(excerpt from My Promise to the Master)
No, “advanced basics” is not an oxymoron. As your karate develops, your effectiveness is only as good as your basics. It’s not uncommon for me to conduct a class with my advanced black belts, Godans (5th degree) all the way up to Kudans (9th degree), entirely on basics. Your kata can only be as good as your basics. Should you ever need to defend yourself in a combat situation; the quality of your basics and your understanding of the technique will be what saves you. The Master identified 11 basics which he drilled in each class he taught. It is important to understand everything you do in karate, from punching the makiwara (wooden punching post) to your most advanced kata. All are derived in some way from the 11 basics. That means when you master these 11 techniques, you are on your way to a greater understanding of karate–do.
Starting with your first karate class, the basics are taught one way to make it easier to understand. Your Sensei will gradually weave in some of the more advanced applications of the basics as your knowledge and abilities grow. In this chapter, I will share some of the more advanced finer points of the 11 basics. Get these down in the chapters that follow, so you can incorporate them into your advanced understanding of the kata.
For example, when moving from a right zenkutsu–dachi to a left zenkutsu–dachi, transition through this position by placing your left (front) foot and knee facing forward. Your right (back) foot is placed at a 90- degree angle to the right with your knee pointing in the same direction. The heels of both feet are on the same line, both knees are bent and your weight is equal (50/50). Then to transition into the left zenkutsu–dachi, pivot the right (back) foot on the ball, driving the heel back and locking in the back leg as you snap the hips forward.
This technique is another transition move that allows you to get more speed and power from your hips when moving from various stances including the jigotai–dachi (squat stance) when performing oi–zuki (side squat punch). Your feet are the same distance as a normal zenkutsu–dachi, but your back leg is bent, knee and shin almost touching the floor and the heel of your back foot is drawn up with the ball of the foot on the floor. Your front heel is also up with equal weight (50/50) on both balls of the feet. Hips are straight ahead. By keeping your knee near the floor, you maintain the same height allowing you to move faster and stronger as your center of gravity is lower. This move is also not a stance, so notice that “dachi” (stance) is not used in this name. There will be other transitional moves as you progress through the book, but these two are the most widely used to perform your basics. (This transition move is pronounced “zen koots” as the final “u” in Japanese is silent.)
Neko Ashi–Dachi (Cat Stance)
Literally translated neko ashi–dachi means cat foot stance. This stance is appropriately named as it allows you to be stealthy then spring toward your attacker like a cat. There are a number of distinct advantages of this stance compared to other stances used in karate. Neko ashi–dachi allows you to quickly move any direction, forward and back, side to side and at angles. By having very little weight on the front foot, it allows you to have four weapons available immediately at all times (both hands and feet). Additionally, it allows you to also move easily to nearly every other stance.
To get the most from a neko ashi–dachi, you need to incorporate it as a part of your weapon. That is, it not only places you in a position to deliver the strike or block but provides two key elements of speed and power for the technique. This happens because instead of simply stepping straight forward, you very briefly step through an L–noji, thus allowing you to use the power of the hips to pull the back leg forward at the moment of attack. Therefore, your hips, combined with the release of energy from the spring forward in the back leg, enhance and support the delivery of the technique. You must stay low at all times while in neko ashi–dachi. I cannot stress this enough! Standing up in neko ashi–dachi makes your movements slower, you become a larger target, and your technique less effective. Also, your center of gravity needs to remain under the body at all times during this movement. If you extend the leg on the heel and then drag the body forward, you lose control. Spring forward from the back leg, keeping the back vertical even during that brief moment where weight is on the front heel, thus keeping greater control.
Proper use of the back leg in this manner provides you with yet another advantage. The knees, especially the back knee, can be brought in tighter to the body allowing for additional protection to the groin area and keeping you from becoming vulnerable.
Neko ashi–dachi has always been a challenging stance mainly because it requires all the weight on the back leg, only using the front for balance. It takes a great deal of practice to get low and stay in this position. Once you can effectively execute neko ashi–dachi and maintain its proper height, you are able to unleash more of the potential energy of the “spring loaded” back leg. This approach to neko ashi–dachi is an advanced move and requires more skill, ability and practice to execute properly. Therefore, it should only be taught at the black belt level.
Neko Ashi–Dachi, Mae Geri (Cat Stance Kick)
Our second of 11 basics is the combination of cat stance and the mae geri (front kick) off the front leg. In this position, the kick performs with snap and is close to the body. By bringing the knee up high before launching the strike, you have the ability to provide a very fast and powerful strike to the body while keeping both hands free for defense and immediate follow up, as in keri tsuki (kick and punch). Aim the big toe at the throat. In reality, you would not likely kick to the throat in a fight. By practicing it and perfecting it, we are then able to kick anywhere on the body with effectiveness. One practice technique for helping to learn to raise the knee before extending the kick is to stand in front of a chair with your knees just in front of the seat. Kick over the seat of the chair, making sure that your foot comes under your buttocks. To do so, requires the knee to be totally raised first and stay up there until the kick is retracted and ready to be set back down.
Shizentai–Dachi, Chudan Zuki (Walking Chest Punch)
This technique is executed with the hand and foot on the same side in a shizentai–dachi (walking stance) and is performed with the hip. It is also critical to use both arms with this technique. As one fist punches, the other fist is retracted into the chamber position so that it is high and tight along the ribs and under the armpit. The retracting arm is executed as if you were throwing a hiji ate (elbow strike) behind you. (And in some cases, you are!) As an advanced student, you must punch with the arms lightly rubbing your rib cage on the way out and back. Any movement away from the body by the elbows and arms results in a loss of energy and ultimately becomes less effective. Remember: Where there is movement, there is weakness. Any non essential movement in a technique results in longer time to execute, lack of engagement of the optimum muscle groups, and becomes a less effective technique. When performing this basic, your target is the solar plexus. However, this area is reserved strictly for target practice, meaning in actual combat your target area may be other additional areas. If you can train yourself to hit the solar plexus every time, then any other areas you want to hit will be no problem. Punching in kata may be different than the way you punch in combat. In reality, things change. Target training helps you in combat situations. You can then apply this to your kata. As I’ve said many times in my advanced belt class, “Kata doesn’t teach you how to fight; it teaches you how to move.” Learning how to move your feet in certain circumstances could mean the difference between life and death. In kata, you are hitting a certain area. Kata doesn’t change. Kata is designed to hit a specific area.
Shizentai–Dachi, Jodan Uke (Walking Head Block)
This basic is also performed with the same hand and foot forward in a walking stance. Attention to the details creates a very strong block. First, consider the position of your arm relative to your head. The angle of the blocking arm must be at 45 degrees, but more importantly the angle between your upper and lower arm is 90 degrees. If it is any less, you lose most of the strength in the block. Make sure your blocking arm is a fist distance from your forehead. This way when an attack comes from above, you do not get pounded with your own fist. If the blocking fist is too far from the head, it is slow and weak. This causes you to over extend, making you more vulnerable to your attacker. The fist is turned palm out and the wrist is in the center of your forehead to cover the entire head. This block covers attacks from overhead or straight in. Even though the motion is going upward, you want your energy projected forward into your attacker.
As you step forward in your walking stance with your right foot, tuck your right shoulder in a little as you bring your right arm over to cross with your left. This keeps your body protected throughout the block, but also gives you more energy to direct forward. The arms slightly rub together as the block is executed. With equal force, retract the opposite fist in the chamber. The hip makes a forward snapping motion just slightly ahead of the block, ending in a horizontal position. Keep the palm of your blocking fist toward you until the moment of impact with the block. Then, snap the fist over as you would for a punch. At the moment of impact, tense your muscles then relax again. Keep the blocking elbow back enough so you can keep your eyes on your attacker in front of you and to the sides.
Each block in Matsubayashi–Ryu can also be a strike. Likewise, each strike can be a block. Defensive moves can and should be attacks. When blocking, cause damage to the attacker so that there is little or no threat. Merely deflecting the attack is not sufficient, your goal is to eliminate the threat all together. This requires perfected technique and full relaxation; tensing only at the moment of contact.
Migi Te Hidari Ashi (Reverse Punch)
The literal meaning of this basic is right hand, left foot. A firm understanding of this basic will teach you distinct advantages of performing “cross techniques” (where hands are opposite from the leading foot). The very nature of having the opposite hand from the foot provides more stability, control and power without applying any extra energy. You must understand this principle. This is a very powerful basic technique which allows you to easily generate tremendous hip snap toward the attacker, to fully unleash the power in the technique. There is very little, if any, motion in the shoulders. Do not lean into the punch. The power is generated from the hips (your core) not the upper body. As you step forward in your walking stance, do not plop your foot down. Glide the foot lightly over the floor so that at any point in the movement you could pull it back if needed. Keep the center of gravity on the vertical axis of your body. The punch makes contact just as the ball of the front foot touches down. Without losing the quality of the technique, shorten the time from when your step is completed to when your punch makes contact. The more proficient you get, the less an attacker can tell that there is any pause between the two. Also, as you improve, the visibility of the hip snap becomes less noticeable by an attacker. The hip snap is always there. However, over time, you internalize the hip snap more. You learn to engage your core muscles as well as many of the smaller muscles. Your goal is to finely choreograph the coordinated contractions and relaxation of muscles to focus more energy into the attacker with less obvious movement. By speeding up your punches and kicks, power will come (with speed comes power). The power on the end of the technique is an explosion.
Zenkutsu–Dachi, Gedan Uke (Long Front Stance Leg Block)
Of the 11 basic techniques, I believe the most challenging to perfect is this basic. When you finally perfect this basic, it opens up a whole new level of understanding, not only about the basic but karate–do in general. As I mentioned before, moving into a stance is more than a means of getting from one point to another. At an advanced level, the way in which you move becomes part of the technique and helps you deliver the strike or block with more power, speed and effectiveness. Step forward, keeping your center of gravity low and beneath you at all times. In this way, you maintain control and have the ability to retract your leg if necessary.
This also keeps you from “telegraphing” your intent to your attacker. With your left leg extended, you briefly transition through an L–noji. At the same time, your right arm extends forward, parallel to your front leg with closed fist to protect your body. Your left arm pulls up to prepare for the block. Lower ranks (kyu level and juniors) will start that block from their shoulder. My Dan ranks learn to initiate the block from the elbow or lower without losing power. This ability gives the advantage of speeding up the delivery of the technique. While momentarily in an L–noji with your arms crossed in front of your body, you are now ready to execute the gedan uke (lower block). The left hand of your blocking arm is palm up and the right hand remains palm down. During this entire process, your muscles are relaxed even though you have closed fists. If your muscles are tight, you can’t move quickly so only tighten up at the moment of impact then immediately relax. This gives you the most bang for your block.
Now, you are ready to execute the actual block. Generally when performing this technique, the purpose is to block a low kick or punch. Time your block so that the kick or punch is deflected causing the maximum amount of damage to the attacker’s weapon. As a beginner, you are merely deflecting that leg just enough to miss you. However, now you want this block to do much more. As the kick drives in, you explode from an L–noji to your zenkutsu–dachi using the power of your hip while locking in the back leg. Remember to pivot on the ball of your foot, not the heel. The weight distribution transitions from 50/50 percent in an L–noji to 70 percent on the front leg. The back leg forms a wedge with pressure on the knife edge of the foot and heel. The blocking arm moves across the body to the other arm which is left extended to protect. Retract with equal power (or more) at the same time, so that your block strikes a nanosecond after your hip snaps into the zenkutsu–dachi. The power explodes from the hip snap and travels through the body and your arm, just as if you were snapping a whip. At the moment of impact, tense the muscles and for that instant become rigid like a rock. This transfers all the energy that your body generates into a powerful eruption that is fully transferred to your attacker’s weapon.
Although you are deflecting the kick just a few inches to the left of your body, you want the energy generated to project forward. Make sure you fully square your hips so that you get the maximum amount of power from your hip snap. Also, lock the position of your front knee to ensure that it is over your toes. To get lower in your stance, do not extend the length of the stance but rather push your knee forward. If the zenkutsu–dachi is too long or too short, you lose energy and control of your body.
Oi–zuki (Side Squat Punch)
Oi-zuki is perhaps the most powerful basic due to the full 180 degrees of hip snap. You cover more distance in this basic than any other. With correct execution of this basic, you will find this to be your most powerful and deadly strike, as well as one of your quickest for attacking. Executed as I instruct, the speed and power of this basic will amaze you. This is an effective technique when executed properly. For added energy, every time we strike in oi–zuki, we kiai (yell).
To move forward, first shift your hips into a running zenkutsu which, like an L–noji, is a tremendous transitional position. Explode forward into a running zenkutsu on the other side by both pushing off the back leg and pulling with the front leg while keeping the same height. Any upward or downward body movement causes you to lose energy and stealthiness. As the punch begins, focus on pulling the front fist back in the chamber. Both arms start and end at the same time. Drive the first knuckle right into the attacker’s ribs and kiai.
Shizentai–dachi, Chudan Uke (Walking Chest Block)
The body motion is similar to the jodan uke. You want to lead with your shoulder as your arm is brought back in to the block. Briefly rub your arms together to ensure you are covering your core as you execute the block. The fist is at chin height and the forearm is 45 degrees from the body. Wrists snap at the end of the block. Drive the retracting arm back just as hard and fast as the block, and focus the energy forward into the attacker. An advanced interpretation of this technique in kata or when performing uke waza (basics performed with a partner), is that the blocking hand grabs the attacker’s arm. Pull the attacker towards you as the chudan uke is executed. In this case, you are using the block to break the attacker’s arm at the elbow, or it can be a strike to the side of the attacker’s head. I teach my black belt students they must think outside the box on application of techniques, even on basics. This is just something to keep in the back of your mind as you go through basics and all exercises. Something very basic eventually becomes very advanced and more deadly with just a very slight modification in the execution of the movement.
Keri Tsuki (Kick and Punch)
From a walking stance, the back foot explodes off of the floor! Simply raising your foot in this basic is not enough. You have but a split second to launch this kick. To get the speed you need and the damage you desire, do not merely rely on the leg and stomach muscles to do the work. Remember, aim the knee at the attacker’s throat. Retract the foot back underneath the buttocks. Keep the retracting foot parallel to the floor. Just as your foot connects, extend the foot forward at the ankle to add additional snap, power and reach. This is the ankle equivalent of the wrist snap. Retract while keeping your leg parallel to the floor. Do not drop the leg until the foot comes completely back. While performing the kick, only your leg moves. So, keep your body straight up as you kick. Keep your eyes focused on the attacker, not on the floor. Looking down during a kick is a common tell that a kick is coming and any advanced karateka will see the kick coming from a mile away. The front foot remains straight ahead during the kick. After the foot is placed down in a walking stance, fire off the reverse punch. As you snap out your punch initiated from the hip, turn the back foot (which was your front foot) out slightly to add a little more energy in the forward position and a little more stability in the stance.
A thorough understanding of the body dynamics required to perform a good keri tsuki, will be necessary and evident as you progress in your karate–do. The body control as well as the muscle isolation and implementation required to perform this basic correctly, is required to perform all advanced techniques and kata. Studying and developing a true understanding of this basic, as well as the other ten basics, is vital.
MORE WRITING SAMPLES
Sequence for the side squat punch.