How "stem cell movements" in kata morph depending on your experience


Readers will recall that in my previous article I discussed how kata comprise what I call "stem cell movements" - ie. movements of a "elemental" or "fundamental" nature, capable of morphing into any number of different applications.

In fact, this is the very essence of kata: to give you a foundation of essential motor learning and kinaesthesia. I also argued that how these movements "morph" depends largely upon the experience and skill of the student.

In this article I would like to give some concrete examples of exactly what I meant.

My video on "stem cell movements

Once again, I will be referring to the kata heian shodan (pinan nidan) to illustrate my points precisely because it is a "basic" kata - ie. one that is "easier for beginners to learn" and/or "depends less on previously acquired knowledge". While it might appear to the casual observer to be overly "formal" and "unrealistic", this is precisely because it teaches more elemental or fundamental movements - involving gross motor learning that, once acquired, will enable future, more sophisticated, motor learning.

If the kata appeared more "realistic" it would be narrowing its focus to more specific applications to exclusion of others covered by the umbrella of the "stem cell movement".

In this article I propose to examine just the "entering with a downward block" moves of heian shodan to show how they embody this "stem cell principle" - and how they "morph" to fit the student's skills as they develop over time.

The importance of a correct entry

I have already mentioned the opening move as being one which facilitates entry into your opponent. But how does this actually work? Clearly you can't just "blunder" into your opponent. For one thing, it would be lunacy to walk into a roundhouse kick with your forearm meeting your opponent's shin!

Rather, as I've previously recounted, details matter. They make the difference between success or failure. If "entry" into a dangerous, "momentum heavy" attack like a kick simply involved the type of step we use in everyday life, we'd all be martial arts masters and without any training. However that is far from the case.

In this instance, the detail the kata teaches as a precondition to entry is that which I insist upon with every single beginner, namely:

  1. First reach in with your foot (without transferring most of your bodyweight).
  2. Only then transfer your bodyweight, pivoting to face your opponent as you do so.

Why do this? For one simple reason: such "staged entry" provides the quickest method. Your body parts don't all move at equal speeds. The speed of each part depends on factors such as the type of muscle fibre and the number of neurons serving that region.

For martial purposes, your hands are going to be the fastest thing you can move - and your legs come in second. Trying to move your trunk/core along with the legs means you'll be slowed down by body parts that aren't quite as fast as your legs. So it is better to accomplish a complex task like this in linked stages. Besides, your trunk moves well enough once acceleration has already begun.

The kata of course shows the movement as if your attack has come in from the side, but the truth of the matter is that the attack is more likely to come from the front. What the kata is actually showing you is that by executing your entry almost side-on you can "wedge" your way into the attack.

Of course, as I show in the above video, you can (and, in the basic example of a kick, should) execute your "downward block" not against the opponent's shin, but instead against his or her thigh. This becomes a natural option once you execute the "staged" entry to which I refer above for the simple reason that the thigh is at the right height and distance from you as you move in (where you've almost certainly well passed your opponent's shin).

The other option is to execute the downward block as both a deflection and simultaneous strike, hitting the groin as you enter. All these things are possible. By leading with the left "block" you can then follow with a right punch (as per the kata, even though it does this part with a step - more on that next time).

What you will also note from the above pictures is that, in executing the "staged entry", you also drop the body very quickly. This means that the move doubles as a "duck", evading a powerful cross or hook by moving downwards and inwards. The "block" then functions either as just a strike or as a "back up" block to jam any future attack at the hip (ie. what Marc MacYoung calls "blocking the supply lines").

Either way, you will note that the move is teaching you to occupy the centre line and wedge your way into the attack. Why? Because this is the most effective way of dealing with circular attacks. And circular attacks (be they swinging punches or roundhouse kicks) are the most common attacks you're likely to face.

Forget the karate-style straight punches and front kicks, forget Bruce Lee side thrust kicks, forget grappling "shoots", forget boxing jabs... I can tell you as a former prosecutor that most civilian defence scenarios serious enough to see the inside of a court don't involve anything fancy: "someone taking a swing" is mostly what you get. If the fight goes on, the protagonists might get into a clinch and then start to wrestle. But the opening move is almost always a "circular" attack - usually a punch.

Jun and gyaku kaiten

Of course, what you'll note from the above pictures is that I do not do exactly what the kata does, namely time the block to coincide with the rotation of the hips into the attack. Indeed, you'll see that I've executed the block with the "reach" of my foot while my hip is turned away from the attack (then timed the hip rotation into the attack with the subsequent punch). Why have I done this? Simply because I've chosen to highlight one aspect (the entry as a "wedge") of this "stem cell movement".

This use of the hip relative to the block is known as "gyaku kaiten" - turning your hips away from the attack.

The other option is known as "jun kaiten" - turning your hips into the attack. This is what the kata shows relative to the block.

It is my view that the kata intends to transmit both options. But clearly it can only show one (relative to the block, anyway). So it defaults to the "jun kaiten". Why?

Well the simple reason is that this allows the kata to pass through a "gyaku kaiten stage" and a "jun kaiten stage" (remember that the kata teaches you first to reach in, then turn to turn your hips into the attack). This is, I believe, as close as you can get to "showing both in the same move".

And the reason why it must start with a gyaku kaiten and finish with a jun kaiten in this instance is a simple matter of biomechanics:

Given that the kata move chooses to highlight an "entry" rather than "backward evasion", gyaku kaiten must precede any jun kaiten. The reverse is true if you choose to highlight evasive tai sabaki (body movement) - ie. in that case jun kaiten must precede any gyaku kaiten.

In this regard, readers might be interested in "fukyugata ni" as practised in our school, the Academy of Traditional Fighting Arts. This kata features "evasive" body movement on a "heian shodan platform". We teach it after our "fukyugata ichi" (ie. the more standard "entering" heian shodan) for the reasons to which I refer in my previous article: beginners start by blundering in; they become wary and start to back away, then later move back to "entering". Everything in its own time!

You'll note from this video that I use the kind of "turning evasion" I demonstrate in the preceding photograph.

I demonstrate our "fukyugata ni" - which is just heian shodan but with "backwards evasion" rather than "entering" - an exercise that prioritises "jun kaiten" instead of "gyaku kaiten". We teach it after the more standard "entering" version of heian shodan, which we call "fukyugata ichi".

Modification: little knowledge and dangerous things

From the above you can start to appreciate that without understanding heian shodan as a repository of "stem cell movements" it would be very dangerous to start making any assumptions about its function. And any "modifications" based on such assumptions ultimately just lead to what I have previously called "dilution".

Now people have often had a go at me for talking about "dilution". They say I'm being condescending or that I'm placing my own "value judgment" on certain techniques. I don't believe this is strictly the case. I'm not saying "x application is better than y". I'm saying: "Look: this kata has been modified so that only x application remains instead of x, y and z." And I'm also saying that the "change" is made with extra, misconceived, elements thrown in for good measure - elements that conflict with human biomechanics.

Consider the following video by way of example:

A modified version of heian shodan that features gyaku kaiten where jun kaiten should be. To me, this is clearly a modification made without full understanding of the biomechanical issues inherent in the kata design.

You'll notice that the performer executes a gyaku kaiten in each movement. Clearly the instructor who modified this performance found (as have many karateka) that applying the literal form (entry with a jun kaiten!) is, in fact, impossible. Indeed, the instructor would have noticed that he or she invariably defaulted to gyaku kaiten when "entering". And hence the change was made.

This is fine in theory: the "worst" it does is cut down the "morph" options of the kata (ie. you've excluded any jun kaiten applications). The "best" it does is rationalise the form into a more "realistic" form.

However the problem is that the modification doesn't stop there. If it simply executed a gyaku kaiten with the "reach/entry" (as I've proposed above) it would be a formidable (albeit very "advanced") way of performing the kata. However it doesn't do that.

When I first saw this performance I was a tad mystified. I couldn't even work out what the practitioner was doing. Then I realised: he was throwing his hips one way, then the other.

If you examine the opening move in particular, you'll see that the practitioner first turns his hips into the attack, then, just before the block lands, twists his hips back into a gyaku kaiten!

I'm sorry: this is just another example of a "hip pre-load" that has been forced into a context where it doesn't fit. If you don't have the time for a jun kaiten (presumably the reason for the modification), then you don't have the time to do both a jun kaiten and a gyaku kaiten in the same space either.

Indeed, you'll note that the practitioner doesn't even perform the "double hip" in most of the moves (it is mostly apparent on the first one). He just doesn't have the time.1

You certainly don't need a hip pre-load "for the extra power": the low block in this "entering" sequence is a "wedging deflection" that doesn't require much force. To the extent that you want to add "hip power", you can do so by moving your hips from wherever they happen to be. But your main effort will be to move into your opponent as directly and quickly as possible - to catch him off guard and at the earliest possible point - before he has accelerated. Any attempt to load the hips for "extra power" will just detract from your ability to do so.

So the "extra hip turn" is neither necessary nor prudent. In fact, it just doesn't work. Period. It has been added presumably because the literal kata move is not "realistic". It effects a change based on an incomplete understanding of both the biomechanics of this technique and it's purpose as a "stem cell movement.


Accordingly it should be apparent from the above that while it might be tempting to modify heian shodan to make it "more realistic", an instructor does so at his or her peril. The kata is quite cleverly designed. Attempts to "make it better" are fraught with pitfalls. And if you proceed to effect such changes to the kata on flawed - or simply incomplete - data, then you've robbed the kata of its main purpose: to provide a lifetime of lessons.

The kata can only provide such lessons if we see the movements as "embryonic" rather than "literal"; if we look at the biomechanics inherent in each movement, understanding how and why one might choose to coordinate one's feet, hips and arms and the natural limitations on these imposed by one's tactics (eg. whether one is "entering", "backing away", "standing one's ground" etc.).

If we want to explore the permutations of a kata like heian shodan, nothing stops us from making up extra sequences - for occasional practice or even as part of a syllabus.

My own experiments in this regard started with this simple question: how would heian shodan look if it featured a retreating evasion rather than entry? It was this question (spurred by specific bunkai taught to me by my instructors) that led to the development of our "fukyugata ni" in the early 90s. This kata only became a grading requirement in addition to our "fukyugata ichi" (ie. heian shodan) in 1997.

And you'll note that we have not modified the original kata2. It remains as it is. Because it is one thing to add something. If you're wrong in doing so, you've lost nothing. But if you modify an original kata you run the risk of information loss. Understanding the role of kata as repositories of "stem cell movements" is the first step in protecting arts like karate from such information loss.

[Next time: Part 3 - why the punch is executed with a step-through.]


1. Quite apart from telegraphing and time wasting, it should be apparent from this discussion why I am so opposed to inserting extra hip twists into kata movements:

The hips can and should move to assist a given technique from wherever they happen to be, without extra movement. Whether the hips move into an attack (jun kaiten) or away from an attack (gyaku kaiten) might not be apparent from the kata move (which might be "neutral" - eg. in kata such as seisan where punches etc. are launched from a stationary posture). But to insert both jun and gyaku kaiten into each move is to "hedge your bets" without bothering to analyse which is actually logistically possible. Instead of uncovering these layers of subtlety, the "double hip" just smothers everything in an unholy gyrating mess!

2. We teach our version of "heian shodan" exactly as it was taught to us, however it was modified slightly by my instructors (hence they chose a different name - "fukyugata ichi"). These modifications include the introduction of sanchin dachi in the step through counters (from Nagamine's fukyugata ichi) along with neko ashi dachi and hiki/kake uke instead of kokutsu dachi and shuto uchi at the end. But these modifications don't impact on my present discussion - nor any other "stem cell movement" issues. And I am also quite happy with the reasons for these changes anyway!

Copyright © 2013 Dejan Djurdjevic