By Richard Amos
Shotokan Karate Magazine Issue #79
Firstly, I would like to issue a disclaimer. I am rarely impressed by technical articles and in general disagree with the medium, preferring physical demonstrations rather than hypothetical discourse. However, recently while reading the written word of others I have found myself going over many passages which make little sense to me either because I’ve been unable to decipher their message or because they’ve spiraled off into arguments that raise more questions than they answer. It is for this reason that I’m keeping the subject matter of this text simply on the essential and irrevocable elements of front stance. Nonetheless, I ask for your patience if you find it impossible to follow words that supposedly represent actions.
I’d like to begin by defining the rules of zenkutsu-dachi. It is the stance we learn in the first class and yet it can hold us back from improving and refining our karate unless we understand it properly and are aware of its essentials and its limitations. I recall Terry O’Neil in a class 20 something years ago, saying that it didn’t matter how high you kicked (and we all of course particularly wanted to do Terry’s magnificent high kicks) as long as technically the movement was correct. This approach can’t be over-emphasized when talking about stances.
The dimensions of a front stance are determined by the flexibility of the person doing it. This is fundamentally obvious and yet many, many people train in deep long stances because they aspire to an aesthetic (to them) ideal although they may not have the flexibility required for such a stance. There is perhaps only a single advantage to training this way, namely: that the thigh muscles have to work very hard and will become stronger as a result. But the price we pay is that the architecture of the stance is out of whack affecting efficiency of motion. Also, the knees come under tremendous strain perpetuating the ignorant myth that Shotokan karate is bad for them.
If we adhere to the following fundamental rules and have the knees always point in the direction of the toes, the knee joints will remain healthy as they’ll be doing no more than what they were designed to do, i.e., bend back and forth without any lateral strain. The front knee should not, therefore, be pushed outward – a plumb line from the knee should drop to a point just inside the big toe’s foremost discernible joint (actually, the middle phalange joint if you want to get technical).
This plumb line from the knee will vary from stance to stance according to the percentage of weight born by the leg in question, for example: front stance bearing approximately 60% of the weight on the front leg will have the plumb line as above; kiba-dachi with both legs bearing 50% will have the line slightly more to the interior; kokutsu-dachi having the back leg bearing fully 70% or more will have a plumb line in front of, but directly bisecting the centre of the foot, etc.
So, how big is zenkutsu-dachi?
As I say, it depends. To find the position of the feet (and therefore the stance dimensions) one must first have the hips fully rotated into shomen (i.e., square to the front), with both inner thighs braced and the backside tucked under the spine. From here if you reposition both feet until they are firmly and entirely in contact with the ground, you should find that naturally your feet are at least shoulder width apart. To call it front stance and be able to drive power forward, the length should be between 1½ and 2 times this width (with the probability of it being closer to the former). The deciding factor here is the flexibility of the ankle of the rear leg. Do not allow the rear foot to point out at much more than the usual angle used for walking – between approximately 15 & 45 degrees.
Asai sensei often said that karate is easy and should be natural. He meant easy in the sense of not making anything harder than it is in the normal course of training and natural in the sense that no movements should go against the natural and potential function of the limbs. Bear this mind when positioning the rear foot. Its angle is a giveaway. Turned out too far and we have assumed the comical gait of Charlie Chaplin -- hardly conducive to efficiency of motion, the health of the knees or aesthetics for that matter. Note Oscar Wilde’s comment when he said that something purely functional is always beautiful. A stance which has depth and length as its criteria does not qualify.
To use a cliché, form should follow function. The function of the rear foot is to drive when shifting forward or to anchor (when coiling back) at the finish of any technique. Having it stick outwards will lessen its efficiency in either case. Having it point straight to the front is just as bad (like walking pigeon-toed) and will severely restrict hip mobility.
When finishing a step or shift forward, the moving front foot is essentially a brake so - along with a tightening of the inner thighs (thus keeping the legs attached to the pelvis) - the front foot must not point out: a front foot pointing out would indicate a “reaching” of the front leg when it should be driven into place by forward momentum and then stopped from going too far by “braking” the extremities, i.e. the foot and toes. If positioned properly the front foot should point slightly in and be perfectly parallel with the rear foot.
It is often quoted that the outside edge of the front foot should point straight ahead, this is so at the very least and may need to point in slightly more (a la Yahara) as it acts as a balancing counter-effect, equalizing and opposing the force of the forward thrust (or possible hip rotation from hanmi to shomen) of the movement.
We should forge a feeling that the big toes on both legs are connected right up the inside of the legs to the groin.
The third and equally important prime factor (after getting the angles of the front and rear feet) is the tucking of the hips under the spine. The buttocks will automatically become firm and the inner thighs will engage in order to attach the torso with stability on the legs. It should also be noted that these are the largest muscles in the human body and have tremendous bearing on stability and posture.
Using these points as references and disregarding anything to do with inches, feet (or centimeters) you should now be in zenkutsu-dachi. If it feels a little small - tough - be willing to cast aside the ego. This is the base from where we can develop our karate. It is from here that you’ll be able to not only lock the loins for a solid focal moment when performing oi-zuki or gyaku-zuki (AND effectively create the spring that hanmi represents) but also allow the possibility of forging correctly the strength and flexibility of the ankles and legs.
Without being willing to strictly adhere to principles such as these, this most fundamental aspect of your karate will not get better. Disregarding them in favour of a longer stance might make your thigh muscles stronger but this development is finite and may lead to injury.
The three main positions established (front foot, back foot and hip/buttock position) we now have the essence of front stance as it should be during strict and fundamental kihon.
It is important during the initial stages of learning karate, however, that strict (and sometimes restrictive) concepts are not drilled to the point where we can’t see beyond them and our kumite becomes stiff and ideas such as raising the back heel as a logical necessity are spoken about with horror. I believe that very early on the beginner should be informed that many of the basics that he or she is learning represent ideal perfection, which is something that does not I’m afraid occur in nature.
In nature (or reality/or kumite/or actual fighting) our opponent is rarely in the right place, with the right technique, responding in the right way. They are constantly moving and surprising us. Therefore, we need to be adjustable. We need movements that can ebb and flow as the opponent inches just in and then just out of reach. In other words we need to compromise. We cannot have perfection. We can and must aim for it (the objective of kata and kihon) but we cannot have it.
Although the above explanation may appear at first to be rigidly defined, if we maintain and adhere to these three essential principles and have them as the criteria by which we gauge what zenkutsu-dachi is, we may freely compromise pretty much everything else except the posture.