In Shotokan, a student learns to use their body to its full potential to deliver a strike. Karate is a fighting art composed primarily of basic punches and kicks, utilizing the legs on all techniques to develop a strong foundation. The style is known for its driving stances, which are important for creating power in a technique. Ideally, the karateka learns to put their entire body mass into a technique, with the purpose of finishing an opponent in a single precision blow. Students learn to initiate techniques from the center of their body, driving the hips into a strike for maximum mass and power.
Power is generated through the use of hip rotation, hip vibration, body contraction, and body expansion. Posture is also extremely important in developing a technique to its maximum potential. The body’s joints must be properly aligned to allow force to transfer from the fist through the shoulder, through the torso and hips, down through the legs and to the floor, and then back to the fist again. If any one of these areas aren’t properly aligned and focused, they will absorb the shock of impact and severly weaken the blow. In Shotokan a student strives to achieve a natural posture and ease of motion so that none of the body’s joints are restricted, allowing for the quickest movements in response to an opponent. Besides technical expertise, a karateka also develops control over his or her breathing. Proper breathing further connects the areas of the body together, and can serve as a mental aid to enhance concentration, focus, and willpower. Executing multiple techniques using a single exhalation helps a student flow from technique to technique more smoothly and quickly as well.
Karate is also well known for the dance-like, flowing motions of kata. Traditionally, kata was the core and essence of karate training. With little in the way of organized instruction, commoners in Okinawa relied on interpreting and practicing kata, which could be taught and passed from person to person. Kata served as study aids, leading by example in possible counters and attacks. While still used in this fashion for training today, many of the intended purposes of these kata have been lost and forgotten. Kata also function as exercise drills, with some kata emphasizing different muscle groups and techniques. Lastly, kata can be quite graceful when used as a performance art, and is a popular tournament event in modern karate. For a more detailed description of kata, check out the Kata Aides section.
There are many myths and misconceptions about karate that get circulated about. People see a karate class in movies, and believe that in karate a student is taught to fight using extremely rigid looking poses that must be used exactly, or else they are inept. Training a person for hand to hand combat can be a tricky thing. Teaching a student specific responses to specific attack can be effective, but it doesn’t yield a very versatile fighting method – it would take years to develop any kind of repertoir that would be useful. In karate, the idea is to teach a student a new way to move his or her body. Think of the stances and techniques of karate as training tools – they teach a student which muscles to contract, which to relax, and how to align his or her joints. A karateka learns to glide from stance to stance effortlessly, and align his or her body precisely to transfer force from an impact point to the floor. Once this muscle control is learned, a person can be physically confident, effective, and practical in any situation – whether self defense, or playing a sport.
After students gain proficiency in basic technique, they begin to learn to apply it in sparring. A karateka learns to read an opponent, and control the distance between them. By controlling the distance, a student learns to fight using good timing, attacking in the open spaces between an opponent’s movements, with the ultimate goal of defeating them in a single blow, directed at one of the body’s weak spots. Everyone fights with a natural rhythm, and an experienced karateka will try to learn that rhythm, and exploit it. If a student can learn to anticipate and read an opponent, he or she can even “counter” attack before the opponent attacks, at the moment that opponent initiates an exchange. For a more in-depth outline of karate sparring, check out the Kumite section.
While the principles of traditional karate are, for the most part, straightforward and simple, it can take many years to train the body do them properly. Learning karate is a constant process of refining one’s body motions. Bad habits must be unlearned, and replaced with more efficient, relaxed motions. Often, when one bad habit is corrected, another pops up. There are many subtleties involved in learning good form, and many small muscle groups that can be difficult to control independently. For training purposes, Shotokan is divided into three areas; Kihon – basics, Kata – forms, and Kumite – sparring.