"Kitchen training"

Many years ago I was at the house of my friend (and student) Damon. We were studying for our final law school exams. During a break I was absentmindedly going through some kata movements (I recall that it was seipai kata from goju ryu) when one of Damon's other law school buddies, a fellow named Ian, came around for a visit. Seeing me performing the kata in Damon's small kitchen Ian furrowed his brow and shook his head in mild irritation.

"Why do you guys keep doing that stuff?"
"What 'stuff' do you mean?"
"You know - that 'Ha so karrrateee!' business. I kind of get why you might do it in classes, but what the hell makes you want to do it standing around in... someone's kitchen for God's sake!"

I was a bit taken aback by Ian's critical response to my impromptu practice. Among traditional martial artists this sort of "training" is really quite common. The next time you're with a karate friend, notice how he or she will start doing some small hand movements from kata while you're sitting/standing around, doing nothing in particular (and when you're not in some public place!). It is an unconscious thing. It comes from doing an activity that you enjoy - perhaps even love.

My response to Ian was, I think, quite apt. As Ian was talking I'd grabbed an umbrella from a stand and I'd started doing what cricketers do when they find a suitable stick or odd bit of wood - they assume the batting stance and start practising the "block" - presenting the bat to stop the ball from hitting the stumps. This is usually preceded by some taps of the ground behind your feet. (Baseballers can imagine their own variant - a kind of gentle warm up "swing" or "testing of the bat".) Ian was still talking, oblivious to my "cricket moves".

"Well, you see what I'm doing now?"
"Eh? What?"
"This. Cricket."
"Yes, what of it?"
"I'm doing it in the kitchen. You do that sort of thing all the time."
"Yeah - so what?"
"It's the same thing with karate. We're just 'going through the motions' because that's what we do."

Now Ian, like Damon, was a competitive cricketer; they both played at a club level. Damon even played at an international level, having represented Australia at the Maccabiah Games. They would both regularly grab the nearest "bat-like" object and started "practising". The difference was, Damon was also now a brown belt in karate - and he had also taken to "practising" karate in such idle moments (much to Ian's chagrin).

Ian snorted. "If you say so." Then he changed the subject. I don't think he really "got it". To him karate (and the Eastern martial arts generally) were appropriate to chop socky movies with their corny dialogue, far-fetched plot lines and highly improbable physical capabilities. In other words, to him the art of karate had more to do with a pajama-clad parody than something someone would pursue seriously and passionately (eg. cricket!).

But to those who practise traditional martial arts like karate there is nothing "corny" about them. They are every bit as worthy of practise - and passion - as something like cricket. Perhaps even more so. Depending on how you approach them, and what your goals and purposes are, martial arts can go right to the core of the 'human condition' - to our fears and insecurities, the nature of conflict (which often arises from those fears and insecurites) and the management of these things. So it is no accident that martial arts are often associated with philosophical traditions like Daoism and Zen.1

Which brings me back to the kitchen episode: what was I doing that day? What were Ian and Damon doing every time they started "batting" with a suitable-sized stick? We were, all of us, doing what I now call "kitchen training". What does this entail? Essentially it is a kind of absent-minded "training" one does during idle moments. Usually it does not raise even the slightest sweat. Rather, it is done slowly and deliberately, with the repetition of foundational movements (think of that cricket "blocking" action or the baseball batter's "testing" of a bat). Often enough the practitioner will casually cycle through a short sequence comprising those foundational movements.

So what function, if any, does this serve? Is it useful - or is it just idle movement that amounts to nothing?

I believe that for a complex physical activity, "kitchen training" is vital. I've come to the view that it is mostly during such movement that one "beds down" important kinaesthetic principles, mapping neural pathways in the brain and grooving actions and angles/planes of movement so that they become second nature; so that they become truly a part of you. In other words, "kitchen training" is where you start to "own" certain techniques/movements. It is here that they go from being something that someone else might do, to something that you do. And something that you do spontaneously.

Think about it: if the only time you practised cricket batting was during formal practice at the nets or during a match, what hope would you stand against someone who was constantly - even in idle moments - refining his or her batting action?

I'm fairly sure that if you did a poll of the world's top sportsmen and women you'd find that "kitchen training" was a common element. I have yet to meet a golf player who doesn't occasionally swing away at an imaginary golf ball with an umbrella; a soccer player who doesn't grab the nearest ball - even a tennis ball - and start bouncing it on his or her knees and feet; a basketballer who doesn't twirl and otherwise play with a kid's plastic ball. And so it goes.

I believe that if you examine people like Tiger Woods and Roger Federer, you'll find that "kitchen training" is part of what defines their capabilities. It almost certainly invades their private moments. It shows that they love what they do. I doubt that they would be the world's best without that love. Furthermore I believe it also accounts (at least partly) for why they are the world's best. They don't waste idle moments; even these are put to use in some sort of "training".

I've heard that Steffi Graf used to hit golf balls against a wall using a stick. I'm certain that this sort of "casual practice" is what helped her gain unerring consistency with her shots. And tennis is nothing if not a game where consistency counts. Indeed, if you take a look at Steffi's childhood photos, you'll notice that she is often holding a stick. I suspect she was habitually "kitchen training"...

It is important to note that no champion at sports ever "forces" themselves into "kitchen training". It is spontaneous. It arises out of a love for the activity - an excitement, intellectual stimulation or other passion. It has nothing to do with "conscious effort". It is just "something that you do" - just as Ian frequently used to go about "phantom batting", often in our law library. The only difference between Ian's and my "kitchen training" was that one was more "culturally acceptable". Accordingly, Ian felt less inhibited about his "cricket displays" - yet was openly derisory about my "martial arts displays" (which he no doubt felt had a farcical "chop socky" quality to them).

And so, even today, I'll generally keep my "kitchen training" private. Sometimes I actually do such training in my kitchen while, say, stirring pasta. (This confession is likely to get me in trouble. When my wife reads it, she'll know why my pasta is invariably overcooked!) Why the kitchen? For starters, it has enough space for small sequences. It also has no obstacles for me to trip over. Finally, it is usually fairly private. Other places I have used for "kitchen training" include elevators (naturally when no one else was with me - and I hope no video camera was recording!) or deserted beaches (where I used to take my dog for a run and I'd casually go through a form to see the pattern it created in the sand) - or just about anywhere where I wouldn't attract the attention of people in white coats!

Over time I've found myself developing little drills that I do out of habit during "kitchen training". These tend to morph over time as my interests and the material on which I'm focusing changes. But some constants can be noted:

Because the area in which such training takes place is often fairly small, the drills must be short and "circular", making use of the space but not having to go outside it. Ideally, the drill will also "loop" - ie. it will go back to the beginning, permitting endless repetition. The drill below is one I created during "kitchen training" and it comprises the essential elements of the first section of the Chen Pan Ling taijiquan form. I've found it so useful that I've started teaching it to beginners in my classes.

A looping taiji drill I invented during "kitchen training"

Once I get a little bored with such drills I'll start to "play" with them subconsciously. Here is the same drill with some variations - mostly in relation to turns and pivots:

A video where I "play" with the preceding drill

But usually the "kitchen training" comprises much smaller sequences. These tend to be formless and impromptu, but sometimes I will deliberately focus on certain movements that I can't do (at least, to my satisfaction). Sometimes I'll try the mirror image of a movement (eg. "single whip" from taiji). Sometimes I'll take these movements and morph them into drills to challenge my students (see my previous post!).

The important thing is to let your mind "deconstruct" what you're learning; to take it apart and reassemble it in myriad ways. It is this subconscious process that allows you to "take ownership" of the "form" of your art - to make it truly part of you so that it is no longer something that is "imposed upon you" but rather something that emanates from you reflexively.

A video of various kitchen training" drills I developed for my students as preparation for their upcoming trip to Taiwan (set to start at my discussion about kitchen training)

In the end, kitchen training can be whatever you want it to be. In fact, it must be whatever you want it to be. If it is too planned and regimented, the spontaneity will be missing. And that spontaneity is the subconscious arbiter of what you need to "bed down". If you follow your instinct, you can't go wrong.

And whatever you do, don't let inhibition get in the way. Trust me: if your friends and family aren't already used to you doing "Ha so karrrateee!" stuff, then they'll get there. Just be careful about public places - and don't let the pasta overcook!


1. Now it's true that I've seen books like "The Tao of Cricket" and "The Zen of Cricket" on the shelves, proving that even a sport can be elevated to a philosophical level. Clearly martial arts does not have a monopoly on combining wisdom with physical activity. For starters, the Japanese even associate Daoism and Zen with things like Chado (tea ceremony) and Shodo (calligraphy). But when it comes to comparisons with Western sports, at least we can say this: martial arts "got there first"! They are no "poor cousin" to Western sports - even if they are easily misunderstood, occasionally mistranslated by some movie producers and "New Age" adherents, and otherwise parodied in Western culture.

Copyright © 2012 Dejan Djurdjevic


  1. I'm so glad I'm not the only one who breaks into kata or various techniques the moment I'm alone in the kitchen. I'll have to show the article to my wife.

    At the beginning of the article, I was thinking about my daughter. If she's standing for any amount of time, she's tap dancing.

  2. Ha! The kitchen is THE perfect place for spontaneous drills and forms (I was working on a kata flow drill there just this morning as a matter of fact). My second favorite spot - although it isn't nearly as private - is my car. Hey - when opportunity knocks, I try to open the door :-)

    I think that the spontaneous "let me just try something" thing is a part of the honing and refining process interent to any physical activity. I did the same thing when I was competing in track in the high jump. Hard to improve or refine when you just THINK about the technique (although visualization is another great tool, LOL)...

    Great post, Dan. And as far as your pasta goes, my family knows I've been working on stuff other than the meal when I burn the chicken, chops or rice. Hey - it's warm with a smooth floor in there, so...

  3. Thanks guys - I had a feeling "kitchen training" was a common experience! Keep it up!


  4. Haha, I also do LOTS of "kitchen training". I sometimes even catch myself in public spaces, like in the subway, training such things as weight shifting movements. Walking to my apartment requires a fifteen minute hike from the bus stop, during which time I regularly catch myself doing hand motions from forms, or joint manipulations, etc.

    I think you are quite right in your suggestion that we do it, because we love it. I don't consider these impromptu training actual training (although it is). It is merely something I do out of the pleasure of doing it, the pleasure of trying to understand it.

    Similarly with the drills you came up with from "kitchen training", I have had many insights during these impromptu sessions as well.

    As is evident from the previous commentators (and I'm sure many other readers will concur), this post touches a true chord in us martial art enthusiasts. Thank you for reminding us that we all share a similar passion, regardless of style or creed.

    1. Thanks Sanko - I'm glad you enjoyed it and that we share a passion for this strange activity!

  5. I think that a huge number of martial artists are breathing a sigh of relief. Clearly many of us do it, and I think that most of us have felt embarrassment about it when we've been caught. It feels very relieving to have my kitchen training validated by someone so scientific and eloquent as you. I'm sure many people would agree with the statement: "At last, Dan proved it, I'm not crazy!"

    I remember one time in particular where I was practicing side kicks in an elevator (because mirrors are always helpful and not always readily available) when the door unexpectedly opened. I hastily retracted my foot so I didn't kick the woman who stepped inside and we laughed about it.

    Can't wait to share this article with the large number of my friends who stopped mid-sentence to ask "What are you doing?"

  6. In the elevator.
    In the kitchen.
    In a stairwell.
    At the water cooler.

    Our martial arts come with us everywhere.

    With regard to Ian's point of view, I think George Carlin said it best, "Ever notice how everyone else's stuff is shit, and your shit is stuff?"

    1. That George Carlin reply is classic! Thanks for that!

  7. I don't consider this strange at all, but necessary or at least a pre-requisite to skill.

    The first time I noticed I was doing something like this was at a dinner party. The food was still being cooked and prepared, so the guests that arrived early were basically tooling around doing their own thing. A few sat on the couch and started watching a war movie. Another person sat on a stool and drank something. The kids or teenagers or college aged boys went upstairs to play some game on the PS2 or Xbox.

    I walked around the house using Taiji rooster to balance on one leg and normal Taiji stepping. That's what I did because it was boring waiting and I wanted to do something fun while it was boring. One might as well put time that one is doing nothing, to good use. This is what I deem efficient. Being self motivated, doing things because you decided to do it not because someone used social pressure to intimidate you or pointed a gun at your head, is all important in terms of developing "character". It was also a useful icebreaker. One of the college aged males came down from upstairs to get some food, and we walked about martial arts and Bruce Lee movies while he was eating. Nobody found it "strange", perhaps because in this part of America, people cleaning rack full of guns in their home is "normal" or at least the best thing to it. I used it as an icebreaker against the stranger (guest) that was sipping some drink, but not watching tv or talking to anyone. He didn't do martial artists, but he knew someone that did, so we had a little chat about black belt factories and what not.

    In some ways, I carry this out to its logical conclusion. When the sake started being brought out, the smooth kind, we were drinking this small bottle down and it ran out. I was constantly doing Buddhist or Taoist breathing and diverting chi to my liver to see if I could metabolize the alcohol in my blood faster. Then periodically, I would stand up, walk to another room, and do one leg balance stands and Taiji stepping. I would then compare my feeling after and before the alcohol, then go back and drink some more. They ran out of alcohol before I could get to the end of my personal experimentation. After I stopped doing chi gong breathing, alcohol hit the brain then.

    So if you guys think "kitchen training" is strange, you might not have taken that to its logical conclusion just yet.

    I think of it as the same as when people break out their kindles when waiting for the bus/train. When they wear earphones and listen to their ipods. Nobody told them to do it. They just did it cause they wanted to. Cause it was better than standing around doing nothing. I did this even before martial arts, always practicing my lower leg endurance, one leg piston squats, and various kinds of stepping. I didn't want to attract too much attention or exert myself, so I didn't use kicks or punches or anything flashy, just normal balance and stepping.

    Geniuses are the ones that have the most affinity for childlike behavior and mental flexibility. It's often why inventions came about from toys. It wasn't a serious "do this or die" proposition but just some guy fiddling around for the fun of it. Then an accident happens in some laboratory and people find penicillin. Suddenly a whole lot of work got done in human progress just because somebody wanted to play around or had an accident.

    Martial artists should train their mind to be as flexible as their body, but I don't see that very often in this world.

    Jin Young, student of Hawkins Cheung, practices chi sau on the wheel of his car, while he is driving. That was his idea of using up commuting time. The idea that "martial arts" is something you do at the dojo, and never think about afterwards... is why so many people are stuck at "beginner levels", even if they have 10 black belts in 10 different styles.

  8. Not in the kitchen, I love cooking too much! But then again I sometimes will start practising some Tensho moves...

    I used to do it in the street a lot, but started noticing people looked weird at me, so I thought maybe it wasn't a good idea after all :P The thing is people even look weird at me when I'm testing my sanchin in the subway or at the bus (and I don't really think I'm doing anything special...right?).

    Nice post, Dan, as usual. Thank you!

  9. i do this all the time when i am alone with a stick..i go through impromptu sword drills or footwork. I often do it instinctively. I once caught myself peforming a stepping drill back and forth the aisleways of a local supermaket. And yes, you are right..it actually does help considerably.

    1. It has been interesting to see just how universal this experience is. Thanks for reading and for your input!

  10. For traditional martial artists, I believe it is even more important that they undergo independent self study. They may get training ideas from youtube videos, their instructor, or peers, but the actual methodology, time duration, and practice drills should be completely decided by the user. TMA adheres a lot to forms of one kind or another, not just physically but also mentally. Locked in a box, so to speak. Thus it is important for using a key to open the box, to begin thinking in out of the box fashions, to counter act the times when students have gotten into the habit of doing as they are told in the dojo because it's easier than thinking for themselves (or questioning the instructor socially).

    The highest levels of free expression are acted out when humans engage in play. Their imaginations are then given free reign. Cave art back in the ancient ancient pre-historical days bears this out. They loved hunting and learning about beasts so much, they even painted them on their cave walls during the winter when they had absolutely nothing to do. Rather than this being an example of decadence, it is an example of where a people's imagination lies: in the work they do to survive and in the animals that serve as their life sustenance. Compare that to modern decadent culture and see where their "minds are occupied".

    The ability to think for yourself was one of humanity's highest values compared to our competitors. These days, I'm seeing people who shun these gifts and prefer to let some authority do their thinking for them. Whether in economics, politics, military affairs, social affairs, or hobbies like martial artists, the trend is ever invasive.

    If I could carry around my training blade and shinken everywhere I went, I would practice more kenjutsu. Except in the US, that isn't exactly normal. So far, I've had to mimic the moves using holographic visuals. Not having a lot of equipment around, such as heavy bags, may have either hindered my progress or accelerated it, depending on what happened.

    While it may not be all that rare for people to do this, it is rare for there to be teachers that know how to teach a student to use this to accelerate one's learning.

  11. I have to say it is a relief to find that I am not an isolated weirdo who does kata in the elevator, in the kitchen, on the deck, in my cubicle at work, in other's offices,... the list goes on.

    Thanks for an insightful article that made me smile. :)

  12. Btw, I heard on an Asian tv channel that the Japanese or Koreans had put adidas punching bags around the huge support columns in the subways for people to practice on. Many residents and subway users said that if there weren't people around, they would hit the column-bag.

    Can you imagine if you were waiting on a train, for there to be a huge padded column for you to strike or kick that didn't move?

  13. I've been looking to do an informal poll for comparison reasons. Do you or anyone you know, Dan, ever seen a beginner student feel pain in the elbow when they air punch after they have drilled the movement for awhile?

    The sensation should be akin to the joint separating from the bone. Not the same as hyper extension from hitting a target with the elbow locked.

  14. Hi Ymar

    Maybe the pain is not the same as "hyper extension from hitting a target with the elbow locked" - but what about hyper extension from punching air with the elbow locked? This is often hard to detect, but it can be ruinous on the tendons in the elbow.

    Consider this video for example. This is what I've found to be the single most common cause of joint pain in martial arts students.

    I hope that helps!


  15. http://youtu.be/FSPCMVZEN1g

    Subway boxing gym.

  16. I believe what you described is a variation of what I often tell people, which is that they need an energy sink when air punching. Which is actually a higher skill level than simply hitting a bag at the start. To produce power, one must kinetically link the muscles from a base, whether that's from the hips or from a rooted foot. But to sink the energy in an air strike, rather than let the energy pull on the joints, requires a reverse or simultaneous kinetic link setup right at the moment of impact on the imaginary air target.

    You described the tennis elbow in a good way. Never heard it explained in detail like that, but it makes sense given other things.

    One person asked me about this because they were having shoulder and neck pains when punching. They didn't say they were air punching but I had easily guessed it from the symptoms. Another person just had a similar or same problem, except the pain is in their elbow.

    The tennis ball and stick forms a sort of lever arm, so when the arm is locked at impact, it forms a miniature arm bar. I've felt it when I do a horizontal cut with my katana, which is only 2 pounds 6 ounches. It'll still lock my right elbow if I don't sink the force into the legs. For punching though, the person has to generate a very high power or do such repetitions for a very long time, thus for punching I only notice this issue cropping up when students have achieved a sufficient level in power generation.

  17. Ymar, you are clearly knowledgeable and a veritable well of information. Forgive me if this is out of place, but I get the impression from you that you are not really interested in other people's ideas so much as interested in finding other people who validate what you already believe. I wonder if you're aware that you come across that way?

  18. Xin, have you ever thought that the the reason why I have any knowledge on any subject is due to my interest in gathering information from other people?

    If this process comes across to you or others as a form of egotism, I'm not sure what to say, other than that there are many ways to read people in real life and on the internet, but the skills required to do so are rare in real life (interrogators and gut instincts) and even rarer online given the deficiency in bandwidth of information volume restricted to language interpretations: 70% of human communication is undertaken through voice tone and body language alone, with only 30% being based upon the words.

    I've found that while information, wisdom, and the various other things based on truth are more available to modern humans in the 21st century than it ever has been in humanity's long history on this planet, people don't make use of this opportunity for various reasons. One of them is the hesitation to break social rules, the consequences of disappointing other humans, or the requirement to wear a mask in order to adjust for the emotional reactions of other humans in society.

    I long ago decided that my number one priority was never going to be adjusting reality to make things easier for other people to see or recognize truth, justice, and the fundamental fabric of reality. My efforts were maxed out focusing on controlling my own abilities and emotional matrix, I did not have time, interest, or energy to spare for the vices of others. This can come across as ambition, because in a sense, it is.

    To get a gist of where I come from, various quotes have said things that are not commonly said or understood in this century.

    "I would rather die having spoken in my manner, than speak in your manner and live. For neither in war nor yet in law ought any man use every way of escaping death. For often in battle there is no doubt that if a man will throw away his arms, and fall on his knees before his pursuers, he may escape death, if a man is willing to say or do anything. The difficulty, my friends, is not in avoiding death, but in avoiding unrighteousness; for that runs deeper than death."-Author's relatively famous.

    The amount of energy I am willing to expend in resolving social issues and problems created from human society, is not zero, but it's not a lot either.

    If your goal is not my goal, then we're just going to pass each other by on the streets. How I seem to others, causes no harm on my own personal pursuit of wisdom and truth, as other people are going on their own roads in life. I do not seek to interfere with their pursuits, and expect the same from them. If however people begin to use social methods of constraint on me, I will naturally be forced to devote more of my attention on such things as "office politics and human emotional blackmailing" to resolve the conflict in my favor. But it is not something I prefer to focus on, even though as a consequence of my self chosen path, I've learned a great many things about how human relationships and emotions are manipulated: for good or ill.

    Whether a person seeks to do harm or ill to me is not in my control. But in whether such harm is actually done to me, is in my control.

    Put in another way, how is asking the question that you did, of a stranger on the internet, who you have yet to converse with in any meaningful manner, going to aid you, your family, or your loved ones on this quest we call life, in the search of wisdom, happiness, or truth? If you can answer that question for yourself, perhaps you will understand the reasons for mine as well.

  19. Dan,

    I've been reading your articles fairly religiously for a while now. Some years ago, I was studying a form of Shorin Ryu that was called Kyan Shorin. The closest approximation I can make is to Shobayashi Shorin.

    Recently, I've finally been able to get into a Shotokan class. I'm loving every second of it, to be part of a family of like-minded karateka again, but none of my classmates think as I do. Your articles have answered many questions I have had about karate over the years.

    I may practice a Shuri-te descended style far removed from its Shorin roots, but what I've read at your site makes me desperate to one day learn Goju, Uechi or Shorei. Soon, I'll be moving far from this town to one where I have the opportunity to study Hung Gar, Choy Li Futt and Yang Taijiquan. I have you to thank for my interest in those arts as well.

    In short, I want to thank you for all of your insight, your wisdom and your experience that you have so graciously shared with anyone that can find your excellent site. I hope to one day make the trip to Perth to meet you in person and train with you.


  20. It's my pleasure Alex. I look forward to meeting you when you're in town.

  21. Dan, for me it's cubicle training or stairwell training in the building where I work. I'm always moving my hands into different strike positions while sitting, or working blocking/striking while standing at my desk, or walking the stairs (4 flights). I also use the stairwell landings for my "one second karate training" where I quickly perform a technique or two. I start my workday at 7am and used to be the only one in my part of the office so I would work on different kata combinations, particularly Tekki, but now others arrive early so I've lost this opportunity.


  22. Hahaha, oh man, I do this often. Fortunately, all of my family members have some experience with martial arts, so they quickly got used to me doing this (turning to pick up a bag using pivots I learned in karate, shifting weight more smoothly when doing chores, practicing my lunge steps when mowing the lawn, etc).

    I also do a lot of little chudan uke all the time in public- at my university, in the library, standing outside of a classroom before an exam, talking to people. I really don't notice much of the time until I'm partway through.

  23. In the kitchen. In line at the grocery store. Walking anywhere. Standing and talking to friends. It never ends after it becomes so much a part of you.


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