Sport karate has long been known for its fast in-and-out approach to fighting, largely because of the way points are assessed–you want to get in and touch your opponent, and get away before they can touch you. Lately, though, the kumite used in the increasingly popular World Karate Federation (WKF) competitions seems to involve the “in” component, but not so much the “out” component, with competitors often simply running straight into each other at the end of combinations. Even so, there are still many sport karate competitors who maintain the in-and-out approach, and for good reason. As Mr. Miyagi said in Karate Kid 2; “best way to avoid punch, no be there.” The idea behind this is that you don’t have to block something if you aren’t in its path. Now, sport karate does this by fighting at a long distance, finding an opening, and building up a great deal of speed to shoot in and land a strike, before shooting back out of range again. This certainly has its place, and catches attention when sport karate competitors cross over into other realms of fighting, such as mixed martial arts competitions. It is not unusual for MMA commentators to say that fighters with sport karate backgrounds are “difficult to hit,” for this very reason. Moving straight forward and straight back are not the only types of evasive maneuvering in karate, however, and exploring these other ways of moving can benefit both your sport fighting, and your self defense application. In Japanese, the evasive methods of martial arts are generally referred to as sabaki–either tai sabaki (body movement) or ashi sabaki (foot/leg movement)–and tenshin (shifting).
To get started with the basics, it must be understood that there are 8 primary directions one can move in–forward, backward, side-to-side, and to the angles in between. In judo, jujutsu, and Aikido, these same directions are referred to as “happo no kuzushi,” which means “eight points of off-balancing.” While those arts are generally talking about the balance of your opponent, they also use the same term to refer to the directions which you can move, which makes sense if one considers that stepping is just a change in balance. If life were two-dimensional, and viewed from above, these would be our only real options of movement, but life is three-dimensional, and we have the ability to change our angles of movement within a 360 degree sphere around our body. This can still be divided into eight primary directions, but because of the shape of this metaphorical sphere of movement, arcs and circles become more accurate representations of possible planes of movement, rather than lines. For those who have researched old-style karate and Uchinadi (Okinawa-Te), these circles (and points associated with them) come up often, and are called kuruma (wheels). As an example, you can see Jan Dam Sensei of Genten Kai, formerly a student of Onaga Yoshimitsu Sensei’s Shinjinbukan, demonstrating some basic kuruma that can be found in Naihanchi in this video. Since kuruma can also be attributed to the arm and leg movements of karate, separately, this can seem a bit overwhelming to think about, because there is so much movement to consider, but with practice the kuruma will begin to make more sense. In truth, it is rather difficult to convey a visual concept through a text medium, such as this one, so thoughtful practice will be the key to understanding how the arcs, circles, and spirals represented by the kuruma concept are applied to a person’s movement.
Whether you are fighting in some form of competition, or for self defense, stepping to angles can help you both in closing distance, and in creating distance. Imagine facing an opponent, head on, who shoots forward to try to throw punches at your face. You can step straight backward, of course, to create more distance and move yourself out of your opponent’s reach, but chances are good that they will continue to move forward. Since most people move more quickly forward than backward, they will probably catch you eventually, and because you are moving backwards it will be hard to mount much offense, unless you are specifically baiting them into overreaching so you can counter them. Moving straight to the side, in either direction, will take you off of your attacker’s line of movement, forcing them to have to turn to face you. This can be highly advantageous in sport fighting, because you can then move yourself back to the center of the ring, and force your opponent to the outside, limiting their movement. It doesn’t usually set you up to counter your opponent, unless your step to the side is rather small, so you have to be wary of your distancing if you plan to use the side-step to counter. If you move forward at an angle, however, you can slip past your attacker’s punches, because the step moves your head (the target) away from its expected position in space, which takes you out of the path of straight punches, and puts you too close for circular attacks to have much impact. The same step, because it is bringing you forward and toward your opponent, will allow you to throw your own strikes in response. Once you have done this–unless you have knocked out your opponent, of course–it is likely that your opponent will turn to face your new position, so that they can mount a counter attack. This is where retreating to an angle comes into play, because you can create more distance between you and your opponent, while again moving your head to an unexpected position, and out of harm’s way. It is important to note that the “8 directions” idea is a simplified one, because there are infinite degrees between any two angles that a person can take. For this reason, karateka should not limit their idea of “angled stepping” to moving at exactly 45 degree angles from their current position.
Another component to this is altering your height, which will start to make your movement more of an arc, as illustrated by the kuruma concept. For example, if you are in an “orthodox” fighting stance, with your left side forward, and you press forward and to the left angle, you can bend your knees along the way to drop the height of your head and, thus, the targets your opponent is trying to reach. You effectively are stepping toward, to the side of, and underneath your opponent’s attack, all at once. This very same concept is present in the beginning of most kata, where you start in some sort of “ready position,” and then shift to another direction and drop into a stance. Both the angle you move to, and the change in stance height, although slight, have an impact on the evasive components of the technique. Sometimes, you may also want to go from a lower position to a higher one, either offensively, to strike, or defensively, to absorb a punch with your body instead of your head, or to avoid an upward strike, such as an uppercut or front kick to the face. Of course, both rising and sinking in stances is applicable to much more than just striking and evasion–when you start working limb control and the grappling components of kata (which I have previously discussed, here: LINK), the changes in elevation become even more important to the application of your techniques.
So far, these methods assume that your body, as a whole, is being moved–this is what sabaki is generally referring to. Smaller, but just as important, are things like body tilt and rotation. These would fall into the category of tenshin. Such shifts in position are often overlooked, because they are not as easily seen as full-body movements, and because they do not provide much of a margin for error, making them a bit frightening to rely on. For example, just tilting your head to the side can take it out of the path of an oncoming attack. Without stepping in any direction, simply turning your upper body reduces the surface area that is open to being struck from the front. Combined with a slight shift in balance, and you can completely move your head and body off the line of an attack, without ever taking a step. If we map out these movements, we get a lot more curving planes of motion, once again fitting in with the kuruma concept. While it is possible to use these small shifts in position to avoid attacks, they tend to be more effective when combined with the larger sabaki methods. A very basic example of this type of shifting can be seen in the opening of Naihanchi Sandan, where you start with a lateral step, but also lean and pivot the upper body, before pivoting back without moving the feet, straightening the body, effectively moving your head out of the way of two potential attacks.
If you combine a tilt of the head, a twist of the body, an angle of the body, a drop in height, and a step to an angle, you will have moved your head–the likely target of an attack–along a convoluted, curving path around the likely trajectory of your opponent’s attack, and without taking any more time than simply stepping away. Of course, nothing is foolproof, or 100% effective, because you cannot truly predict exactly how your opponent is going to attack, but this type of evasive movement does make it very difficult for your opponent to predict where you will be, in order to adjust their strikes to hit their target. This type of evasion is very important in sport fighting, of course, but it also appears in some kata applications. Some of the clearest examples of this can be seen in the opening of Naihanchi Shodan, where you step into kosa-dachi, sink, and then step out to whatever version of a horse stance your system uses (variations of which I have discussed previously, here: LINK). At first glance, Naihanchi does not appear to be a very evasive kata, as it simply moves side to side, and most systems insist that the head height be maintained throughout the performance of the kata. If we consider older methods, however, such as KishimotoDi, the tenshin components become a bit more evident. Kosa-dachi has many uses (which you can read more about, here: LINK), and one of them is tenshin. Whether you step to kosa-dachi, or twist into it, the nature of this cross-legged stance angles your body and, from a standing position, will lower your elevation, and adding a slight lean to your body will add yet another arc to the evasive potential of the stance. KishimotoDi uses this type of tenshin to “avoid by an inch” (one of the three principles of the system, which you can read more about here: LINK) and slide past the attack in order to counter it.
There are many other ways to accomplish sabaki and tenshin, and many more ways that the kuruma concept can be used to illustrate them, but the examples here should give karateka at least a basic understanding of how to recognize them. Additionally, it should serve to illustrate that karate–often derided as being a rigid, head-on, linear fighting system–actually has soft, circular components to it. This applies not only to the evasive methods, as described in this article, but also the strikes, locks, and receiving techniques. It is important that we not get locked into the idea that karateka must move in straight, level lines, because we will be missing out on important classical Okinawan fighting methods. Whether you train for self defense, sport fighting, or just the enjoyment of it, these methods can greatly benefit your training, because they open up a great deal of possibilities.