I recently had the chance to watch “Power Training” by Morio Higaonna. Higaonna Sensei is very well known (especially in the west) and is renowned for his severe, Spartan training methods.  Featured in his dvd were different routines and methods one could use to strengthen the body (Hojo Undo).

Take a look at this quick video for samples of Hojo Undo training:

As you can see, jars, stones, and other tools from antiquity are used to toughen the body and create a more powerful practitioner. Along with this kind of Hojo Undo is “iron shirt” training, where karateka steel their bodies against powerful blows.

Here is an example of Takemi Takayasu taking some shots:

“Iron Shirt” gets a lot of press and airtime because it’s very impressive. Heck, I know I like to watch people get hit with bats. But it also makes me wonder – how much beating should we give our bodies for the sake of training? How much is healthy…how much is necessary?

When Everyday Life Gets in the Way

Hojo Undo methods of body hardening were created on Okinawa where the native populace had just a few main jobs – fishing, farming, craftsmanship, etc.  Most of what they had to do in their day-to-day lives involved manual labor. A hardy body and toughened exterior were extremely useful for those conditions.

These days, especially in the west, small motor skills are much more prevalent in the workplace.  Although manual labor jobs still exist (of course), more and more people find themselves typing, filing, writing, and operating other equipment that requires fine motor skills.  If a career musician or computer programmer were to beat their hands against rocks, or thrust their fingertips into vats of pebbles, the consequences could ultimately hinder them instead of help.

It’s true that the results of body hardening can be very impressive, but the potential for arthritis, joint pain, and loss of coordination can hamper its value. I say ‘potential for‘ because these outcomes are not necessarily guaranteed – there is such a thing as right and wrong training with Hojo Undo (meaning don’t just go punching rocks).  But, even still, it’s a gamble depending on your livelihood.

Usefulness in Modern Self Defense

Let’s say you’re willing to take the leap into difficult conditioning because you want to improve your self defense capabilities. I can understand that. But we need to examine the kinds of attacks you might run into in modern society.

First of all, hard body training is very useful against blunt attacks like kicks, punches, and even sticks.  We saw in the above video that, given a moment’s notice, Takayasu Sensei can turn his body into a powerful shield.

Unfortunately, more common than bat attacks are knife and gun attacks. In those situations, hanging tough and taking the blow is a very bad idea and practicing that habit can lead to trouble. The time spent training iron shirt techniques might have been better used learning evasion, interception, and scenario-based self defense. Furthermore, chest shattering punches can be replaced by extremely accurate blows to weak areas of the body (nose, throat, groin, etc).

That being said, I really like some of the grip training that we’ve seen.

By using ishi sashi, nagiri game, ch’ishi, and kongo ken an impressive grip can be developed.  Grip and the ability to generate torque through the arms/hips is immediately useful in any self defense situation. With a powerful enough grip and a knowledge of how to twist the opponent’s body, one can incapacitate or subjugate an opponent of any variety.

So…can toughening your body help improve your self defense? Yes, I think so. But you have to keep in mind its limits and what you could be giving up for it. Also remember that karate training is about reactions and instinct. Whether your reaction to a sudden attack is to tighten up and take it or evade out of the way will come down to how you train.

Strength of Body, Mind, Breath

Something I like about Hojo Undo practice (which I also think is generally understated) is the combination of body, mind, and breath. In order to succeed in such a rigorous training routine, the breath has to strengthen the body instead of using raw muscle. Furthermore, the mind has to be tough enough to withstand prolonged discomfort. Ultimately, these drills can bring all three aspects closer together.

This is useful, assuming you don’t have any existing joint injuries or internal conditions. If you do have a busted knee or heart problem, the excess strain can actually be detrimental to your health. Once again, personal assessment is the key. For those individuals who decide they shouldn’t utilize Hojo Undo for this particular purpose, kata such as Sanchin and Tensho can serve as reliable substitutes.

Listening and Pushing

After all is said and done, I think the most important thing to remember in this or any martial arts training is balance.  As much as we want to push our bodies through austere practices like Hojo Undo, we also have to listen to our bodies and recognize things we are doing that might be healthy/unhealthy.  What works for one individual might spell an early retirement for the next.

If you DO wish to integrate this type of training into your regiment, do so very very slowly. Do research on how to make/acquire proper equipment and find an instructor who has been doing it for awhile with only minor ill-effects. Assess your needs as a person in modern society and make your training work for you!