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Paul Herbert 5th Dan
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Health, Spirituality, Fighting

By Andy Comley




Have you ever wondered why traditional karate performed by the Japanese looks different to karate performed by a westerner? And Chinese gung fu compared to western gung fu for that matter? Maybe you don’t think it does?


I’ve heard explanations that the Japanese body is different (a shorter lower leg so I was told), and that they train longer and harder from a younger age, or they’re…just better at it.  


In fact, I would hold that the difference lies more in a cultural understanding of the practice, and, more importantly, the body.


The eastern and western worlds come from vastly different viewpoints with regards to the physical, mental and spiritual body, and this shows up in how we practice karate. And it is this, I would argue, that causes the biggest differences in practice.


Now before I go on, I want to make it absolutely clear that I am in no way attacking anyone’s methods of practice, or their art, or their way of teaching. My purpose with this article is not to cause an argument or a rift, it is to help people get a better understanding, and therefore deepen their appreciation of the martial arts.


Your culture is one of the filters that you view the world through. Just as with a camera, where you can change the information that the film sees, and thereby the picture, so your culture, amongst other things, colours how you see and interact with the world.


With this in mind, a lot of things that the Japanese take for granted, many of us don’t know about, or if we do, do not have them culturally engrained enough for them to make a difference. And as they take them for granted there’s a good chance that they might remain unspoken, especially if the information doesn’t seem relevant to another culture anyway. Imagine explaining to someone who had never seen a movie, the whole cinema experience. As the culture of film is vast, you might talk about the nuts and bolts of going to the cinema, and describe a Hollywood action movie. Obviously this would not be the whole story, and a lot of the subtlety would have been lost with regards to other genres, world cinema, the power of film to affect us etc.


This problem of missing some of the subtleties with regards to the martial arts isn’t new, I think it has been happening since they first left the Shaolin monastery, and maybe before that, when they left India. The reason it happens is that each new group that learns the martial arts does so through the filter of their own culture.


If I could use a very sketchy, one branched family tree for the Shaolin martial arts it would run from their introduction by Boddhidharma to the first chan (zen) monks, on to Chinese lay people, down to the Okinawans, to the Japanese and finally to the west. As this happened, the viewpoint of the people practicing was different, and the art was interpreted from that viewpoint. My own, personal view of those cultural viewpoints would be as below, although many would probably disagree.




Purpose of training listed in order of importance

(capitalised = foremost reason/s).

Chinese monks


Chinese lay people





FIGHTING + health, maybe spiritual.


(Obviously the above are to some degree cultural stereotypes, and viewpoints can change over time.)


Now, if the information in the chart above is correct, the differences in culture would change your practice from training to calm the mind and lengthen life span so as to give time to achieve enlightment,

on to health and self defence,

to a quiet mind and warrior spirit,

and finally to trying to achieve the ability to defend oneself on the streets.


This cultural change will alter your mental attitude towards practice, and more importantly for this article, how you use your body.


If you train just for fighting, or if you practice with a regard for health and spirituality without knowledge of the unspoken, ‘taken for granted’ flavours of that health/spiritual system, then your practice will be culturally, and probably physically, different.



The hara


This brings us to the best illustration of this point, and that is the use of the hara.


The hara is located just below your navel, and is very important to the oriental martial arts, but sadly does not always get the attention it deserves in the west.


Now lots of people may disagree with me about that statement, as yes, the hara does get mentioned, but again, when we talk about the hara in the west, some of the pieces of the cultural jigsaw are missing.


In many dojo you will hear the hara being involved with instructions to “punch/kick from the hips”, “drive in the back leg and twist the hips to give power”, “tense your stomach as you connect”, all to bring the area of the hara into the equation as a power making instrument. However to the oriental it is much more than that.


For a start the hara (or tan tien) is the centre of balance of the human body, but again that statement will be culturally translated to mean ‘the bit that if you keep it in line will stop you from falling over’. However to the oriental it means that your hara, as your centre of balance, is not only the centre of your personal body, but the place where you connect to the universe and all life. Buddhists know that your mind will be much more relaxed and centred if you focus your mind on your hara whilst meditating. Taoist’s know that if you concentrate on your hara, then you link yourself to the universe and nature, a very important Taoist goal.


Boddhidharma’s martial arts and their offshoots were a Buddhist/Taoist invention, and everyday Japanese and Chinese thought is hugely influenced by both. 


Secondly the hara is the central storage point for chi, the energy of the universe. To the Chinese, and to some extent the Japanese, the power for a punching movement comes from the chi (ki in Japanese) rising from the hara and exiting through the fist, not from a mechanical process of levers and joints.


Both of these points are so culturally obvious to the Chinese and Japanese, that they surely don’t need mentioning do they? They do when the karate-ka is a westerner whose cultural starting point is fighting, Bruce Lee movies, western medical science, boxing, latent Christianity and Chivalry.


In Japan and China, all movements and techniques begin in the hara. When a westerner performs oi-tzuki, he is stepping forward in an effort to get his fist to the target as quickly and as powerfully as possible. A Japanese/Chinese practitioner is moving the hara forward, and then unleashing the energy stored there. This difference will show up physically, because to the Japanese it is important to move the hara smoothly whilst remaining relaxed, whereas the westerner in his bid to get there quickly and hit hard, will either unconsciously add in all sorts of bodily tension to hinder him, or he’ll become floppy as in sport karate.


So have the Japanese hidden this from us? No. Time and again they have told us “relax shoulders”, “relax then kime”, “strike from here” (slapping stomach), from which they mean “relax your muscles, let chi flow from the hara”, and yet because of our cultural filter we only take the instructions at face value. We relax only to get faster, we kime only to create damaging shock.


This then, to my mind, illustrates perfectly why Japanese karate looks different to western karate, and you can see it for yourself. Next time you are at the dojo, watch someone spar or perform a kata and try to see where their focus is, where their point of balance is. Is it in the hara, with all their movements coming from that place? Or is it in their chest or (worse still) shoulders, because they are concentrating on connecting their fist with the target as hard as possible? Now look at your karate. When you kime on oi-tsuki, has your point of balance risen up into your chest along with your breathing? When you turn in kata do you wobble, for the same reason? Do you find it harder to move backwards in zenkutsu-dachi than you do moving forwards?



So how do you practice with this cultural shift?


First of all, most of the following instructions will sound very familiar, as most of it has been told to us many times before. Others will sound a bit on the weird side for a karate-ka trying to make everything ‘real’ or ‘workable in a real situation’, but for a moment we want to put our filters aside and come at training from a more eastern direction.


First of all practice moving between stances, but instead of concentrating solely on perfection of stance or speed of arrival, concentrate instead on your hara and moving it smoothly from place to place. Breath into your hara and feel your connection with the ground strengthen.


Now practice an oi-tzuki. Before you launch yourself though, put all ideas of the powerful end result out of your head. Keeping the body completely relaxed, sink into your hara along with your breathing. Next, without involving the upper body, move your rear leg through past your front leg, concentrating on your hara. Finally, move your hara forward until your moving leg is nearly in its final position. As this happens feel the explosion of energy from the hara move from your stomach, up and out of the body via the relaxed chain of rear foot-hip-arm-fist, and explode out of your knuckles as you kime. Immediately relax.


Now apply that to a kata. In yoi, soften your knees and let your breathing centre on your hara. Now for the whole kata keep your concentration on your hara, the movement of your hara around the floor, and the energy from your hara making your limbs move.



In summary


Whether you practice gung fu, karate, or kendo, the mind makes energy move, energy moves the body, and it all centres on the hara. This is a natural thing to the Japanese; ki energy and the hara are a part of their culture. As westerners we have to practice mindfully in order for it to make sense to our bodies. However, once you get the feel for what you are doing, you will no longer have to talk yourself into it every time you train, and your karate will become more fluid, relaxed and maybe even more Japanese looking!





About the author


Andy has been practicing Shotokan karate for nearly 30 years. He has also studied meditation, eastern philosophies and western health and fitness. His work includes personal training, sports massage, meditation, and injury rehabilitation, as well as music and teaching bushcraft.

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