gist of these statements is: training should be adapted to ones age and physical condition. Then it is “natural” and in accordance with ones stage in life. But do most of the older Karateka follow this advice?
The Need for Jukuren Karate
I am quite sure that on an individual level Shotokan Karateka adapt their workout to their aging bodies and physical capabilities. However, when it comes to collective training it is different. If you attend international Shotokan Karate seminars with many participants, groups are frequently formed along grade or skill level (beginners, mid-level, advanced etc.).
Training, that addresses senior Karateka, rarely exists. Kihon lessons usually take place for all in the same way: from teenagers to septuagenarians – everybody performs the same techniques and is supposed to do this in the same way.
Teaching usually Focuses on Younger Karateka
The same goes for home training videos that circulate on the internet. They obviously address and focus rather on younger athletes than seniors. Some create the impression that the instructors want to show off their skills, like how fast they can perform difficult combinations or how high they can kick. Not only elderly, but also the average Karateka might struggle to follow these instructions. It illustrates that teaching in Shotokan focuses on young competitors rather than the casual and physically less able enthusiast.
To run through fancy combinations like Mawashi Geri Jodan, Ushiro Geri, Gyaku zuki dozens of times is not quite easy for the beyond-60´s. Indeed, it is “unnatural”, if not harmful.
Karate for Elderly has to take Body Changes into Account
I am aware that there are some hard-boiled elderly Karateka around who desperately want to keep up with the sportsmen in their twenties or thirties. A few are physically still capable of doing so. I let them have their way.
But I would contend that the vast majority of older Karateka practice the art in order to maintain their health and agility. This implies that one is more likely to listen to the voice of ones body and to avoid unwholesome exercises. Joints become more fragile, particularly the knees, hips, elbows or shoulders. To feel slight pain in them is quite common among senior people. So are degenerative afflictions like gout, arthritis, osteoarthritis, cartilage atrophy or other wear and tear.
However, this should not preclude anyone to practice Karate Do. Everybody should be able to perform Karate with the very body one has and all the flaws coming with it. That is why we even have Karate for people with special needs. Thus, it would be desirable to develop a Karate that fits older people.
What has to change in Karate to become Jukuren Karate?
Such a Karate must change in two ways:
in a physical/somatic way and
a practical way.
I will start with the latter one: the practice of Karate. I want to characterize the necessary change with two words: de-militarization and individualization. To understand what that means we have to look at the history of Shotokan Karate that still coins the way we practice Karate in Dojos in a manner most Karateka are not fully aware of.
De-militarization of Karate
Shotokan has a background deeply entrenched in militarism. This has shaped our Karate and the way we train. For instance:
standing in rows,
movements in unison obeying commands shouted by (usually) a man in front,
who struts up and down like a general inspecting his army.
This had already begun in Okinawa in the first decade of the 20th century, when Karate was introduced as physical education into schools. In fact, it replaced “military gymnastics” (heishiki taisô) and Itosu Ankô (1831-1915), who was the driving force behind this, explicitly stressed the respective benefits in his Ten Precepts. In the second precept he recommends that children start with Karate (Tôde) while in elementary school, because “then they will be well suited for military service.”
In precept ten he reiterates that Karate should be taught in elementary schools, because “this will be a great benefit to our nation and our military.” Itosu wrote these principles 1908 in form of a letter addressing the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of War on the main island. Karate was, thus, annexed to a nationalistic and later imperialistic agenda.
When Karate became a real Military Exercise in Japan
Two assistant’s of Itosu, Yabu Kentsû (1866-1937) and Hanashiro Chômo (1869-1945), were both military men. They joined the army in 1891 and were noticed for their exceptional physiques in the medical exams. It was ascribed to their Karate training. That was the reason why Karate caught the eye of the military for the first time.
Yabu Kentsû reached the rank of a lieutenant, although his lifelong nickname was gunsô (“sergeant”). He taught at Shuri’s Prefectural Number One School and was known for his discipline and doing Karate “by the numbers” and with endless repetitions. This was in tune with every athletic training on the main island, which became heavily militarized in the 1930s and 1940s.
On Honshû, the main island, it was Funakoshi Gichin, his son Yoshitaka, Egami Shigeru, Okuyama Tadao and others who taught Karate to special forces at the Nakano military school during WWII. The political climate of the 1930´s, when Karate began to spread on the main island of Japan, was one of ultranationalism, xenophobia, Tennô-totalitarianism and mobilization for war.
The Okinawan and Chinese roots of Karate were eradicated and erased. Karate was streamlined along Kendô and Jûdô and transformed into a Japanese Budô and thus due to the zeitgeist militarized. It became infused with Bushidô-ideals, which were perverted for military goals and emperor-worshipping.
Elements of this fateful ideology were:
exaltation of death and sacrifice,
glorification of dying for the fatherland and the Tennô.
Benesch calls this kind of indoctrination the “imperial bushidô” (cf. Benesch 2006: 200-213).
To become a martial art that follows modern ethical standards all remnants of this ideology should be eliminated from Karate. However, it seems as if quite a bit of it lives on in an attenuated form. Westerners, who entertain fantasies about Bushido and want to emulate it, should be aware of this history. And it also has an influence on the possibility of an adequate Jukuren Karate.
De-militarization of the Dojo
De-militarization in the Dojo mostly pertains to the training in soldier-like fashion. Particularly elderly people do not have to be commanded around. With the high value put on fitness until the grave nowadays, elderly people are increasingly interested in beginning to learn a martial art. For the mature novices the techniques should be thoroughly explained. They can then be performed within the group. Thereafter, the practitioners should be able to experiment, explore the moves, repeat them according to their own taste and pace. This goes for Kihon combinations or Kata sequences, even for Kumite exercises. Once the practitioners are comfortable with the new techniques one can go back to training on command.
This alternation between group drill and free experimentation loosens up the atmosphere, brings a playful element into the Dojo, gives room for laughter about ones clumsiness and provides the chance to learn on ones own terms. Strict group drill always risks to leave some people out, who cannot follow the tempo or grasp the moves in a short time. This only leads to frustration.
Individualization of the Dojo
“Individualization” means to give the participants time and room to exercise and study by themselves. The instructor can take turn to watch them and give advice. A well balanced alternation between individual and collective training during one session is a good way to give elderly Karateka a chance to train in accordance with their capabilities and physical condition.
It also gives them space to recuperate and take a breath if needed. It takes older people longer to recover after intense physical activity and a good regime for rest is as important for them as adequate training as such. Karate training around twice a week will suffice. The other days they can do some walking, weight training, fascia loosening, yoga, tennis, gardening or the like or just rest.
Some older Karateka have issues with their circulatory or respiratory system or other ailments. You cannot put them through the same regime as the athletes in their twenties. We should give up the boot camp mentality of Shotokan. It is good to go to ones limits, but they should be determined by the practitioners themselves (particularly when they are older!) and not a commander in chief.
Seniors are more likely to introspectively scan their bodies and avoid discomfort. Physical exercise of any kind should be for their well-being and not bring them to the brink of a heart attack. They should be totally in charge of the tempo and the degree of exertion they want to undergo. Training should be highly individualized and fine-tuned to ones physique.
The Physical Part of Karate and what has to Change for Jukuren Karate
This brings us to the physical side of Jukuren Karate. That means in a nutshell:
moderation in effort and
no acrobatic jumps.
In a way, this equals to going back to the roots.
When the Physical Education Dimension of Shotokan Karate developed
There is one more historical development Shotokan underwent, which we ought to scrutinize. If we look at the photos of Funakoshi Gichin in the 1920s, we can see that his stances were very high compared to the way they are done in modern Shotokan. The fact that most of his instruction was done at University clubs had an effect on the training and techniques.
His third son Yoshitaka aka “Waka-sensei” (the young teacher) took over most of the teaching in the 1930s. Students in Japan spend four years at University until graduation. During the war, the military drafted students even before they finished their studies. It is said that Yoshitaka was interested in a physical regime that would enable the students to become tough and strong as fast as possible. Deeper stances meant immediate strong muscle development. His favorite stance was the rooted, powerful low Fudô dachi.
The Issue of Deep Stances
How deep one stands, should depends on body type, flexibility, muscular strength and age of course and should be individually calibrated. Not everybody can stand as deep as Frank Brennan or Osaka Yoshiharu in their prime time. Even many youngsters, who copied them, looked awkward, because they did not have their stamina and elasticity. If one does not stand as deep as it became usual in Shotokan, this does not mean it is not Shotokan anymore!
“When Master Funakoshi taught us he never said copy his form. Because of his weight and body type he made it that way. He explained for instance, that there is no particular length or width for a stance, it depends on each individual’s body type.’ Obviously as far as Funakoshi was concerned stances could be high or low, according to the student’s physique.”
Shotokan Karate Magazine 1998:22
Many instructors will agree with this and recommend the same thing.
Sometimes this remains lip service. As far as I see, in Shotokan there is a strong adherence to textbooks and the standards set down in them. They almost have the status of dogmas and incontestable orthodoxy. In many textbooks stances are precisely delineated with ruler and compasses and weight distribution is specified in percentages. Usually you are corrected, if you do not fit into these templates.
Do not misunderstand me: age is by no means an excuse to get sloppy. The strengthening of the thighs and abdominal region is the goal of assuming (deep) Karate stances and is also good for the health of the elderly. But everybody should find his own depth and width of the stances the way one feels comfortable and maintain a good inner tension and muscular stimulation. As far as alignments of the knee to toes or tailbone and spine are concerned, they should be bio-mechanically absolutely correct and not compromised.
Funakoshi, Kanazawa, and the Deep Stances
The following anecdote by Kanazawa Hirokazu illustrates this notion. Because Funakoshi Gichin read his mind during some classes. In his autobiography Kanazawa Hirokazu reports:
“Even during training sessions, similar things happened. While we were practicing the kanku-dai kata, I copied his every move exactly the way he was doing it.
‘Kanazawa san, spread your legs out further and drop your hips down.’
I dropped my hips down as I was told, but thought to myself ‘I was doing it exactly how sensei was …’
Then he got me again.
‘Kanazawa-san, you’re still young. You have to build up strength. Young people should do young people’s training, and not copy old men.”
Kanazawa 2003: 87
What does this anecdote tell us? Adapt your stances (and Karate) to your age.
Many Okinawan styles have rather high stances in the first place and only low kicks. Hence, adjusting your stances is like going back to the roots. And indeed in Okinawa you can see many older Karateka, even octogenarians doing fine Kata performances. Their movements are relaxed, tension is low and there is no exaggerated Kime. The notion that Karate should be an endeavor for a whole lifetime comes from Okinawa and should apply to Shotokan as well.
Quality over Quantity! Physical Limitations and Jukuren Karate
With increasing age come physiological limitations. The heart muscle contractibility diminishes and maximum attainable heart rates decrease. Too much cardiac exertion should be avoided. In training this means lesser repetitions – quality over quantity! It is not natural, when people in their sixties, seventies run through the same program as young athletes in their twenties. The point of exhaustion is different and endless repetitions do more damage to an old body than bring benefit. Again: no boot camp for seniors.
Water Drinking during Training
Sweat cools the body, but even perspiration changes with senescence. Dehydration occurs quicker when one becomes older. Therefore, it is vital to replenish the body with fluids, minerals and electrolytes: before, during and after workout.
Japanese summers can be cruelly hot. Nowadays, it is common sense in sports and Budô-circles to rehydrate, i.e. drink something during breaks in the training. A generation ago, indeed, it was usually not allowed to drink something during workout in Japanese sports clubs (even in schools and at universities)! Even now, every summer, legions suffer heatstrokes in Japan, particularly children (doing sports like baseball in the open) and elderly, who have no air conditioning or due to insensitivity (which comes with age) do not notice that their bodies need liquids.
During heatwaves you are daily admonished in the prime news to drink water regularly, stay in shadowy places or inside and get your air conditioning working. Elderly Karateka should therefore frequently take a rest and consume some water or sports drinks.
The outdated Taboo in regard to rehydrating during Karate Classes
In this context I want to tell you an anecdote or cautionary tale which also tells something about the history of the transmission of Shotokan Karate to the West.
It happened just a few years ago in Europe. I was in my mid fifties and came as a guest into a dojo in Vienna. Although, I was the oldest and highest in rank, as a guest I just partook in the training like everybody else. It lasted a good two hours and was led by a guy in his early thirties.
Shortly before a line up to do some Tsuki in the group at the end of the session, I dared to reach for my bottle in my bag and gulp down a few swigs of water. I was immediately approached by the trainer and heavily reprimanded. It is forbidden to drink anything during training, he shouted, and I would give a bad example to the younger students by doing so. I was quite put off and inquired why this should be so.
The answer was, that this was the stipulation of the Japanese Sensei “So and so”, who sadly passed away a few years ago. It was an order of his, there was no drinking in the dojo, basta!
Well, this is pure old school! I attended a JKA-dojo back in the days, where the same rule was observed. You were supposed to nurture perseverance, patience, endurance, self control, gaman in Japanese – a highly valued virtue. But times have changed. Even in Japan. Not so in Austria. Why? Be sure that after the training I started quite a diatribe and lambasted the young guy for his “faschistoid, toxic loyalty, blind obedience, cowardice and inability to criticize the Sensei!”
The ultimate point of the story is that this young man was a doctor, a medical doctor. I told him that he of all people should know that I as an older practitioner was more prone to dehydration and not getting replenished with liquid was harmful to my salubrity. As a physician it would actually have been his duty to inform Mr. Sensei that his directive and this ascetic practice were hazardous nonsense and detrimental to the health and also diminishing the performance and ability of his pupils!
What showed here, is a pathology in Shotokan which was rampant in its early days in Europe: the deification of the Japanese Sensei, total subservience, a wrongly understood “loyalty”. Nobody ever dared to criticize the (Japanese) Sensei. Sometimes this was encouraged by the very Sensei under the (misguided) guise of “Bushido”. Rigid hierarchies and authoritarian attitudes are out of place when teaching the elderly. They deserve respect for their life experience and unique personality. Instructor and student should meet on the same level. Even more so, when the teacher happens to be (much) younger.
Jukuren Karate: The “Why” of your Training Counts!
Seniors have no time to do meaningless things. As the violinist Isaac Stern said about his art: “to play good music is not about how to play, but why you play!” And every single note counts. Thus, you exercise fully concentrated, purposefully, mindfully.
Once you know the how and shift your attention to the “why” training acquires a different quality. You scan your body, ask why you stand this way and not otherwise, feel what it does to your body and if it enhances your well-being. You make every technique your very own and become aware of its characteristics. This “why” does not necessarily look for an intellectual answer. It rather denotes an attitude of inner awareness, heightened body-consciousness, introspection, and mindfulness.
Kata in Jukuren Karate
Kata can be trained in slow motion or in Shotokai-style in a continuous flow without Kime. This also serves to realize one of the objectives Kata were invented for in the first place: the regulation and harmonization of the Ki-flow. According to the understanding in Chinese traditional medicine this leads to health and inner peace.
The incorporation of softer martial ways like Qigong and Taijiquan is also highly recommended and improves coordination and balance. The older you get, the more Karate should be “internalized”. You pay attention to the inner energy flow. It is Ki or Kiryoku – as Kanazawa Soke put it -, that directs your Karate. Health in the Chinese understanding means that Ki can flow freely and without blockages or occlusions. Latter occurrences lead to sickness and indisposition.
Jukuren Karate should focus on Energy flow
Acupuncture, moxibustion, massages, gymnastics and meditation (visualization) were developed in ancient times to guarantee an unimpeded Ki-flow. The martial arts were practiced in this context. Good martial art practice is said to open the energy channels, eliminate blockages and harmonize the flow of Ki. Ki is virtually sent through the whole body from head to toe, thus one feels refreshed after a good Karate training session, even if one is physically exhausted. Ki flows best, when the body is totally relaxed. Therefore meditation also leads to health and well-being.
In Chinese martial arts there are meditations done in a standing position (called ritsuzen 立禅, the character 立 means “to stand”; 禅 = Zen). Sitting meditation (zazen 坐禅, 坐 denoting “to sit”) has the same effect. Sitting with legs crossed and upright, the arms and hands forming a circle, the spine straight, the crown pushed up and chin slightly tucked in is a compact way to sit completely relaxed. Combined with natural gentle breathing and a calm mind the Ki finds its perfect equilibrium.
Benefits of Jukuren Karate and How to Achieve them
The benefits of Karate for seniors are undisputed and manifold, just to name a few:
higher energy level,
bodily and mental agility,
increase in bone density,
decrease in muscle loss,
good coordination and sense of balance (prevention of falling!),
better overall health,
disease prevention etc.
How to Conduct Jukuren Karate Classes?
In order to earn these rewards of Karate training for the elderly, let me sum up. Here are the desiderata for a meaningful training and learning process for seniors:
less military drill, more individual practice,
less power/muscular strength, more relaxation,
less repetitions, more awareness/mindfulness,
higher stances, lower kicks, no acrobatics,
alternation in tempo, slow motion, fluid movements, no unnecessary tension,
breathing exercises, soft style martial arts practices (e.g. Qigong, Taijiquan),
less cardio, more rest,
lots of stretching, fascia release work,
fostering of body consciousness.
Spirit First, Sport Second
To engage in Karate training in old age can help to grow spiritually. Frantzis argues, for instance:
“Many Eastern physical exercise systems have at their core a spiritual tradition. … In both, yoga and quigong, physically-based internal exercises are preparatory phases of their respective spiritual paths. However both can be practiced with only the goals of enhancing health, reducing stress and quieting the mind.”
Frantzis 2006: 66
With the transplantation of these Eastern disciplines to the West, their spiritual roots have been clipped. Yoga is practiced as gymnastics for health, so is Tai chi or Karate. There is nothing wrong with this. It seems that the more popular these practices become, the more competitive and acrobatic they get. In Yoga ever more complicated contortions are added to the basic simple postures (asanas). Taijiquan has become an acrobatic performance or show in Wushu competitions. Even the way Kata are executed in Karate championships has become more and more theatrical and athletic. The reduction to sports is literally visible.
If one is not spiritually inclined, one can leave this aspect out and still benefit from the many good effects of the purely physical exercises. These however have to be adapted to age and ability. The focus may change from body to mind/soul. The older martial artist will likely put more emphasis on the spiritual core of his discipline. It will then unfold its full potential and richness.
To age means to have to let go
To age means to have to let go. There is much half-baked parlance about (Zen)Buddhism in martial art circles. Let me put it into a nutshell. The revolutionary message of the Buddha was: there is no permanent self, no soul (sanskr. an-âtman, Jap. Muga無我). This was blasphemy for the Hindus, but only consequent thinking in Buddhist terms: should there be an eternal soul, one would cling to it and this would hinder liberation.
Nothing is permanent (Jap. Mujô無常). So, do not attach yourself to anything. Your personality (ego), your thoughts and memories, your emotions – it is all fleeting and evanescent. To cling to them means suffering. Let go and you will be free. To die means to have to let go of everything. To age should teach us to let go step by step. Strength, speed, flexibility are inexorably on the wane with age. We have to let go e. g. of our high kicks and jumps.
One more consideration: time. The older you get, the more precious it is. And this connects to Buddhist concepts as well: every training, every movement, every breath could be your last. Therefore you give it your full attention in the here and now. You do it mindfully, as it is now fashionably called. Training becomes a blessing and fills you with thankfulness. This gives rise to compassion – another Buddhist virtue which should always be coupled with detachment.
What we can Learn from Buddhism for Jukuren Karate
To make it clear: I am not a Buddhist, but I want to show that if the influence of (Zen)Buddhism on martial arts is to be taken seriously, it implies more than just an unfettered, clear, “empty” mind (no-mind, Mushin 無心) or “lingering mind” (sustained attentiveness Zanshin 残心) to enable you to succeed in combat. These concepts have unfortunately been ideologically misinterpreted in order to legitimate killing enemies in a non-attached state of mind.
In the conclusion of his book, in which he exposed and analyzed the role of Zen-Buddhists during the second world war in Japan, the ordained Zen-monk Brian Victoria writes:
“Experienced Zen practitioners know that the ‘no-mind’ of Zen does in fact exist. … But they also know, or at least ought to know, that these things, in their original Buddhist formulation, had absolutely nothing to do with bringing harm to others. On the contrary, authentic Buddhist awakening is characterized by a combination of wisdom and compassion – identifying oneself with others and seeking to eliminate suffering in all its forms.”
Victoria 2006: 230-1
In China, meditation (be it Daoist or Buddhist) usually is an integral part of martial arts training. The Mokusô (黙想) at the beginning and the end of a Karate training session is a remnant of this practice. With the “internalization” of Karate the mental and spiritual aspect becomes more central. The focus can even completely shift to introspection.
Grandmaster Wan Lai Sheng said, for instance: “People who are too old and weak to practice Gongfu (or Karate for that matter, W.H.) can meditate in order to preserve health.” (Kozma 2013: 57)
In the Chinese martial arts it is the “internal” ones (like Taijiquan) which “are unique in that they seamlessly fuse exercise and meditation.” (Frantzis 2012: 5) Exercises can be found on a continuum from “meditation in motion” to “meditation in stillness”. With ageing comes a continuous reduction in the range of movements you are able to execute. In the martial ways you may give up the hard styles in favor of soft, internal practices. If these become too cumbersome, you may change to “immobile” or on the spot practices like Qigong, breathing exercises, meditation and self-inquiry.
The ultimate martial art might be the motionless one: to just sit, get absorbed and dissolved into pure consciousness, being, bliss. One may get a momentary taste of infinite emptiness (sankr. śūnyatā; jap. Kû 空), nondual suchness, the ground of all being and form, a timeless, formless eternal presence, the absolute reality. These are just helpless attempts to describe the indescribable. This insight is the apex of Buddhist wisdom.
Conclusion: Jukuren Karate as Kara Te
Let us be clear that Funakoshi Gichin had this meaning in mind, when he sought to change the character for “Kara” from 唐 (“China”) to 空 (“empty”). The decision was also politically motivated, since in the 1930s anything considered to be Chinese was not welcome to say the least. Funakoshi however explicitly referred to the most famous line in the Heart sutra 色即是空、空即是色 (shiki soku ze kû, kû soku ze shiki, form is emptiness, emptiness is form) on choosing the character 空. Could Karate-dô 空手道 in the deepest sense be the way (道) via the body (pars pro toto: 手) to the selfless Self, the incommensurable and inexpressible Absolute (空)?
For Funakoshi Gichin Karate was a way to stay healthy, an art for self-defence and a “method to cultivate the spirit” (精神修養法 seishin shûyôhô, see: Funakoshi 1922/2006: 5).
In Jukuren Karate we, therefore, should not strive mainly for physical prowess. The integration of the body and the mind, the original aim of (Shotokan) Karate, should stand at the center of our efforts. Then, elderly Karateka will benefit much better from Karate training. And it will also have a huge effect on your Dojo. Because a Dojo is a community that should comprise all generations and bring together the wisdom of the old and the energy of the young to be vital.
Benesch, Oleg:Inventing the Way of the Samurai. Nationalism, Internationalism, and Bushidô in Modern Japan. Oxford: Oxford UP 2014.
Frantzis, Bruce:Opening the Energy Gates of Your Body. Quigong for Lifelong Health. Berkeley, Calif.: North Atlanctic Books 2006.
Frantzis, Bruce:Bagua and Tai Chi, Martial Arts, Meditation and the I Ching. Berkeley, Calif.: Blue Snake Books 2012.
Kozma, Alex:Warrior Guards the Mountain. The Internal Martial Traditions of China, Japan and South East Asia. London & Philadelphia: Singing Dragon 2013.
Shotokan Karate Magazine: “The development of Shotokan”, Shotokan Karate Magazine 55 (1998), 20-22.
Shotokan Karate Magazine: Special Tribute Edition: Stan Schmidt (1936-2019). Hirokazu Kanazawa (1931-2019), Issue 143/March 2020
Victoria, Brian Daizen:Zen at War. 2nd ed. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield 2006.
Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Herbert holds the chair of Comparative Cultural Studies at the University of Tokushima, Japan. He obtained a degree in Japanese Studies and Religious Science. In 1975, he began to train Karate and can look back on a successful career as athlete and instructor. His last major victory was the 1st place in Kata at the 39th SKIF All Japan Karate-dô Championship Masters II (50-59yrs) in 2019. His Karate has been coined by Hirokazu Kanazwa, who also promoted him to 5th Dan in 2016. Beside Karate he also practices Taijiquan.
Yoshihide Suga did succeed Shinzo Abe as prime minister of Japan on September 16, 2020. He was sworn in by the Emperor of Japan Naruhito in the Imperial Palace as 99th prime minister. Before taking over office as PM Suga was the Chief of Staff of Shinzo Abe and prior to that hold several cabinet posts. In 2019, he revealed the current era of the Japanese calendar stipulated by the Tenno.
In an interview for JKFan in 2014 PM Suga commented on his Karate experience: “The things I developed through karate-do have served me well after I entered politics. I am keenly aware that the mental strength to endure difficulties was forged in the karate-do club.” Even today he does 100 sit-ups every morning to stay fit.
Yoshihide Suga promoted Karate for Olympics
That he is still committed to the martial art of Karate Do shows his political engagement for it. In 2014, became the President of the Parliamentary Federation for the Promotion of Karate-do. The aim of the federation was to establish Karate as an Olympic sport.
Whether the new Prime Minister will still has Karate as a priority can be doubt. Japan, like many countries, suffers from the immense economy downturn due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The top priority of PM Suga will be to mitigate the negative consequences of the pandemic and bring back Japan into a more stable economic condition.
However, for the global Karate community the election of PM Suga is already a great success and a fantastic promotion. To have a Karateka in the Japans highest office will give Karate a global exposure. And we are sure that Yoshihide Suga will serve as an excellent role model for the way of Karate.
In this month’s ‘Karate Essence’ column, as I answer the question, ‘what makes a Budōka?’ I will be revisiting some of the philosophical Budo themes I have previously examined in depth. While I allude, briefly, to an aspect of a Budōka I will reference a previous article or column for those readers not fully conversant with that characteristic. By TD McKinnon
Budōka: The Etymology of the Word
Budo (武道), of course, is a Japanese term; literally translated, it means the ‘Martial Way’, and may even be thought of as the ‘Way of War’. Budo is a compound of the root Bu (武:ぶ ), meaning War or Martial; and Dō (道:どう) meaning, the way or the path. However, in this modern era, it has become a reference, describing the spiritual foundation of most Japanese martial arts. In that perspective Budo becomes an idea. Modern Budō needs no external enemy. The enemy is within; it is the ego that must be defeated.
The suffix, ka (家), with its kanji character meaning ‘family, house, home’, is recognised in Budōka (as in Karateka) as meaning ‘student’ or, perhaps more accurately, a devotee of the aforementioned, Budo. The Budoka follows a path of self-improvement, formulating propositions and subjecting them to philosophical critique.
What is a Budoka?
According to the hypothesis that Budo is the spiritual foundation of Japanese Martial arts, and that Ka is a student or devotee of said spiritual foundation, then a Budoka is, quite literally, one who studies or practices the art of war. In other words, it could be said that it is a warrior.
For the Budoka, it is not about winning or losing a competition, as in Sport Karate for instance. I am not saying that the Budoka cannot also be a sportsman, just that the Karate sportsman is not necessarily a Budoka.
Originally, for the Budoka, the idea was to safely learn techniques that would lead to victory on the battlefield, or in any hostile encounter. The trophy on offer, of course, was surviving; as opposed to being killed or maimed by an adversary.
In everyday living in today’s environment, the practical importance of technique has become less vital for actual physical survival. However – while other aspects, including spiritual, aesthetic or competitive may come to the fore – it is still essential to the Budoka that there remains a realistic practicality to their training and teaching.
So far, I have talked about Budoka as an exclusively Japanese concept. I would like to add here that, the more I have learned about the meaning of the term, the more I realise that I have been a Budoka for most of my life. You do not have to be a Karateka, as such, to be a Budoka. I have already stated that not all those who practice Karate (Karateka) are Budoka; being a one involves a certain spiritual element, which not all Karateka embody.
In my humble opinion, those who merely go through the physical motions (as an exercise or for sport) may be Karateka but they are not Budoka. Those Karateka who embrace Karate-Do (the way/path) as a way of life, to be better each day (holistically) than they were the day before, are Budoka.
I have trained in the art of war (of fighting in all of its aspects) since my earliest memories. My rational was not to be able to hurt and dominate others; my goal has always been to defeat the fear, in me, of being hurt and dominated.
The true Budoka does not strive to be undefeatable but to be fearless. True fearlessness is a spiritual quality that the one acquires, eventually, through the acquisition of Zanshin, Mushin, Shoshin, Fudoshin and Senshin.
1. Zanshin (残心): ‘the lingering mind’ is aware of everything, without distractions.
2. Mushin (無心): ‘the uncluttered mind’, without judgement and emotion, deals with situations from the moment point.
3. Shoshin (初心): ‘the open, eager mind’, with its lack of bias, sees all options.
4. Fudoshin (不動心): ‘the peaceful, determined and courageous mind’ provides the confidence to endure, no matter the odds.
5. Senshin (洗心): ‘the enlightened mind’, striving to protect and be in harmony with all life, completes the five spirits of Budo.
Embracing the five spirits of Budo – the full Mantle of the Spiritual Warrior – endows the advanced Budoka with fearlessness; thus rendering that him, virtually, undefeatable.
Long before I had heard of the philosophical terms, of Zanshin, Mushin, Shoshin, Fudoshin and Senshin, I was on the path. And, while walking the long and winding road of the spiritual warrior, I have had the great honour and pleasure of the company of others; some were Karateka and some were not. In fact many of them, and at one time that would have included myself, had never even heard the term. Let alone the above Japanese terms for the five spirits of Budo.
So, what does make a Budōka?
I do believe that a thorough understanding of the five spirits of Budo can help the devotee on his path to enlightenment. However, I personally, firmly believe that an innate knowing and empathetic appreciation of the philosophies behind the labels is much more important than an intellectual verbatim of the philosophical labels themselves.
I will finish with a quote from lifelong martial artist and prolific writer, 88 year old, Bujinkan Soke Masaaki Hatsumi: “There are three kinds of Budoka: ones that try to look strong, ones that try to perfect there technique and ones that try to gain a good heart.” For me, being a Budoka, is about what is in the heart.
Souji (掃除, also Soji, Sōji) literally means “cleaning”. Everybody, who dives a little bit into the Japanese culture, realizes that cleaning, cleanness, and tidiness are of utmost importance. This also applies to Karate and Budo. Cleaning shall teach virtues like respect, humbleness, mindfulness, diligence, and a sense to be part of a collective. In addition, the practice of cleaning shall also lead to spiritual purity and enlightenment. How this works and why you should clean your Dojo regulary explains Dr. Christian Tribowski.
Souji, cleaning, is serious business in Japan. For instance, Japanese families organize a O-souji (大掃除), a big cleaning before the end of the year in order to welcome the New Year God, Toshigami-sama, in a nice and tidy house.
No wonder that the global queen of cleaning is from Japan. Marie Kondo aka KonMari is a 35 year old organizing consultant from Tokyo who has turned tidying into a million dollar business. According to Celebrity Net Worth her TV shows and books about how to get rid of clutter and how to make your apartment tidy and keep it this way have gained her $8 million so far.
But even at most unexpected places the Japanese show an incredible desire and urge to clean. For instance, after sports events. While this has long been reported to be the case in Japanese baseball stadiums, where fans and even the teams go through the rows and clean behind them after the game. Japanese football fans have brought this habit to a global stage. They also cleaned up their block in the stadium at the last world championships in Russia in 2018. Footage of cleaning Japanese fans first appeared on social media after the game against Colombia and the world was weirded out.
But the biggest surprise happened when the Japanese lost 3-2 against Belgium and had to leave the tournament. Right after the game and before they left the stadium, the Japanese national football team cleaned their locker room. According to The Independent, it was spotless and contained a thank you note.
Souji in the Dojo
The Dojo is also a place of constant Souji in Japan. After or before the training, students come together and clean the floor and also other parts of the Dojo. The traditional approach of Souji works the following way:
Little children, adults, and elderly all do the cleaning together.
The students line up with dry mops in their hands and go on the floor.
Then, they push the mop firmly with their hands on the ground and shove it through the Dojo.
Once they have reached the opposite side of the Dojo, they turn around and shove it again to the other side.
The floor has, thus, been mopped two times.
Modern Souji can also be done with a mop on a stick and in fun ways. While the most cultures perceive cleaning as cumbersome, Japanese Dojos show us how entertaining it can be. In the video below the Dojo turns Souji into a small competition.
Shinto and Zen: The Roots of Souji
But what are the roots of Souji? One hypothesis says: The school system in Japan teaches students right from the start of their education to take care of their classrooms and the school in general. Every student must take part in collective cleaning sessions. Therefore, cleaning is taught in schools as a important virtue.
One answer can be found in the ritual practices of the Shinto religion in Japan. Shinto is a natural and animistic religion where the practitioners believe in so called Kami. These are gods and spirits that inhabit all material things. Shinto is unique to Japan and understands human beings as pure and clean.
To become pure again the worshiper must go trough so called Harai (祓い): rituals of purification. Most of these rituals involve symbolic washing of the hands and mouth (Temizu, 手水). Some also require the Shinto practitioner to take a bath in a in a stream, a river, a lake or the ocean in a purification ceremony (禊 Misogi).
Shinto put, therefore, a tremendous weight on cleanness and purity. It also associates uncleanness and impurity with guilt, sin etc. That is why Japanese tend to avoid unclean situations where ever possible. As a consequence the Shinto and its notion of purity have a strong influence on Souji.
Zen and Cultivation
Another source responsible for the Japanese urge for cleaning lies in Zen Buddhism. Originally from China Zen flourished in Japan and has been one of the central cultural paradigms of the country. Especially the arts, craftsmanship, and the aesthetic of Japan have been shaped by Zen. But also Budo was highly influenced by the religion.
For instance, Yagyu Munenori (柳生 宗矩, 1571 – 1646), one of the formative figures of Kenjutsu (swordsmanship), stood in a close correspondence with Takuan Sōhō (沢庵 宗彭, 1573 – 1645) a central figure of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism and advisor to the Shogun. The most prominent result of the intellectual exchange between the swordsman and the monk has been the book The Unfettered Mind (不動智神妙録, fudōchi shinmyōroku) written by Takuan for Yagyu Munenori. In his book he applies Zen concepts and terminology to analyse Budo. Since then, a close relationship between the religion and the fighting arts has grown closer and closer.
But what does Zen teach about Souji? One of the most practical and contemporary accounts of this relation is the small book A Monk´s Guide to a Clean House and Mind by Shoukai Matsumoto first published in 2011. In his book he gives a very concise explanation about the relationship of Zen and Souji.
Cleaning isn´t considered burdensome, or something you don´t really want to do and wish to get over with as soon as possible. They say that one of Buddha´s disciples achieved enlightenment doing nothing but sweeping while chanting, “Clean of dust. Remove grime.” Cleaning is carried out not because there is dirt, but because it´s an ascetic practice to cultivate the mind.”
Shoukai Matsumoto shows: cleaning is a sacred act of self-cultivation in Zen. This becomes clear when he writes: “The people and things in your life are what makes you who you are … People who don´t respect objects don´t respect people.” (p. 4) The treatment of the outer world, therefore, directly influences yourself and your soul. To clean your surroundings means to clean your inner self and to cultivate yourself.
Shinto and Zen
If both approaches of Souji – Shinto and Zen – become combined they offer a plausible explanation why Japanese take cleaning so seriously. Because the practice of cleaning means, on the one hand, to get rid of trouble and bad karma (Tsumi and Kegare) through purifcation. On the other hand, it also promises self-cultivation and enlightenment. That means that everybody who cleans avoids bad and receives good within the same action at the same time – a strong tandem. The Zen notion of the interconnection between the world of the objects and the world of the subjects (spirits) links this approach to tangible places like shrines, temples, a house, a company, and also Dojos.
Why is Souji good for your Dojo and your Karate?
The Dojo is the place for the practice of the Do, the Karate way. Cleaning in the ritual Shinto and Zen sense comprises features that foster the ethical and spiritual development of Karatekas. Because rituals create and change perception, when they are constantly practiced. So, what can Souji teach us?
Respect: To clean something, like Shoukai Matsumoto writes, means to learn to respect it. When you regularly clean the Dojo it will change its meaning to you. You start to take care of it. It turns from an anonymous and functional place like a public gym into a place you connect with. Your perception of its change and condition becomes sharper. And you learn to not take it for granted. From here Karatekas can develop a sense of respect for others. Because the cleanness of a Dojo depends on everybody. Only when you work as a team the Dojo stays clean. So, when everybody must clean on a regular basis a sense of respect for the efforts of others emerges.
Purification: We are the world we live in. Therefore, we are also the Karateka of the Dojo we train in. A purified Dojo lays the foundation to become a purified Karateka. Dirt, shabby walls, filthy locker rooms etc. reflect on the soul. They increase the chance that somebody lets himself go mentally and spiritually. Thus, an unclean Dojo undermines its actual purpose: to serve as the place for the practice of Do.
Humility: To understand the efforts of others like cleaning also means to understand how dependent we all are. Joint cleaning turns peasants and lords into equals. We cannot live without others and nobody is an island. Therefore, we have to be humble and take a step back from our claims and our sense of entitlement. Instead, we should just clean the floor.
Evanescence: To clean means to connect and to deal with the evanescence of the world. After a hard Keiko, the floor is dirty. It is the natural process of deterioration and pollution. Souji requires to acknowledge this evanescence and to work against it. Instead of giving up against an unbeatable enemy, the evanescence, the cleaner chooses life and resistance in order to recreate the former pure status.
Joint experience: Like in every joint ritual the aspect of a collective experience is important. To Souji together means to bond, to share, and to show solidarity. A Dojo is a place of people. While everybody must go the Karate Do by himself, we all need fellows, who accompany us, help us, criticize us, pick us up when we are down, on who we can rely on, who push us, give us feedback, and have a drink together with us every now and then. Celebrating together creates a strong foundation for a group. But to get on the knees together to take care of the Dojo and working for its purification is practiced Karate Do in a collective action. That will lead to a real bond and a Karate family within a Dojo.
Do you regularly clean your Dojo? If not, the Souji Do might we worth trying.