The Five Elements of Karate

The Five Elements of Karate

 

“Karate” is a broad term, which covers many different martial methodologies and styles originating on Okinawa and, later, Japan. There are a number of misconceptions about what karate is, although there has been a movement–a sort of “karate Renaissance”–in the past decade, or so, which has been making more information about karate available, and promotes a practical approach to the art. With this knowledge comes the understanding that karate is a broad-spectrum martial art, rather than a specialized one. Some have gone so far as to say that it is “the original MMA,” and it is, indeed, a mixed martial art, of a sort. The Okinawan nobility who practiced martial arts were no strangers to cross-training, and blended methods from different instructors, different styles, or even entirely different countries, so long as they found it to be functional. They practiced grappling arts, and weaponry, and police tactics, among many other subjects which, over time, worked their way into the practices that would one day be known as “karate.” Thanks to this open-minded developmental process, old-style Okinawan karate can be seen as consisting of five primary elements–not the esoteric ki/chi/qi elements (fire, earth, metal, water, and wood), but real, physical elements that cover a wide array of combative skills.

 

 

Striking

Ulf Karlsson Sensei demonstrating a striking application for Tachimura no Naihanchi

Ulf Karlsson Sensei demonstrating a striking application for Tachimura no Naihanchi

The most common and obvious element of karate is striking–so obvious that most people think that it is the one and only element of the art. This is misconception that was noted even as far back as the 1930’s, when Mabuni Kenwa (founder of Shito-Ryu) famously stated that “the karate that has been introduced to Tokyo is actually just part of the whole,” and specifically felt the need to point out that there was more to karate than just kicks and punches. That said, striking methods of various sorts are the primary methods of karate, with the rest being used to facilitate, support, or augment the strikes, or to find alternatives when striking fails. The striking methods of karate are typically divided into three types–tsuki-waza, uchi-waza, and keri-waza–although there is enough subtlety and variation within these categories to blur the lines, a bit.

 

 

 

Nishiyama Hidetaka, of Shotokan, breaking boards with gyaku-tsuki

Nishiyama Hidetaka, of Shotokan, breaking boards with gyaku-tsuki

Tsuki-waza, or “thrusting techniques,” are quite popular and common methods of striking in karate, although they tend to appear more in modern sport-karate than in the older kata. These are typically described as being linear strikes, performed with the arms, and include techniques such as seiken-tsuki (forefist thrust/”punch”), nukite-tsuki (spear hand thrust), and shotei/teisho-tsuki (palm heel thrust). In reality, there are techniques classified as tsuki-waza which are not entirely linear, because the key to this category of strikes is that they “thrust” outward from the body, and that is their primary method of delivering force. This would include techniques such as age-ura-tsuki (rising “underside” thrust)–similar to the uppercut in boxing–which thrusts upward, but tends to follow an arcing patch, rather than a purely straight one.

 

 

 

 

Shinjo Kiyohide of Uechi-Ryu demonstrating kote-uchi (wrist strike)

Shinjo Kiyohide of Uechi-Ryu demonstrating kote-uchi (wrist strike)

Uchi-waza is a comparatively broader term, as the word “uchi,” in this case, is a variant of the word “utsu,” which simply means “to strike, hit, or pound,” meaning that uchi-waza translates to “striking/hitting techniques.” Indeed, you could consider tsuki-waza to be an example of uchi-waza. In karate, however, you will often find that the word “uchi-waza” is most commonly used to refer to striking techniques which are circular in nature, including strikes such as kote/ude-uchi (wrist/forearm strike), haito-uchi (ridgehand strike), and enpi-uchi (elbow strike). These tend to rely on swinging the arm in order to generate impact, therefore moving primarily in arcing or circular motions. These types of strikes actually appear more frequently in koryu (old style) kata than tsuki-waza.

 

 

 

Motobu Choki demonstrating a variety of keri-waza

Motobu Choki demonstrating a variety of keri-waza

Keri-waza, or “kicking techniques,” are relatively straightforward in their classification. These are techniques where the legs are used to strike, in a variety of ways. In looking at kata, these tend to consist mostly of mae-geri (front kicks), yoko-geri (side kicks), mikazuki-geri (crescent kicks), and suki/sukui-geri (shovel/scoop kicks), in various forms. Other kicks, such as mawashi-geri (turning/”roundhouse” kicks) and kakato-geri (heel kicks) are not generally present in the kata, although they can be seen as variants of the kicks and principles found within the kata. Striking with the knee is also classified as keri-waza, being named “hiza-geri” (knee kicks), although there are some styles which prefer to place them into the uchi-waza category–likely because, in English, “knee kick” is confusing, and we call them “knee strikes” instead.

 

 

Throwing/Takedowns

The author using harai-goshi (sweeping hip)

The author using harai-goshi (sweeping hip)

Less widely-practiced, but still an important component of karate, are takedowns. In the context of karate, this element consists of any technique (that is not a strike) that is specifically intended to remove an opponent from their feet and put them on the ground. This would include not only proper “throws,” but trips, sweeps, and various other methods of putting an opponent on the ground, as well.. In Judo, which specializes in throwing techniques, there are four classifications of throws; te-waza (hand techniques), koshi-waza (hip techniques), ashi-waza (leg/foot techniques), and sutemi-waza (sacrifice techniques). Iain Abernethy, an authority on the practical application of karate, actually has three classifications of the nage-waza in karate; lifting, leg-trapping, and posture-disrupting throws. One could use either method of classification, or combine them to more accurately describe a particular technique, as the Judo classifications are based on how the thrower executes the technique, while Abernethy’s classifications are based on what happens to the person being thrown. As with any categorization system, there will be some degree of crossover between the categories.

 

Itoman Morinobu demonstrating seinosu-nage (back-riding throw) in his book, "The Study of China Hand Techniques"

Itoman Morinobu demonstrating seinosu-nage (back-riding throw) in his book, “The Study of China Hand Techniques”

“Lifting throws” are, quite simply, throws which life the enemy off their feet before throwing them to the ground. A popular example of such a throw would be the shoulder throw, which Funakoshi Gichin (founder of Shotokan) called tani-otoshi (valley drop), Kano Jigoro (founder of Judo) called ippon-seoi-nage (single back-carry throw), and Itoman Morinobu (author of The Study of China Hand Techniques) called seinosu-nage (riding back throw). This throw can be found in martial arts from all over the world, as well. Using the Judo classification, this would be considered a te-waza (hand technique), because it primarily utilizes the arms to perform the throw. Other examples, like the similarly-common hip throw, called o-goshi (big hip) in Judo, would be included in the category of “lifting throws,” but would be considered koshi-waza (hip technique) in Judo, as the throw relies on the placement and use of the hips to perform the throw.

 

 

 

Funakoshi Gichin, founder of Shotokan, demonstrating ude-wa (arm ring)

Funakoshi Gichin, founder of Shotokan, demonstrating ude-wa (arm ring)

“Leg-trapping throws” can be a fairly broad category, as the opponent’s legs can be trapped in a variety of ways with both the thrower’s legs and arms. A simple example of this would be a trip or foot sweep (ashi-barai), which is found in the vast majority of martial arts, in some form or another. By sweeping the foot, you are preventing the opponent’s leg from being placed where intended in order to maintain their balance. The kick-catch takedowns that can be seen in kata like Passai and Kusanku, not to mention the variety of other martial arts which utilize such techniques, can also be seen as “leg-trapping throws,” as they hold the opponent’s leg off the ground, and allow the thrower to apply leverage to the opponent and throw them to the ground. There are also a number of methods found in karate where your stance is used to trap the opponent’s foot or leg, and apply pressure to their leg in order to cause them to lose their balance, which would fall into this category. Karate also has methods of applying leverage to a standing opponent’s legs while the defender is on the ground, which would also be considered “leg-trapping” in nature. The double-leg takedown, which Funakoshi called ude-wa (arm ring), and Kano called morote-gari (double reap)–and would be classified as te-waza in Judo–can be seen as a leg-trapping throw, although it can also be a lifting throw, depending on how it is executed. If the thrower simply wraps their arms around the opponent’s legs and drives into them to knock them down, it would be a leg-trapping throw, but if the thrower wraps their arms around the opponent’s legs and uses that to pick the opponent up and throw them down, it would be a lifting throw.

 

Ulf Karlsson, of KishimotoDi, demonstrating how a takedown application from Tachimura no Naihanchi works by disrupting the opponent's posture

Ulf Karlsson, of KishimotoDi, demonstrating how a takedown application from Tachimura no Naihanchi works by disrupting the opponent’s posture

“Posture-disrupting throws” encompass a wide variety of techniques which manipulate the opponent in such a way that they fall down. The koma-nage (spinning top throw) that Funakoshi published in his books is one such example, as the opponent can be put face-down on the floor by applying an armbar to them in such a way that they must move away from the pain, or allow their joint to be dislocated. Funakoshi’s tsubame-gaeshi (returning swallow), which is similar to the shiho-nage (four corner throw) seen in jujutsu and Aikido, would also fall into this category, as the opponent is forced to lose their posture–and therefore, their balance–by moving to relieve the pressure of a joint lock. Such throws are not generally as elegant as trained uke (receivers) make them look, however, as discussed in a previous article (LINK). Techniques where the opponent’s head is pushed, pulled, or twisted to force them to the ground would also be included in this category. The scissor/wedge throws that are prevalent in KishimotoDi are primarily posture-disrupting throws, but they are only able to disrupt the opponent’s posture because the stance used in the throw is trapping the opponent’s legs, preventing them from stepping out of the throw and regaining their balance.

 

 

Joint Locking

Ryan Parker showing Ed Sumner key points of a joint lock from Pinan Godan

Ryan Parker showing Ed Sumner key points of a joint lock from Pinan Godan

As mentioned, above, there are a number of joint locking methods found in karate, which has been discussed in detail in a previous article (LINK). To summarize, there are generally three types of joint locks–hyperextending, compressing, and twisting–and they can be practiced in a number of different ways, for various reasons. There are also compound locks, which make use of two, or even all three methods of affecting the joint of an opponent. Most of the joint locks found in karate are used against standing opponents, often to clear the way for strikes, or to facilitate takedowns, but there are some that are meant for use on the ground, as well.

 

 

 

 

Richard Poage, the author's Sensei, demonstrating an armbar application for Pinan Yondan

Richard Poage, the author’s Sensei, demonstrating an armbar application for Pinan Yondan

Hyperextending joint locks are typically simple, and relatively common, as they are performed by forcing a joint (usually a hinge joint) past its natural stopping point. The classic armbar is an example of this, where the arm is bent backward at the elbow in order to hyperextend it. Most people will be familiar with an armbar performed on the ground, with the person using the lock is lying on their back, which is seen frequently in MMA and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. In Judo, such a lock is called juji-gatame (cross hold/lock). The same concept can be applied in many different positions, however, as seen in Funakoshi’s koma-nage, or the chest-lever armbar application of manji-gamae (swastika posture), or some of the restraining techniques seen in the karamidi (“entangling hand”) methods of karate. Knees, wrists, ankles, fingers, and toes can also all be hyperextended, and even if one is not taught a joint lock specifically intended for those joints, they can apply the same principles they used for the armbar in order to get the desired effect. From there, small details in the execution can be tweaked and improved to make the lock more effective.

 

Richard Poage, the author's instructor, demonstrating a "gooseneck" wrist lock as an application to the end of Naihanchi Shodan

Richard Poage, the author’s instructor, demonstrating a “gooseneck” wrist lock as an application to the end of Naihanchi Shodan

Compressing locks are generally performed by forcing joints together, or closed, sometimes with a “wedge” of some sort inserted into the joint to cause it to separate. An example of this, which is often demonstrated, is a counter to a lapel grab, where the attacker’s thumb is pressed into their palm in order to get them to release their grip due to the pain.”Gooseneck” wrist locks are also a type of compressing lock, which is often used as a come-along for security and law enforcement. An application for the crossover stepping in the Naihanchi/Tekki/Chulgi kata can be seen as stomping on the opponent’s knee which, if done from the back of the knee, will drive the joint to the ground. This can be done in such a way that it applies a compressing lock on the knee, as well.
Uehara Seikichi, of Motobu Udundi, demonstrating twisting joint locks

Uehara Seikichi, of Motobu Udundi, demonstrating twisting joint locks

Twisting joint locks can be applied to most joints, and in many cases, twisting can be incorporated into hyperextending or compressing locks in order to make them more effective. The most common example of a twisting lock would be rotational shoulder locks, such as the one seen in Funakoshi’s tsubame-gaeshi, the ude-garami (arm entanglement) of Judo, the hammer lock of Catch Wrestling, and the Americana, Kimura, and Omoplata found in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Many wrist locks are also rotational in nature, such as the Nikkyo/Nikkajo of Aikido, although they frequently incorporate compression, as well. Such rotational locks are frequently found in Motobu Udundi (Palace Hand), which was the martial art taught to members of the royal family on Okinawa.

 

 

 

 

Choking/Strangling

Eddie Bethea, of Shorin-Ryu Shorinkan, demonstrating the beginning of an "air choke"

Eddie Bethea, of Shorin-Ryu Shorinkan, demonstrating the beginning of an “air choke”

Within martial arts, it is common to refer to “chokes,” but from a medical perspective, such techniques would be classified as “strangles.” While it does not technically matter what terminology you use, as long as everyone you are training with understands what is intended, it can be helpful for clarification. “Chokes” are something that happen from within the airway, such as food becoming lodged in the throat, or the throat swelling due to an allergic reaction. “Strangles” are something that happen from the outside, compressing the neck, potentially cutting off air (often called a “wind/air choke”), cutting off circulation to the brain (often called a “blood choke”), or simply just causing pain (sometimes called a “nerve choke”). Regardless of what they are called, such techniques are dangerous and effective, although they tend to provoke different reactions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Funakoshi Gichin, founder of Shotokan, demonstrating a simple "air choke" following a kick-catch

Funakoshi Gichin, founder of Shotokan, demonstrating a simple “air choke” following a kick-catch

Strangles (and chokes) which cut off breathing are what most people think of when they think of strangling or choking another person. Some examples would be a simple grab to the throat, itself, or a guillotine choke, with the arm pressed directly into the opponent’s windpipe. While such methods may be the first to come to mind to people outside of martial arts, they are not actually not the most efficient method of applying a strangle, for a couple of reasons. First, consider how long a person can hold their breath. Obviously, the amount of air in the lungs at the time air flow is cut off can vary, but people can continue to function without air for far longer than one might expect. Additionally, such techniques tend to provoke a panicked response, so attempting to restrain or control a person using an air choke/strangle can become a wild and difficult thing. Another consideration is that such methods are deadly in the literal sense of the word, not just the figurative sense that is commonly thrown about regarding dangerous techniques. This means that air chokes/strangles are meant for life-or-death situations, and do not fit well into law enforcement or peacekeeping scenarios.

 

 

 

 

Richard Poage, the author's Sensei, demonstrating a "blood choke" using the lapel as an application for the sasae-gedan-barai in Passai Sho (Bassai Dai)

Richard Poage, the author’s Sensei, demonstrating a “blood choke” using the lapel as an application for the sasae-gedan-barai in Passai Sho (Bassai Dai)

Strangles which cut off the flow of blood are decidedly more common than air chokes/strangles when looking at combat sports and law enforcement or peacekeeping methods. These techniques can render an opponent unconscious in a matter of seconds, if applied correctly, and don’t tend to provoke the same panic as techniques that block the airway. Typically, these techniques are simply applying pressure to the carotid arteries, which supply blood to the brain, thereby depriving the brain of oxygen and causing a loss of consciousness. Sometimes, enough pressure is applied to the carotid sinus, which contain baroreceptors which monitor blood pressure, to cause the brain to believe there has been a spike in blood pressure which must be normalized. The most common example of such a strangle is the hadaka-jime (“naked strangle”)–more commonly referred to as the “rear naked choke”–although a number of common strangles using the lapels would fall into this category, as well. While effective, these methods are not without their risks, as cutting off the supply of oxygenated blood to the brain can cause brain damage, and pressure to the neck can dislodge arterial plaque, causing strokes. Even so, “blood chokes” tend to be safer than “air chokes,” and are used by many law enforcement agencies, albeit commonly classified as “neck restraints.”

 

 

Richard Poage, the author's Sensei, demonstrating a "nerve choke"

Richard Poage, the author’s Sensei, demonstrating a “nerve choke”

Strangles which affect the nerves in the neck are not intended to render an opponent unconscious, but rather to attempt to gain compliance, or to distract the opponent in order to more easily apply another technique. In truth, they only fall into the category of “strangles” because they are performed by applying pressure to the neck. Typically, such techniques are the result of improperly applying a “blood choke,” but they can be intentionally utilized, as well. For example, kata-gatame (shoulder hold), otherwise known as an “arm triangle choke,” cuts off blood flow, but by changing the angle at which it is applied, one can grind the bone of their wrist into the nerves of the neck, such as the Vagus Nerve. This can be very painful, possibly resulting in the opponent twisting and trying to pull away. Even if the technique does not cause the opponent to move, the pain will typically be enough to cause concern, and be a distraction. With this example, the person performing the choke is in a good position to execute o-soto-gari (major outer reap) to put the opponent on the floor, which can be more easily done if the opponent is concerned with their neck, rather than their balance.

 

 

Grappling/Groundwork

The author grappling during sparring

The author grappling during sparring

While a number of the techniques covered up to this point can be considered “grappling” techniques, there are a number of skills related to grappling that are meant to be included in the practice karate. Primarily, these skills are simply manipulations of the body in order for the karateka to better position themselves in a fight. In many cases, these methods are not injurious in and of themselves, but set up such techniques. There are a few, however, which can potentially end a fight, on their own. While the standing grappling methods of karate can be extensive, there tends to be decidedly less groundwork within karate. This can be primarily attributed to the practice of tegumi/muto–a folkstyle submission wrestling sport–throughout Okinawan history. This sport was practiced ubiquitously, and it can be reasoned that all Okinawans (males, at least) were familiar with grappling, regardless of their knowledge of karate. Additionally, karate masters throughout history were proponents of cross-training in grappling arts, such as Japanese koryu jujutsu systems, Sumo, or Judo. With that in mind, we can say that karate should not only be limited to the groundwork methods that we know it classically contained, but rather should be expanded upon through cross-training.

 

 

 

Funakoshi Gichin, founder of Shotokan, demonstrating how yama-tsuki (mountain thrust) employs limb control while striking

Funakoshi Gichin, founder of Shotokan, demonstrating basic limb control while striking

Limb control is quite possibly the most vital grappling method found in karate, and appears in very nearly every practical application of kata movements. A wide array of pulling, pushing, pinning, and lifting methods can be found throughout karate, which are intended to be used to control or relocate an opponent’s arms or legs. The most common example of this is hikite (pulling hand), or the “chamber” position often seen as karateka work their basics, which is intended to twist and pull the opponent toward the karateka. When employed to pull the opponent’s arm–its most common application–this not only pulls the opponent into strikes, but prevents them from striking with that arm, and ensures that they cannot block the karateka’s strikes using that arm. Other examples, such as shuto-uke (sword hand receiver), may hug the opponent’s arm, while techniques like gedan-barai (low level sweep) can be used to pin the opponent’s arm to their own body. Some techniques, such as the “stacked hands” or “cup and saucer” hand position found in some kata, can be used to move the opponent’s arms entirely out of the way, turning them to the side and exposing their back. These methods are intended to make the opponent more vulnerable, and less effective, while setting the karateka up to execute fight-ending techniques.

 

 

 

 

 

An example of kuzushi being applied with an arm drag, from "Kobo Kenpo Karate-Do Nyumon" by Mabuni Kenwa, founder of Shito-Ryu, and Nakasone Genwa

An example of kuzushi being applied with an arm drag, from “Kobo Kenpo Karate-Do Nyumon” by Mabuni Kenwa, founder of Shito-Ryu, and Nakasone Genwa

Kuzushi (off-balancing) is a vital skill in grappling, not only because it facilitates throws and takedowns, but also for its value in reducing the opponent’s offensive effectiveness. In Judo, there is a popular diagram (LINK) for representing the ways a person can be taken off-balance, called Happo no Kuzushi (Eight Directions of Off-Balancing), which is essentially a compass rose. Of course, this is a two-dimensional representation of something that occurs in three dimensions, so it is more conceptual than literal. Pushing, pulling, or twisting an opponent in order to bring their center of gravity away from their base forces them to either move or fall, which is why is makes throws and takedowns so effective, but it also means that, for a moment, the opponent does not have a base. What this means is that any strikes they throw will be considerably weakened, and they will have a hard time aiming those strikes because they lack stability. Additionally, most people tend to spread their arms out when they lose their balance, in an attempt to regain it, which opens the way for a number of different techniques, aside from those, such as strikes and joint locks.

 

 

 

 

 

An illustration from the Bubishi, depicting a grounded opponent using his legs to hook and sweep a standing opponent's leg

An illustration from the Bubishi, depicting a grounded opponent using his legs to hook and sweep a standing opponent’s leg

Taking down standing opponents from the ground is probably the most prevalent groundwork skill found in books written by the Okinawan karate masters of the early 20th Century. Such methods can also be found in the Bubishi, which ties back to various Chinese martial arts, and their methods. Being taken down in a fight is bad enough when the opponent goes down with you, but when your opponent is still standing, they have more freedom of movement and more tools at their disposal, on top of having gravity on their side. For this reason, it makes sense to have techniques which can trip up the opponent, and knock them to the ground, as well. Typically, these involve trapping the opponent’s foot, then kicking the opponent’s leg or body in order to knock them over. In some cases, however, the body or arms can be used to apply leverage against the opponent’s leg, instead.

 

 

 

 

 

Richard Poage, the author's Sensei, demonstrating the

Richard Poage, the author’s Sensei, demonstrating the “tactical stand-up,” as well as a takedown from the ground against a standing opponent

Regaining the feet–that is, being able to get back up if you are taken down–is an important skill for self defense, as well as for combat sports where the opponent may outclass you on the ground. This is not as simple as just standing up, however, as you have to contend with an opponent who may be on top of you, or standing over you, and is likely continuing to attack you. Against a standing opponent, kicks from the ground can keep an opponent at a distance, for a time, but will rarely stop an attacker. You must use that distance to stand back up, which requires you to get your feet beneath you, and there are a couple of schools of thought on how to accomplish that. The most popular method among a variety of arts is what many call the “tactical stand-up,” where you maintain a defensive position throughout the process so you can block, kick, or drop back to the ground, as needed. If the opponent is on top of you, rather than standing, then your ability to bridge and shrimp becomes vital, so you can make space and keep the opponent from staying in (or getting to) a dominant position that leaves you vulnerable. These skills can be employed in a number of different ways, depending on what the opponent does, and must be trained accordingly.

 

 

A photo from the Chinese police manual, "Chin Na Fa," depicting a joint lock being maintained with the leg while rope is used to tie the suspect's wrists

A photo from the Chinese police manual, “Chin Na Fa,” depicting a joint lock being maintained with the leg while rope is used to tie the suspect’s wrists

Restraining a grounded opponent is not a skill that most would attribute to karate training, but history tells us that it was an important component of the grappling element of the art, albeit in a different way than most would expect. Today, putting someone into a pin, lock, or choke in order to get them to submit is the primary goal of most grappling arts, but these are usually done with both participants being on the ground. In looking at the history of karate, we know that this is not the correct context for the art–tegumi/muto would be more fitting in that role. A better modern analog for these techniques would be police tactics, where the person being restrained is on the ground, and the person restraining them is only on the ground enough to restrain them, search them, and cuff them. The reason for this analogy is simple; karate was developed and practiced, primarily, by the noble classes of Okinawa, and many of the people within those classes held security, peacekeeping, and law enforcement positions as part of their station. With that in mind, the majority of techniques found in karate that are meant to restrain an opponent on the ground are pins and joint locks that allow the karateka to quickly stand or react to threats, rather then being tangled up on the ground with an opponent. Even so, as was the case in the past, cross-training in grappling arts is important for developing a solid understanding of how people can move on the ground, making your restraining methods more effective, and preparing you to adjust on the fly, as needed.

 

Holistic Training

Michael Nguyen and Aaron Garcia, of Karate Culture, demonstrating sparring, blending limb control, strikes, and sweeps

Michael Nguyen and Aaron Garcia, of Karate Culture, demonstrating sparring, blending limb control, strikes, and sweeps

These five elements, in order to be truly effective, must be trained together. Separating specific elements and techniques to develop those skills is a necessary step in the learning process, but keeping them isolated from each other will result in an early plateau in skill development. To be well-rounded, one must be able to transition between all five elements of karate, as necessary, and without incorporating them together in training, that ability will never develop. This is where many students find themselves–learning a variety of fighting skills, but never training to combine them. Incorporating several elements into cohesive drills is a good start, as it gives students examples of how different methods can work together. Kakedameshi (which has been discussed in previous articles: LINK, LINK) is one good way of pressure testing these methods, but you can also incorporate them into other forms of sparring, such as MMA-style sparring or resistant scenario exercises. Only when a karateka can transition between elements naturally, without thought, against resistance, can they be said to be “well-rounded” martial artists, and even then–as always–there is plenty of room for improvement. It is tempting, as “traditional martial artists,” to attempt to put karate in a glass case and preserve it exactly as it was taught, instead of taking to heart the spirit of its development and embracing pressure testing, cross-training, and studying the wide array of combative methods that exist within karate, as well as those from elsewhere which may enhance it. This is what the old masters of Okinawa did, and there is no reason for that tradition to end. In the words of the Japanese poet, Basho, “do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise; seek what they sought.”

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The Purpose of Karate Stances

Shimabukuro Zenpo demonstrating shiko-dachi (horse/Sumo stance)

Shimabukuro Zenpo demonstrating shiko-dachi (horse/Sumo stance)

A common complaint about karate, and its kata, is that the stances are impractical–that one would never use such stances in a “real fight.” This goes along with the general complaint about kamae (postures) found in kata being impractical guards for fighting from (as discussed in this article: LINK). This tends to stem form the fact that the word tachi (which changes to “dachi” when it is a suffix to another word) literally means “stand,” which implies a static, inactive position. Indeed, Chibana Chosin (founder of the Kobayashi branch of Shorin-Ryu) preferred calling them steps instead of stances because of this, and his insistence that there were no static postures in kata. According to Pat Nakata, Chibana said that “we do not take stances, but rather the ‘foot work’ ends up in a position that is moving the body weight (or hara) for the transmission of the technique. (LINK).” In other words, the way you have to move your body in order to apply the technique in the kata is such that you end up moving into the positions that most people call “stances.” They are not intended to be “fighting stances” that you stand in and move around, waiting for an opponent to attack, or waiting to find an opening in your opponent’s guard. Karate was intended to be used in situations where this is not done–you simply transition into the techniques of the kata directly from whatever position you find yourself in when you are attacked. The stances are also not simply varying but irrelevant platforms for your upper body techniques in the kata–they are integral to the function of the techniques you are using.

 

 

Andre Bertel demonstrating zenkutsu-dachi (front leaning stance)

Andre Bertel demonstrating zenkutsu-dachi (front leaning stance)

Consider zenkutsu-dachi (front/forward leaning stance), which is a very common stance found in nearly every style of martial arts, in some variation or another. Putting aside the minutiae of requirements like length, depth, angle of the foot, etc., the classic front stance accomplishes two major things. First, it moves your center of gravity (usually located in your hara–the lower stomach–as Chibana called it) forward and downward at the same time, if you assume that you are moving from a neutral position into the stance. Second, it braces you against pressure from the front by having one leg extended behind you. This means that transitioning into zenkutsu-dachi generates power for techniques that move forward and downward, as well as giving you the ability to maintain forward pressure against resistance. The most basic example of a technique utilizing these features would be throwing a straight punch downward into the opponent’s bladder, which benefits from dropping your bodyweight into the strike, as well as advancing forward to penetrate into the target, and having support to ensure that the force of your strike doesn’t push you back on impact. Strikes are not the only techniques that benefit from such movement, however. Throws, even simple ones, such as the application for gedan-barai/uke (low level sweep/receiver) that Iain Abernethy teaches as part of Pinan Nidan (LINK), make use of the same transition.

 

Funakoshi Gichin's neko-ashi-dachi (cat foot/leg stance)

Funakoshi Gichin’s neko-ashi-dachi (cat foot/leg stance)

Another example to consider is neko-ashi-dachi (cat foot/leg stance), which also shows up in a number of martial arts, again with varying minutiae of requirements. In general, your body weight is mostly supported by your rear leg, which is beneath your center of gravity, while the lead leg is extended in front, to some degree–usually, but not always, with the heel lifted off the ground–and carries very little bodyweight. Transitioning to this stance from a neutral standing position will generally result in either dropping your bodyweight down and to the rear, or straight down while reaching the lead leg forward. This transition of weight frees the lead leg to be utilized in a number of ways. Most simply, as can be seen in Muay Thai, it allows the lead leg to quickly lift to throw a kick or knee strike, or to check an opponent’s kick. In truth, though, if you were standing in a more front-weighted stance, and wanted to use your lead leg for such things, you would likely transition through a neko-ashi-dachi type of posture as you shifted your weight back. Aside from the striking perspective, the same weight shift can be useful for foot sweeps, such as the sasae tsurikomi-ashi (supported lifting pulling foot) or deashi-barai (advancing foot sweep) seen in Judo.

 

 

 

 

 

Sumo Yokozuna, Hakuho, in shiko-dachi as part of a traditional opening ceremony for Sumo competitions and demonstrations

Sumo Yokozuna, Hakuho, in shiko-dachi as part of a traditional opening ceremony for Sumo competitions and demonstrations

Shiko-dachi (Sumo/horse stance) is another commonly-found stance, with several variations, but is bit different from zenkutsu-dachi or neko-ashi-dachi, in that it distributes bodyweight evenly to both feet. This stance is very versatile because of that, and can be used to move your bodyweight down, as well as in any direction away from your starting point, although the even weight distribution does mean that less of your bodyweight moves in that direction than it might with a different stance. For example, one can move forward and drop into shiko-dachi, and gain power by doing so, but less of their bodyweight will go forward than if they had stepped and dropped into zenkutsu-dachi. In exchange for giving up a bit of power, shiko-dachi grants a good deal of balance and stability, which makes it very useful in grappling exchanges. Indeed, the jigotai (defensive posture) of Judo is a variant of shiko-dachi, and Sumo (which is actually where the name of the stance comes from) features it prominently as well.

 

 

 

 

 

 

An example of stance transitions applied in a flow drill, as seen in Waza Wednesday 3/14/18

An example of stance transitions applied in a flow drill, as seen in Waza Wednesday 3/14/18

Of course, stance transitions do not always happen from a neutral, standing position. Sometimes, based on the techniques being used, you will transition directly from one stance to another. My late Sensei, Richard Poage, often brought this up in training to emphasize the importance of stance transitions in power generation (LINK). This often shows up in the case of takedown techniques, where the opponent is off-balanced prior to the actual takedown, or when dealing with an opponent that has resisted your initial technique, and you must transition to another one. For example, if one looks at the takedown found near the end of Pinan/Heian Godan (seen demonstrated by Yamashiro Yoshitomo on Naka Tatsuya, here: LINK), most versions perform some sort of offensive technique, then lift their arms and, in some cases, their stance, before turning (or jumping) and dropping to the ground to finish the throw. This is, essentially, the kata going through the three stages of a throw, as described in Judo; kuzushi (off-balancing), tsukuri (positioning), and kake (execution). As an example of transitioning between techniques, one can consider this sequence (click here to see the full video: LINK) from Passai, where the first naname-zenkutsu-dachi (slanted front stance) is used to avoid the initial attack and get beneath it, then rising into hachiji-dachi (figure 8 stance) is used to apply an elbow wrench, before shifting back to naname-zenkutsu-dachi in the other direction to counter the opponent’s resistance and apply another armbar, and then shifting forward and behind the opponent with neko-ashi-dachi (cat foot/leg stance) in order to take them down if they resist the second armbar.

 

Kinberly Novaes transitioning into zenkutsu-dachi to pressure Heather Jo Clark against the cage in their fight in the UFC

Kinberly Novaes transitioning into zenkutsu-dachi to pressure Heather Jo Clark against the cage in their fight in Invicta FC

It can sometimes be difficult to see how these stances manifest themselves in actual fighting, especially if all one ever sees is static examples. A good way to see these positions and transitions in action is to watch a combat sport that incorporates standing grappling, such as Muay Thai, Sanshou, MMA, etc. Of course, since such combat sports tend to be fast-paced, and the techniques are done with intent, it can be helpful to slow the footage down for review. In this example, you can see MMA fighter, Kinberly Novaes, step forward with her left leg into zenkutsu-dachi as she pressures her opponent, Heather Jo Clark, into the cage. By doing this, she made it more difficult for Clark to slide along the cage, and is able to lower herself down to a position where she could get a stronger grip on Clark’s left leg in order to attempt a takedown. This is not very different from a technique which can be found in Kusanku (LINK), and gives a simple example of how the stances of kata can manifest themselves during fighting. Such examples can be seen quite frequently, once a viewer is tuned in to look for them.

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Karate and the Fighting Arts of Thailand

Map showing Okinawa in relation to Japan, China, and Southeast Asia

Map showing Okinawa in relation to Japan, China, and Southeast Asia

Much is made of the influence of Chinese martial arts on karate, from the “36 families” of Kumemura (LINK), to the Oshima incident (LINK), to the mysterious Hakutsuru kata (LINK), and of course the more solid connections found in Naha-Te styles like Goju-Ryu and Uechi-Ryu. While Chinese martial arts would certainly have had an influence on Okinawan martial arts, given the history of trade and cultural exchange between the two nations, it is hardly the only influence. The Ryukyu Islands stretch across the East China Sea between Japan and Taiwan, putting them in a perfect position to act as a layover for any ship traveling between Japan and Southeast Asia, which is a very large and diverse collection of countries. That region–the continental portion of which is sometimes called “Indo-China”–includes modern-day Java, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Singapore, Philippines, and many more. The Okinawan people, as a sea-faring nation that relied heavily on trade, would have certainly had encounters with people from this region, and it is plausible that they would have exchanged not just goods and services, but weapons and cultural practices like martial arts. Indeed, we have written records to indicate that such exchanges occurred, and noted diplomat and academic, George Kerr (LINK), wrote in his book, Okinawa: The History of an Island People; “It is noteworthy that songs, dances, and festival sports incorporated many elements which came from overseas in the high days of Chuzan trade in the Eastern Sea; boxing (karate) in which both the hands and feet are used had come from Indo-China or Siam; “dragon boat” racing from South China; the use of teeterboards from Korea; and wrestling from Japan.” This article will specifically explore the connection between Okinawa and the Kingdom of Siam, which we now call Thailand.

 

Tony Jaa, lead actor in the Ong Bak series of films, dressed in kard cheuk Muay Thai garb

Tony Jaa, lead actor in the Ong Bak series of films, dressed in kard cheuk Muay Thai garb

Most martial artists, and fans of combat sports, will be familiar with Muay Thai, also known as Thai boxing or kickboxing. It is known for brutal, often bloody, full-contact fights, generally held in a boxing ring while wearing boxing gloves, but incorporating kicks, knees, and elbows into its striking repertoire. Some may also be familiar with “kard cheuk” Muay Thai fights, where knotted ropes are used in lieu of hand wraps and gloves, as seen in Kickboxer, and the Ong Bak series of films. Recently, prolific Muay Thai fighter and writer, Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu, competed under that ruleset (LINK), making her one of the first women to have done so, and bringing more awareness to it in the process. The kard cheuk ruleset is inspired by Muay Thai’s ancestor, Muay Boran (lit. “Ancient Boxing”), or Toi Muay, which was a more comprehensive fighting art intended for self defense and military training, as well as sport fighting. As is often the case with older systems that evolved into competitive sports such as baseball or soccer that people practice using equipment as soccer cleats from sites as http://ohpsoccer.com/. If one compares Muay Thai to what most people see from karate, they will tend to only see the basic similarities of two striking arts, but by comparing Muay Boran to old-style Okinawan karate, we can see much more crossover.

 

 

 

 

 

Comparison of Siamese, Okinawan, and Western bare-knuckle boxing stances

Comparison of Siamese, Okinawan, and Western bare-knuckle boxing stances, from an unknown Muay Boran fighter, Motobu Choki (infamous Okinawan karate fighter and master), and John Sullivan (a champion boxer)

Many of the kamae (postures) of karate can be found in the postures of Muay Boran, which should not be surprising, given the crossover that can be seen across all fighting arts. Of course, there is bound to be crossover in the preparatory fighting stances of unarmed martial arts, particularly when they use little to no hand protection. Such “guard” positions tends to make use of “Clayton’s gap,” which Dan Djurdjevic Sensei has written a good article about (LINK). Beyond that, however, are a number of combative postures, which go beyond simple “guard” positions, and get into actual fighting techniques (which I have written about previously, here: LINK). These are postures which essentially act as a freeze-frame representation of either the beginning, ending, or midpoint of a technique. As “guard” positions, they are often poor choices for anything but intentionally leaving yourself open for an attack, in an attempt to bait your opponent. As active techniques, however, they become functional, with effective combative applications. In order for these techniques to be seen in the kata of karate, understood from a combative perspective, and recognized in the postures of other arts, one must study them by applying bunkai (analysis) as a process (which have I written about previously, here: LINK). Without that understanding, it can be very difficult to see the presence of kata movements in the fighting methods of other arts.

 

 

A fighter from Tiger Muay Thai demonstrating a Muay Boran technique, compared to Uechi Kanei (son of Uechi-Ryu founder, Uechi Kanbun) demonstrating a posture found in Sanseiryu

A fighter from Tiger Muay Thai demonstrating a Muay Boran technique, compared to Uechi Kanei (son of Uechi-Ryu founder, Uechi Kanbun) demonstrating a posture found in Sanseiryu

Muay Boran contains a number of techniques, some of which have transferred to Muay Thai, but many of which have not, which can also be found in karate. Obviously, the presence of punching, kicking, elbows, and knee strikes, are no surprise when comparing any striking martial arts. Given the connection between the Ryukyu Kingdom and the Kingdom of Siam, however, one would expect to see some more specific examples of similar techniques and methods. Indeed, many such examples can be found when looking at the techniques of Muay Boran and the kata of karate, covering not only striking techniques, but joint locks and takedowns as well. The details of the execution of these techniques may vary, but the underlying principles remain.

 

 

 

 

 

Side-by-side comparison of a Muay Boran technique, a posture from Gojushiho, and a posture from Naihanchi

Side-by-side comparison of a Muay Boran technique, a posture from Gojushiho, and a posture from Naihanchi

This Muay Boran technique makes use of a principle frequently found in Okinawan martial arts–using three of your four limbs at once in order to control and damage the opponent. In this particular example, you see that the attacker’s head has been grabbed by the defender’s right hand in order to set a datum (reference point) for striking with the left downward elbow, while the right leg executes a shovel kick to the knee. This is quite similar to an application for Passai, where in the kata a crescent kick is thrown to the open hand, followed by an elbow strike being thrown across into the open hand (LINK). For somewhat more static examples of a similar posture, one can reference these kamae found in Gojushiho and Naihanchi Shodan, respectively. Obviously, these three karate examples are not exactly the same as the Muay Boran technique pictured, as they do not explicitly show a downward elbow, although some versions of Naihanchi Shodan do a large, circular, dropping backfist motion prior to the sweep, which can easily be applied as a downward elbow strike without any changes to the movement. Regardless of the differences, however, they can all be applied by setting a datum with one hand, striking with the other arm, and executing a shovel kick to the opponent’s leg at the same time. Additionally, karate frequently exchanges striking techniques between solo kata performance and kata application, so it would not be unusual to see this Muay Boran technique taught as a karate kata application.

 

 

An example of a kick-catch takedown from Muay Boran, taken from the Fight Vision YouTube channel, which is also common in karate

An example of a kick-catch takedown from Muay Boran, taken from the Fight Vision YouTube channel, which is also common in karate

A number of sweeps and takedowns are present in Muay Boran, several of which carried over into modern Muay Thai, and many of them can also be found in karate. Quite possibly the most popular example would be the classic kick-catch takedown seen in this animated GIF. If you were to freeze the clip as the takedown is being performed, and remove the opponent, the person performing the takedown is in manji-gamae/uke (swastika posture/receiver: LINK). Indeed, this is a commonly-taught application for manji-gamae/uke amongst many karateka, including Nakazato Minoru, who is the head of the Shorinkan (which is the organization my dojo belongs to), and Iain Abernethy (LINK), who is well known for his practical approach to kata bunkai. Variations of this takedown can also be found in a variety of other kata postures–from the sukui-uke (scooping receiver) movements found in Passai (LINK) and Kusanku (LINK), to the elbow motions of Pinan Sandan (LINK) and Seipai (LINK, LINK).

 

 

 

The technique, Mighty Bird Battles the Serpent Snake, from Master Lee's book, Muay: Submissions, Breaks, and Locks of Muay Thai and Muay Boran

The technique, “Mighty Bird Battles the Serpent Snake,” from Master Lee’s book, Muay: Submissions, Breaks and Locks of Muay Thai and Muay Boran

In Master Lee’s book, Muay: Submissions, Breaks and Locks of Muay Thai and Muay Boran, another example of manji-gamae/uke applications can be seen in the technique called “Mighty Bird Battles with Serpent Snake.” The book shows two variations, the first of which is the setup for a combination armbar and neck wrenching technique, while the second is a combination armbar and head control takedown. In the case of the first technique, one hand gains control of the opponent’s wrist, while the other arm wraps around their neck, pinning their head to you, at which point the opponent’s extended arm is pulled across the chest to apply an armbar. This is essentially the setup for the karate version of this technique, where we then use the arm wrapped around the opponent’s neck as a lever, hooking their chin with our hand and dropping our elbow behind their back, in order to painfully twist their head to the side while applying the armbar. If you were to take away the opponent, the arm wrenching the head is the raised, bent arm in manji-gamae/uke, while the arm controlling the wrist is the extended arm. The other variation shown in the book still has one hand in control of the opponent’s wrist, but the other arm extends in front of the opponent’s head, pressing their head and neck backward in order to take them off balance and throw them down. This is essentially applying manji-gamae/uke in the other direction, as the raised, bent arm is controlling the opponent’s wrist, and the extended arm is controlling their head. This is a very common karate technique (you can see Nakazato Minoru teaching it here: LINK, and Jesse Enkamp teaching it here: LINK), and although some smaller details may change from style to style, the principles are the same. In both cases, this technique can also be seen as an application for the morote-tsuki (double thrust) found in Naihanchi Shodan (as demonstrated by Funakoshi Gichin, founder of Shotokan, here: LINK), as leaving the arm wrapped around the head in the first version already resembles that posture, and simply pulling the opponent’s arm lower across the chest in the second version will change it to fit the morote-tsuki posture, as well. Of course, as with most fighting techniques, this is not isolated to just karate or Muay Boran–indeed, we can see this same technique in medieval European martial arts treatises, such us the Flos Duellatorum, written by Fiore dei Liberi (LINK).

 

"Thai Dance Break" found in Master Lee's book, Muay: Submissions, Breaks and Joint Locks of Muay Thai and Muay Boran

“Thai Dance Break” found in Master Lee’s book, Muay: Submissions, Breaks and Locks of Muay Thai and Muay Boran

There are many more examples of karate techniques that can be found in Master Lee’s book. One of these is a technique that actually makes use of both a cultural reference and a bunkai concept that can also be found in karate. The book labels this technique, “Thai Dance Break,” and specifically makes the connection between traditional Thai dancing and fighting techniques found in Muay Boran. The technique, itself, is a method of hyperextending the opponent’s knee by using your stance–in this case, zenkutsu-dachi (forward leaning stance). This is a popular ashi-waza (leg technique) in karate for disrupting the opponent’s structure, and is actually included as a drill called ashi-kakie (crossed/hooked legs), which you can see Paul Enfield and Taira Masaji demonstrating here: LINK. The way this is represented by the dance posture pictured actually follows a tenant of the hosoko joko (supporting/supplemental rules) of kaisai no genri (principles for developing solutions), which Toguchi Seikichi wrote about in his books on Goju-Ryu–specifically, the idea that touching part of your body can indicate touching your opponent. In the dance posture, the knees are touching in a stance karateka would recognize as kosa-dachi (cross stance), indicating that your are using one of your knees to attack your opponent’s knee, as shown in the application. This stance can be applied in precisely this way in karate, as well. Notably, this stance appears in the opening of Passai/Bassai (LINK), but it can be found in a number of other kata, as well, from Naihanchi to Sepai. Additionally, the connection to traditional dance is one that is frequently made in Okinawan martial arts, particularly in Motobu Udundi (Motobu Palace Hand). You can see Uehara Seikichi demonstrating some of those connections, here: LINK. In fact, traditional Okinawan dance even includes some postures that are very similar to the Thai dance posture shown in Lee’s book (LINK). The hand and arm positions are also similar to those found in the kata, Seisan (performed, here, by Angel Lemus: LINK), and even the crossed leg position of the dance posture can be seen as indicative of the full step done in the kata to transition from one side to the other.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The technique, "Elephant Whips its Trunk," as seen in Master Lee's book, Muay: Submissions, Breaks and Locks of Muay Thai and Muay Boran

The technique, “Elephant Whips its Trunk,” as seen in Master Lee’s book, Muay: Submissions, Breaks and Locks of Muay Thai and Muay Boran

Yet another example of a karate application found in Lee’s book is called “Elephant Whips its Trunk,” which traps the opponent’s wrist between the neck and shoulder with one hand, while the other hand rolls over the top to apply an armbar or shoulder wrench, forcing the opponent down. A very similar technique is fairly commonly taught as an application to the “elbow wing” sequence of movements found in the kata, Naihanchi Nidan, as demonstrated by Nakazato Shugoro (founder of the Shorinkan) in this animated GIF: LINK. We can see such a tuidi-waza (seizing hand technique) application for that movement in vintage photos of Motobu Chosei (LINK), and back in 2016 this application was featured on Waza Wednesday (LINK). Lee’s book also features a joint lock where you wrap over the top of your opponent’s arm to wrench it, called “Elephant Raises its Trunk,” (LINK) which is essentially the opposite arm movement of this technique, and is an application found in the circling arm movements of Naihanchi Sandan (demonstrated by Chibana Chosin, founder of Shorin-Ryu, here: LINK).

 

 

 

 

Khru Yai Sergio Donato demonstrating a takedown found in Muay Boran

Khru Yai Sergio Donato demonstrating a takedown found in Muay Boran

In this clip, you can see a takedown found in Muay Boran which, at first, may not appear to have much connection to typical karate kata. Some karateka may recognize the ending posture as being similar to that of the opening movement of Enpi (shown by Funakoshi Gichin, here: LINK), but while the ending position is similar, the movement of the kata does not fit the movement of the Muay Boran technique. Despite the difference in appearance, a very similar technique can be found in the Naihanchi kata. Specifically, this takedown can be used as an application for the crossing forearm motion seen in Naihanchi Shodan (demonstrated here by Ryan Parker: LINK). The technique becomes a bit more evident in the KishimotoDi version of Naihanchi, as that movement is executed at a downward angle (LINK). You can see Ulf Karlsson (Shihan, KishimotoDi) demonstrating this application for Tachimura no Naihanchi here: LINK. Interestingly, in the clip of Ulf Karlsson’s demonstration, you can see that he begins by entering into an application similar to the ones described earlier, related to the Muay Boran technique called “Mighty Bird Battles the Serpent Snake,” and then steps behind the opponent to complete a takedown nearly identical to the one shown here by Khru Yai Sergio Donato.

 

A Muay Boran combination that uses movements found in Passai

A Muay Boran combination that uses movements found in Passai

Of course, knee strikes and elbow strikes are two of the biggest things that modern Muay Thai is well known for, so it is no surprise that they feature heavily in Muay Boran. Karate incorporates a good number of elbow strikes, as well, although their absence in competitive sport karate tends to give the impression that they are not present in the art. This isn’t surprising, since sport karate focuses on fast, long-range striking, as opposed to working at close range. The kata of karate, however, are intended for close-range fighting (as discussed in this article: LINK), and therefore contain a number of strikes with the knees and elbows. In this animated GIF, you can see a striking combination used in Muay Boran which parries and controls a punch while delivering a knee strike, which is then repeated, and followed by two alternating elbow strikes. Similar methods can be seen in Tawada Passai, where sagurite-gamae (searching hands posture) is used, then followed by a forearm or elbow strike, followed by a knee strike, and then another elbow strike (you can watch this sequence here: LINK). While it is not done in the exact same manner, the methods are similar.

 

 

 

A Muay Boran technique called "Elephant Trunk Split"

A Muay Boran technique called “Elephant Trunk Split”

Another elbow striking technique in Muay Boran that can be compared to karate is this one, which is called “Elephant Trunk Split.” It is a kick catch, followed by a dropping elbow to the caught leg, which can be used to simply cause trauma to the muscles of the leg, or even attack the knee joint itself. The initial catching movement can be seen in the yama-gamae (mountain posture) seen in various kata, such as Kusanku Dai (example performed by Nakazato Shugoro, here: LINK). The following dropping elbow can be seen in kata such as Gojushiho (performed by Nakazato Minoru, here: LINK), and some versions of Enpi/Empi (performed by Henrik Vandrup, here: LINK). Of course, there are other, less explicit examples of otoshi-enpi-uchi (dropping elbow strikes) in kata, such as performing a chudan-uke (middle level receiver) while dropping your stance (as seen in this Waza Wednesday: LINK), or even simply executing a gedan-barai/uke (low level sweep/receiver), where the elbow drops before the hand.

 

 

 

A Muay Boran limb and head control technique, similar to an application for Passai

A Muay Boran limb and head control technique, similar to an application for Passai

Limb control is a major component of Okinawan martial arts, whether it is to clear obstructions in the way of your strikes, or to attack the opponent’s joints, or just to restrain the attacker and prevent them from harming you. Due to Muay Thai and Muay Boran’s focus on clinching and other close-range fighting methods, they share many of the same limb control methods. The circular entry into shoulder control seen in this GIF from Tiger Muay Thai can be seen in the gedan-shuto-uke (low level sword hand receiver) sequence seen in both Itosu and Tawada/Matsumura Passai (LINK). Of course, the Muay Boran technique uses this limb control to set the opponent up for a knee strike, while the Passai version does not explicitly show a knee strike. That said, the neko-ashi-dachi (cat foot stance) used with the gedan-shuto-uke sequence can imply the use of the lead leg to kick, sweep, or knee strike. This is an idea that was explored in the article, How To Bunkai (LINK).

 

 

An artist's depiction of a Ryukyuan trade delegation

An artist’s depiction of a Ryukyuan trade delegation

These are just a few readily-available examples of Muay Boran techniques that can be seen in the movements of kata. Of course, the kata simply show examples, and there are innumerable variations possible in fighting, so although it can be difficult to find perfectly matching techniques, several do exist, and even where they do not match, the methods are often clearly similar. It is possible that such similarities between old-style Thai/Siamese martial arts and Okinawan martial arts are coincidental, but given the historical connection between the two nations, it is not a big leap to make. Patrick McCarthy has written about the connection (LINK), as has Jesse Enkamp (LINK 1, LINK 2, LINK 3), and we have other connections to consider aside from the cultural and unarmed martial arts, such as the origin of tonfa (LINK). While these connections do not change what karate is, they do inform us on how the art may have developed, historically, and provides us some interesting points of comparison, especially for those interested in breaking down their kata to work out their practical application. There are other historical connections we can consider, of course, given the significant amount of trade that the Ryukyu Kingdom was involved in. China is the connection that most karateka are familiar with, since it existed for several hundred years, and has become the most well-publicized trade agreement that Okinawa is known for having, but it can be valuable to investigate the martial arts of other areas of Southeast Asia, as well.

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Rest in Peace, Richard Poage

Richard Poage at his Godan (5th Degree Black Belt) test in the Shorinkan honbu dojo in Naha, Okinawa, Japan

Richard Poage performing Gojushiho at his Godan (5th Degree Black Belt) test in the Shorinkan honbu dojo in Naha, Okinawa, Japan

At 2:04am Pacific Standard Time, on Wednesday, December 27th, 2017, the world lost an amazing martial artist, a fantastic role model, and a great man who impacted more lives than I can count. Richard Michael Poage was my Sensei, but he was also my friend, and the older brother I never had. He was truly the embodiment of “sensei,” which translates to “one who came before,” not only in that he was older than me, and my teacher, but in that he would actually show his students the path to get to where he was. Richard wasn’t one to rest on his laurels, or settle for “good enough.” He was always training and practicing, trying to improve even has he taught his students to do the same. Even when he was teaching, he couldn’t resist jumping in to practice the drill he just demonstrated, or hit the bags, or get thrown around, or spar with his students. He always said that he never wanted to be the kind of instructor who considered themselves “too good” to get in there and mix it up with their students, and he thought that led to instructors developing a false sense of superiority. Richard would often tell me how important it was for him to train and spar with his students, and people from other schools/styles, so he could keep himself sharp.

My Sensei, Richard Poage (Renshi, Godan), demonstrating a Naihanchi application on me

My Sensei, Richard Poage (Renshi, Godan), demonstrating a Naihanchi application on me

Without him, I hate to think how long I would have struggled to learn what I have under his guidance. I came to his dojo in 2010 having spent 2 years training in Illinois, and 2 more years training and studying on my own after moving to Arizona with the help of some Seattle Movers, and wanting to evolve my karate into something new. He had just tested three of his students for their Shodan (1st Degree Black Belt) ranks, and they were just bowing out. When he finished with the class, he bowed off the mat and sat down to talk to me about what I was looking for in a dojo. It was clear that he was just as excited about karate as I was, and our perspectives on it lined up very well. My first class with him was a brown/black belt class focused on Nakazato Shugoro Sensei’s yakusoku kumite drills. It was the first time I had done any partner work in karate for two years, so my reactions and coordination were terrible, but he was very supportive and helpful the whole time. That class was a little disheartening, since I felt like I had gotten so rusty, but it also re-lit the fire in me to improve, and I threw myself back into training with renewed vigor. All of the things I had read about and seen in videos in my 2 years of self-training and research began to make even more sense, and I began to develop the ability to actually do those things, thanks to him. Every compliment I have ever received on my karate isn’t really a compliment for me, but for him, and I will forever be in his debt.

My Sensei and I after my shodan test

My Sensei and I after my shodan test

When he was hospitalized, it was a shock to everyone–you don’t expect a 32 year old martial arts instructor who had just recently booked his first doctor appointment at https://www.urologygeorgia.com to suddenly fall prey to a cancerous tumor. His biggest vice was caffeine, and he drank more of it (usually coffee and Monster) than he did water, a lot of the time, so when he complained of headaches, that’s what everyone (including him) chalked it up to. It was a complete shock to all of us. We set up a GoFundMe to raise money to help cover some of his medical costs, and were blown away by the amount of love and support we received from the martial arts community. Unfortunately, now that he has passed, his family will still have bills to pay for his care and final arrangements, so we are keeping the fundraiser going. If you are able to donate, please visit and share the GoFundMe page (LINK).

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Joint Lock Practicality

An example of kansetsu-waza from the book, Seipai no Kenkyu, written by Mabuni Kenwa (founder of Shito-Ryu)

An example of kansetsu-waza from the book, Seipai no Kenkyu, written by Mabuni Kenwa (founder of Shito-Ryu)

While many joint locking techniques (kansetsu-waza) exist within karate, there are still karateka who are unaware of them and, frequently, people look at the joint locks of karate from the perspective of other arts. We know that such techniques exist within karate, not only because of karateka who kept them in their curricula into modern times, such as Uehara Seikichi (LINK), Oyata Seiyu (LINK), and Tetsuhiro Hokama (LINK), but also because can see examples of these joint locks in books written by old karate masters like Itoman Morinobu (an Okinawan police officer who learned karate prior to its introduction to the school system), Motobu Choki (an infamously skilled fighter), Funakoshi Gichin (founder of Shotokan), and Mabuni Kenwa (founder of Shito-Ryu), who famously said that Goju-Ryu had not been fully introduced to the mainland of Japan, and that it contained a variety of locks and throws (LINK). We also know that one of the sparring methods of old-style karate was kakedameshi (lit. “crossing/testing of spirits”) which Nagamine Shoshin (founder of Matsubayashi-Ryu) described in his book, Tales of Okinawa’s Great Masters, as including joint locks (LINK). On top of this, we know that Okinawan youths regularly participated in tegumi/muto (folkstyle submission wrestling) which is described by Funakoshi and Nagamine as including throws, chokes, and joint locks. Additionally, we know that many Okinawan masters highly regarded the Bubishi/Wu Bei Zhi (LINK) as a source for historical Chinese fighting methods that carry over into karate, and it contains several joint locks. Of course, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of Chinese martial arts styles, and most of them contain joint locks. George Kerr also wrote in his book, Okinawa: The History of an Island People (LINK), that the martial arts of Okinawa originated from Siam (modern-day Thailand), and Muay Boran (the ancestor art of Muay Thai) contains joint locks (LINK). In other words, we have a great deal of information to support the presence of joint locks within the curriculum of classical Okinawan karate. As Iain Abernethy Sensei recently addressed (LINK), it is fairly common for people to associate certain techniques with certain martial arts, and that can lead to misconceptions and confusion. Often, this results in people seeing a joint lock from karate, associating it with another martial art (typically Japanese jujutsu, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, or Aikido), and assuming that it is meant to be applied from the perspective of that art, which may have a different context, making the technique seem as though it would be ineffective. Other times, the joint locks of karate are simply demonstrated in a manner that is meant for skill-building, and not direct combative application, which can also lead to a belief that the technique is impractical. In order to understand the plethora of tuidi-waza (seizing hand techniques) the exist within the methods of karate, you not only need to understand the mechanics of how they work, but also the context in which they are meant to be applied, and train accordingly.

 

Motobu Choki demonstrating tuidi-waza from Naihanchi Shodan

Motobu Choki demonstrating tuidi-waza from Naihanchi Shodan

To begin with, as I see it, there are generally three primary types of joint locks–hyperextending, compressing, and twisting–and many joint locks are some combination of those types. These categories are my own, and other martial artists may be more granular in their categorization of joint locks, but I find that most can fit into these types. Hyperextension is simply moving a joint past its intended stopping point, which is typically done to hinge-type joints, since their range of motion is already fairly limited. Compression is a bit more complicated, because it can be driving both halves of a joint into each other, or closing a hinge joint (hyperflexion), usually with something inside of it. Twisting is a fairly straight-forward concept, which is to twist the joint past the connective tissue’s ability to hold it in place. All of the joint locks that I can think of can fit into one or more of these categories, although there are many ways to perform these actions on a joint, and many joints to apply them on.

 

 

 

 

Funakoshi Gichin (founder of Shotokan) demonstrating koma-nage (spinning top throw), which is an armbar found in Naihanchi

Funakoshi Gichin (founder of Shotokan) demonstrating koma-nage (spinning top throw), which is an armbar found in Naihanchi

Hyperextending locks are probably the most common across all of the martial arts that contain joint locks. Hinge-type joints, such as the fingers, elbows, and knees, are the easiest targets for such locks, because you just have to figure out a way to fully extend the joint, and then force it past its stopping point. The example of this that most people will be most familiar with is the armbar. That word will typically conjure up a mental image of the classic juji-gatame (cross hold) of Judo–the same armbar taught in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and frequently used to win MMA fights–and if you were to do a Google Images search, you would see pages and pages of exactly that, people used to bet on athletes from MMA flights, and they were large amounts of money betting, even with money gotten from a check out cic, fans would look for the best tipsters in order to bet all their money, MMA is a full contact sport where fighters use different fighting styles to their strategic and tactical advantage including karate, judo, jiu-jitsu, boxing, kickboxing, wrestling as well as other emerging interdisciplinary technique, Betting on MMA has evolved as the sport has grown in stature, but in order to stand a chance of winning you have to understand the particulars of betting on MMA, and then get the best available odds, usually found at Pinnacle. The trouble with that is that an armbar is an armbar based on principles, not a specific example of a technique. The standing armbar commonly seen in karate is just as much an armbar as the one seen in BJJ, despite looking very different. This is because they are both using the same principles, but in different contexts. The biggest difference, of course, is that BJJ typically applies armbars on the ground, and often in a sporting environment, as opposed to karate applying it from a standing position in a self defense or law enforcement context.

 

 

A compressing wrist lock called "carrying a basket" from the book, Chin Na Fa

A compressing wrist lock called “carrying a basket” from the book, Chin Na Fa

Compressing locks are less common, in their purest form, but karate has some very useful compressing locks, and compression adds a very significant augmentation to hyperextending and twisting locks. Spearing the shoulder joint, which is sometimes done following an armbar, would be a pure compression lock, driving one half of the joint (the ball of the humerus) into the other half (the shoulder socket). Another example of a more common compression lock would be a gooseneck wrist lock, in which the wrist is hyperflexed and squeezed while the elbow is held in place to form a base. There are many variations of this, from “come-along” methods to restraints. Those who are familiar with the 1936 compendium of Chinese law enforcement grappling methods, Chin Na Fa (LINK), can find this in the “carrying/lifting a basket” techniques pictures in the book. Often, compressing locks can include some sort of wedge being inserted into the joint as it is compressed, which can be seen in the calf-slicer technique used in BJJ and MMA to lock the knee joint. Karate uses the same principle fairly often–particularly in Naihanchi–by stepping onto the back of the opponent’s knee and driving it to the floor. As with the hyperextending lock examples, these do very much the same type of damage to the joint, but look very different due to the context.

 

 

 

 

 

A shoulder wrench from Hans Talhoffer's manual on medieval combat

A shoulder wrench from Hans Talhoffer’s manual on medieval combat

Twisting locks can be applied to most joints, with varying degrees of success, and are nearly as commonly found as hyperextending locks. All of the joints in the human body are held together with connective tissues, and twisting a joint to the point where these tissues fail will cause a great deal of damage. For example, a ball-and-socket joint, like the shoulder, is meant to twist and rotate, but the tissues that hold the joint in socket can only provide support up to a point. This means that the shoulder can be locked, but because it is a very mobile joint, it has to be brought to a position where it can no longer hold itself in place. A “chicken wing” or “hammer lock,” where the opponent’s elbow is bent and their hand is brought behind their back, can effectively accomplish this. Such locks can be found in a variety of arts, from karate, which does it from a standing position, to HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts), which does the lock with a dagger or sword, to BJJ, where most people may be familiar with the omoplata shoulder lock, which is done on the ground using the leg. Again, all of these are doing the exact same lock, using the same principles, but in differing contexts. I recommend doing this exercises drug free, because drugs overdose or substance abuse can cause addiction and it can affect your training, check this article to learn more https://firststepbh.com/blog/detox-will-kickstart-rehab/.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Uehara Seikichi of Motobu Udundi demonstrating a twisting wrist lock

Uehara Seikichi of Motobu Udundi demonstrating a wrist lock

The question then becomes, what context are the joint locks of karate intended for? Myth and legend would tell you that they are for farmers to fight Satsuma samurai but, as I’ve discussed before (LINK), that is false. Historically, karate, under many different names, was practiced almost exclusively by the Shizoku classes and royalty of Okinawa (LINK). These include scholars, guards, police, military, and princes, to name a few, and they all may have different needs in their martial studies. A scholar, for example, may be more interested in the study of how the body moves than fighting practicality. Police may focus a great deal on restraining methods in order to detain people without causing grievous bodily harm, while royal guards might be more likely to go for the kill to keep their charges safe. We have to keep these types of possibilities in mind when considering the contexts in which karate was meant to be used. Itosu Anko (LINK), who was responsible for formalizing and kick-starting the popularity of karate by introducing it to the Okinawan school system, included this in his Ten Precepts (LINK), stating that it can be studied not only “for your own benefit,” but also “avoiding injury by using the hands and feet should one be confronted by a villain or ruffian, because sometimes these injuries are not even your fault” and says that you must decide if your training is “for your health or to aid in your duty.”

 

 

 

Oyata Seiyu demonstrating a compressing wrist lock

Oyata Seiyu demonstrating a restraining wrist lock

This wide array of possible contexts is partially the source of the various styles of karate that exist today, and makes the study of karate very complex. With this in mind, we can not only break down the joint locks of karate by mechanical types, but also into four methods; restraint, disruption, destruction, and education. These methods tend to coincide with the specific needs of the practitioner. Restraining methods are meant to restrict the opponent’s movement, often through pain compliance, without causing any more damage than necessary. Disrupting techniques are typically meant to distract the opponent with pain, or force them to move and take their balance away (kuzushi). Destruction methods are generally intended to dislocate joints, or cause enough damage to the connective tissues that the opponent’s limb becomes useless. Educational joint locking methods, unlike the other three methods, are often complex or difficult to accomplish in combat, but are intended to teach the underlying principles of joint locking, and to teach the practitioner how the joints of the body work and what their limitations are.

 

 

 

 

 

Shinya Aoki wrenching an armbar to take down Keith Wisniewski--whether the intent was to disrupt or destroy is debatable, but the joint did dislocate

Shinya Aoki wrenching an armbar to take down Keith Wisniewski–whether the intent was to disrupt or destroy is debatable, but the joint did dislocate

The interesting thing about these different methods is that the same technique can be used in several methods, and simply be applied differently. If we consider an armbar, for example, different people will have different needs when they use it. A police officer may need to force a suspect to the ground so they can be handcuffed, without dislocating the elbow (which would actually result in the loss of the lock). In order to accomplish this, they would have to apply the lock somewhat slowly, to give the opponent time to react to the pain of the technique and move appropriately, and use the lock to guide the opponent to the ground, often by turning and sinking. An MMA fighter, on the other hand, may want to disrupt their opponent’s balance and distract them so they can go for a takedown or land a strike. To do that, they would have to wrench the armbar quickly enough that their opponent doesn’t have enough time to consciously move away from it, but not so forcefully that the joint dislocates. A civilian protecting their family from a home intruder, however, would likely benefit from doing as much damage to their opponent as possible to prevent them from doing any further harm. This would mean that the lock would be done as fast and forcefully as possible to ensure that the joint is dislocated and/or the connective tissues are so damaged that they cannot hold the joint stable and allow it to move. For someone who is simply studying the way the body works, and how it can be affected, there is no need for speed or force. Such a student may focus on experimenting with minute changes in angle and rotation which would be too difficult to apply in combat, but which further the understanding of how the armbar can be made more effective. All of these methods have value, but obviously they are suited to different types of situations, and karate, as a lifelong pursuit that stems from a variety of needs, includes all of them to some degree.

 

Uehara Seikichi of Motobu Udundi demonstrating locks in an educational manner

Uehara Seikichi of Motobu Udundi demonstrating locks in an educational manner

So how does this affect your training? That will largely depend on why you study karate. If you are seeking the fullest karate education possible, or want to learn practical skills for self protection, then you will need to study all of these methods. The trouble that most karateka encounter with joint locks–and which make other practitioners question the practicality of them–is that many dojo only practice them as restraining methods, or educational methods, and may not work them in a practical manner, or pressure test them. This results in a knowledge of how the locks work, but not the knowledge of how to get to them and make them usable. These are things that can be difficult to address on a dojo level, let alone an organizational level, because as traditional martial artists tend to do, many practitioners will cling to “the way we’ve always done it.” Even so, individual students or instructors can still find like-minded individuals in their dojo or organization to start introducing more effective training practices, and that can work its way into the community over time.

 

 

 

 

 

Working various joint locks with my

Working various joint locks with my “poor man’s kakiya/kakete-biki”

When it comes to training to be effective, if a student is only ever taught restraining locks or educational joint locking methods, then they are learning very “gentle” and “slow” (comparatively) techniques. These certainly have their place, but disrupting and destroying methods are faster and more brutal, which is very valuable when your life is on the line, but can be scary in training. You have to practice techniques with these methods in mind, while remaining controlled enough to not injure your partner. These techniques are often said to be “too dangerous” but, just like a punch to the face, they are only as dangerous as the person doing them makes them, and if they have proper control, they can put enough of a jolt into the joint to get the desired response without damaging the joint. To practice the locks fully, students would have to employ training tools such as kakiya/kakete-biki (which I mentioned in this article: LINK), or even something as simple as a rope or belt tied to a post to act as a substitute limb, so that no one is injured.

 

 

An example of a joint lock from Shaolin martial arts practices, demonstrated against an exaggerated attack

An example of a joint lock from Shaolin martial arts practices, demonstrated against an exaggerated attack

We must also consider the way that the joint locks are presented, taught, and practiced. Often, it is easier to teach (and be understood) outside of the context the lock is intended to be used in. Fighting is chaotic, and messy, and if a technique is taught solely in context, it can be very difficult for students to clearly visualize and understand how the technique is supposed to work. For this reason, many instructors will teach joint locks to the arms, for example, against long range punches or pushes, because it gives students a lot of room to see what is happening, gives them the right motion to be able to get to the lock, and often students have already spent time training how to block/receive punches, so this is an easy transition. This is often not very realistic, however, as karate is intended to be used primarily at close range, and the locks tend to come into play much more at that range than at the long distance often used for demonstrations and teaching. Joint locks are not the only technique that suffer from this, and karate is not the only martial art that does this–the same approach can be seen in Chinese arts, for example, or even HEMA (Historical European martial arts), where techniques are sometimes taught “out of measure” for safety. Teaching and practicing in this manner is not a bad thing, in and of itself, but it is very limiting from a practicality aspect. Essentially, the long range, simplified entry into the techniques is a good introduction, but training should go beyond it.

 

 

An advanced kakie drill incorporating counters

An advanced kakie drill incorporating counters

Kakie/kakidi (hooked/crossed hands) training is common across many styles of karate, and similar practices are very prevalent in Chinese arts. These practices range from very simple with both participants’ lead hands crossed at the wrist, just pressing back and forth, to much more complex, with changing arms, pushes, steps, and circular motions. Some karateka simply work the motions back and forth, but some use them as entries into strikes, locks, and takedowns. These exercises are a good way to introduce students to the idea that joint locks can be worked at close range, and to develop the tactile sensitivity necessary to do them, which working from long range punches and pushes doesn’t do as well. Because both people’s limbs are in contact with each other, each participant can feel what the other is doing based on touch, which will allow them to develop a sense for when their opponent’s limb can be locked. As with our armbar example, the arm has to be extended in order to apply a hyperextending lock to the elbow, and if your arm is in contact with your opponent’s arm, you will know immediately when they are attempting to extend it, because it will be pushing against your arm. Similarly, you will know when your opponent pulls away, or circles. Such training methods are not necessarily directly applicable to self defense, but the skills they build are vital to being able to apply the joint locks and other methods found in karate.

 

To get closer to reality, we need a training method that is more open-ended, which is where kakedameshi comes into play. It makes use of the same tactile sensitivity and entries found in kakie/kakidi, but in more of a “sparring” type manner. Partners get the chance to freely exchange strikes, locks, chokes, and takedowns, while focusing on using tactile sensitivity and muchimidi (sticky hands), and in the process also get to resist and defend against those methods. This can be approached slowly and gently, with a focus on skill development, or quickly with hard contact, to pressure test the karateka and their ability to apply what they have been working against a resisting opponent. This is a key component of training that many martial artists are missing, and why they are unable to really make the jump from learning a technique to being able to use it. Kakedameshi puts you up close and personal with your opponent, and forces you to deal with a tangle of limbs with very little space to react, which is more effective for preparing you for the chaos of fighting than simply drilling a technique against a set attack. Additionally, it allows you to learn how to incorporate strikes into your joint locks to make them easier to find. For example, a strike to the body will tend to make the arms weaken, so they can be extended more easily, while kicking out a leg may cause an arm to reach out to regain balance, or a strike to the face will tend to cause the opponent to recoil and pull their arms back toward their face to protect it or clear their vision. Of course, sometimes a strike is simply distracting enough to allow you to lock the joint, regardless of what the limb is doing. These types of reactions are often built into the techniques of kata, but come alive in resistant training methods.

 

What we call “kata randori” in our dojo is another method of pressure testing techniques, including joint locks, which deals with more realistic attacks. Kakedameshi is highly valuable for skill development and pressure testing, but is a sparring method that focuses on a very specific set of skills, and the resistance provided is that of a trained opponent, as opposed to an untrained attacker. Kata randori is, as the name suggests, the free practice of techniques from kata, which is done against realistic attacks, of various types, and the attacks and resistance provided by the attacker is intended to be that of an untrained person. This should result in a series of messy and, ideally, one-sided exchanges. The kata techniques are meant to take control of an opponent and end the threat as quickly as possible, and deal with failure should the threat continue. This approach to sparring is not as open as kakedameshi or jiyu kumite, in that each partner has a specific role to play. It is, however, very useful for developing the ability to deal with a relentless attacker, and employ old-style karate methods to do so, while also training out peoples’ tendency to stop after they have practiced a technique they deemed “successful.” In martial arts, concessions must always be made to balance realism with safety and, therefore, one should not limit themselves to a single approach, because a more varied approach allows you to compensate for those concessions.

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