Everything we do in karate takes the form of a wave. When we step, moving forward or in any direction, we initiate at the hip, throw the foot, creating a new foundation, and then fill the space, moving our center of gravity over the new foundation.
The hips oscillate, leading the way as we move. It is a waveform – fast, balanced, efficient and tending toward the center.
Using koshi to thrust the hip forward rotating on the center line of the body we send energy out along multiple pathways – including down to the foot – so our stepping follows a waveform. Our “blocking” system – which is used to defend, to strike, to reroute incoming power, to evade, to grapple and to throw – is executed along a wave form, whether we are doing high, middle or low block, using fists, knife hands or any other hand position.
We alternate left and right. We breathe in and out. We move high and low. We explode power and release tension. Those alternate and recurve as a waveform.
“Blocking” in Two Dimensions
If you look at the s-curve at the center of the yin yang symbol you will see a map of our blocking system. Follow the progression of the high, middle and low block with one of your arms and you will see that it moves along the full length of this s-curve in front of your body.
“Blocking” in Three Dimensions
If you move your arm from the high position, drop to zenkutsu, turn 90 degrees and continue moving your arm to a down block position – as we do in our first kata from position 4 to 5 and 7 to 8, you will note that your blocking arm follows the s-curve as you move through the drop-and-turn sequence.
In this way we can see that we also use the s-curve as we move – but in the horizontal plane as we step and turn, in addition to the vertical plane when we block in front of our body. The s-curve is used in three dimensions in the turns in first kata I mentioned above. It is essential for throwing and grappling as well as for striking or deflecting.
We also use the large arm motion along the outer circumference of the yin yang symbol in several katas, including Ananku, Chinto, and Kusanku.
When we punch we fire our fist along a straight line, like an arrow that never deviates from its path of travel from its origin to the target. Our punch rotates as it goes, like a bullet, like an arrow, like a fastball. It uses the rotation to maximize the engineering of the arm extension, to reduce residual tension in the flexors – for strength and for speed – but also for stability and penetration, as board-breaks and makiwara will tell you. The opposite arm retracts simultaneously. The punch follows a waveform in three dimensions.
Our kicks follow a wave pattern. To maximize the power of a kick we throw the foot like it was on the end of a whip – throwing fast and reversing the power from the koshi and the hamstring to snap the kick back – just before it finishes its path of travel to the target – multiplying the whipping speed of the kick. When we do that we are using waveform power.
The use of koshi to reverse the wave just before it hits its target, like throwing a whip, is the way we execute most every technique. The use of compression – folding the shoulders and hips around the hara – and then expansion out – is a third dimension of motion which intensifies this whipping waveform energy.
Every move we do uses this principle.
The Straight Path is a Wave
Sometimes people wonder if a straight line isn’t faster than a wave. The answer, in physics and in real life, is that there are no straight lines. There is always some oscillation. In light, in sound, in motion, even along the edges of objects that may look perfectly straight. Waves are the default condition of reality. It turns out, if you look close enough, that straight lines are a convention, a figure of speech, a measurement error, an estimate, imaginary. In reality we use the waveform to our advantage.
The idea of a wave makes sense – could you find a mountain that only goes up? Only if you were very small and looked at a small section of it. Step back and you will see it reverses eventually. Same with everything else.
People knew this thousands of years ago.
In first kata in our style we learn to project power in eight directions. This kata, called Fukyugata Ichi, has interesting elements.
Map of the Cosmos
The cosmological diagram of the ba gua – eight trigrams – with a yin yang symbol in the center – known as the Tai Ji or Great Ultimate – was a widely used representation of cosmic order in Chinese philosophy since before the 15thcentury.
It was the result of a synthesis of several streams of Taoist and “neo-Confucian” insight into the way conditions shift and interrelate from moment to moment and place to place. It was applied in martial arts as a way to understand the flow of postures, techniques, energy and intention, of shifting and countering, of penetration and withdrawing, of high and low.
When the Okinawans were integrating Chinese martial arts into the indigenous Okinawan styles in the 18thand 19th centuries they were also studying Chinese language, culture, sciences, business, government and philosophy.
The young men sent from Okinawa to China to study were influenced by what they learned and incorporated it into everything they did. It was not just mimicking Chinese imperial style. It was useful. It made sense. It worked.
Chinese styles including Ba Gua, Hsing I and Tai Ji, make explicit use of these symbol sets and the patterns of movement derived from them.
So in our Okinawan Shorin Ryu style, when we stand in yoi position on our first day of training (or our 20thyear, or on our last day on earth) and we are about to begin first kata – we are standing in the center of the cosmic yin yang circle. We are training as if we are immersed in a cosmic superposition, made of all possible permutations of energy and form at once.
We are not just doing an introductory white belt exercise.
At the very center of the circle, in yoi position, we are not merely “ready” to do our first move. We are “ready” for anything. At that point the center of the yin yang s-curve has all possibilities inherent in it but none are expressed. All is potential. Nothing is manifest.
This is wu wei – and this is one aspect of yoi. We are ready to respond to the moment. We can do anything. Or nothing.
Sometimes people say that this is too deep for martial arts. That in martial arts we just care about fighting and winning.
There is a lot more in our first kata than is apparent when we first encounter it.
It is like that with everything.
Post by Jeff Brooks
Photo by Tarleton Brooks
Diagram credit: Old TaiJi symbol: The Genesis of an Icon: The “Taiji” Diagram’s Early History, François Louis, Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, Vol. 63, No. 1 (Jun., 2003), pp. 145-196
Note: In his book Tales of Okinawa’s Great Masters the founder of our style Shoshin Nagamine, said:
Listed below are three precepts from “The Eight Phrases of Chuan Fa” as they appear in the ancient (Chinese) Bubishi. They are identical to the Zen philosophy which maintains that “the human mind is a microcosm of the universal macrocosm.” 1. The human mind is one with heaven and earth. 2. Our blood circulation parallels the solar and lunar cycles of each day. 3. Inhalation represents softness; exhalation characterizes hardness. I believe it is safe to conclude that the connection between Zen and martial arts dates back far into Chinese history.
He is citing Taoist principles here, not Buddhist ones; these streams flowed together for millennia, sometimes obscuring the distinction. But the connection he makes between Chinese philosophical traditions and Okinawan karate practice is unambiguous – in his writing and in the kata he created.