Anatomy of a Great Kata

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A post by Sensei Hofmeister:

Kata are a series of movements designed to teach a wide variety of principles in karate: balance, focus, striking height, techniques, combinations, stances, and more.  There are many elements in kata.  So what makes a great kata?

Timing

In Yoshukai, the movements in a kata are not all executed at the same tempo, or as quickly as possible.  The transition from one stance to the next should be done quickly, and execution of each technique should be done with kime (focus).  A brief beat should accompany most techniques as kime is used.

Stances

It should go without saying that stances should be distinct (e.g. kougeki vs. boubi shikodachi), and the student should settle in to the stance immediately before executing the technique.  Without a solid base, techniques will not have power.  Stance first, then technique.

Tension

The student should be relaxed throughout the entire kata, except at the moment of execution of a technique.  At the point of execution, the student should add power and tension to the technique.  The rest of the body- stance, shoulders, etc. should be relaxed- only the muscles required for the technique should be engaged.  After executing the technique, the student should be relaxed again.

Breathing

Throughout the kata, the student should have the same easy, rhythmic breathing.  This is true even on execution of a technique, since the only muscles which should be contracted are those involved in the technique.  The core can be engaged without altering the rhythm of breathing.  Audible breathing during kata (except when noted), or during execution of a technique, can reveal to an opponent your breathing cycle, which they can use against you.

Hands and Feet

Many students neglect the non-technique hand.  During a technique, the hand in chamber should be stable and closed without being clenched.  The hand executing the technique needs to be correct- the hand position for haito is different from shuto is different from nukite is different from shote.  During kicks, the foot position should be correct- using koshi for mae geri, pointing the toes for mawashi geri, etc.

Posture

The student’s gaze should be focused toward the direction of the technique.  The head should be held up, the back straight.  Some students tuck their chin down, hunch their shoulders, or bend forward slightly.  Having correct posture will make balance easier.

 

Obviously, the actual sequence of techniques and execution of the techniques and stances must be correct.  The above elements, when considered separate from knowing the actual kata, will help students increase their mastery of kata and their own body mechanics.

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New Year, New You (and all that)

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Each year, come January 1st and usually in the weeks leading up to it, the air is abuzz with people saying what New Year’s resolutions they’ve made and how they’re going to change their life for the better. Standard stuff. There also happens to be somewhat of a trope that those same people are  going to quit those resolutions in T-30 days at the most. No one really succeeds in new year’s resolutions, or at least that’s the joke.

New Year’s resolutions can be tough to keep, and it’s because they’re often about making huge life changes. Lose weight, exercise more, study harder, learn French, play the bassoon, go learn karate. These things take time and effort, and most people are already filling their time and using their effort. Change takes evolution, and evolution takes time.

I don’t have a new year’s resolution this year, per say. My new me started back in November when I officially took over as Head Instructor for Athens Yoshukai Karate. I gained new duties and responsibilities, and am now having to dedicate more time and effort to something I was already dedicated to. This is not a complaint; far from it. But this new year does mean a new me simply by my new title. Hopefully, as things continue on, I’ll continue to evolve into my head instructor role.

A new year is an exciting time for many reasons, and I don’t want to take away from that by joking about new year’s resolutions and how often they can fail at the time. If you’ve made a resolution to come to more karate class, by Jove, do it! I’ll encourage you once you’re here. But you have to take the first step. And after the first, the second step. But it gets easier. And you get better. And, given enough time, you’ll find you’re a whole new you. With or without a new year.

Yoga Philosophy and Yoshukai

Someone once asked me how many sparring matches I’ve won.  By most methods of reckoning, this number would be zero.  By my own reckoning, every time I’m willing to spar at all, I’ve won.  Sparring is extremely emotionally difficult to me, so the very act of being willing to step into the ring is a victory.

 

There are a few different aspects of the yoga philosophy that overlap with Yoshukai, including meditation and focus.  In my view, most of these aspects can be summarized in the concept of jai, which roughly translates to victory, and I’ve often heard it used to represent victory over ego.  One cannot strive for excellence or continue to improve without victory over ego.  If one allows oneself to be defeated by one’s ego, one would never continue with anything difficult.  By definition, continuing to train represents a victory over ego.

 

There are various other ways in which our ego can defeat us: our ego might cause us to push ourselves beyond our limit, resulting in injury.  We might unfairly compare ourselves to others rather than focusing on our own improvements, resulting in poor spirit.  Overall, I believe victory over ego reminds us to compete only or primarily against ourselves, focusing on our own improvement.  With this focus on our own improvement, rather than external rewards or validation, we can more completely strive for excellence.

Yoga for Hip Stretches

With all the power and strength that comes from our hips in Yoshukai, it’s important to take some time to release those muscles.  These are big muscle groups, and continuing to strengthen them without spending time on flexibility may limit your kicks and stance transitions.  There’s also wide variability in how each individual will respond to hip stretches, which is why I’ve provided several different options.  It’s suggested you try various poses to find something that works, but recall that each of these may not be more difficult than any of the others; they’re simply provided to give you lots of options to find what works best for you.

Seated position:

Sit with one heel in front of your groin, the other heel directly in line with that.  If this is enough, stay here.

SeatedPose

If you need more, begin to extend forward with a flat spine until you do find a stretch in your hips.

ExtendedSeatedPose

Once your reach that point, round forward to release your spine and neck.

RoundedSeatedPose

Hold for five to ten breaths[1], then switch the cross of the feet and repeat on the other side.  Remember that you may not go as far or may go farther on the other side (true of all these hip stretches). 

Bull seat:

Sitting on the floor, bring your right knee forward, with your right heel alongside your left hip.  If possible, bring your left hip alongside your right heel.

BullSeat

If your left knee floats high above your right, stay here for your five to ten breaths and let gravity slowly pull the right knee down.

If your left knee easily stacks on the right and you need more of a stretch, begin to walk your fingertips forward with a flat spine until you feel your stretch.

ExtendedBullPose

After you find this stretch, round the spine for your five to ten breaths.

RoundedBullSeat

Repeat on the other side.

Firelog pose:

From a seated pose, bring your right shin parallel on the floor in front of you, foot flexed.  Stack your left ankle on your right knee, letting your left knee stack or float over your right ankle.

FirelogPose

If this knee is floating, hold here and let gravity increase the stretch.

 

If you need more of a stretch, extend forward until you feel the stretch in your hips.

ExtendedKeyhole

From here, round your spine for your five to ten breaths.  Repeat on the other side.

RoundedKeyhole

Keyhole pose:

Lay on your back, planting both feet on the floor.

RecliningPose

Flex your right foot and place your right ankle over your left knee.

KeyholePrep

Bring your legs toward your chest and hold behind your left thigh or in front of your left shin.  Hold for five to ten breaths, then repeat on the other side.

Keyhole

PIgeon pose:

Start in downward-facing dog.  Bring your right leg up behind you into three-legged dog.

3LeggedDog

From here, bring the leg forward and place your right knee behind your right hand.

PigeonPrep

The farther forward your right foot, the more intense the stretch; be sure to keep the foot flexed and go slowly into the stretch to avoid injury or muscle tightening.  Lower your left knee onto the floor.

Pigeon

Extend your arms forward and lower your chest as far as you can.

ExtendedPigeon

Hold for five to ten breaths.  To release, press in with your hands to come back to downward-facing dog.  Make any movements here to release the muscles.  Repeat on the other side.

Butterfly pose:

The previous stretches focused on the outside of the hips; this pose focuses on the inside of the hips and groin muscles.

Sit on the floor with your feet together and knees falling open.  Pull your heels in as close to your hips as possible.  From here, lie back onto the floor and let gravity pull your knees down.

RecliningButterfly

This is a restorative pose; that is, you shouldn’t be using a lot of muscular effort here.  Hold for five to ten breaths.

 

[1] These poses should be held for longer than the other poses because the hips are such a large muscle group, and should be given a longer period of time to get full release.

 

Yoga for Stances

To start in downward-facing dog, begin on your hands and knees.  Walk your knees back a few inches and press in with your hands to lift your knees a couple inches above the floor.  Continue pressing your hands into the floor and send your hips back and up, keeping your knees bent.  Work on maintaining a flat back and slowly straighten your knees.  You can walk your feet forward or back in order to make this pose easier.

DownwardFacingDog

Zenkutsudachi: Warrior 1

From downward-facing dog, bring your right foot up and behind you, then forward in between your hands.  Plant your left foot on the floor with the toes pointed forward; this should be similar to zenkutsudachi, but try bringing your left foot in line with right (it’s okay if you don’t quite make it).  Keep your hips square to the front of the room, and move your back foot forward or back as necessary to accomplish this with the toes still pointed forward.  Bring your arms forward and up to come into the full warrior 1 pose.

Warrior 1

Hold for three to five breaths, then plant your hands on either side of the front foot.  Bring the front foot back to meet the left, then repeat on the other side.  This should open the hips and hamstrings and, over time, allow you to maintain deeper stances.

 

Zenkutsudachi to boubi shikodachi: flow between warrior 1 and goddess pose.

Come into warrior 1 once again.  From here, bend the back knee and turn the back toes out at 90 degrees, bending the elbows to a 90-degree angle and bring the elbows in line with the shoulders coming into goddess pose.

Goddess

Inhale back to warrior 1, then exhale back to goddess pose.  Repeat for three to five breaths, then switch to the other side.  This should help train the muscles for the quick changes between warrior 1 and boubi shikodachi in kata like Seisan.

 

Shoulder stance: warrior 2

From downward-facing dog, bring your left foot forward in between your hands.  Place your right foot on the floor, toes at a 90 degree angle or slightly forward.  Bend the left knee and come up into a standing position and bring your arms parallel to the floor.  Square your hips to the side and bring your gaze over the front fingertips.

Warrior2

After three to five breaths, cartwheel your hands down to frame the front foot.  Bring the left foot back to meet the front, then repeat on the other side.

Uchihachijidachi: wide-legged forward fold

Step your feet wide apart, then walk the toes in a bit.  They don’t have to be as far in as for uchihachijidachi, but walk them in as far as you can manage with this wide-legged pose.

WideLegs

With your hand on your hips, extend your spine long, then fold forward toward the floor.  Place your hands under the shoulders and begin to bend forward so your head starts to come toward the floor.

WideLeggedFold

If you can place your head comfortably on the floor, walk your feet in a bit until your experience a stretch through the inside and backs of your legs.

Yoga for Intermediate/Advanced Kicks

For forward or back spin kicks, the ability to twist is important.  A lot of us have trouble targeting in a back spin kick, so these twisting poses will help us get our upper body around in time to spot our target before kicking.

Start in a comfortable seated or kneeling pose.  We’ll start with some gentle twisting flows to warm up the spine, similar to the cat-cow warm-up from the beginner/intermediate kick series.

On an inhale, bring your arms up and overhead.  As you exhale, twist gently to one side, placing your fingertips on either side of your knee (or anywhere that’s comfortable).

SeatedTwist

Note: we’re not placing too much effort in these beginning twists; this is more for warming up.  On your next inhale, bring your arms overhead again, then twist in the other direction on an exhale.  Continue at the pace of your own breathing for four to eight more breaths, so that you go in each direction three to five times total.

Bring your left foot by your right hip so that your knee is pointing directly forward.  Place your right foot just to the outside of your left knee so that the right knee is pointed toward the ceiling.

KneeUpTwist

Hug your right knee into the chest with your left arm.  If this is enough, stay here.  If this is too much, extend your left leg.  Otherwise, place your right fingertips at the base of the spine behind you.  With a deep inhale, extend your left fingertips toward the ceiling and draw your spine long.

TwistSetUp

On your exhale, twist to the right and bring your left elbow to the outside of your right knee.

FullTwist

As you continue with three to five more breaths, use your inhales to extend the spine long, exhales to twist from your core and deepen the twist.  Continue looking over your right shoulder.  The twist should come from deep in your core, rather than cranking from your shoulders.

If you still have a little more space, you can bind the twist by bringing your left arm under your right knee and reaching your right arm behind your back for your left hip or fingertips.

BoundTwist

When you’ve completed your breaths on this side, bring your head around first to release the twist.  Gently bring your arms to the other side for a couple breaths for a counter twist.  Repeat on the other side.

Come back to hands and knees.  Place your hands one hand’s length forward and place your right foot in between your hands.  Tuck your left toes under and lift your left knee off the floor, coming into a high lunge.

Lunge

Plant your left hand on the floor and your right hand on your right thigh, twisting your left ribs toward your thigh.

LungeTwistSetUp

If you feel stable here, bring your right fingertips toward the ceiling and stack your right shoulders over your left.  If it feels okay, you can bring your gaze up toward the ceiling to intensify the twist.

LungeTwist

Hold for three to five breaths.  To release the twist, bring your right hand back to the floor.  Place your opposite hand on the floor and walk your right foot back beside the left, then bring your left foot forward.  Repeat on the other side.

For a variation on pigeon pose (see Yoga for Hip Stretching), start in downward facing dog.

DownwardFacingDog

Plant your palms on the floor and, with your knees bent, bring your hips back and up.  Come into three-legged dog: lift your right heel up toward the ceiling with your toes pointed toward the floor.

3LeggedDog

From here, bring your right knee in between your hands, bringing your right foot towards your left hip.  Make sure to keep your right foot flexed to protect your knee joint.

Pigeon

Start slowly lowering your hips and upper body down as far as is tolerable.  Hold for at least five breaths.  To reverse, plant your hands and push back into downward facing dog.  Do whatever feels necessary to release your hips and right leg.  Repeat on the other side.

 

Yoga for Beginner/Intermediate Kicks

The poses below help with hip strength and overall flexibility of leg muscles, and I’ve found them especially helpful for the kicks listed below. For some kicks, I’ve given alternate poses; I suggest you try not to think of these poses as more or less difficult than the original pose. I’ve found that some poses work better for individuals, regardless of ability or experience.

Start out in table pose: on hand and knees, with wrists directly under shoulders and knees directly under hips.

Tabletop

Before moving on to the other poses, we’ll begin with some cat-cow poses.  While not working on the kicks per se, this will warm up and lubricate the spine: always beneficial before beginning practice.

Inhale to cow pose: arch the spine, drop the belly towards the floor and look up.

Cow

Exhale to cat pose: round the spine towards the ceiling, bring the belly button in and drop the chin towards the chest.

Cat

Continue at the pace of your own breathing for three to five of your breaths.

Front kicks: obviously, anything that opens the hamstrings will help with front kicks.  I like these poses because they also open the front of the hip of the standing leg.

Monkey pose: Walk your hands one hand’s length forward; that is, place the heel of your palm where the tip of your middle finger just was. Bring your right foot in between your hands and walk the foot forward until you feel a stretch in the front of your left hip.  The left foot can be flat on the floor, or you can tuck those toes under.

Monkey

NOTE: if this pose bothers your left knee, place a folded-up blanket under your shin so the knee floats off the floor.  If it still hurts, you can tuck your toes and bring the knee off the floor for this pose and these motions.

Foldover

From here, on your next exhale, send the hips back towards your left heel.  Right toes can be on the floor or flexed towards the ceiling, whichever you prefer.

HipstowardHeels

On your next inhale, come back forward into monkey pose.  Continue this flow at your own pace for the next three to five breaths, then bring the right knee back beside the left and bring the left foot forward.  Repeat on this side.

Standing alternative: Pyramid pose

Bring your left foot about three feet behind your right.  Adjust as necessary so that you can have your left toes forward and your hips square to the front.

Pyramid

From here, with your hands on your hips to keep them squared forward, extend forward with a flat spine until you feel a stretch in the back of your right leg.

PyramidFoldover

From here, round forward to release your spine and neck.

RoundedPyramid

If your hands are close enough, you can place them on the floor or on your right leg.

You can also place a blanket or some blocks on the floor for your hands to lessen the intensity of this pose.  Hold this pose for three to five breaths, then repeat on the other side.

Side kicks:

From hands and knees, bring your left toes out a few inches, keeping your knee in place.  With your left shin at a slight angle, extend the arch of your right foot on the floor behind you.

ModifiedSidePlank

Begin to stack your right hip over your left and place your right hand on your hip.  If this is enough, stay here.  If you need more strengthening, begin to flex your right foot and bring it in line with your right hip.  If you have enough balance, begin to lift your right arm to the ceiling and bring your gaze up.

ExtendedModifiedSidePlank

Stay here for three to five breaths.  Once you’re done, reverse the process to come back down on to hands and knees.  Take a moment to work out any remaining muscle tension, then repeat on the other side.

Standing alternative: Half-moon pose

This pose can be done away from the wall, but placing your base foot about six inches away from the wall is recommended in order to train your muscles to hold the form.

Place your right foot parallel to the wall.  Bring your left foot a few feet behind, toes perpendicular.  Extend your arms parallel to the floor, then bring the left foot a few feet closer until you can push off and bring your right fingertips towards the floor.

HalfMoon

Again, use a block or blanket if you can’t get your hand close enough to the floor.  Left toes should be flexed and in line with the hip.  From here, work towards letting your left hip and shoulder fall against the wall.  If you’re working with a partner, they can give a gentle push on the top hip to help your muscles open.

Round kick/hook kick:

Similar to our first side kick pose, we’ll start on hands and knees.  Again, bring the left toes out to the left a couple inches.  Tuck your right knee into your chest and wrap your right fingertips around your right ankle or over the top of the foot.

SetUpKneelingRoundKick

Bring your knee back in line with your hip or a bit behind, pressing in with your right foot into your hand to open into a quadricep stretch and backbend.  In addition to opening the quadriceps, this also opens the front of the top hip to help with hook kicks.

ExtendedKneelingRoundKick

Stay here for three to five breaths, then reverse the process to come down.  Repeat on the other side.

Standing alternative: Warrior 3

This is a pretty intense pose, but may be worth a try if you’d like more work after the first pose.  Again, this can be done against a wall for balance.  Come into a zenkutsudachi stance with your right foot forward.  Bring your fingertips up overhead and bring your left foot in a bit, until you can push off with your left toes.  Bring your arms forward and leg back until you’re parallel with the floor, flexing your back foot.

Warrior3

From here, bring your left fingertips to the floor and bend your left knee, reaching for your left foot behind your back with your right hand.  Hold for three to five breaths, then repeat on the other side.

Warrior3QuadStretch

Chambering for kicks: balancing pose

Stand with your feet together.  Bring weight into your left foot.  Bring the right heel off the floor, bending the right knee.  Bend forward and bring your right elbow to the inside of your knee.  Place your hand over the top of the foot and bring your fingertips around the outside edge.

BalancePosePrep

Focus your gaze on a point on the floor in front of you for your balance, then flex your right foot and begin to lift that foot off the floor.  Come as high as you can; ideally, you’ll be standing on your left foot with your right knee pointed toward the ceiling, right heel pointed toward the floor.

BalancePose