Kata is very energetic. Once you get on a role, it can feel like an avalanche of focus and momentum.
In some ways, that’s good. It means that the form has been learned and you no longer need to pause, scratch your head, and try desperately to remember what comes next. Unfortunately, that same momentum can carry you away and cause you to miss some of the finer details of kata execution.
One aspect that is frequently overlooked is…looking. Often, when individuals perform a kata, they become transfixed on what their hands and feet are doing. They snap blocks, fire punches, and move crisply. However, throughout the entire performance, their head stays laser straight, looking ahead at all times.
That sounds like a good thing, right? You would want to be looking in front of you if that’s where the bad guy is. The problem occurs in the directional changes.
If we move our entire body without looking where we are going first, we’ve made a conceptual error. Although the kata dictates we go one way or the other, we need to visualize a real opponent in that place. As such, a real opponent can be unpredictable. We can’t simply shift and block and magically know where the attack is coming from and at what distance. We have to LOOK first. Once we spot the enemy, we can then act in accordance with kata.
Often looking means turning our head slightly and shifting our eyes to the new opponent. We do this before committing to a stance or response, as is advisable in a real confrontation. Therefore, during training, we can take an entire pattern and make sure our eyes and head are moving before technique execution.
Of course, as with any good rule of thumb, there are exceptions.
Even though kata tends to turn in many directions, such movements do not necessarily mean a new opponent is arriving. Sometimes it can indicate that you, the defender, have trapped your opponent and are throwing them. Your body movement is then an ample method for creating that throw. If this is the case, you wouldn’t need to be looking all around – you’ll want to focus on the opponent at hand and execute the throw to maximum efficiency. After that, you can either strike the grounded opponent again or move on.
The important factor here is knowing which method of visualization you are employing. If you are keeping your eyes straight ahead during a turn, is it because you are maximizing a throw? If not, and you intend to address a new opponent, would you be wiser to take a peek first?
I recently moved into a new apartment, and with that has come a host of new sights, sounds, and experiences.
If you live in one house long enough, you become accustomed to that place’s personality. Creeks, cracks, and groans become almost imperceptible parts of your daily life. However, when you move somewhere new, each sound is noteworthy to your consciousness. In a familiar home noises that are commonplace are easily distinguished from those that are abnormal. At a new place the differentiation is less defined.
Almost every individual has, at one time or another, heard an unusual noise that has set them on edge. Something sudden and concerning. During those stressful times there is initial surprise or dismay as the noise develops, followed by stillness, quiet, and listening, ultimately concluded by a decision (investigate/escape/act) or lack of decision (freeze/ignore).
I’d like to explore one method you can use to optimize your readiness to make a decision and perform to the best of your ability when that moment arrives.
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In my new laundry room there is a large access panel into the ceiling. When we first arrived the hatch was open so we knew it led up to the “attic” of the building. We also noticed that in order to maintain heat and security the hatch was quite thick (about 2-3 inches of hollow metal) and heavy.
Why it was open we didn’t know nor did we think much of it. We simply raised it back up until it latched shut. A few days later I was working alone in my office when I heard a deep thud from the laundry room and the rattling of springs. I felt the vibration of the action through the walls and knew immediately that something unusual had happened.
I thought about the hatch. I was worried about it’s connection to the rest of the building, it’s comfortable human size, and the fact that it had been opened before. I grabbed the nearest implement handy that I was proficient with (a metal pen) and peaked outside the office. Unfortunately, the laundry room door was shut.
I waited, completely quiet, to detect any follow-up rustling (continued activity would be a strong indication of something alive in the room).
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It was at this pivotal time that I used a technique that you can use as well in tense moments.
When suddenly stressed the body’s Amygdala begins to enter survival mode, and in doing so desires to lock the body into inaction. It’s primitive responses of fear, stillness, and hiding have preserved human life for thousands of years and has stuck with us ever since.
To counteract these effects, I do something very simple – I shift my weight to the balls of my feet. I also adopt a very slight raising and lowering of the body weight. Essentially a bounce, but slow and deliberate and almost imperceptible.
Shifting the weight to the balls of the feet sends a subconscious signal to the body that you are about to take action. The body relinquishes some of it’s physical lockdown. Not only that, but the emotional state begins to change from one of fear and “what-if” to one of readiness and action, be it fight or flight. The slight bouncing promotes a continuation of blood flow and energy flow.
As martial artists, we conduct a large amount of our training on the balls of our feet. As we move, slide, spar, and defend ourselves we often need that mobility. The physical connection of that ball-of-foot stance puts us back in touch with our training and helps reconnect to that mindset. Training is of no value if we are too busy getting lost in our own heads and allowing the primitive parts of our brain to lock us into inaction. “The lizard brain” can be both helpful and harmful, so we must also develop small habits which can best circumvent those reactions which are least valuable.
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I spent a moment worrying about all the ways a person could slide into the apartment with weapons, tools, and bad intentions. My muscles were tense. As soon as I shifted to the balls of my feet and utilized the slight bouncing I immediately returned to my training. I felt ready and collected and even thankful that I was the only resident in the apartment. I was also fortunate enough to have my metal pen right nearby. I knew where the intruder would be and he wouldn’t know where I was, which means he’d have to be faster than me inside of a 1-2 step radius. Even if he had a gun I like my odds at that range with the element of surprise.
I continued to wait and listen patiently until I was convinced that either no one was in the room…or that they had settled in and were folding laundry. I carefully investigated further and found nothing of consequence accept a faulty hatch door which had fallen open once again.
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I’m sure I didn’t respond perfectly, but that’s ok. I was able to overcome my body’s natural reflexes that hinder decision making and quick movement during times of need. Yes, lots of training was a big part of it. But the body has very subtle psychology and energy that can be manipulated.
Keep this technique in mind the next time you find yourself in a tense situation, be it home invasion or otherwise. It might just help during the inevitable creeping of an amygdala hijack.
Kendo is a dynamic sport. When watching, it’s hard to take your eyes off of the lightning bolt sword strikes or the faces of the competitors as they pierce each other with intensity. If you’ve never seen a kendo match (or even if you have), check out the following video for a great example:
The zanshin of a good kendo match is always very high. It is a fine balance between keeping energies and emotions perfectly in check while still transmitting full spirit into your opponent in the hopes of intimidating or disrupting him/her.
However, even with all of that going on, the real core fundamental that every great kendo player requires, the engine that powers each thunder clap movement, is Okuri Ashi.
When first learning kendo one of my biggest problems was that I had already been a karate and kobudo student for about a decade. That means certain stancing and body movements were very ingrained into me. This was compounded by the fact that I had studied karate in my formative years and thus had it as part of my developed “self”.
As opposed to karate where most stances are optimally used to involve the whole body (especially the hips) in a variety of techniques and to weight the body down when appropriate, most of kendo’s footwork is light and crisp. Shizen tai is a very popular term in kendo and means “natural body”. Okuri ashi takes a shizen tai upright body and manipulates the footwork to allow for extremely quick forward and backward movement with minimal “dead spaces” in between each movement.
The execution of Okuri Ashi is as such:
The feet start about shoulder width apart, the ball of the left foot lining up across from the right heel. The right foot moves first, sliding forward about a half pace. The left foot then slides up to meet it, the heel lifting just a bit off the floor. Exactly how much lift you are instructed to get during this movement will vary from school to school.
Okuri ashi can be used with smooth, half pace strides to cover distance or it can be abbreviated to possess extremely short motions (while still maintaining that sliding characteristic). The benefit of moving like this is that your weight is underside almost at all times. This allows you to make quick directional changes and leap into attacks at the moment you feel them appear.
When Okuri ashi is done in multiple successions, it takes on a slight hopping quality even though the body and feet never leave the ground. To understand what I mean, observe this video of a basic drill known as Kirikaeshi:
You might take note that when moving forward the lead right foot moves first, and when moving backward the rear left foot moves first. During Okuri ashi they do not switch.
It can take years to make this motion feel natural, but it’s worth the effort. Okuri ashi has a lot to teach about keeping body weight centered and available for explosive movement. Give it a shot sometime, and don’t worry if you feel a bit awkward at first.