Black Belt Forum

Black Belt Forum Topic:

Regarding the Post on our site “Maintaining Perfect Balance” – reposted below – some people were asking if we teach this type of movement to beginners (we do) and if we can share it with people outside our dojo (we can).

The question also came up as to whether this could be taught in a seminar in a matter of a few hours. We can introduce it in a seminar – in a matter of a few hours – with enough depth that people can take it home and practice it, no problem.

It is very natural for the body to do it, even though we are not accustomed to moving this way. It is not hard to learn.  It takes persistent practice over several months to get enough skill for it to be spontaneous and powerful.

The length of time it takes to make use of it depends on the individual’s practice.


According to Confucius:

The well-trained person keeps to the center in action;

the poorly trained person moves away from the center in action.

The center, for the well-trained person, is such that he is always exact in his timeliness;

the departure from the center for the poorly trained person is such that he will notice nothing.

– from Zhu Xi “The Middle Way” (title is also translated as “Maintaining Perfect Balance” and as the “Doctrine of the Mean”) [1.2]


In our karate we emphasize the physical and mental application of this principle. The physical comes first because it is easier to learn than the mental.

When we move in our karate all motion is initiated from the center of the body and projects up the spine, down to the foundation and out to the target, in a single wave.

The hips, waist, shoulders and head, and the hips, knees, legs and feet all move in coordination, forming a single structure, conveying energy freely and sending force where it is needed.

Any other way of moving is sub-optimal. That is: any other way of moving uses more energy, yields less force, is slower, and is more vulnerable to disruption.

For example shifting the weight to the front foot before moving the rest of the body forward. This is slow, weak, and awkward. It is the way we ordinarily move when not under pressure, because it conserves energy. Under normal conditions we may want to conserve energy. In a life and death moment it would be unwise.  Following a defeat there would be no way to use the energy we have conserved.

Confucius articulates the fundamental principle of the body mechanics and energy flow used in our karate. When people see our karate, even people who have practiced martial arts for many years, wonder how we can move so quickly and effortlessly.  This is how.

“Keeping to the center in action” also means being able to move from there in any direction without having to shift the balance or delay the move. It means not overextending an arm or a leg and so making it vulnerable to manipulation. It means maintaining centered balance even in motion, so that an opponent’s attempt to shift, grab and destabilize will work against him.

We keep to the center inwardly as well, with equanimity: not wanting, not fearful; poised and present.

Not being baited into premature attack; not projecting ourselves into a hoped-for or fearful future. Not hesitating when the moment has come.

Not clinging inwardly to an error or a regret, to a moment of victory or an obstacle overcome.

Here were are, poised in the center, free to move spontaneously, without impulse, in response or in action, as fits the moment.

Unencumbered by the imaginary we are free to see everything, as it is. We notice what is about to arise.

In weakness, without training, without balance, this is impossible.

Talent will not provide it. Enthusiasm will not. A righteous cause will not.

Good training will.

Zhu Xi’s comments on Confucius were concerned with the source of morality. It has often been applied to politics and personal conduct. We can export our karate experience into these realms. Zhu Xi’s work formed the centerpiece of Chinese philosophy for 700 years.


Post by Jeff Brooks







Next Black Belt Forum Topic:

Drawing from the Source


The Okinawan island nation was a satellite of China for most of their history. Their wealth came from shipping – they moved goods between China and what is now the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia. The key route of travel was Naha to Fuzhou. They also had a permanent Okinawan community, serving as a diplomatic and trade mission,  at Guangzhou.

From these ports they would travel overland to the centers of commerce and imperial power. The sons of the elite would stay in China for years, to study, preparing for official posts back home at Shuri.

The sailors, guards and traders would spend months or years at the ports, until they were called for.  While they were there they learned martial arts like Shorin Ryu White Crane. They traveled, and they found new knowledge and new perspectives they never would have encountered at home.


Martial artists today travel from the west to Okinawa in the same spirit. There is a lot to discover that may be unavailable at home. There is new technical knowledge. There is a level of mastery that is high. There is a simple, unpretentious dedication to training.

Even now there are new worlds to encounter and new ways to experience martial arts.

One thing you may notice is that among the accomplished practitioners of martial arts on Okinawa there is mutual respect, and a genuine interest in one another’s art. The sharp delineation or enmity between styles is not prevalent there.

Over the years Sensei Brooks, while practicing in the Shorin Ryu White Crane style, trained closely, in person and through correspondence, with Sakiyama Sogen Roshi, a master of the Goju Ryu style of karate.

Over the years, Sakiyama Roshi presented Brooks with his hand drawn calligraphy pieces, marking various important points in the path of training.

While not religious in nature they do mark significant steps in martial arts, expressed from person to person, between teacher and student, expressed in light of the insights and culture of Japan, China and Okinawa.


Bun Bu – Mastering the proper use of the martial arts and the art of language


The ‘Enso’ symbolizing the dynamic unity of the causes and effects that form our world


Harmony – in motion and in stillness, with nothing extra and nothing lacking


Ken Zen Ichi Nyo
Ken Zen Ichi Nyo – 5 foot tall calligraphy on rice paper, drawn and presented by Sakiyama Roshi to Sensei Brooks at the conclusion of their training time together.


Peaceful Spirit
Peaceful Spirit – the embodiment of martial practice as strength in virtue and dedication to service


Sakiyama Sogen, Goju Ryu Karate Black Belt
Sakiyama Sogen Roshi
Sakiyama Sogen Roshi at Kozenji, Shuri Okinawa


Nin Tai
Nin Tai – Perseverance Presented by Ansei Ueshiro to Jeff Brooks in 1986



Next Black Belt Forum Topic:

Perfect Bi-lateral Symmetry Is Not Your Friend


In martial arts we put a lot of effort into rectifying the imbalance between left and right.  Most of us have a difference in strength and dexterity between our left hand and our right hand. To overcome this we use weights and resistance training for strength, contact drills, kumite and technique applications from both sides, for skill. This is good.

In armed combatives we refer to the ‘strong side’ and the ‘support side’. If you are right handed the strong side is your right, the support side is your left.  These sides, these hands, have different jobs to do. The right holds the gun, the left supports it or operates the light, or supplies the fresh magazine, etc.

And although we train the support side to be able to do the work of the strong side, to be adaptable enough to continue the fight in the event that the strong side is injured for example, it is still referred to as the support side. There is no confusion on this point: there is a difference between the two.

Is martial arts more natural then?  Is the effort to overcome the apparent imbalance between left and right and creating a more complete bi-lateral symmetry better and more noble than the shooter’s acceptance of the inherent difference between left and right.

No. It is not more natural and it is not more noble.

The body looks like it is formed on a mirror image in the vertical. The beauty and harmony of the human form has not been kept secret.


But the human body is not symmetrical, in significant ways. We are designed to be upright. Our spine is vertical, with a top and a bottom and the two poles are not interchangeable. Even an accomplished yogi who can stand on her head for an hour without effort does not say ‘I am going to the store now,” and then walk out on her head.

We are designed to move forward, not backward. Anyone in any sport, including any martial art or combative technique can tell you that. It takes special training to move backward or side to side for more than a step or two.  Moving forward is natural. That is another asymmetry.

Many microorganisms are pretty much symmetrical.


Humans are not.  Most of us intuitively feel this is a good thing, without really knowing why.

It’s true that microorganisms are designed to live random lives, drifting through space. Humans are not designed to do that.


Another aspect is this: There is a survival advantage in being stronger on one side than the other.

For most of our history human beings lived close to the edge of survival.

Our family members from ages past, who gave birth to our generations, faced challenges every day we can barely imagine now. We can barely imagine them in part, because what they did worked.

One of the things they did was rely on the strength and skill of their body and mind to stay alive every day.  No stores. No news reports.  Few theories. Lots of listening and looking around at the land in front of them and the sky at night and into the rivers and lakes into the trees and under the dirt to see what they could find. Hunger, cold, shelter, food, animals, things that grew from the earth, what they imagined and remembered and dreamed, fighting, walking, throwing, mating and taking care of your people. That was what they did.

Now imagine you are in an environment you do not know well. You are exploring it. It may be lethal. It may hold promise. You might find food. You might meet an enemy. You might find a fruit tree. You might meet a sabre tooth tiger. You do not know. You do know that you have to make progress and get food and shelter or get back to your camp before you get too weak to go on.

For many of the things you need to do to keep yourself and your people alive – for hunting, for attack or in defense – with a stick, rock, javelin, sword, spear or lance – upper body asymmetry was an advantage not a disadvantage.


It was an advantage in gathering, climbing, herding and building as well.

Moving through a deep ravine, a cave, a dense forest, a long way in, lets say, your way is obstructed.

Or imagine that you are searching a building. You face a barricade.  A heavy piece of furniture, tipped on its side, is blocking a doorway. It weighs two hundred pounds, and lets say that it takes your maximum power to move it.

To displace two hundred pounds of inertial resistance you put both hands on it and push. If you do this with the power of the body divided evenly, 50% left and 50% right, the object moves and falls back. If you step one step forward with one foot, and rotate the object to the side, you can still use 50/50 upper body power and get it moved out of the way.

If you push it with a stronger right than left, say 60/40, you will have the same total power to use, and you will still tip it out of the way. No advantage or disadvantage in this instance, of pushing straight ahead, between bias and symmetry.

But what if on the other side of that piece of furniture, is an attacker. As soon as that obstruction moves out of the way the attacker springs forward toward you. You have an instant to respond. With nowhere to go your response is to punch, lets say.

What would be more advantageous: to have a 50/50 upper body power distribution or 60/40? Would it be better to have half your maximum in this example or more than half?

For generating ballistic power, projecting power away from the body, it is advantageous to be biased, to have more power on one side than to have an equal distribution of power.

For fine motor function this advantage works the same way.  Surgeons, violinists and cabinetmakers, performing at the outer limit of their skill, do not benefit from a 50/50 distribution of upper body skill. They benefit from a massed force in one location. Like any tactician would.

In other words handedness is a benefit in ways beyond the projection of physical power.

The same was true for our ancestor exploring and adapting to the natural world. In defense – with a stick, rock, javelin, sword, spear or lance, upper body asymmetry was an advantage not a disadvantage.

In gathering, climbing, planting, herding or building, it was as well.

It still is.

So in martial arts we work to increase the skill and strength on both sides, a good and necessary process.  In combatives we optimize the use of the structure of our design. No conflict there. A different emphasis in the training demands, but no conflict.

We get more strength, more successful expression of intention and a larger range of performance options from the inequality of our left-right capabilities that we would with perfect bi-lateral symmetry.

Applied to martial arts this design also introduces an inclination and capacity for skilled rotation into a structure which appears optimized for linear forward motion.


Post by J. Michael Brooks



Next Black Belt Forum Topic:

The Arches of the Body

What if your entire body could act as a super-sensitive antenna? What if you could perceive your opponent’s intention and contact everywhere on your body and respond without any reaction time at all?

As we begin martial arts training we acquire new techniques. But as we mature as practitioners we are concerned as much or more with changing the deep constitution of the body.

Whether you are a practitioner of tai chi, aikido, kendo or karate, this is a fundamental concern of advanced training and no mater how many advanced techniques you have memorized, until your body and mind transform deeply, you will not be able to deploy the skills you have learned with true mastery. Everyone can achieve this. It just takes consistent practice and an understanding of what you are going for.

As advanced practitioners we are learning to unify the body. Transforming what we experienced as beginners as the “parts” of the body into a unified system of “arches.” Like arches in architecture, experiencing the body in this way allows incoming pressure to be distributed over the entire structure of the body, from head to toe, so that the perception of the opponent’s incoming force is not localized at the point of contact, but sensed by the entire body. This allows an immediate adjustment in response, instead of a delayed reaction.

The change in the way we experience the structure of our body from beginner to advanced is similar to the change in architecture from the Greek to the Roman period. The Greeks created structures using columns for vertical support, spanning them with cross beams.

The amount of material needed to support a given load or to enclose a given amount of space was very high. The load limit of this structure – the amount of weight it could support – depended upon what is called the “compression strength” of the material the column was made of.

With a stone column it was very strong — as long as the stress was applied from the top down. If you stress columns from the side, or from an angle, stressing the joint of the vertical and horizontal, the structure is weak and unstable.

The brilliance of the Roman arch (especially the hemispheric arch) was that it could support an equal amount of vertical load using much less material than the Greek method, because the arch distributes the load over the entire span of the arch. They are even more stable, too, because they can take load in many directions, not just the vertical.

As a beginning martial artist we learn to move by dividing the body into parts and analyzing what to do with each part – move the foot like this, turn that way, keep shoulders down, keep elbows in, the wrist like this, the ankle like that… etc. This is a useful and necessary stage of the process of learning to move skillfully. It is similar to learning the alphabet before learning to read. But if we get stuck in this thinking, if we take the body to be a collection of “parts,” we will never appreciate the body’s coherence and immense ability.

With regard to various versions of the horse stance, for example, we can see many practitioners use the “Greek” construction described above: two legs as the vertical supports, the pelvis spanning them, joined at the hips. If our body feels like that, it will function in a way that is inherently weaker than its potential. The limit of that stance from the vertical is in the muscles of the calves and quadriceps, and the strength of the hip, knee and ankle joints.

You can transform it into a stance that is many times stronger, however, if you know what to do. The amazing thing is you do not have to do years of muscle building to effect the transformation – you just have to think differently about what you are trying to achieve in your stance. To do this you use the “Roman” approach to the structure of the stance.

Instead of two legs as posts and the pelvis as a spanner, think of the legs – from foot up through your hara (lower abdomen) to the other foot – as a single arch. Bring the muscles into a fully arched contraction by continuing the form of the arch through the floor – make a full circle with your muscles, pulling the feet through the floor toward each other, using the pelvis like the keystone in the arch. The butt muscles, inner thigh adductors, the arches of the feet, the lower abdominals, the lower back muscles all are part of this unified contraction which creates the arch to support you in this stance.

There is no need to maintain high tension or rigidity in the body to create arches, but it helps to get the feeling when you start to discover them. Once you have the leg arch try this: extend your arms in a “square punch and chambered fist” position. (I put that in quotes because that hand position has numerous applications that have nothing to do with a square punch or a chambered fist, but it is a convenient label for the arm position.)

Arm arch

Leg and arm arches together

Now make your arms into an “arch.” Get the feeling that instead of two separate levers hanging from your shoulders you have a single unified system of energy running from fist, across your back (separate the shoulder blades drawing the shoulders forward to get this feeling) and continue the feeling of unbroken energy flow around to your other fist. That is an arm arch.

Extend your spine in an erect vertical chain, feeling the small spaces between the vertebrae, like the pulling up of a ballet dancer. That is a spine arch.

Spine arch

Three arches of the body seen together

When you start to make the body into arches, it is a conscious, labor-intensive process. Just like learning your first basic techniques when you started. But gradually it becomes natural. And instead of be a static, tight type of feeling, it becomes more and more dynamic, and whip-like. A feeling more like the resilience of bamboo than the rigidity of stone.

Multiple arches: splitting plus knee strike, from the kata Rohai

Instead of having the body divided into three arches, the entire body, little by little, is trained to perform as an integrated dynamic system of numerous arches, with flows of energy moving as necessary.

This is essential work for advanced martial artists in any style. Using push hands and a variety of our kata styles (from whipping ones to rooted ones) we are developing the ability to unify the body in space (unifying the parts of the body) and time (unifying movement sequences.)

We also unify the body and mind – deleting the time delay between perception, will and movement. Also we can in a sense unify with or at least harmonize with our opponent. As we get better at manifesting this “dynamic arches” feeling in the body we can sense the opponent’s intention and “read” his weak points and threatening points as we interact with him.

Push hands and kumite

This principle which we call arches is part of a sophisticated system of movement and knowledge of body architecture which was fundamental to pre-modern karate. The enormous speed and power it allows you to unleash is your own power. You have it now. Discovering it in yourself is not just a thrill, but for the advanced martial artist – for the 5 year practitioner who is looking for a new dimension, or for those at the 10, 15 or 20 year mark who may have hit a plateau – it marks the opening of immense potential in your practice that can lead you to the gates of mastery.



Next Black Belt Forum Topic:

Shut Up & Train

In this photo two accomplished karate practitioners – Kyoshi Glenn Cunningham, 7th degree black belt, and Hanshi Masaji Taira, 9th degree black belt – are holding a small framed print of a mural painted by Tarleton Brooks. It reads “Damatte Keiko.”

This is Sensei Brooks’ expression of the essence of his approach to karate: “Don’t talk. Just train.” Also translated as “Shut Up and Train.”

Goju Sensei's with Sensei Brooks Quote


Our friends training under 10th degree black belt master Kensei Taba, at the Shogen-Ryu Ontario international seminar, appreciate this spirit too!

shogen ryu damatte keiko


Sensei Brooks with original Damatte Keiko mural from the New England dojo.

Brooks damatte keiko

In response to inquiries about ordering the print:  Order the Print by clicking here.

Send your shipping address and use the PayPal link at the bottom of the page. The print is $15 including shipping, for US addresses. Also available on canvas in other sizes.




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