“Ah, Why Must We Do Basics?”
Almost any student who has trained in karate for any length of time learns that there are three basic physical components of karate training. These are named kihon, kata and kumite.
Students beginning karate training are usually introduced to kihon as the basics of that training. The kihon are considered the fundamental components from which all else is built. They are like the strokes in painting, the letters in writing and the pure-tonal notes of music. In and of themselves they are of little value but when mastered and allowed to flow naturally in learned or natural sequences they become far more powerful than individual basic strokes, letters or tones.
In the case of karate the muscle tension, body position, stretch, and other physical sensations experienced during karate practice is kinesthesia (kine = movement; esthesia = appreciation). Kinesthesia is felt in the muscle tension, body position and various components of the corpus vivendi of all people but in the karate-ka the kinesthesia reaches for heights not sought by other arts or, for sure, the public in general.
All students, even beginners, gain some appreciation of the above mentioned karate kinesthesia. If they did not then they could not progress beyond the route intellectual remembrance of combinations strung together for only short sequences. The mind first memorizes the patterns of kihon but within a short time the body begins to feel that it is doing the kihon correctly. This felt-sense (kinesthesia) is the beginning of the art where the body feels karate and has not just memorized some tricks.
Transfer of Energy from Intellectual to Kinesthetic
As kinesthesia develops a karate-ka’s intellectual mind is freed up to allow more lengthy sequences to be attempted. If basic kihon and undoo are not internalized they are a hindrance, detracting from the karate-ka’s attention and concentration to the opportunities of battlefield strategy. They are too complex to serve any function until they are integrated by the martial artist into sets of felt-experience. They must be felt to become useful thereby freeing the karate-ka’s mind to higher echelons of martial tactics and strategies.
Kihon may be artificially divided into those which are static and those that are dynamic. Static kihon have no movement; they are positional such as a stance. Dynamic kihon have movement. They are such as an up-block, a punch or a kick. The feeling for each of these divisions of kihon is different.
Undoo are combinations of basics. Undoo flow. One instant in the combination the karate-ka may feel tension, the next relaxation. At one time the feeling may be forward attack and the next instant zanshin of the opponent on the floor. In all cases the karate-ka wants to feel the action and not merely go through the movements as in as set of memorized words in a speech.
It is through the development of feeling in the kihon, a process involving kimochi, that the karate-ka both frees up his mind for the extremes of battle and frees up his mind so that he can execute highly sophisticated tactics and strategies effectively. During the attending fracas the karate-ka’s who has developed kinesthetic sense in kihon and who has progressed to high levels of powerful body dynamics unconsciously moves with determination and agility. As the breadth and depth of integrated kihon develops the karate-ka has at least some chance of maintaining a unified battlefield front, even against multiple or armed opponents.
Longer Combinations (Undoo) Do Not Equal Kata
As combinations grow longer and longer they may approach the length of kata. The combinations, however, do not merge into kata. The distinction between the two is profound. Undoo and kihon are the roots of the receptive/expressive part of physical motion whereas kata are a culmination of wholeness-in-art. Let us examine this a bit further.
Kata are art. As art they are feeling oriented and not (usually) intellectualization of a subject. But, like painting, they are not devoid of communication. The issue is that the communication is transmitted in the form of body position, action or, if you will, kinesthesia (the appreciation of motion and body position.).
If kihon are not appreciated and felt kata cannot exist beyond a very rudimentary level. The greater the depth of appreciation and the depth of feeling for the kata the more the karate-ka can delve into the depths of kata.
A beginner memorizes the kata sequence often while still struggling with what constitutes proper kihon. The student tries to remember the proper form for the kihon and, in addition, remember what the elaborate sequence of the kata is as well. Confusion usually reigns and the student must practice the kata over and over to memorize the sequence. But alas the student triumphs. The kata is memorized. The student will require much more time to internalize the kata, however.
Kihon and Mental Stagnation towards Kihon
At this level the student probably has only developed rudimentary kihon. The stances remain high, immobile, weak or wobbly. The blocks, punches and strikes are fairly ineffective lacking power, speed, correct paths for maximum efficiency. Transitions from one to another are usually poorly balanced and slow. The student is beginning the journey, a journey that will take years to complete, and along the way the journey has many dangerous pitfalls but at least the karate-ka has begun the journey.
One great pitfall, and a common one, is the stagnation of kihon. After a few weeks or months beginning students believe they have ‘mastered’ the kihon. They are bored by kihon practice. This is evidenced in two ways. The first is that they begin to dread repetitive kihon practice and avoid it or put very little effort into the kihon sessions of class. The second way is that they just don’t eagerly seek improvement in the manner that kihon are refined. Some believe, if not most at least at this stage of learning, that they already know the kihon so further refinement is inconsequential. Both of these evidences indicate stagnation of kihon and often lead to years where the student makes little progress in karate proficiency.
The kihon hold the key. The kihon develop and refine not only the way that karate is practiced but also the way that body dynamics develop. If the kihon are distorted for any reason refinement of form is not possible at least within the context of the particular karate that is sought. In addition, proper body dynamics cannot be grasped. Improperly practiced kihon lead to distorted and usually ineffective body dynamics. Developed over hundreds of years karate, as well as other martial arts, have been refined to include that which is superlative body dynamics. Deletion or modification, even through simple ignorance of proper form, leads to deficient body dynamics, a condition which hinders martial arts proficiency.
Opening Up to Techniques, Tactics and Strategy
Without well-developed kihon, the art of karate, that is, the kata are hardly worth practice. The kata are sequences of many kihon combined to illustrate-in-art lessons too complex to be grasped via short combinations. These lessons, on a primitive basis, are lessons in techniques, tactics and strategy. Over a period of a couple of minutes or less the kata introduces the lesson or lessons, iterates it usually by waves of intent and culminates the lesson by its kimochi and/or zanshin. The martial artist practices the kata not just for the repetitive kihon and undoo but also so that the lessons of techniques, tactics and strategy of the kata become integrated. The tactics and strategy lessons are invaluable lessons for the advanced student. But, if the kihon are distorted in almost any way the lessons of tactics and strategy become impossible to execute because of inefficiency in the basic root of unarmed combat, i.e.., well-developed body dynamics.
As an example I propose to look at the strategy of a blindingly fast attack using complex body dynamics to confuse and defeat the opponent. Such movement is found in the fourth movement of the kata Aoinagi. It is impossible to execute the complex body dynamics if the karate-ka has not developed proper body dynamics; and if the proper body dynamics are not used the techniques are useless even if the strategy remains viable in the right hands. So, here we go; the kata performer (Oji) advances upon an adversary in the third movement of the kata. Immediately following the advance the adversary (Shikaki) initiates his own attack. Oji half-retreats in counter-contracted body position then lunges forward to strike his opponent in the chin. In this particular case the kata uses taisabaki and suggests naname as tactics. The taisabaki and concomitant retreat-attack presents the Shikaki with a sudden counter-attack well before it may be anticipated. Deviation or distortion of the proper form in the fourth movement of the kata would almost certainly render body dynamics ineffectual by causing delay in the timing of the retreat-attack sequence. The counter-contraction and bold balance work exhibited in the proper kata movement are the key to effective strategy. Improper unit form in the kihon annihilates effective body dynamics and as a consequence destroys the potential use of this effective strategy.
My Advice Regarding Stagnation of Kihon
Over the three decades that I have been teaching karate I have witnessed the stagnation of kihon in literally thousands of students. Hundreds of them have gone to the point where all further progress in proficiency is impossible. Those who have slumbered into the stagnation of kihon usually do one of two things if they stay in karate training; One is that they become highly philosophical in their training delving into the enigmas of kata, art and spiritualism. The other is that they just abandon the idea that martial arts has anything in them beyond technique. Both of these sequelae of stagnation of kihon are very destructive to further real martial arts progress.
My advice to all students everywhere is to look to the kihon. It is the kihon that holds the foundation of all that is to come beyond.