Dancing with Myself

No one can tell you how it feels, when you perform a technique the right way.  A good instructor can make suggestions, but only you know whether you really “get it” or not.  And, being able to hit hard, or control an opponent, can’t be found in a book.  It won’t come from learning the Japanese word for a technique or knowing a bunch of dead guys’ stories.  The various “styles” of martial art are nothing more than different ways of showing us how to discover something for ourselves.  Real fighting ability only exists in YOU…or else, it doesn’t.  The techniques always have to manifest themselves through the experience of an individual, just like the popular Zen idea of “mind-to-mind transmission.”  And, whatever style of martial art you practice is only “a finger pointing to the moon.”

Don’t expect someone else to give you anything.  It’s up to you to discover how to make your body do the things you want it to do.  A good instructor can only provide some guideposts along the way.  Ultimately, we each have our own unique experience of karate.  When you’re fighting, no one else can be inside your body with you.  You are alone…that’s the bottom line.

Through solo practice, we develop our kinesthetic sense, or “body feel.”  We learn to coordinate hand techniques and footwork with compression and rotation.  This “timing” is the basis of power in technique.  The formal kata of karate represent a series of techniques linked together in a particular pattern.  After learning the techniques involved, kata can be useful as a sort of mnemonic device to help us remember what we learned.  Also, they can be studied as examples of which techniques combined together well for the originators of the kata.  However, the kata are too complex for beginners to realistically use as a learning tool.  Also, they do not allow for experimentation.  By definition, the patterns of movement have been formalized.

Something analogous to the practice of “shadowboxing” is more appropriate for beginners, because you can practice only the movements you’ve already learned.  At first, single techniques should be practiced on both sides of the body, until the left and right sides feel the same.  Then, we can experiment with combinations to see which techniques “flow” together well.   It takes a long time to develop the kind of body control needed to perform karate techniques in a spontaneous situation.  According to the written transmissions of Xing Yi:

For those practicing martial arts, eighty percent of the time is spent in solo practice, twenty percent of the time is spent with others.  Therefore, it is said, “The time strengthening the body is long, the time defeating opponents is short.”

We’ve all been impressed by people who seem to have extraordinary body control: dancers, gymnasts, figure skaters, and good fighters all have one thing in common, the third general principle of body use.

     3.  Move Rhythmically  

Rhythm has to do with timing.  For someone to “have rhythm,” in everyday language, usually means they can move in time with the beat of music on the dance floor.  In martial arts, we learn to time our movements with the various methods of power generation, so we can take maximum advantage of our momentum.  In a fight, we must also consider the opponent’s momentum and how we are moving with the opponent, or the momentum of “the system.”  But, that is beyond the scope of this article.

Because, we are always under the influence of gravity, our movements must conform to the speed of gravity.  This does not mean that all parts of the body move at the same speed.  Even a skydiver can change the speed at which any given body part moves by changing the angle and direction of his body.  And, a slow rotation of the center will result in more rapid rotation of outer parts of the body.  But, if we attempt to force the speed of our movements, excess muscular tension can result in a loss of power.

Also, we must coordinate all movements through the center.  The Asian martial arts place a great deal of emphasis on the dan tian as the physical and energetic center of our bodies.  When standing erect, our center of gravity falls somewhere in the vicinity of the pelvis.  Also, the major muscles of the body all connect to the pelvis.  So, it makes sense to emphasize the hips in training.  These powerful muscles must engage properly to transfer ground reaction force up through the arms.  The smaller muscles of the arms are only used to “guide” the power.

It takes a tremendous amount of focused concentration to become truly aware of your body.  I find this difficult to accomplish in a group setting.  We derive other benefits from attending karate classes, but it is your solo practice time that determines whether you are doing a martial “art” or just learning how to beat someone up.  The ultimate goal should be continuous self-improvement.

My future articles will expand on the ideas contained in this four-part series by introducing some basic power training exercises and examining how they relate to specific fighting techniques.

Acknowledgement:  I put as much of myself into these articles as possible.  But, it’s inevitable that I used the language of my teachers.  The core concepts came from Tim Cartmell and are described more completely in his book, Effortless Combat Throws.  Other sports-related terminology, and further deepening of my understanding, I owe to Robert Miller.


7 responses to “Dancing with Myself

  1. In the words of GrandMaster Idol:

    Well theres nothing to lose
    And theres nothing to prove….

  2. I wonder, how does this apply to grappling (such as submission grappling and Brazilian jujutsu)?

    For grappling, I only know that physical conditioning and grappling with others is the only way to get good at grappling- not much I can do when it comes to solo work.

    • Rickson Gracie is probably the best grappler of our time. I heard that he attributed fifty percent of his success to his practice of the yoga-like movements known as Ginastica Natural. During his solo practice, he exhibits amazing body control. This is what I’m talking about….

  3. and about shadowboxing-

    here is an interesting fact-

    Ashihara and Enshin Karate (Kyokushin offshoots that absolutely are crazy about being focused on training for knockdown karate competition) did away with the older katas and created their own “kata” which is basically basic techniques and footwork stringed together, and the only kamae used is the on guard stance. (They probably do not know the complex bunkai in the original kata of karate, but for their purpose, that is training for sports, these “kata” have their purpose).

    • Hi Adam,
      I like this video of the Ashihara stuff. I’ve never seen it before, but it looks a lot like the kind of thing I’ve been doing on my own, lately. Ultimately, I think each person creates his own unique “style” of martial art. In solo practice, I prefer smooth movements, without any obvious focus of power. Here’s a good example:

      You can see how the hand extends before the front foot lands and the follow-through phase, or “exploding,” just like Jack Dempsey’s falling step. But, there’s no overt muscular tension or “snapping” of the limbs. These movements wouldn’t make your gi “pop,” but, I promise you, he can hit HARD. I’ve held a pad for Tim Cartmell, and Luo De Xiu was one of his teachers.

  4. About Rickson-

    This fusion of yoga and gymnastics for combat is a new and interesting trend.

    Scott Sonnon fused yoga with the combat gymnastics he learned from Retuinskih (who in turn modified Kadochnikov’s form of them)

    here are examples:

    Tons of videos- from Scott Sonnon’s teacher’s teacher’s son Arkady Kadochnikov( who is the son of Alexey Kadochnikov, who taught Retuinskih, who in turn taught Scott Sonnon)



    Scott Sonnon- Yoga

    more vids can be found here (esp. check out the outdoor bench vid- takes Kadochnikov’s bench moves to a higher level) :

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