Hikite – what a great concept for us to sink our teeth into! I’d like to thank Mike Sherman for asking me a question in class that started a meandering rant that ultimately led to this post.
Hikite (te meaning hand, hiki or hikeru meaning drawing in) is a very common aspect of traditional martial arts, especially in karate. Whenever you see karateka performing straight punches as a group, they are sharply snapping one hand out while pulling the other hand back to the belt.
The performance of the hikite itself is fairly consistant across styles at a base level. As the straight punch extends, the withdrawing hand retracts. It is chambered somewhere around the floating ribs. Depending on style you might chamber it a little lower, or even higher tucked up near the armpit.
As opposed to simply cheerleading the usefulness of hikite, I’d like to talk about how I see it develop in martial artists as they grow. In fact, I personally believe that hikite is initially useful, then a hindrance, then useful again.
Let me explain.
When You’re A Beginner, Hikite is Useful
When student’s first step foot in a dojo, they rarely know how to punch with maximum efficiency (very rarely). Most people realize that if they swing their knuckles at someone’s jaw, it’s gonna hurt them…but that’s about it.
The usage of hikite for early students introduces technique into an otherwise chaotic event. By chambering one hand palm up while the other hand is extended, the student can learn to corkscrew his/her punch as it extends outward. By corkscrewing, the puncher can take advantage of the speed and power of a geometric straight line to the target. Furthermore, they can learn how to position a good punch at all distances: palm up closed punch at short range, vertical punch at mid range, and fully extended palm down punch at long range.
By drilling in this fashion, the practitioner can also discover proper bone alignment as they constantly seek to strike with the front two knuckles of the fist. This kind of accuracy and intent is hard to simulate when casually punching a heavy bag with sparring or boxing gloves on.
Hikite Can Become a Hindrance
As students progress, they get more and more comfortable in their karate (or taekwondo, etc). Hikite becomes ingrained in their body and it’s almost more natural to do than not to do it.
Soon hikite pops up everywhere – in kata, in bag drills, and even in self defense routines. Realism begins to get substituted for karate habit.
In the picture above we see a fairly common karate habit. In order to keep things “Safe” and orderly, the blue practitioner drops back into a seisan/zenkutsu dachi, performs a gedan barai (lower block), and withdraws his punching hand into hikite. The point of all this is to give the red practitioner plenty of time to learn a technique and practice it.
The problem is, these two karateka will get better at the technique and start going faster. Soon they are going at blitzing speed and thinking that they have everything down pat. Wrong.
Everything about this method of practice is karatefied. Real punches rarely travel in a perfectly straight line like we practice in karate. Furthermore, you rarely have so much time to see it coming. More realistically, an attacker is going to come from a hands up, on guard position (or even worse, a sucker punch position from half a foot away).
If you were to break out of hikite habit and practice in a realistic way, even at an extremely slow pace, you would be better preparing yourself for serious self defense.
Another way hikite becomes a hindrance is during sparring or when returning strikes during self defense. If you are engaged with an opponent, you want to keep your primary defenses (your hands) in front of you as much as possible. Also, you want strike as quickly as possible. Why would you return a hand all the way to your belt, open up your centerline, just to try and send it back out for a punch? Karate people who use hikite in this way will always be at risk of getting their block knocked off by boxing style fighters.
Hooray – Hikite is Useful Again!
Don’t worry, I’m not a hater. Eventually, after a whole lotta practice, karateka start to become relaxed in their style (hopefully). They stop being slavish to their stances and techniques because they learn the principles behind them. They begin to understand the theories of weight distribution and relaxation-to-tension. They also learn that hikite actually has two components – one going out for a punch, and one withdrawing back in.
The withdrawing aspect is the real secret for making hikite useful again. When engaged in combat, a skilled karateka will make sharp contact with whatever he can – be it hand, leg, head, hair, shirt, etc. As he/she makes that contact (hopefully in a stunning or distracting manner), they will then use that hand to pull the aggressor off balance or open up a vital target on their body. As the hand is withdrawing or manipulating, the other hand will shoot out for a very devastating strike.
Getting this to work with proper timing and force takes a lot of practice. Furthermore, the student needs to learn how to use koshi (hip movement) to weight the technique and cause accelerated unbalancing of the opponent. Ideally the unbalancing and counterattack occur simultaneously (or close to it), allowing the hip to snap in one motion, or snap and then snap back for the strike.
Once you start thinking of a returning hand as a grab, pull, twist, etc it opens up a whole new realm of application possibilities. There are other places in kata that utilize returning hands (think of Nai Hanchi Shodan):
Can’t you imagine closing the distance, striking your way inside your opponent’s guard, grabbing the back of his hair and cupping his chin, then performing a twisting neck break? Or is that just me…
Two Theories I Don’t Buy
I’ve heard two major theories about hikite that I don’t really buy into. First is that the purpose of hikite is to practice an elbow strike on someone behind you. This seems like one of those unlikely karate scenarios where I need to be punching a guy in front of me while elbowing someone behind me at the same time. Furthermore, by trying to tense both of these impact areas at the same time, I am limiting my ability to use my hips. Rather than striking both people weakly, I’d prefer to hit them in quick succession but put all of my force into each technique.
The other theory is that by accelerating the returning hand you can significantly accelerate the punching hand. I have not found this to be true. The theory of relaxing the body until point of impact dictates against this because in order to accelerate my returning hand I need to be tense through the arm and shoulder. I prefer to leave that tension out of it and let my fast twich muscles accelerate the punch while my hikite is controlling the opponent’s wrist (or something equivalent). Everything snaps together at the point of impact, causing unbalancing and damage with the strike.
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After an extended visit to gunville, we are getting back into warriors of antiquity (and I couldn’t be happier about it!)
In this week’s episode the Shaolin Monk faces off against the Maori Warrior in an intriguing clash. Where matchups like ninja vs spartan and gladiator vs apache could be easily fit into the ‘strong vs fast’ box, I don’t believe this match is so readily defined.
A Bit About Maori
The Maori are a native tribe of New Zealand who’s ancestors likely came from the islands of Hawaii. Living alone on the isolated New Zealand islands for thousands of years, the Maori developed a unique and complex culture.
It is said that 12 tribes originally made the journey from Hawaii, and over time, split from each other and spread across New Zealand. In order to keep growing (and keep diversity in their gene pools), they would conquer one another and integrate the women from other tribes into their own. Because of this warring nature, the Maori had to develop sophisticated fighting methods.
Here is a look at a Maori warrior in action (it’s just a lighthearted demo, but still worth seeing):
The Maori method of fighting is surprisingly chinese in nature. They utilize meridian theories and exercise through partner training, kata-like drills, and harsh tests of spirit. Much like other elite warrior castes, only the hardiest and most courageous Maori became true warriors.
One interesting note about the Maori is that they would often eat their fallen opponents. They did this both as a sign of victory and as a form of sustenance on an island that had little in the way of meat.
A Bit About Shaolin
The Shaolin Monks are easily among the most recognizable warriors of all time. In their trademark orange garb they fly around performing remarkable feats.
The Shaolin get their name from the trademark Shaolin Temple where their particular brand of Kung Fu was born. As legend goes, the monk Bodhidharma came from India on an historic pilgrimage when he came across a band of sickly monks praying at the Shaolin Temple. In order to improve their abilities to focus during medititation and perform their day-to-day duties, Bodhidharma taught them body hardening and fighting techniques.
Although this mythology has had many holes poked in it, it is the generally accepted story for the beginning of Shaolin.
Now a look at what the monks do:
Shaolin training is famously stark as practitioners are forced to devote their entire being into training. Eating very little and living in spartan conditions, the monks train and perform every day.
The monks have experienced a significant change in the past few decades. Going from religious body to entertainment troupe, the Shaolin lifestyle and goal has become less and less about fighting and more about entertainment.
The Weapons of Maori and Shaolin
If there is one thing the Shaolin have, it is a plethora of weapons. Amongst the most commonly used are the broadsword, straight staff, convenience spade, and whip chain. (see some pictures here).
The Maori, on the other hand, utilize very few weapons. Their focus is on spear (taiaha) or straight staff and club (mere, wahaika, kotiaiti). Maori rarely threw their weapons but could use the spear as a javelin. (see some pictures here).
If this were modern times, the decision would actually be easy. Shaolin monks have lost most of their devastating combat ability in exchange for glamorous technique and showmanship. The Maori, on the other hand, are still a select group and their training has maintained a lot of its simplicity and effectiveness.
Unfortunately, I have to assume that this match will take place during both of these groups golden eras. That being the case, the Shaolin will have a sophisticated array of fighting concepts and weapons.
The Maori warrior is likely to be stronger. I also like the simplistic approach they take to fighting. The Shaolin is likely to be quicker and more dynamic when it comes to weapons. Because this show tends to be mostly a matchup of weaponry, I think I have to ultimately decide in favor of the Shaolin Monk. In real life, I would probably go the other way.
What do you think?
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Hey everyone, I have an announcement that I’m really pumped about. Recently I started working on my first e-book for the site.
The title is “The Student’s Guide to Surviving a Traditional Dojo” and here is a sneak peak at the cover:
Why Write This E-Book (What is it About)?
Over my years of teaching and being a student I have noticed commonalities regarding martial artists, the questions they ask, and the trials they face.
Similarly, I have had to tackle the hurdles and tribulations of my own long-term training. Benefiting from both an internal and external perspective, I’ve come to understand some of the ups-and-downs, causes-and-effects that can either prevent martial arts disaster or invite it.
Unfortunately, as a teacher, it can be difficult answering questions people are afraid to ask. Even worse, it’s hard to correct psychological pitfalls that people aren’t aware they are falling into. This book serves as a set of guideposts to avoid those traps and help practitioners survive to become true artists.
I’ve noticed that there are few simple, straight-forward guides for this sort of thing out there. You can go to Barnes and Noble and get 100 books about technique, but when it comes to taking the leap into martial arts and making the most out of your day-to-day training you’d be hard pressed to find anything worthwhile.
Who is the Book Aimed At?
This book has a pretty broad scope both in age and experience level. Student’s of most traditional styles (karate, taekwondo, aikido, judo, jujitsu) will find the advice contained inside pertinent.
One demographic that will definitely benefit is beginning students. Whether trying to decide if they should start a martial art, or struggling to find a reason to continue, beginners will find a lot of things to quell their anxieties. Furthermore, there are specific sections in many of the chapters designed with intermediate and advanced students in mind (one of the things I definitely wanted to address is the black belt cliff – wherein students get to black belt and struggle to maintain motivation).
A Little More Info On the Chapters?
The chapters range from straight-up practical to philosophical. Some sections are basic and contain advice on subjects like how to wear your gi and obi properly (a surprisingly consistent cause of angst amongst new students). Other sections include ways to stay safe through stretching and listening to your body, which is often breezed over for the sake of more technique. Still other chapters include thoughts on how to obtain and maintain a beginner’s mindset so as to train (and keep training) for the right reasons.
For intermediate/advanced students I have analysis on topics like hierarchy, little-known pieces of dojo etiquette, how to properly handle rank and promotions, and figuring out when to stay and when to quit.
There are tough battles to face when trying to fit into the ‘exotic’ world of martial arts. For western thinkers, there can be definite pains in the process and I want to address them.
I Want You to Be In It!
One goal of this book is to be useful for students of all styles. You should be able to easily send it to a nephew, niece, cousin, sibling, or anyone else you know starting in their art (or trying to make it to the next level).
In keeping with that all-encompassing nature, I would like thoughts from other martial artists. I intend to create a ‘words of wisdom’ section at the end of the book that will include valuable tidbits from practitioners like you. Here is the prompt I need you to answer:
What is your best piece of advice for long-term survival in the martial arts?
Write your answer in the comments section to this blog post. Your answer can be anywhere between one sentence and two paragraphs. Include your real name and style, and a link to your website (if you have one). Everyone selected for inclusion will get their name,style, and a hyperlink back to their website (remember it’s an e-book so this is a great way to increase exposure). You needn’t be a black belt to respond, but you should definitely have a few years of experience under your belt and be at least around the brown belt range.
I Want To Answer Your Questions!
If you could pick up a book that contained all the secrets to martial arts success, what would you want to see in it? What questions have been nagging at you about your training that you feel too silly to ask your instructor?
This is the perfect venue to get those questions answered, and, in the process, help everyone else who probably has the same question!
Include in the comments section below anything you’ve been wondering about when it comes to the martial arts – be it how rank works, why dojo are setup in a certain way, why we bow all the time, etc etc.
It’s Going To Be Free.
The goal of this book is not for profit. It is instead a tool for education that can improve the lives of traditional martial artists. In a society where commercial dojo are springing up more and more and traditional dojo are becoming less and less understood, this book can help guide students onto a path of long term character development and success.
This book will be shareable, sendable, and giftable. You will be free to print it out for students and I will provide an easy-access hyperlink to the finished copy for download.
I’ll be keeping you updated on my progress (I want to finish asap), and I hope to see your thoughts in the comments below!
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