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Correct Breathing in Karate: Kokyu, Techniques, and Exercises

The picture shows a woman breathing in Karate.

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:

  1. The sympathetic (activation, fight-flight),
  2. Parasympathetic (relaxation, regeneration) and
  3. 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.

Breath Therapy

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”

Gichin Funakoshi

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.
The picture shows Punito Aisenprais doing a Spinal Twist for breathing in Karate.

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.
The picture shows Punito Aisenprais doing a Knee Seat for breathing in Karate.

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.

The picture shows Punito Aisenprais doing a Zenkutsu Dachi for breathing in Karate.

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 Sensei stressed, 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.”

Andre Bertel 2016

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.

The picture shows Punitoe Aisenprais during a heart rate measurement and Karate. The heart rate has a huge influence an breathing in karate.

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:

  1. Conscious breathing strengthens and stabilizes the center for transmitting Kime from bottom to top;
  2. Conscious breathing strengthens awareness, mindfulness, respect;
  3. Conscious Breathing initiates and strengthens regeneration (via the Vagus nerve);
  4. Conscious breathing controls and moderates emotions – fighting spirit, penetration;
  5. Conscious breathing relaxes, sharpens and soothes the mind.

Author

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 keiko@bodhidharma.de; www.bodhidharma.de.

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Ki and Karate: From Science to Experience

The picture shows Aoki Osamu Shihan, the master of Ki.

Ki has always been a central concept for karate and other East Asian martial arts. However, especially in the West Ki has also been condemned as an esoteric idea. While some claims hold some water others do not. In the following article I am going to define Ki as a psychosomatic regulation capacity of the body and I will show how it can be explained and measured. I am going to make use of the vast research literature on Ki and draw from here some conclusions how it influences ones karate and how one can strengthen it during daily training. By Punito Aisenpreis

Ki, Qui or Chi: Driving Force for Any Action

Ki is generally and colloquially defined as “life force” or “vital energy” (気Chinese Qi, Jap. Ki). In the Japanese culture the expression is omnipresent: If two persons meet, they ask each other: O Genki Desu Ka? = how are you, how is your Ki? If someone leaves home, the other person says: Ki Otsu Ke Te = take care of your Ki! The Kanji character “気” means the steam, which rises from rice. In other cultures, Ki is referred to as Chi, Qi, (China), as Prana (India), or as Odem (Germanic heritage).

The picture shows the Japanese/Chinese letter (kanji) for Ki.
This is the Kanji: Ki.

Ki belongs to the central concepts of Traditional Chinese and Japanese Medicine and functions as a mediating factor between mind and body. As a psychosomatic holistic concept, it bridges the division of psyche and physic. In martial arts, Ki has a central function. The flow of Ki through meridians and the knowledge of vital points belongs to the foundation of Shotokan Karate (see Bubishi). In the terms Aikido, Kiai and Kime for example, Ki is a central element.

However, many martial artist and Shotokan Karateka deem Ki an esoteric concept that has been refused by Western medicine. Therefore, I will give a brief overview about Ki in medical research.

Ki and Western Medicine

The relationship of Ki and Western Medicine is indeed complicated. Two major reasons can be found for this: First, wrong translations and interpretations of Chinese concepts; Second, Charlatanism in the West. The major authority, when it comes to Ki research in the West, is Prof. Dr. Paul Unschuld, who holds the chair for theory, history and ethics of Chinese Lifesciences at the Humboldt University in Berlin. He examined the history of concept of Ki extensively.

His studies reveal that the meaning of Ki has changed in the course of the centuries. First, Chinese healers perceived it as some sort of vapors. Later they extended the meaning of the term to other phenomena. Therefore, Unschuld concluded in his opus magnum Huang Di Nei Jing Su Wen:

“We may assume that Qi, despite its many diverse applications, always referred to a vague concept of finest matter believed to exist in all possible aggregate states, from air and steam or vapor to liquid and even solid matter.”

(Unschuld 2003) (1)

From this standpoint, the translation of Ki as “energy” in a sense of electricity must be refused. According to Unschuld, it even might be possible that the concept of Ki became mystified when it was introduced in the West in the 19th century. Here charlatanism like electronic therapy and elixirs already existed and where widely used in societies. Exotic concepts like Ki became reinterpreted and alternative medicine circles eagerly integrated them in their portfolio.

The picture shows the Ki exercise "the unbendable arm" by Tohei Koichi.
Ki exercise “the unbendable arm” by Tohei Koichi.

The power of this mystification in the West even led to a change of understanding of Ki in East-Asia, when the concept became re-imported into Chinese. As Unschuld suggested in his research that Ki described for the Chinese healers in the past a chemical-molecular energy. They described it as “vapors”. An esoteric all-mighty energy, that flows through everything and connects heaven and earth, must be rejected.

Ki: A Empirically Measurable Phenomenon

Ki refers to an empirically measurable sensation and physiological effect like as it can be experienced in de qi during acupuncture (see Park et al 2013) (2). Modern research points to the same direction. Robert Chuckrow (2019) (3) argues that Ki could be part of the cell metabolism, happening in the mitochondria of the cell.

A Japanese research team around Tsuyoshi Ohnishi (2005, 2006) (4,5) examined the effects of a treatment with Ki on mitochondria function (inner breathing and energy provision) of the cell as well as on human cancer cells. According to their research the Ki transmitted from a Ki master (Nishino Kozo Sensei) to cells had a positive effect on the healing process. The Ki effect is empirical evident and well documented. Its healthy effects even convinced German health insurance, which cover acupuncture treatments since a few years.

However, a challenge poses the question what Ki is or how it can be described in theoretical terms. Paul Rusch (2009) (6) tried to theorize the concept in a paper about bioelectromagnetic and subtle energy. Here he refuses the notion of a chemical-molecular process that generates Ki.

According to his analysis Ki must be looked for an analytical level deeper. For him the most plausible concept that can explain Ki is subtle energies, which emerges in bioelectromagnetic field on the atomic level. Here the nervous system, molecular-chemical process and mental states are interrelated. But he also concludes: “Whether this energy is synonymous with some mysterious force called chi that correlates with electromagnetic fields is not clear.” (Rusch 2009: 310)

The picture shows a Mitochondrion - Cell regulation. Is it one engine for the Ki phenomenon? Source: Wikipedia 2006
Mitochondrion – Cell regulation. Is it an engine for the Ki phenomenon?

Russian and German researchers found the link between mitochondrial function and the heart rate variability (HRV), the scientific way of pulse diagnostics. (explained later in this text.) (7) The HRV rises with the body’s ability to create energy through the intake of oxygen (8). And the regulation of the autonomic nervous system, measured via HRV, can be trained and augmented through a specific HRV based breathing biofeedback training (9). To follow this chain of argumentation, HRV analysis and HRV training could detect and strengthen Ki. This might be helpful for Karateka who train frequently and hard.

Further research is needed to determine the very elements that Ki consists of. Until then it can be seen as an aggregate of a multitude of psycho-somatic processes that correlate with health and well-being – and it can be measured and strengthened – good news for Karateka!

Ki as Regulation Capacity

On an experiential level, Ki is the term used in the Japanese Martial Arts for a type of intrinsic process that is present in everyone, but in martial arts practitioners it is developed to a greater extent through the use of specific breathing and strengthening exercises as well as mental imagination techniques.

In both the Japanese and Chinese Martial Arts, Ki or Qi is said to originate in the abdomen (Hara in Japanese or Tan Tien in Chinese) and can be focused or concentrated with practice, into any part of the body. Also, on this level, Ki is more than just energy: It could be described as resilience, a force that withstands attacks and onslaughts on different levels. Ki is the capacity for self-regulation and the ability of the autonomic nervous system and the cell metabolism: Its responsive capacity for coping with adverse circumstances, preserving and supporting our health.

The picture shows a Ki exercise "the unbendable body" in the authors Ki class.
Ki exercise “the unbendable body” in the authors Ki class

Today, Budoka’ s challenges are mostly not the rogues lurking around the next corner but new threats like global warming, mobbing, intrigue, fake news, negativity and so on might be much more realistic. And more so, Ki is needed giving us the ability to cope for example with the threat of the Corona Virus on both a mental and a physical level.

Measuring and Determining Ki: The Traditional Way of Pulse Diagnostics

Pulse diagnostics is an integral part of Ayurvedic medicine, which developed in the Indus Valley around 5000 years ago. In China, diagnostics of pulse was developed under the influence of India between the 2nd and 8th century AC, but the true beginnings might well stretch back as far as up to 2700 years earlier. In Chinese medicine, it is used for the detection of disturbances of a person’s vital energy (Chi), which expresses itself as Yin (feminine) and Yang (masculine) energy.

The picture shows heartrate variability by means of ECG measure: Presentation of heartbeat regulation:  – Ki in action. Source: Author
Heartrate variability by means of ECG measure: Presentation of heartbeat regulation:  – Ki in action. Source: Author

Today the pulse diagnostics, in TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) and especially in acupuncture and Shiatsu (massage) of Traditional Japanese medicine, is used to detect disturbances in “energy flow”. It takes years of training to learn to detect it and daily practice in order to incorporate it in therapy. Modern physiology understands that pulse diagnostics looks at the function of the branches of our autonomic nervous system, a system that gains more importance in the last decades.

Heart Rate Variability: The Modern Successor of Pulse Diagnostics

There is a new scientific method of detecting the function of our self-running, vegetative/ autonomic nervous system: The analysis of heart-rate variability (HRV) is gaining increasing importance both in sports medicine and in the control of stress- and behavioral medicine. In particular, coaches can measure and control the condition of their athletes very precisely and thus achieve more competitive success, health and longevity. Measuring Ki in Karate training.

The picture shows 5 min. heartrate curve of a competitive athlete.
The picture shows 5 min. heartrate curve of a competitive athlete.
The picture shows a 5 min. heartrate curve after an acute burn-out.
5 min. heartrate curve after an acute burn-out.

High Ki: In a functioning autonomic nervous system at rest, the heart rate and the breathing are interconnected. (Figure 4 – left). The vagus nerve (rest and digest nerve) is stimulated and controls every heartbeat quickly, efficiently and with little effort.

Low Ki: In a stressed and unfit system (Figure 5 – see right), the heartbeat control is rigid and inflexible, controlled by the sympathetic nerve (fight – flight nerve). Any stress could lead to breakdown and damage.

Ki in Martial Arts Training

If we look at martial artists who incorporate Ki exercises in their training, we come across Koichi Tohei Sensei, Aikido and Ki teacher of the author, who promoted Shin Shi Toitsu Do (Mind-Body unification) of Tempu Nakamura (Japanese Yoga) since the 70ies of last century. The unbend-able arm (see Fig. 2.) and the unbend-able body (see Fig. 3) are central to his Ki exercises.

Another Japanese Ki master is Nishino Kozo Sensei with his Nishino Juku Ki breathing method, who also researched the effects of Ki on human cells. (see above). Both reached well over 90 yrs. of age.

In Karate, Aoki Osamu Shihan, the head of JKA Spain, has incorporated Ki principles into Shotokan teaching, the Aoki Bio Energy method. He graduated to 9th Dan in JKA Honbu Dojo Tokyo last year. He has developed five areas of connecting body and mind in this training: Youtai (stabilizing the body), Nyu sei: (physical and psychological preparation), Yurumi Taiso (exercises for relaxation), Kokyu Ho (breathing exercises), Dooki (activation and flowing of Ki).

The picture shows Aoki Osamu Shihan, the master of Ki.
The picture shows Aoki Osamu Shihan, the master of Ki. Source: JKA Spain.

If we look at the teaching of today’s prominent JKA Karate Senseis, we detect several Ki principles in their lessons: Naka Shihan for example does stability testing as well as giving mental cues during his classes, Shimizu Ryosuke Sensei is emphasizing on relaxing into gravity while punching and Ueda Daisuke Sensei teaches at JKA Honbu Dojo the effect of Oi Tsukis extending Ki while executing.

Strengthening Ki in your Daily Karate Training

Ki principles could be part of every Karate training. This would expand the muscle power driven competitive Sports-Karate to a more holistic approach unifying mind and body aspects of the art.

The following Ki principles could enhance Kihon, Kata and Kumite alike:

1. Keep one point: Focus your mind on the center of gravity in your body.

2. Feel your weight underside: Allow yourself to relax into gravity and sense the ground.

3. Extend your Ki: Let our mind extend beyond your physical limits in every technique.

4. Relax completely: Calm your mind and let go of physical tensions while executing techniques.

5. Stability testing as well as the “unbend-able arm test” and the unbend-able body test” would enrich daily training and induce relaxing and awareness elements at any point of a hard workout.

References

  1. Unschuld, Paul 2003: Huang Di Nei Jing Su Wen: Nature, Knowledge, Imagery in an Ancient Chinese Medical Text, University of California Press.
  2. Park JE., Ryu YH., Liu Y., Jung HJ., Kim AR., Jung SY., Choi SM. 2013: A literature review of de qi in clinical studies. In: Acupuncture Medicine 31(2), 132-42.
  3. Chuckrow Robert, Ph.D. 2019: A Biological Interpretation of Ch’i (Qi): 2019 qui-encoclpedia.com
  4. Ohnishi ST, Ohnishi T, Nishino K, Tsurusaki Y, Yamaguchi M. 2005: Growth inhibition of cultured human carcinoma cells by Ki-energy (life energy): scientific study of Ki-effect on cancer cells. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med 2: 387–93.
  5. S. Tsuyoshi Ohnishi, Tomoko Ohnishi and Kozo Nishino 2006: Ki-Energy (Life-Energy) Protects Isolated Rat Liver Mitochondria from Oxidative Injury: eCAM 3 (4)475–482
  6. Rosch, Paul J. 2009: Bioelectromagnetic and Subtle Energy Medicine. The Interface between Mind and Matter. In: Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.
  7. Kuchera et. al. 2003: Mitochondrial Therapy: Some questions of autonomic regulation mechanisms with use of HRV: Stress Research Institute, Meissen, State research Institute Moscow, Institute for New medical. T., Riazan.
  8. Aisenpreis, Punito M. 2017: The improvement of the parasympathetic response and the O2 intake at rest of stress-exposed patients through an HRV controlled application of intermittent Hypoxia/ Hyperoxia Therapy (IHHT): A pilot study out of therapeutic practice: University of Halle sport science.
  9. Aisenpreis, Punito M. 2013: The improvement of the parasympathetic response through a personalized 9 weeks HRV biofeedback training: University of Halle sports science.

About Punito M. Aisenpreis

Body-mind medical practitioner and researcher in Bavaria. Martial Arts and Meditation Teacher. Shotokan Karate since 1975, currently 4. Dan JKA. Ki Training with Koichi Tohei, 3 years living in an Ashram in India. Regular Karate training in Japan with Andre Bertel and the JKA. Fascia therapy since 1981. Founding of the German Society for Myofascial Release e.V. in 1994. Bodhidharma Karate Dojo Murnau, teaches Karate, HRV and Fascia seminars.

The picture shows Punito Aisenpreis the author of the article Ki and Karate.
Punito Aisenpreis the author of the article “Ki and Karate”


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Karate and Fascia: A Fascinating Approach about Kime

Recently, scientist explored and proved the immense importance of the body’s fascia network for fitness and health of athletes. A well-trained and well-integrated fascial network optimizes both maximum performance and coordination. By including fascial consciousness in the Karate training it lifts performance limits. Fascial preloading and Catapult-like discharge allow extremely fast and effortless movements. The fascial system is loaded and discharged to the point of the highest tension, the kime. By Punito Michael Aisenpreis

The Fascinating Organ

Fascia (lat. fascia  for “band”, “bandage”) refers to the soft tissue components of the connective tissue that penetrates the whole body as an enveloping and connecting tensional network. These include all collagen fibrous connective tissues, in particular

  • joint- and organ capsules,
  • tendon plates,
  • muscle septa,
  • ligaments,
  • tendons, as well as the
  • “actual” fascia in the form of “muscle skins” that enwrap the whole body stocking-like.

Numerous manual therapeutic procedures aim to trigger a lasting change in fascia. These include, for instance, the connective tissue massage, osteopathy, Rolfing, or Myofascial Release.

The picture shows the fascia system within a muscle.
Figure Above: Septa: courtesy Dr. Robert Schleip

A Brief History of Fascia Research

Karate originated about 130 years ago in Okinawa with Chinese influence in secret from the “Tode” (Itosu, Asato). Gichin Funakoshi refined it in Japan from the 1920s. Around the same time, osteopathy emerged in the United States. Andrew Taylor developed the manual healing art in the “wild west”, where there was no medical care. In osteopathy, the importance of fascia as the all-connecting and nourishing tissue was emphasized from the beginning of the art.

Western medicine, on the other hand, perceived fascia mostly as mere packaging organs and ignored its meaning. In practical anatomy, medical students around the world learned to prepare away the enveloping fascia as comprehensively as possible, so that “you could see something”. However, German medical Prof. Dr. Alfred Pischinger discovered in the 1970s the immune and protective functions that take place in the fascial connective tissue, as a system of basic regulation.

The picture shows fascia of the back: Fascia thoraco-lumbalis Septa: courtesy Dr. Robert Schleip.
Fascia of the back: Fascia thoraco-lumbalis Septa – courtesy Dr. Robert Schleip

Fascia: The Internet of the Body

Fascia works like an internet within the body. Due to its features we are able to perceive and control our bodies. Research on myofascial power transmission made a significant contribution to the new understanding of fascia. Most muscles transfer a considerable part of their traction force not directly to the associated tendons, but to parallel neighboring muscles.

This is mainly done via cross-connections between adjacent muscle shells. That neighboring muscles are coworker, supporter or enabler muscles is not surprising. However, as we have now found out, this also happens between functional antagonistic muscles. Even in a healthy human being, muscles influencing membranous fascial tensions instead of directly acting on the skeleton, so like ropes that span a sail.

The picture shows a microscopic fascia structure. Courtesy Dr. Robert Schleip
Microscopic fascia structure. Courtesy Dr. Robert Schleip

Kime: the Art of Controlled Locking

The Karate of the old master shows movements that explode without effort or intent. In Karate, Kime refers transmitted energy at the moment of greatest tension during a stroke or kick. Practitioners should carry out movements quickly and relaxed. At the moment of the meeting of the technique the body discharges the energy.

Kime is an essential part of karate. Viewed from the outside, Kime appears as a sudden controlled locking (“snapping”) of the technique-carrying arm or leg a few centimeters (Sun-dome) in front of the target, or in an emergency exactly at the target. Mastery of the Kime allows both fast, and at the same time powerful techniques. I addition, it protects the fighter from getting tired due to permanent muscle tension. This explosion and snapping uses the charged and preloaded fascial system.

The picture shows hikite: Drawing back the hand preloads the fascia: Photo Punito M. Aisenpreis
Hikite: Drawing back the hand preloads the fascia: Photo Punito M. Aisenpreis

Kime is not a Muscle Cramp: Pre-loading versus Tightening

Karate beginners sometimes misunderstand Kime as pure muscular tension. This makes their techniques slow and this costs a lot of energy. In the long run, this permanent muscle tension makes the muscles hard and short, the fascia matted and immobile and destroys the joints, often hips or knees. When a Japanese Sensei says “tightening,” he probably means “pre-loading” and then letting go. At the end of the explosive movement, the fascial tension of one movement locks the arm or leg and thus builds up new fascial tension for the next movement. Thus, a catapult-like motion dynamic is created. This acts much faster and from the center of the body than would be possible with pure muscle contraction.

The picture shows an illustration: By Onno - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/idex.php?curid=4738182
Illustration: By Onno – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/idex.php?curid=4738182

The Double-Directed Bow: Pre-charging, Letting go, Pre-charging!

At the end of every movement the catapult charges itself (Kime) for the next catapult movement. The follow-up technique receives the energy from the Kime of the previous technique. It behaves like a pre-charged bow, which preloads after the release of an arrow. Then it loads up again and shots the next arrow. This pre-loading does not take place primarily in the muscles, but in the fascia. Thus, even small and less muscular athletes can perform lightning-like and strong techniques if they rely on the advantages of their fascia system. (see, for example: Sensei Andre Bertel and Sensei Naka Tatsuya).

The picture shows a double bow. The mechanics behind the fascia pre-loading can be understood like a double-bow.
The mechanics behind the fascia pre-loading can be understood like a double-bow. Source: Wikipedia

Fascial trains, breathing, and Kime: “San ten riki ho”

A strong Gyaku-zuki executed on the heel, and the internal tension of the adductor fascia in Zenkutsu dachi gives us a stable position. This becomes obvious when we look at Karate stances and techniques from a fascial system point of view. Consider the compression of the fascial chains from foot to hip together with a hip rotation and the discharge of these compressed joints along the fascial trains with weight shifting in the direction of the technique.

Breathing in the lower abdomen allows us to stimulate the vegetative nervous system by compressing the fascia of the trunk and thus “collecting Ki”. The trunk fascia transfers this through hip rotation into the shoulder, elbow and fist.

The picture shows the myofascial trains. Courtesy of Tom Myers.
Myofascial Trains courtesy of Tom Myers

When the stance is combined with fascia compression on the ankle, hip rotation, and power transfers along the fascia trains with Kokyu (breathing power) and weight shifting, a powerful technique is effortlessly created that explodes with Kime. So we have “San” (three) “ten” (places) of “riki” (power) transferred through the fascial system. Good examples of the pre-loading of the fascia before the explosive unloading are also the Hikite (drawing back hand to hip) and the Hikiashi (drawing back of the foot).

Fascia Injury and Fascial Damage

Most overload damage in the sports sector does not affect the red muscle flesh, but the white-colored collagen fiber network of the body, what we call fascial tissue. We also know today that this network is one of our most important sensory organs. It is the basis of our coordinate body perception. In addition, fascia can bond, matte, scar and lose its spring force and mobility. The fascia network can also change to the detriment of a wrong diet, permanent stress and permanent physical tension. It can become rigid and immobile, and become a source of pain, burden and dysfunction.

The picture shows a fascia of a 6-year-old (left) and a 90-year-old (right)
Fascia of a 6-year-old (left) and a 90-year-old (right)

Fascia Training and Therapy

A well-trained and integrated fascia network optimizes both maximum performance and the coordination of detailed movements. There are many receptors in the fascia that give information about how the body behaves in motion. Thus, it is not the skin that is our largest sensory organ, but the fascia. A well-trained connective tissue is elastic and stretchy, at the same time tear-resistant and strong and forms the basis for vital strength and physical performance. These are important resources for a long-term healthy Karate training.

The picture shows a 3D digital render of a human figure with muscle maps in a shuto-uke martial arts position isolated on white background. Muscles and tendons with the fascia lata of the thigh: Photo: iStock.
3D digital render of a human figure with muscle maps in a shuto-uke martial arts position isolated on white background

Make Fascia Fit Again

The fascial system is highly innervated and can be acting as a pain generator. This is one of the most important new findings in fascia research. Micro-cracks in the back fascia often seem to act as pain generators. As new studies have shown, the intervertebral disc often has nothing to do with the cause of pain. To wear off of the intervertebral disc is a natural process like graying of the hair. But it does not automatically cause pain   – even with a clearly visible herniated disc.

From now on, we can and must argue body and exercise therapists in a completely different way in terms of training and stress. Some traditional back school methods, for example, have spared the fascia in everyday life, instead of strengthening their elasticity and tear resistance through a well-dosed training.

The result may come suddenly: If you make an unjointed movement with a crooked back, the fascia is not trained and tears. Research has shown that that backfascia play an crucial role in cases of acute back pain. Therefore, it is sometimes essential to consult a specialists on this fascia. Targeted fascia therapy solves adhesion and bonding. The fascial layers can slide again on top of each other and regain mobility and flexibility. This therapy frees the patient from acute and chronic pain. It increases mobility and well-being in the body. This often leads to a feeling of vitality, joy and lightness, and to effortless and lightning-fast Karate techniques.

Fascia-friendly Diet

At birth, our body and connective tissue consist of almost 75% water. This liquid content decreases to about 55% with age. Sufficient fluid supply is essential for a functioning fascia system. However, it should not be an alcoholic or sugary drink, but water with possibly some electrolytes. Alcohol causes the fascia system to swell and mattify. Too little water forces it it to dry out. The “few beers” after the workout are poison for our fascia system. Acidified and greased fascia is the location for many metabolic toxins that our bodies can no longer dispose. Long-chain fiber-rich carbohydrates such as quinoa, millet or natural rice provide our fascia with a continuous source of energy.

The picture shows sensei Tatsuya Naka in action (on the right).
Sensei Tatsuya Naka in action (on the right).

Collagen and elastin, the components of the fascia, are made of proteins, so it is important to supply the body with these substances sufficiently to renew the fascia system. “Light” proteins such as soy products, chicken or fish are recommended. Unsaturated fatty acids (omega3) are just as important for our fascia system, which we can source from olive oil, linseed oil or fish.

Important vitamins for connective tissue are vitamin C, D, K and all B vitamins. Calcium, the micronutrients magnesium, potassium and sodium must be well balanced to keep our fascia system in good shape. Some other trace elements such as selenium, zinc, molybdenum and manganese. We can eat all these substances with a natural and unrefined diet using mainly vegetables and fruit.

Kihon, Kata, Kumite – Practice Karate in the fascia!

Each training component of the fascia training in Karate focuses on one of the outstanding properties of the collagen network with the aim of increasing the resilience (spring force) of the connective tissue. In this sense, each Karate training should contain the following fascia components:

  1. Spring action. Catapult Training (elastic spring): spring action movements for strengthening the tissue flexibility. Rotational movements of the torso as well as opening and closing of the shoulder belt with chest and back tension can increase the ability to catapult-like movements. In addition, the warm-up can contain springy movements. Roller backwards, forwards and fall exercises also improve spring force.
  2. Stretching. Agility Training (Fascial Stretching): Stretching exercises to increase flexibility. At the end of training with a warmed-up body improves mobility. Individual segments with shoulder belts or hips as well as the whole body can be stretched alone or as a partner exercise.
  3. Invigorating. Myofascial Release (Fascial Release): techniques for dissolving, rehydration and regeneration, metabolic training. This is where targeted nutrition, fascia roll and partner treatment come into play.
  4. Refining. Sensory Refinement: promoting the quality of movement and body feeling. Pause during a movement, isolation of a body side, performing kata “Ura” and practice with closed eyes are effective here. Balance exercises on one leg, partner strength tests and the often so underrated meditation before and after the workout refine our perception.
The picture shows the master of fascial snap and fascial elasticity: Sensei Andre Bertel (left
Master of fascial snap and fascial elasticity: Sensei Andre Bertel (left)

Fascia Consciousness: The Solar Sails of the Soul

In regard to extended perception skills the fascia forms a system from toes to head of an elastic fiber network. This network can be experienced for example in meditation and slow motion Karate practice as a kind of elastic dome tent structure within. When this structure is functioning properly, the sense of free flowing energy is experienced: Ki is flowing through the body from toes to head and vice versa. Then in Karate, empty hand and empty mind are filled with universal energy. Deep fulfillment is happening in that very moment beyond the wining of competitions, championships and trophies! The solar sails of the soul are charged with energy, when fascia is working properly.


“Tradition does not mean worshiping the ashes, but passing on the fire”. Gustav Mahler

Author: Punito Michael Aisenpreis, Coach, Therapist and Trainer in Munich and Murnau, Martial Arts and Meditation Teacher. Shotokan Karate since 1975, currently 4. Dan JKA and DJKB Trainer. Ki Aikido with Koichi Tohei, 3 years living in an Ashram in India. Regular Karate training in Japan with Andre Bertel and the JKA. Fascia therapy since 1981. Founding of the German Society for Myofascial Release e.V. in 1994.

The picture shows Punito Michael Aisenpreis.
Punito Michael Aisenpreis

Bodhidharma Karate Dojo Murnau, teaches Karate and fascia seminars.

Literature with the author. E-Mail aisenpreis@somatic.de; www.bodhidharma.de

This article was first published in Germany in the DJKB magazine.

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Makiwara – The Return of the Karate Tool

The makiwara is an important tool for karateka. But most have it almost forgotten. However, it seems to on the verge to return to the dojos. By Michael Ehrenreich

The Makiwara is a piece of wood with padding. This is what a makiwara consists of: a post and some padding, which is traditionally a roll of rice straw attached to the top of the post. In addition, this is also where the name derives from, maki for roll and wara for straw.

What is a Makiwara?

The makiwara originated from Okinawa where, with very little natural resources, they do have wood or rice straw. The length and the width of the posts vary but ideally reach about head level and are at least 12 cm (about 5 inches) wide. The resistance of the posts varies also, from not giving at all (good when hitting combinations) to flexing on impact. For the post oak, cherry, maple, walnut, or just plain pine are the most common types of wood. The padding is usually foam rubber covered with leather or wrapped with duct tape. Some people still go with the traditional straw pads. The posts are than attached to a wall or driven into the ground.

My Beginnings With the Makiwara

Over time and through the length of my karate career, the makiwara had vanished from most dojos. That is true for western countries as well as Japan. At least when it comes to Shotokan karate. As a result, the makiwara became almost a myth. The first generation of karateka in Germany still hit this wooden post, but it had long disappeared when I started with karate in the late 1970s. Then one day this guy showed up at our dojo, Siegfried Trapp was his name, and he had brought with him a makiwara. His goal was to market his version of a makiwara and he gave us one to try it out. Well, that was in the mid-1980s and you can image his success rate. I never saw him again. But at least our dojo had its first makiwara.

It was the time when sport karate started to get more popular. With weight classes, protection gear all around the body, and a multiple point system, there was clearly no need for this kind of training equipment. And who needs a makiwara for belt tests anyway? As a result, the makiwara was plainly uncool. When people saw me hitting the post, they would only give me a pitiful smile. Maybe even try to get me some professional help. I kept hitting the makiwara anyway; I was hooked for life.

Limited Knowledge and an Okinawa Master

Back then I practiced the only way I knew, by throwing gyaku zukis with both sides and a lot of them. A regular karate class would run 90 minutes and so I would hit the makiwara for almost that long, after warming up a little. In the early 1990s Sakumoto Tsuguo, a former kata champion from Okinawa, was staying for one year in Cologne. Ochi Hideo, the German national trainer at that time, told me to take care of him and so I did. We practiced almost daily together at our dojo, the Sportcenter Bushido in Cologne, headed by the late Horst Handel. We lifted weights and, of course, hit the makiwara.

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First thing Sakumoto did, though, was change the padding. He bought a wooden board, about 30 cm (about 12 inches) long and wrapped a rope around it. That was our pad. Imagine my knuckles after the first practice.  (After Sakumoto had left Germany it took months to get them back into their original shape.)

Techniques From a Short Distance

However, the other thing he introduced me to were techniques from a short distance. Punches, but also strikes. I wasn’t convinced at first. You know, he was a rather short man from Okinawa, a kata guy. So, he was thankfully very patient with me. Firstly, he gave me a demonstration. He had me tightening my abs and then hit me with his flat hand from a distance of about 5cm (2 in.). Now he got my attention and for the next few days I would witness all imaginable discolorations appearing on my stomach. So, I started hitting short techniques as well.

Why I Changed My Makiwara Training

As a result, I had changed the intensity of my makiwara training. Instead of hitting non-stop for 90 minutes, I went with 10 repetitions and varying number of sets. As a sports major I took some inspiration from weight and athletic training, especially from track and field coaches. I was also competing in the shobu-ippon-system. So, I focused on punches and hit 10 gyaku zuki alternating right and left and repeated that a second time. Then I took a 1-minute break.

The idea behind the breaks were that I was able to hit at 100% until the very last punch. These two rounds made one set, with 10 sets in all. After gyaku zuki I hit tate zuki (straight punch from a shorter distance with a vertical fist) with the same structure but only in 5 sets. That resulted in a total of 300 punches for each side. I did this program 3-times a week. My goal here as a competitor was to be able to stop any opponent, also much heavier ones. I was part of the JKA-group and we didn’t have weight classes. Meaning, I would encounter heavier fighters, the biggest I faced off with was about 40kg (90lbs) heavier than me. This program worked well for me.

A Variety of Techniques

As I mentioned above, Sakumoto also introduced me to strikes. After retiring as a competitor, I added those to my program. All kind of strikes, shuto uchi (knife hand strike), teisho uchi (palm heel strike), haito uchi (ridge hand strike) etc. I also kicked with mae geri, added combinations and did some techniques gliding towards the makiwara. I added different punches, yama zuki and kage zuki for instance, hook punches from above or a different angle.

Less Repetitions But 100% Focus

Over the years I have been doing less repetitions. But I still hit the makiwara 3-4 times a week. I still go with the 10-repetition structure but usually only with 3 sets. With 7-8 different techniques each time, that makes 200-250 punches or strikes with each side. Working on my hitting power is still my goal, so I hit each time with 100%. But I also want to include more muscle groups in my workout with the makiwara. Training in a more balanced way. So I hit from different distances, angles, and with a bigger variety of techniques.

How do we get the most out of our makiwara training? The characteristic of the makiwara is the increasing resistance on impact. That means, the best way to use this karate tool is to hit with thrust techniques. Techniques that go deep into the target. We would therefore hit from a distance that allows us to hit deep.

Makiwara Gives You Direct Feedback

The makiwaras’ big advantage is its direct feedback. It tells us immediately if there is anything wrong with our techniques. Positioning of the joints, hitting with the wrong body part (hitting too much with our fingers instead of the basic joint when doing haito uchi), unstable stance, etc. To make use of this immediate response of our wooden coach, we stay a little longer than usual on impact. This gives us the necessary time to control our posture. With more experience we shorten this time on impact. With more experience we also look behind the target, in the distance. This prevents us from looking only at the target and helps us make use of a more peripheral vision. Adjusting the vision behind the target will further help us hitting deeper into the target.

The most important aspect of a karate technique is that it must hit an opponent in order to eliminate him, the opponent who doesn’t want to get hit and even fights back. If the opponent sees our technique coming, we are not fast enough! So, we always focus on an explosive acceleration first and a strong technique at impact. This is important, also when working with the makiwara! We need to stay sharp! Until the last strike.

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Always start with lightening speed and then hit with a strong impact! We call this power, speed and strength. Don’t fall into this rhythm that works with an even, rather slow speed. Sadly, that is the one we often witness. That is a rhythm that relaxes us more than it forces us to work harder. So, stay sharp and stay focused the whole time! Use speed and strength to increase your hitting power. Especially when working with the makiwara.

Hitting From a Fighting Position

Most beginners will go through the whole range of movement and start their techniques from the hips, as in basics. There is nothing wrong with that. But eventually we should advance from that starting position and hit from a fighting position. When doing so, and especially when hitting from a very close distance, make sure to hit directly towards the target, do not wind up.

Some advice for more experienced karateka. Hit the makiwara with the intention to do some damage. Hit target oriented, don’t be concerned with technical issues. If you do punches, think about your knuckles and the target. Knuckles – target, knuckles – target…Then get the knuckles as fast and as strong as possible into the target. That also means starting the attack from your fist, not from your hips! This is an important point. The fist starts first, and the rest of the body needs to catch up and unites at impact. If you start with a hip motion you will give the opponent more time to react.

The Focus Must be to Eliminate an Opponent

Remember, the makiwara is only a training tool to increase our hitting power in order to eliminate an opponent. The makiwara is a means to an end. It doesn’t help us to hit hard if an opponent sees it coming and is able to react. What I said here about punches is true for all techniques.

Further, add hitting while out of your ideal position, or when off balance. For instance, when you have a wooden floor, put on socks. Add movement to your strikes. Strike from an angle that might not allow the perfect support of your body. Change the time of day when working out. Hit the makiwara after your normal class, just when you’re exhausted. And if you are a competitor, add short punches. Even when you are not using those in competition. But as with sprinters who practice a lot of 10-30m (10-30 yard) sprints, your long punches will benefit from practicing short punches as well when you make sure to focus on a rapid acceleration.

Makiwara Will not Lead to Arthritis

Let me also touch here very briefly on a reappearing myth in karate. “Makiwara training is dangerous and will lead to arthritis.” This is nonsense! Makiwara training is no more dangerous than other work out programs. Just use common sense. Move forward progressively, start slow and easy with an increasing intensity over time. That way you will maximize your hitting power and toughen the body parts you hit with, without getting injured.

In my first book I also have a chapter about makiwara training. When working on it, I talked to several physicians, all karateka, about makiwara and arthritis. Turns out, there is no correlation between these two! There is a strong genetic correlation though. If your parents and grandparents have or had arthritis, you are more likely to suffer from it too. There is also a correlation between joint injuries and arthritis. That is why it is so important to work out in a progressive way and stay focused throughout our workout. But this is true for all different kinds of workouts.

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The Renaissance Of The Makiwara

For a long time and for the past few decades, the makiwara was a tool that the karate world would despise. As mentioned before, it was considered uncool. I am not saying that working out with the makiwara is being regarded as cool now. We are not quite there yet. But the makiwara is being taken seriously again as an important training tool. I don’t know of any other tool to strengthen our hitting power as effectively as the makiwara. In addition, the makiwara increases our overall strength, without damaging the joints (like when hitting without impact).

The Makiwara Is a Honest Tool

In Japan, they say that hitting the makiwara will increase the density of our bones. If lifting weights increases our bone density, than it is likely that makiwara training does the same. The makiwara is an honest tool. It gives immediate and blunt feedback about the quality of our techniques. If we ask the right way. Maybe we karateka are ready for this kind of honesty again. The makiwara is a simple tool, just a piece of wood with some padding. It is a solid tool. In this time of rapid changes and constant stream of information, it is maybe this simplicity and solidity that will make a comeback for the makiwara. The makiwara is loyal. It is always there for us when training partners are absent. Honest and loyal, simple and solid – the makiwara, a traditional karate tool for our modern times!

More and more dojos are adding the makiwara to their equipment. I was even invited to teach a clinic solely on makiwara training the other day. People may still look at us confused (like my neighbors do) when they see us hitting the makiwara, but they don’t laugh at us anymore. So let’s keep hitting!