INJECTING LIFE INTO ZENKUTSU
By Richard Amos
Shotokan Karate Magazine Issue #80
The focus in a recent article was purely on the key body positions of zenkutsu-dachi, this article is more detailed and I ask you to read it accepting the errors inherent in interpretation. Relevant to the following arguments discussed below, the previous topic included the three principle points of: front foot angle; rear foot angle and hip/pelvis positioning.
Zenkutsu-dachi gets a bit more involved from here once we start actually moving.
I find that there’s commonly an element of surprise among traditionalists when the question is raised of allowing the back heel to lift during zenkutsu-dachi’s various expressions. I’m not sure what this surprise is based on. Keeping the heels down at all costs amounts to being flat-footed: a comment rarely of a complimentary nature. Whether boxing, fencing or doing jiyu-kumite, the heels of both feet should hover off the ground, imperceptibly touching and yet floating in a constant state of flux. Ever tried running flat-footed? It ought to be obvious that the back heel will invariably come up when doing any movement freely and naturally. Any aspiration of achieving the grace, fluidity or the ease and composure of the highly skillful will be severely curtailed otherwise. In elementary kihon practice, however, we are taught to not raise the heel at all and to keep the moving foot horizontal to the floor while skimming its surface. This is not necessarily incorrect when practicing the basics but we must be reminded that kihon is training technique to the nth degree but doesn’t essentially end there.
When we keep our moving foot parallel to the floor as we move it for a full step forward, what we are actually doing is training the front leg to draw the rear leg up developing the role of the front leg, which is not obvious to beginners. What they want to do is all the moving by the moving leg – not realizing that it is principally being moved by the squeezing/driving leg that remains on the ground: the moving leg in essence cannot move itself. If it tries, you will not go forward but probably fall back in the space left by the leg that is no longer there. In front stance when moving forward the front leg initiates the actual advance of the body’s weight. If you stand in front stance and bend your front knee forward an inch, your body will also in complete harmony move forward the same inch. This is 100% efficiency and the singular immediacy of this motion cannot be surpassed. After drilling this for a few years and acknowledging the importance of the pulling/driving/anchored front leg we can then allow ourselves to push off the floor with the rear leg also, which will result in the fullest possible power forward and….well, the heel rising.
I find that instead of accepting through experience that there is a sequence of importance to each body part when executing any particular movement, we tend to blindly follow that which we are first taught. This is human nature and it takes a great deal of diligence to correct or change anything once the unconscious has absorbed it. This can be illustrated when a raw beginner takes their first steps down the dojo floor in zenkutsu-dachi.
He or she aims for a long stance such as the instructor might have and immediately lurches forward: consequently the back heel often rises. They are repeatedly told to keep the heel down and the body becomes deeply programmed on the spot to adhere to what is actually the first thing that should be sacrificed later when more freedom is appropriate.
After drilling this for a few years and acknowledging the importance of the pulling/driving/anchored front leg we can then begin to push off the floor with the rear leg also which will result in the fullest possible power forward and, well, the heel rising a bit.
Why is it the first thing? The sequence of importance referred to above. The heel is pretty far down the list in terms of this sequential importance. It is my experience that each body part be influenced by the body part that is closer to the centre (the very centre being the spine and/or the area of the tanden) and certainly not the other way around. In other words the feet do not influence the position of the knees or the inner thighs and the legs in general should not dominate what happens to the posture/ hip position. The hand does not make the elbow move, the elbow does not take precedence over the shoulder/armpit and the shoulders do not try to correct the posture; that is done by the position of the hips and the alignment of the spine.
If we are flying in on the attack and must reach our opponent at long range the hips must be in the optimum position to allow for: a) efficiency of motion; b) balance; c) power and d) the ability to swiftly transition to another technique. If that means that the back leg is bent to afford the pelvis to be tucked in place then that's what should happen. If it does happen the heel will undoubtedly lift up. However, from force of habit, lots of people will drag the back heel along in this movement intent on keeping it down. In doing so they will cause the toes to stick out and the loins to open, putting a strain on the knee and losing the connexion of the limbs to the centre. They’ll most likely also receive a tasty burn from the removal of the skin on the side (or even the top) of the big joint of the big toe.
The whole stress of the back leg being straight (locked is a common term) is also heavily over emphasized. Legs (and arms for that matter) should never be held straight. We do it with tsuki in kata and kihon to experience the fullest extent of the movement but once impact has been made if the limb remains straight it is basically useless. Walk with straight legs and remember that the word "stiff" is commonly used to describe something dead or, at best, injured. Karate is and should be very much alive. Living things are constantly evolving, changing, moving, adapting but they are not chaotic. Allowing the upper torso to lean forward in order that the heel may stay down or the reach be longer or the blow feel heavier will disallow a myriad of options and stop us from remaining close to the constancy of equilibrium that (not to be too melodramatic) our lives might depend on.
And so on to the hips and the roles of hanmi and shomen.
The uses of hanmi are three-fold.
Even with these benefits in mind the position of hanmi appears to be lost on many. It’s often referred to as having the hips at 45 degrees - a number which seems arbitrary to me. This sort of convenient phrase results in many practitioners turning the hips roughly into a position instead of feeling the effect and gauging its efficacy. We must have the hips coil back as far as possible while the thigh and foot of the rear leg remain pointing forward at the same angle they would be in shomen. This creates the torsion that we should be seeking in order that the return off hanmi feels much like the release of an arrow from a bow or (more correctly) a Jack shooting out of a Box. It should be impossible to relax from hanmi and not have anything happen.
It is crucial that the rear leg flex during this movement – very often some of us go through great stresses to avoid compressing (dare I say bending?) the rear leg and all that happens is that we either stick our backsides out to the rear (losing one of the three principle positions) or raise the hip joint that should be squeezing back and down (I say down as this is the feeling necessary to counter a tilt upwards) towards the heel. The knee must not bend outward but must stay pointing in the direction of the toes which should not drift outward either.
In continuous drilling of techniques on the spot in zenkutsu-dachi when twisting the hips we must absolutely understand and remain diligent about what can and cannot move. The possibility of creating a spring will be greatly diminished if any of the anchor-points shift about. Apart from the role of the rear leg, it should be clear that the front knee does not move at all and the hip joint (to which the front leg is attached) is a pivotal hinge.
The uses of shomen, on the other hand, are not so decisively manifold. From zenkutsu-dachi, moving forward whilst maintaining shomen does not make much sense to the beginner. The natural tendency is to twist to the side during oi-zuki and the benefit of shomen can often only be appreciated on completion of gyaku-zuki for example. We must not forget however that kihon and kata practice are ostensibly to train the body to do well what is not initially natural. It seems counter-intuitive for the beginner to step forward for oi-zuki and not twist to the side.
The reason for this is not because it is natural to reach with the moving leg (walking does not involve reaching – we propel ourselves) but because it’s simply odd stepping with both our left leg and left hand. This un-naturalness causes the body to become confused allowing the punching arm to play a far greater role than it ought, letting it dominate the whole movement. What doing oi-zuki in shomen does is redress the balance by forcing the arm to be subordinate to the correct drive of the legs. This takes a great deal of time to grasp (if ever) but is really important if we are able to do ‘proper’ kumite in the dojo, by which I mean to do kumite using combinations that flow from defense and attack and back again without degenerating into a swinging scrap.
In maintaining either complete hanmi or shomen there is a large amount of effort involved. Because of this neither one should be considered to last for more than mere moments. On the contrary, our karate should evolve to be (and appear to be) effortless. The body should swiftly return to somewhere in between and a "natural" kamae must be the preferred feeling of semi-permanence punctuated by the necessity of defensive and attacking techniques. Shomen and hanmi are interim positions before resuming the equilibrium that allows us to begin any one of a vast array of techniques. This equilibrium is the embodiment of kamae.