Basic Principles

Basic Principles

Several years ago, one of my senior students and I were talking about his new hobby of horseback riding.  He mentioned that the teacher was impressed with how quickly he picked up on her descriptions of proper body-positioning and movements.  When she told the group to sit up straight, for example, he already was.  When she explained how to turn, he did it as she wanted almost instinctively, conscious of his center.  My student and I then discussed how there are some basic principles that carry over between various physical disciplines. I would like to briefly explore some of these principles, below.

Good Posture
This is an idea that anyone doing traditional martial arts such as karate, kendo or aikido recognizes as important.  It is also important to people performing Chayu (tea ceremony), to classical musicians, dancers and many other athletes.  Keeping the back straight helps the lungs fill with air more efficiently compared to when the back is hunched over.  Good posture also helps the person have better control of movements in various directions. And it is important in everyday life.

“Using the Center”
Although this concept may seem a bit esoteric to some people, it is important to remain conscious of where the center of the body is (basically, the center of gravity) and move from it, as opposed to simply moving the limbs around as the primary movement motivator and having the center move as an afterthought (“don’t let the tail wag the dog,” so to speak).

Connection Through the Torso/Trunk
This is related to the above concepts of using the center while keeping the back straight.  More specifically, and less esoterically, the muscles of the midsection (also known as “the core”) should be developed in order to form and maintain a physical connection between the upper- and lower-body.  Having strong “core” muscles helps. But having consciousness of this part of your body and its role in movements of the limbs can also help.

It is obviously necessary to breathe and we all should realize its importance. But how we do it is often not given much attention.  Generally, we should try to take deep, slow breaths, except for in moments of extreme exertion.  For more on my thoughts about breathing in karate training, please see my separate article on the subject.

Some people are naturally relaxed and have a hard time contracting particular muscle groups.  But more commonly, it seems many people have a hard time relaxing even when they know that is what they should do.  Being able to relax on demand is a skill that often requires practice and, at least initially, conscious effort.  For more detailed analysis, please see article relating to relaxation vs tension.

“Be the Ball”
As Chevy Chase’s character implied in “Caddyshack”, golfers should visualize where the ball is going, not being overly concerned with the body’s active participation in the process.  Visualization is an important tool for any athlete or performer.  If you cannot imagine doing the correct movements, how will it ever happen in reality?  See yourself doing it correctly. Practice repetitively until you can then do it without thinking about it. I wrote an article in grad school on the topic of second-level visualization that I may repost in the future…

The Japanese term for “awareness” (the connotation is actually deeper than any single word in English can fully convey but “awareness” is a good approximation) may seem a little mystical to some people.  But remaining conscious of what may happen following an action can be very important, depending on what you are doing.  We can learn something from the actions/inactions of the likes of Homer Simpson and his lack of zanshin…”Doh!”

In Closing
I would like to conclude this with reminder to readers that what we learn in the dojo is sometimes transferable as a skill to be used outside the dojo as well, in more than just self-defense applications.  In the same way, we can (and should) use principles from elsewhere to help our karate development.

Copyright © 2022 Jon Keeling (originally published July 2004)