Karate – Absolutely

I recently released a DVD; Karate Principles. In it, and in so many of the seminars that I teach, I talk about there being no such thing as basic techniques, only basic principles. The waza we produce are merely physical manifestations of those principles. However, it would be understandable if, for the majority of people, their takeaway is that there are certain absolutes that we must follow within our training. I can easily see how talking about the guiding principles can lead to a belief in unshakable facts; I want to talk truth to my students and after all if truth is not absolute it is not truth at all. However…

As an example, let’s take one of the twelve principles I highlight in the above-mentioned DVD; the concept of Seichusen or Centre Line. In essence, when we do karate, we must keep our back straight. From day one in the dojo we are told to maintain form and posture whilst transitioning. I have spent whole classes on the concept and have invented or stolen many training mechanisms that focus on this principle. However, does this fundamental principle of physical movement apply to a judo-ka? A Boxer? Do we maintain our centre line as we leap from attack to defence in Empi? Of course not. When we start to look for this principle in other martial arts and our own, we understand that it is not absolute… So why do we put so much emphasis on it.

In mathematics and some philosophical debate, we often use axioms – propositions that are assumed without proof for the sake of studying the consequences that follow. Within a system of thought, the axiom provides a platform that all other discovery can be built upon. For me, the guiding principles of karate are axioms. That is to say, they act like a framework in which to discover and, more importantly, develop one’s physical intelligence; like a sapling given a protective wire fence to aid growth. However, like any highly structured framework, the once guiding lattice can often turn into a cage, constraining the very thing it was designed to facilitate.

For many, this highly structured, heavily dictated structure can act like a comfort blanket, mitigating insecurity by focusing on the textbook version of waza, the one bunkai to kata, the specific grading combination that will automatically elevate them to the next level. Fortunately, for some this over-manicured, conformist, autobahn-esque travel along the path isn’t what floats their boat. For some, decades of pounding the dojo floor, repeating combination ad nauseam becomes the futile fight against atrophy; forever trying to recapture that fleeting moment in their twenties or thirties when everything felt strong, powerful and good.

For me, as I meander through my forties, having a technique feel strong means that I am getting pointless bio-feedback from the flailing arm or leg. Having it feel powerful has no connection to creating force. Believing that it is good is the common by-product of punching thin air.
My good friend, Rick Hotton, burst onto the karate scene in early 2014. Since then he has taught seminars all over the world and has developed a large and loyal community, enjoying his lessons both in and outside the dojo. I’m sure many traditional Shotokan instructors look at his seminars and just don’t get his popularity. For me, I believe it is down to the fact that (apart from his technique, unique blending of non-Shotokan principles, his humour and style of teaching…) he doesn’t present absolutes. In fact, often is the case he starts his seminars with a mini-declaration.
“I am just here to give you ideas” he is fond if saying, “if you like them, I am honoured. If you don’t like them, that is fine too.” He then sets about sharing his hard-earned knowledge, rather that dictating the actions of his audience. In my career, I have taken many elements of my professional style from a vast array of instructors. The above I have happily taken from Rick. I believe at a certain level this message is vital and I attribute a substantial part of his success to this fact. Freeing people from the cage of the highly structured system of absolutes allows them to discover what the lessons they have learnt means to them.

Would I teach this way to lower grades? Absolutely not! In my dojo regular classes are taught regularly. I must always be able to revert to classic form, the strict regime once again challenging my body and purifying my technique. I also never want to attempt to short-cut my students journey. Directing them to learn my conclusions is an exercise in ego that makes the doomed presumption that we all share the same body type. However, as a traveling instructor I want to facilitate people along their Shu-Ha-Ri journey. I want to share my knowledge that they are freely able to accept or ignore. The beauty of Shotokan is its diversity. I look at past greats – Asai, Enoeda, Nishiyama, Kase and, of course, Nakayama; after many years of learning others’ truth, they eventually presented their own, hard-earnt, considered truth. So, let us facilitate our own unique development by seeing the spectrum of possibilities that should give us all the freedom to break free of the heavily dictated karate absolutes.