Relaxation – an emphasis lost!
By Jonathan de’ Claire BSc(Hons) PGCE
When we first begin learning Karate, generally youth is on our side. The raw power and passion of youth further develops into adulthood and this can be extended into our thirties and even forties if we keep on pushing ourselves. We can spend hours pounding the makiwara, putting every sinew of our body and every ounce of strength into each battering thrust. Then as our bodies change with the onset of the inevitable ageing process, so must our approach to Karate training. As the speed and strength we have relied on for so long begins to fail, we look elsewhere for inspiration.
It is about this stage of their career, that some begin to discover the power of relaxation. The physical power is waning, so some actually try to relax for the first time, emphasising a different focus in the search for a different way. To their surprise, their techniques actually start to improve. No longer forcing techniques, they seem to have less raw power but the feeling and the result is actually better than when they were at their so called peak! Then, they read an interview in which a high profile Japanese Sensei advocates this type of approach as age advances. The Sensei even suggests the use of Tai Chi or another softer art to compliment Karate practice. Inspired by this they look back at other interviews and notice this same underlying advice from all of them!
Relax as you get older, you have to change, strength is for the young. They continue to change, it feels good.
With less effort they seem to be producing better and better results. The shoulders are relaxed, the breathing is normal, the power is flowing into the target. They wonder, what if I had practiced like this when I was young? What would my practice be like now? Would it be better?
Now is it only me, or does it strike you that something is screaming at us here? It’s so obvious! Still don’t know what I am getting at here? Well let me explain. If older is paired with softer and relaxation is interlinked with more power by so many senior Sensei’s on such a regular basis, then surely this must a positive link! If so, then why wait until your age enforces this type of approach? Why wait until you have already wasted many years of practice before you research, the obvious benefits of a more relaxed perspective of Karate and the techniques within it? Why aren’t students learning how to be relaxed from day one of their training?
It is all very well to say that we need to go through the power training in our younger days to truly understand the need for change and appreciate relaxation. But some people don’t change. They keep smashing away in the hope that, one day, doing the same thing will, miraculously, improve their technical ability if they repeat it enough times! Even if you wanted to change, it is even more difficult to alter something that has been ingrained through years of learnt tension. Years and years can be wasted and that ultimate goal seems even further away. We learn everything, the novice karate-ka does not come in the door screaming and shouting as he or she tries to put every ounce of their strength into each technique as they try to impress. This is taught or imitated from seniors. As a novice, they are in the best position of their lives to get the benefits of relaxation. The female of the species especially, seem to be fluid and soft before instructors change their perspective of how karate should look! I use the word look, because how karate looks is probably one of the major villains in the piece. Everything is done to look outwardly powerful and impressive. So much wasted
energy is used just for appearance sake. Yet, the best technique, is usually the one that you feel minimal effort has been utilised and yet the results are better. How can this be? So you go back to smashing and screaming, tensing and contracting, that is how you have always done it, that is how they all do it, how can it be wrong?
There was a time however, in the middle of the last century, when the subject of softness and relaxation was very high on the agenda of what were the probably the most innovative and forward thinking group of Shotokan Karate-ka ever assembled under one roof. This group searched for the truth with few of the constraints of yesterday’s men. The Shotokan dojo, after the nights usual practice had finished, was the scene of much physical questioning. Open minded research and the sharing of ideas was the order of the day. Improvement was the emphasis regardless of what had gone before. Change would surely come!
Spain 2002 in the Basque stronghold of Bilboa. A group of Shotokan students have gathered at an open course. These karate-ka’s are searching. Their search is for something different in the way they practice. They are searching for an emphasis to their practice that is far removed from today’s competition dominated thinking.
At the end of the course, an instructor asks a question. Whilst gesturing in the form of an oi-zuki technique, he says “Sensei I have been training for over 30 years, but today you have made me realize that to generate real power, I must physically relax and let my energy flow into my opponent. Could you help me achieve this with an exercise that would help me develop this?” The Sensei answers “Well….. for you, it is not so much a question of an exercise that can help. It is more a matter of you using the correct body condition necessary, to enable you to achieve your goal”.