In the training of Karate the body is able to produce power beyond what the practitioner first believed they were able to do. The body alignment, balance, and mind grow together to become one in technique. At first the dynamics of body power seem quite simple, turn the hips, step for power, vibrate the hips, drop the hips etc etc… All this discussion and the reality is we tend to get lost in the translation of words from the east. We look for a tangible real word to explain everything, this is not possible much of the time as many eastern words describe a feeling, a state of being etc.
In reality the training of the body and the mind in relation to Karate technique is a lengthy process and as such many never reach the high level of training, but many appear to be technically proficient in a variety of moves, developing the external body and hardening it. I would like to suggest that the real power of karate is in the breathing and the ability to drop the breath into the tanden, going lower and connecting with the ground, this internal power developed by releasing. How does this become a reality? This is difficult to answer and forms the basis for my research into this exciting area. In most if not all martial arts there are Kata that specifically address breathing technique. To the Karateka these Kata at first seem very “boring” and not at all flashy, however as the person begins to understand some of the why of this training they practice more in depth. The problem with these breathing Kata is that if only done externally they can stop development of sinking, of settling into your technique. Think of seeing many practice Sanchin, loud breathing, muscles tense, faces contorted, why they must be developing great strength and skill. Maybe, but likely not, that type of power cannot be sustained as we age, we have to find soft(iron wrapped in cotton)power.
I have been chasing the shime, and shibori of power for many years, and believe that that is just a small part, a start if you will into learning soft power. I may have an insight into what this may be now. I observed Sakamoto-Sensei during his 2014 Canadian tour and to be blunt he showed very little external motion but he demonstrated very high level skill, power and of course pain. In the first stages as I developed my insight I saw what appeared to be a slight movement forward at the end of skilled karateka’s movements always appearing to be directing energy into and toward the opponent. As I analyzed each phase of hip power, I discovered that to assimilate this into one move brought about the shime, and shibori, a hip technique called shime-goshi, a continual surface tension internally that allows for explosive power. So in a nutshell we take the lateral, horizontal, vibration, rotation, and vertical hip action and combine this into one move. This can be done externally with satisfactory results and this is where many stop searching for more internal power.
This concept of settling, of uncentering oneself, cannot be well taught and needs the student to want to achieve a higher power level themselves to gain it. The training involves softer breathing, settling the breath into the groin and finally into the ground beneath you. The underlying concept is that the power generated needs to travel towards the target and is in fact using themselves to defeat them. If you are using only yourself to defeat the foe and not redirecting, not settling, then the technique is deficient and will ultimately fail.
For example let us look at the basic reverse punch done for years by many karateka. The rear hand travels forward and the power of the hip rotates forward. If you do not stop the rotation somehow the power will split at the center and part will go forward with the punch and part will continue around the body and diffuse causing less energy in the technique. To stop this, shime and shibori need to come into play. These ideas translate into effective use of hip by stopping the rotation at the appropriate time and focusing all the power forward with the punch. When this is applied it causes the forward sensation that is initially what will give better external power. I observed this by watching the senior karateka. Fortunately I also believed there was something missing, I wanted the softness that I saw in Sakamoto-Sensei and in some very skilled Tai Chi practioners.
In Ryusei Karate the action of the hips is continually in motion and the karateka is generally speaking, always using the ball of the foot. The action is culminated only at the last second of each technique, this allows for relaxed and spontaneous movement from the muscles. Once the idea of shime and shibori, shime-goshi and hakama-goshi is intact then the concept of breathing into the tanden must be addressed. To complicate matters there is a number of tanden I will only state here there is a front and a rear.
Note: The below two paragraphs were the beginning of a journey to find settling, or dropping power, this happened 12 years ago. Much has happened since then with the goal for me getting closer.
The Tanden is the power center located 1 to 2 centimeters below a person’s navel. This is where the energy grows and eventually becomes useful. I listened to many Sensei speak about lowering and breathing into the tanden but never quite understood. Then one day I and my senior student Matt Mannerow were working on technique. I asked him to punch(reverse) into my abdomen. This he did many times, at first I moved back two to three steps, but soon was able to stay in place with very little movement. Another thing came to light it seemed as though his punches were getting weaker, and an odd feeling of the power disbursing around me occurred. We did this for many punches, and both of us were able to achieve the same result.
Upon discussion of this effect we both agreed that the energy from the punch and even front kicks was unable to penetrate the abdomen but was instead directed around the body. What had happened? As the strikes occurred, we were able to lower our breath into the tanden tapping into the energy of our entire body instead of a particular muscle group. This did not occur immediately, and required repeated strikes to discover the lowered breathing. Some may think this an extreme way to discover this, and maybe so, however it very quickly showed us what we needed to do. It is my belief that each person will arrive at this level in their own time. This concept is self taught, and is not easily explained.
Since that time much discussion and training about sinking, rooting, dropping, settling to coin a few descriptors of this elusive feeling have occurred. There are different paths to find this, some stand and meditate, others sit and others look to their kata. In the end everyone must practice to achieve this technique as it can be learned.
Once you experience the feeling of this, then when practicing Sanchin, or other breathing exercises one can look for the feeling. To do so you have to change the breathing, relax but stay stable, yield but remain firm. Then we can translate this into all of our techniques. I observed Sakamoto-Sensei performing his Kata, and one thing that really struck me was that the energy emitted was very apparent, and the heat created was released by intense sweating. I have felt this sporadically and try to achieve it in my Karate. One thing I will say is that some call it CHI, KI or AIKI it is not mystical it is real and it can be learned. It takes a freeing of your mind and unlocking your internal organs. Matt experienced this very personally and actually felt sick. I know that everyone can get this if they want it, but I also think that sometimes to look less and study more is the real key.
If nothing else in my 34 years of training I have and continue to realize that I have come very far yet there is still much to learn.