Today is a ground breaking day to mark in your calendar and celebrate annually from this day henceforth. April 23, 2015, Kris Reynolds writes the first article on Karate Kawartha Lakes Site, which spawned the future barrage of laughter and criticism of his clearly amateur and poorly thought out writing. If that's what you're thinking now, just wait until after you read this article......and if you still think that, well..... take comfort that you are behind a keyboard perhaps half the world away, so you are safe...likely.
All articles I post on this site are ideas as I understand them (at the time I wrote it). Be easy on your judgement, by the time you are reading it, I have hopefully changed my understanding on the matter (because I am even awesome-er now! ... and humble-er). Before you get to offended, I do not claim credit for the ideas and concepts in this article. They are a compilation of lessons I have been taught from those who have come before me..... now that I've worried about everyone's "feelings", lets to it.
For my first article, I decided to talk about stances.....because that's where most karate basics begin, so why shouldn't I start there too. Despite the perception that traditional karate emphasizes only very rigid and structured stances, this could not be farther from the truth…eventually. As a beginner, rigid stances are taught to develop strength, control, balance, and the ability to precisely control your body. Any karate-ka that has spent time in a traditional school can recall a time where they were placed into an excessively deep basic stance to practice “basic techniques” or asked to again, for what seemed like the millionth time to practice a “beginner level kata”. I emphasize “beginner level kata” because although some kata may be longer, and considered more advanced in a particular style, all Kata focus on underlying fighting concepts that will be precisely as advanced as the person practicing them.
In modern day more “competition focused” karate schools this is oft en disregarded in favour of training speed and distance or fighting drills that will increase agility and tournament favoured techniques and fighting range to win tournaments. Although this will often result in developing many of the same or similar skills, it is a “dead end road” in karate training. It oft en leads to practitioners that do not understand the value of the stance, or the basic movement, and in extreme cases, leads to schools that will abandon Kata training all together, insisting that it is antiquated and useless training. As you might guess, my thoughts are polar opposite to this. The basic stance and movement training in karate will begin as a foundation as described above, and when added into the basic kata practiced in the school will teach students to lock out their body at the moment of impact, and to transition weight and stance fluidly and effectively so they can later learn how to combine this with the other more advanced principals to become a more effective all around fighter.
As a student advances in training, stances become more important, but less rigid. This does not suggest that stances become less formed, but represent different learning opportunities. As a karate-ka’s understanding and skill develop, the principals and information contained in a technique, or a stance in this case will always advance and have more to teach.
Stances at an advanced level are indications of weight distribution and angles of attack relative to ones opponent during the prescribed technique. When combined with the knowledge of transitioning between the previous and proceeding stances and techniques you will find the key fighting concept in the kata. As you would expect, rigid stances have a purpose within the confines of training inside the dojo, but in a real situations they are usually all but lost due to the nature of fighting. Fighting is ugly, and usually it is spontaneous, hence more filled with reaction than thought. Some people would explain stances away as preparation for this as an over exaggeration, which will lessen, but still be effective enough when the body reacts to get the job done. Although there is likely an element of truth to this, it is far more likely that the “ideal circumstance” of executing the technique as the creator of the Kata had intended can be found by looking at the change in direction and weight distribution from the previous stance in the kata while performing the movement.
As an example, in (Pinan Shodan / Heian Nidan) the beginning sequence is a Kokutsu Dachi with a tetsui (Back Stance with a hammer fi st - Wado), or a Zenkutsu Dachi with Gedan Barai (Front Stance with low block - Shoto-kan), followed by stepping through with an Oi-Tsuki in Zenkutsu Dachi (lunge front punch in front stance – Wado & Shoto-kan)
In both systems a commonly accepted application is a block of a strike to the lower mid section (usually from the side ~ which does not make sense and will be discussed more in the angles section), followed by a stepping lunge punch to the solar plexus.
This application is fantastic for beginners, and will be likely what a kyu belt would interpret if left to fi gure out the meaning on their own. This is a very important part that all students must go through to fully benefit and understand the development of the kata. Although the application is not a realistic application that a seasoned fighter would implement, it will develop good technique, a solid base and precise movement required at that level before more realistic applications are available.
WARNING: Do not disallow your students the benefit of training like this for a period of time to figure out on their own that it can be better.
It is because you went through that process that you understand how to make a better application and why. They need the same opportunity to learn that you had, to be able to get to where you are in
understanding to progress. Most advanced students would easily recognize that there are several inconsistencies in distance, timing, and effectiveness of using this application. A more logical thought is to assume that you have arm to arm contact already established, and are using the first movement to push or pull your opponent off balance with the first technique (possibly with the addition of an arm control), and follow through with either throwing them to the ground, or attacking a vital point with a devastating blow to end the conflict.
In either case we can see the same fighting concept, although interpreted differently by the two styles.
- Otsuka Sensei’s Wado kata prescribes a back stance with a tetsui, which would be used to pull the opponent, and possibly lock the arm (a common practice from his Juijitsu background), followed punch to the base of the skull, or a similar takedown to the Shoto-Kan pictures below when controlling the opposite arm.
- Funakoshi Sensei’s Shoto-Kan prescribes a push into front stance with a low block to off balance an opponent, followed by a full body assault takedown with a linear body thrust and using the forearm across the chest and a second advance of body weight, or a similar attack to the Wado pictures above when controlling the opposite arm.
Note: Even when applying the Wado version of the takedown of the second movement, because of the change in stance, the body position makes the transition move the hips through a 180 degree rotation between the
first and second movement, which the style is known for using from its Juijitsu roots while in the Shoto-Kan example, the same result is realized through using two powerful forward motions and greater distance to overpower the opponent more directly, which that style is known for.
This a perfect example of applying the same fighting concept two different ways, and demonstrating the difference with stance of the core concept. In the same Kata, a Shoto kan practitioner will learn the importance of fast, powerful direct movement in fast succession to overwhelm an opponent and knock them down. The Wado practitioner will learn to accept the opponent’s movement, and use a circular force generated with taisabaki (body shift in) to achieve the same result. In both cases, the rigid and structured stances will not be discernable when demonstrated on another, but the transitions of direction and weight to achieve the ideal technique will be very obvious, Hence the idea of the foundation that will dissolve its rigid form with experience and understanding.
If we study the stance the following principals remain the same. You use the motion to set the appropriate distance to your opponent with both stances, shifting your weight into the technique at the timing that is needed based on the foundation principals of that art. This is where the bunkai study of stances in a kata becomes very interesting. Now, with only one transition, from a beginner kata (that was intended to be taught to beginners by it’s creator Anko Itousu) you have learned already two key concepts to the fighting system that you can go and apply to all of your training. During this process you will gain advanced understanding of the body mechanics, which will lead to a re analysis of the technique and stance transitions, and you will repeat the cycle of learning. This is also why the rigid stances are the foundation of most traditional systems. Through hours of grueling training from deep and exaggerated stances, your body will more naturally transition your weight to what it knows, and unknowingly add power and speed to the actual fighting concepts. Although you don’t understand this is happening until well after it is habit, which was likely an intended effect of training kata without bunkai as was taught to school children in Okinawa in the first years of the 1900’s.
In addition to the broader idea of learning a weight transition of movement represented by the stances in a kata, they are also a very valuable source of learning at the beginner levels within the kata, yet they are equally as valuable at an advanced rank. Through the study of a kata, the kata itself will change, develop and advance as you do to always offer many learning opportunities and advance your knowledge, the study of bunkai and bunkai thinking is appropriate for all ranks. This type of training is not reserved for the ultra high rank, or bound to negatively impact the beginner, providing they use it to the best of “their own” ability at that point in their training, and do not attempt to push or be pushed past their current understanding into training without purpose to ‘fast track’ their progress. Stances are the first major place that students learn to apply an analytical thinking to their training, and should be encouraged to ask, and subsequently answer why they are using a stance a certain way, and allowed to make supporting adjustments. Some will be better than others, but all will provide experiential learning, which will be invaluable in their later years of study. Unless something is grossly misunderstood in their idea, or becomes dangerous to themselves or other students, as an instructor, give them the opportunity to arrive at the same conclusion on their own. They will have a better understanding and really own that knowledge when they discover it through their own training. So how can stances provide this opportunity for a beginner level student to develop a bunkai style training method? It is very basic, and very simple.
Multiple variations of a stance (any stance) should be applied in varied circumstances, and to simplify the concept, there would be wider and narrower versions of every stance. In actuality, there will be a “principal” that is easily demonstrated with the width of stances to provide a more effective position. Often the stance width itself is not overly relevant or distinguishable, but the underlying principal will be. I think the best time to begin exposing students to this is around blue belt, and I can suggest, that likely, when the basic training concept was developed by Itosu, he believed this also. This is supported by a significant change in this principal in Pinan / Heian Yodan, and Pinan / Heian Godan that is not present in the first three Pinan / Heian kata.
For my intended purpose in this article, I will oversimplify this concept to the basic idea that every stance will have varying width versions which will be dictated by the forward (inward) or backward (outward)
hip rotation of the forward side. For this reason, it cannot be considered right or wrong to use any particular version or distance of width providing the hip rotation in the movement supports the matching principal. Incorrectness will come into play when the hip rotation (or lack of) is in direct conflict with the width of stance shown in the technique. The reasoning is hidden in the basic movements and the way they are taught in our basic classes or kata, but oft en missed by not applying the knowledge of “why” it is done that way once known.
Example number 1. Usually our basic classes start with basic punches, so this seems like a good place to begin. We have two basic punches that are usually taught first. A front punch (Kizame Tsuki or
Oi-Tsuki) and a reverse punch (Giyaku Tsuki). Often traditional karate teaches these from Kiba Dachi (horse stance) to begin with and then moves to walking in Zenkutsu dachi (front stance). This training introduces the two types of hip movement that determines a “wide” or a “narrow” stance.
Let’s see an example of each.
The major differentiators, and key points between the two stances is the two versions of the same stance are:
- Wide Stance:
- Feet face straight forward
- Hips end square, belt knot facing forward (Back hip engaged)
- Feet are roughly shoulder width apart
- Front Knee drives straight forward
- Narrow Stance:
- Feet face slightly off angle from forward
- Hips end angled, belt knot facing 45 degrees off angle.(Front Hip engaged)
- Feet are narrower than shoulder width apart.
- Front Knee drives straight forward.
The importance of these principals is naturally understood by your body (even if you don’t understand it), which will adjust to fit proper movement when you add resistance to the technique. If you would like to prove this, ask two students to stand in a Zenkutsu Dachi (front stance) as shown in the pictures. (For a better effect, pick one bigger person, and one smaller, or a child and adult) Put the smaller person in the “narrow” stance and the larger person in the “wide” stance, but have them both posture a front punch.
The smaller person in the narrow stance will have a posture with correct alignment for the impact, or resistance you add to the front punch, but the larger person will have a stance that supports the opposite hip rotation (better suited to a Giyaku Tsuki (reverse punch) If you lean your weight on the punch, directed straight on the line of the arm, the smaller person will appear stronger as they easily hold up your body weight, which is directed through their skeletal structure straight to the floor, while the larger person (who is perceived as stronger) will struggle to hold you there. Now have both parties, without moving their stances, change and place a reverse punch out. The struggle to hold weight will reverse, as the wider stance and engaged back hip will align correctly for the resistance, or impact of the reverse punch, while the narrow stance will not. You body will also adjust for this during other techniques if pulled by the collar sideways, a student’s front foot will automatically adjust to where it should be for a wide and balanced stance just before they fall over. The way I explain the difference to my students is using the front or back hip. If I am using a technique where my front hip (attached to the leg that is forward in my stance) is rotating forward, (or toward my body centre) I should use a narrower version of a stance. If my back hip (attached to the back leg in my stance) is rotating forward (toward my body centre), I should use a wide stance.
The same principal can be applied to every stance, even if the actual width doesn’t change as in a neko ashi dachi (cat stance) the key points on the previous page, when followed will support better mechanical movement.
Let’s apply the sampe principal to the Kokutsu Dachi (Back Stance) and use a basic Shuto Uke to demonstrate the difference. Below are two versions of a Kokutzu Dachi with a Shuto. One wide, one narrow.
As with a Zenkutsu Dachi (Front Stance) this stance is also often taught that “your heels must ALWAYS line up for a good back stance”. A good beginner practice for a narrow stance, it is a completely false concept for a wide use back stance required for various techniques. Again, a wider stance (approximately shoulder width) is required to fully engage the back hip. This is why in a traditional “gate style” shuto, the stance must be wide. To offer enough balance and strength to be effective. Again, the same principal dictates the stance. A front side, forward hip movement should be completed in a narrow stance, while a back hip forward rotation should be completed in a wide stance. When the basic gate shuto is taught, it is taught that the palm of the hand should face straight at the opponent, the blade of the hand at the arm being blocked when complete, while the “striking” style shuto (which uses the narrow stance should have the blade of the hand facing straight into the opponent. The striking one is easily done in a narrow stance with your heels lined up, however, very few people can turn their hand enough to have the palm face forward. Many beginners will struggle with this concept. Once however, you move the front foot over to shoulder width, (if you give a slight tug on the collar of their uniform, their foot will move there naturally to catch their balance), the hip will rotate easily, and the palm will face straight forward. The information is contained in the expectations of the finished posture with the hand forward, but without asking why, the true concept is not realized. Equally important, if you keep a narrow stance, and attempt to use the shuto to move an arm with weight on it, you will off balance yourself, because your base is not solid, and your balance not secure in a narrow stance. As you ask a student to hit harder, they will naturally, and without realizing it, widen their stance.
This knowledge becomes very valuable when we start looking at other stances, like cat stance. In some schools cat stance is taught with the back foot angled at 45 degrees, and the front straight. Some schools shun this concept completely, and teach that both feet must be straight forward. Both are correct, but one is narrow and one is wide. The cat stance itself does not widen or narrow your foot position relative to each other, but the angle will mimic that of a wide or narrow Zenkutsu dachi (front stance).
If my front side hip is rotating forward, I should have a narrow stance with my back foot angled, and your belt knot rotated up to 45 degrees from forward. If my back side hip is rotating forward, I should have a wide stance with both feet straight forward, and your hips square, belt knot facing straight forward.
Again, if proof of the concept is requested or required, offer resistance, or ask for someone to strike something with weight from the stance. The body will naturally adjust to this format to support the impact and strengthen the technique. This concept is of using stance to support power in a technique is
common place in most arts, and not special, but using that knowledge to apply to the basic kata training seems lost on most people. Likely, if you look at your own kata, you will find places that you are even now, not using a stance that matches the hip rotation of your technique, and if adjusted to support this principal, the movements will very quickly reveal lines of force used in the kata movement that will be vital to effective bunkai when advancing.
At blue belt level, and in Pinan / Heian Yodan & Godan the concept is built upon when certain stances will combine two techniques, without changing stance, as in the front punch, then reverse punch found after the front kick in Pinan / HeianYodan seen below.
The initial conclusion, based on the principals just proven indicate that we should land in a narrow stance, to support our front punch, then move our foot sideways to widen our stance with the reverse punch, BUT, the kata does not prescribe a foot movement.
This is AWEFUL. Now the whole concept is proven wrong..... and only at blue belt level. What do we do now?
There are two schools of thought regarding this. I believe the answer is a combination of the two.
The first believes that the foot does move, and is not illustrated in the kata, because it is not a ‘step’, but will be moved by the explosiveness of the punch that should be present by the blue belt rank, and used much as the pull on the collar to catch balance.
The second believes that the karate-ka will begin to learn to “split the difference” so to speak, and will place the foot in neither the wide, or narrow version, but in between, with slight angles on the feet, and of the belt knot off the perfect line of force to gain a stance that will effectively, although not perfectly support both shown below.
As with most things, the answer is likely hidden somewhere in the middle ground between these ideas.
Here is the best part. Now you go work it, and re work it, and do it again. Then, work something else, and come back to it, and so on and so on. Eventually, you will figure out a better answer than I have put in this article and know for yourself.
Once you do, don’t be selfish, share it with me if I have not figured it out already.
Thanks for reading this article.....but if you did it all in one sitting, you had time to "DO" karate, instead of just "READ ABOUT" karate. I aint sayin', I'm just sayin'