Empty handed

“Empty hand” is one of the translations for the Japanese word karate or 空手. Kara (空) actually has a number of meanings – sky, void, heavens, vacuum – but “empty” is the one that has been adopted in relation to the martial art. Te (手) means “hand”. Originally the first kanji was 唐, also pronounced kara, but it was changed by Gichin Funakoshi, widely seen as the founder of modern karate, who left Okinawa for the Japanese mainland to teach the art. Since the political climate of the time was one of Japanese militarism, martial arts practitioners wanted to distance themselves from things Chinese, and thus the new kanji was adopted. The word karate is often followed by douway-of – giving the phrase karatedouWay of Karateor 空手道.

Anyhow, that little bit of information serves as a gentle introduction to a post about karate, something that has been sadly neglected for far too long (the posting that is – the training is never neglected!). My body has finally settled into it’s 4-days-a-week karate and 1-day-a-week running/fitness training, after a spell when I was having problems with lower back pain. That was annoying and I ended up having to take a week off training, but lots of rest and stretching helped, plus Sensei spoke to his Magic Karate Doctor and gave me a huge back of camphor/menthol/Tiger Balm infused pads that you stick to stiff and painful muscles and let them do their thing. Anyhow, I suspect that part of the problem was it was just getting used to a stepped-up training regime, and it has now settled down again.
The shodan (first dan) grading in June is rapidly approaching. I’m sure everyone who does any martial art will know what I mean when I say that some days I feel like everything’s going really well, and others my confidence disappears and I feel like I’ve made no progress at all. I have remained focused on practicing the basic kihon and kata, and not allowing myself to get bogged down with, and distracted by, kumite, since I feel I will get good at those techniques once my basics are solid, and also because I am not lacking in kime, which in practice can often make up for lack of technique ;)
With the spring holidays coming up, I’ve been trying to step up my strength and fitness to enable me to do karate practice on six days of the week. Not strenuous practice, but I want to refine my kata and no work means that I will have the time to do so. Now I just need to email Sensei (our primary means of communication, since it means that neither party is embarrassed by our lack of ability in the others language!) and see whether it’s ok for me to train in the dojo whenever I like. The weather here is still variable, and verging on the wrong side of “chilly”, so I’m not that keen to get practising in the park again.
Roughly each month or so, I change the focus of what I am working on. This doesn’t mean that I only do one technique, but rather think about that thing more than anything else. I have recently finished meageri’s – front kicks – which are one of the core techniques in all styles of karate. In the West, in my experience, you are not taught correctly how to move with a relaxed body. One of the ways this applies to executing kicks is that the knee should be brought up using muscle power, but from that point the lower leg simply snaps out forward, using the force of the knee coming up, to generate power and execute the kick. This is much easier to say than do, especially if, like me, you are quite strong and used to using strength alone to achieve the end goal of kicking something! As well as this, the body weight needs to be dropped down to the standing leg, the hips kept square (and not pushed forward at the moment of impact) and the upper body kept still and at the same height. Tricky. Of course my kicks aren’t perfect, but I feel confident that I “get it” now, and am moving onto the next thing on the never-ending list…
…which is keeping my body weight low. This is important for many reasons, but primarily because it helps you to keep a solid stance. By sinking your body weight down to your feet, you will be able to remain stable. Generally, at every point of executing a technique, you should be well-grounded, even if you are mid-kick – your weight should be on your standing leg. This means not raising up on the other foot as you kick, keeping the same height as you move forwards, not letting a bad punch (one generated by arm power, rather than koshi this post has a bit more info) throw you off-balance and so on. It’s more than simply “feeling heavy” – you need to keep a certain tension in your legs and groin, and keep an awareness of your body as you move. I don’t really feel confident in saying much more than that, so I’ll shut up now. Maybe in a few months I will be able to do a post on it in more detail.
The other thing I am trying to do is move faster, something that doesn’t exactly mesh well with the above, so I alternate my focus when I am training with the class. If we do fast kihon, I try to keep up with the black belt kids, but if Sensei says to go yukkuri (slowly, easily) then I think about my body weight more. Sometimes I feel like I’m standing in a big pool of glue – it’s hard to move quickly without sacrificing quality, but Sensei seems sure that by continually trying to do things as fast as you can, you will improve quicker. At least I think that’s what he was saying :)
As well as doing karate over the Spring holiday, I also intend to write about it more, so stay tuned for more posts.

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2 Responses

  1. vpisteve says:

    Funny, we just re-watched The Karate Kid a couple nights ago, and Miyagi talked about this. I always thought the “kara” meant “from” as in “from the hand.” Oh well. I’ll believe Mr. Miyagi. :)

  2. gai.ninja says:

    Oh I love that movie! Looking forward to the new one, even if it’s about kung-fu and they are in China!

    You are right – “kara” does mean “from”. “Igirisu kara” means “from England”, “eki kara” means “from the station”. However, in the case of “karate” it has a different meaning.