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Paul Herbert 5th Dan
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Lately I’ve been having the sensation that something is missing in my Karate. I didn’t know exactly what it was until I took my copy of The Book of Five Rings by the legendary Miyamoto Musashi, with all the intent of finally finishing it. Like magic, the first unread page said something about speed not being the true way in the Martial Arts. I was very intrigued with this concept as I usually live in a Karate world where everything should be done faster, stronger, and when engaging an opponent one must move around him, making him lose balance, keep moving and moving until I can finally attack.


Then he proceeded to talk about the movement one must use when fighting. He affirmed that the different ways of moving around the opponent (similar to the different ways of moving around our own opponent when fighting or sparring) are ineffective because they all need the surroundings to be free. What would happen if you had to fight in a lake or a muddy place? “What about a slippery floor?” he asked. You can’t fight like you are used to in those places. You must move slowly, without feints, maybe being stationary, something unthinkable in our Karate world, without using speed to our advantage but still doing a committed attack in the precise moment.


Who is better than Musashi to talk about this concept? Not anyone can include in his Martial Arts curriculum the ability to remain undefeated his entire life, especially in an era where Samurais used to die at young ages. So then, how could I apply this to my Karate? I began thinking.


Maybe that was what my Karate was lacking or, in better words, what my Karate had and didn’t need, something superfluous. The general Karate training, especially when dealing with Kumite, is heavily focused on speed and movement, good footwork and feints. This is emphasized because we train in safe places and when we fight we do it in a safe environment with rules. Tatamis must be clean and obstacle free, they shouldn’t be wet to prevent injury, so we fight and develop our fighting style according to that. Our competitive Karate is made around that.


This presents two main problems. The first one is related to self defense.  If we are to study Karate as a self defense system then we are seriously lacking something in the fighting field. We can’t fight our opponent like we would in the competition area. We often see competitors moving all around the opponent, bouncing back and forth, making a feint, moving quickly to stay out of the opponent’s distance, escaping from his attacks with a movement that seems almost like running, and then come back with amazing speed. All of this being shaped by our competitive rules and the big space available to us. If we are not to use these abilities out in the street then how can our training be complete? What are we going to do when we don’t have enough space to bounce back and forth or we can’t escape the attacks because we are surrounded by walls? Are we blind enough to keep trying to make these things work in this different scenario? If our environment is different then our approach to the fight must be different too. We need to change and adapt our way of moving and the way we attack and to do this correctly and effectively we must train in this way too. More importantly, what are we going to do when we are too old to be able to move like the young competitors? Which takes us to the second problem.


As Karate practitioners age we can see them changing their fighting style. They don’t bounce back and forth and move like lighting anymore, they simply can’t. They try to move when is necessary, attack when is needed and what may be the most important point in their new style, conserve their energy, as they can’t give themselves the luxury of wasting their energy in feints and fancy movements. They strive not to waste it in a single movement. They could move like when they were young.....for 10 seconds and no more. Why should they waste their energy in those movements? It seems better to change their approach to fighting and just move when they see the need or are sure they are going to hit their opponent, remaining almost static the rest of the time. Maybe speed is not the answer after all. All karatekas reach that stage in our fighting style more due to age than due to personal convictions.


But then, suddenly it seems better to keep focused on knowing the enemy, watching him make a mistake and use it to our advantage, and start fighting and winning without that lightining speed or multiple feints we had when we were young. Our approach is very straight: to hit the opponent, to win. There is no need to be spectacular, we just need the job done.


But what about the young ones? What is the problem then? We are not used to being a clear target, to being stationary. We feel it’s a disadvantage more than a winning decision. And this may be because we are focused on trying to escape the opponent while winning a few points instead of engaging him directly when the time is right. Karate should not be about who hits faster but about who hits effectively. Taking a hit is not losing a point. With age it transforms in a very good trade: I can take a hit while setting you to my advantage and then I won’t let you go away, never.


But then again, there are old people who try to keep fighting the exact same way they used to fight when they were young. This can only cause frustration to them as they can’t adapt their Karate to their actual conditions. In even circumstances the young ones will always win. They can kick higher, they can hit faster. With enough experience those things can be compensated but we need to adapt, to compromise some things, to give and take.


If we follow this competitive kind of training all our life, we may never reach the point of not having to have a guard or a fighting stance. Funakoshi Gichin, father of modern Karate mentioned this in his famous Nijukun. Guard is for the beginners he said. And it may indeed prove true. But to start fighting without a guard we need to change radically the way we fight and focus it to a more realistic environment. In a street confrontation we may not have the time to use a guard. We may be a stationary target due to space or floor limitations. And we need to learn to fight like that. Without feints and moving around the attacker what do we have? A straight attack in the precise moment, without flashy kicks that grants us three points, without spectacular movements who will make the spectators scream in awe. But most of the time our training has a different focus, maybe deviated from the original intentions.


By the way, I still have not finished the Book of the Five Rings.


Andrey Irra