Shoshin Karate

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Heian Shodan and the Karate Expert
By: David Johnston
Former Technical Director, American JKA

Part I

"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few. " Shunryu Suzuki

Shunryu Suzuki was a zen teacher who taught in San Francisco from 1958 until his death in 1971. There is a book compiled from his talks during this period called Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (a very influential book which I recommend to some of my students as a fine karate text book). It contains this line: "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few."

When you think of yourself as an expert you have stopped learning. A white belt can be dyed any color at all; a black belt cannot. Please take the symbolism seriously.

In Japanese, the concept is shoshin. Shin is mind or spirit; sho means first or beginning with the connotation of opening to possibilities. This is why sho is used instead of ichi to describe (and not merely assign a number to) the first kata. With Heian Shodan a beginning student learns the most basic principles of karate: sustained awareness, placing the feet for optimum stability whichever way he turns; using changes of position or direction for power. None of these and other principles is masked by complex surface techniques: the slightest violation of them stands out clearly. This is why Heian Shodan never gets easy (indeed, as the ability to detect ever more subtle flaws develops, it should get harder) and why the kata is essential for students at every level. If an advanced tournament fighter were to select just one kata as part of his training schedule, it would probably most usefully be Heian Shodan. (This is not a recommendation, however, that he should neglect other Kata!).

Actually, the hardest aspects of Heian Shodan are identical with those of more advanced kata. An anecdote occurs to me which may illustrate the point. In 1974, preparing for sandan, I worked intensively on Nijushiho, often repeating it 100 times. Techniques which had seemed difficult - kicking without moving the line of gravity; the wrapping block at the end - became easier, but standing in yoi with the right feeling of preparedness (and the milliseconds of transition from stillness to movement) became more and more difficult. I mentioned this in some bewilderment to my instructor, Yutaka Yaguchi, who grinned broadly: "That is karate," he said.

If you really did master Heian Shodan, you probably could be called, with justification, a karate expert. Just don't call yourself one!


Part II

It seems to me that Unsu and other very advanced kata are performed by lower grades at tournaments more and more. Shame on their instructors! In fact, a young, well-coordinated beginner can learn the outward movements of Unsu in an hour. To another beginner, the performance might look impressive; to someone experienced in Budo, (any authentic martial art, not just Shotokan Karate), it would appear hollow.

A kata which is too advanced will fail to express, or cultivate, a student's understanding of the underlying principles of karate. Some of these principles were mentioned in Part I of this series. Among others, we should remember (especially) Master Funakoshi's Three Imperatives:

  1. (The interplay between) the expansion and contraction of body parts and muscles;
  2. Fast and slow body movements; and
  3. Soft and hard body conditions.

And whereas a beginner will not learn anything of any depth from the very advanced kata, an advanced student will always benefit - and deepen his understanding of all kata - through continued and serous practice of Heian Shodan. Thus, students of all levels can work together - using dojo time as well as space efficiently - each deriving the same and different benefits according to his or her level.

Different techniques can be substituted or added to the basic stepping pattern. Advanced students might sometimes use stances like Hangetsu or Fudo-dachi. One might take a free-sparring posture between changes of direction. All these variations have their uses on occasion but should not distract rrom the value, for everyone, of the kata pure and simple. I want to suggest different ways to practice using the standard techniques.

Very slowly is one way. Be aware of as many components of each movement (physical and psychological) as possible. At the start, for instance, you receive a danger signal - a sound, a movement, a reflection, or shadow. (It's important that every time you practice you connect, in your mind, the technique with its purpose.) Your stomach tightens and eyeballs move, followed milliseconds later by your head. Hips sink and left foot slides out to make length and width for the stance (place it as precisely as you would your hand, dotting an "i"). Be aware that the foot moves milliseconds after the hips begin to sink and that as it moves the arms are raised in preparation for down block. At this point the hips are still facing the front and the body feels relaxed except for 50% tension in the abdominal muscles.

When the left foot arrives, pivoting on the ball, the heel is drawn into line. Simultaneously, the right heel pushes back and the knee straightens, helping to drive the hip into the block. Tension is felt to radiate from the stomach to the side muscles, chest, and finally the fists (be aware of little fingers and thumbs) as the technique is completed. (see addendum)

Fortunately, this is less tedious to practice than to read (or write) about! There are more components to the movement than I have mentioned (consider the coordinated breathing, for instance), but don't enumerate them. Don't think. Just be very aware of what's happening. If it seems easy, turn the microscope up, go more slowly. Notice how the parts fit together and overlap. Things work differently when you slow down. Factors like balance, inertia, and momentum are affected. Learn how these interact with your body - it will improve your motor control. Above all, it will sharpen your concentration.

Some years ago, during a training camp at Brandeis University, I devised a strange competition. Participants were to perform the first five movements of Heian Shodan as slowly as possible. There was only one rule: some movement had to be visible to the judges at all times. The result were significant, I think, and surprising in their consistency. White belts all finished with 30 seconds; purple belts were in the 1 to 1 1/2 minute range; black belts all spun it out to 2 minutes or more. The winner, a nidan, made it to a little less than 3 minutes!

Practicing very slowly, tai chi style, develops concentration and control over techniques and combinations performed at speed. That, of course, is why some movements in kata are required to be slow in actual performance. These movements are, however, not numerous and are often performed without concentration. I believe that sustained slow practice can be beneficial to everyone, and thirty minutes or more should be included in the training routine at least one a month.

ADDENDUM: This block utilized direct hip rotation. To anyone trained in JKA Shotokan this is too obvious to be worth mentioning. I know of one local "shotokan" instructor, however, who tells his students that the hips are first turned square to the attacker then pulled to "hanmi", as the block is completed. "Must use the hips for power!" he says. Actually, of course, direct rotation is stronger than reverse rotation, doesn't beak the timing, doesn't expose the groin, and is easier to perform. (The fellow claims to be 8th dan!)


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