I decided some time ago to put the squat on top of my personal warm-up and teaching routine. Although never intended, it has had a deep impact on my understanding of kata (jap. for form) as well. Why is that?
Because the standard squat (which means to “sit” down and let the center of gravity — located in the pelvic-pubic area — pull you down by letting the affiliated muscles relax, thus dropping the body and making it “heavier”) roots the body into the ground. This concept helps generating power by employing gravity in your Karate movements. It also employs the hip joints in moving, thus releasing the knees from becoming the fulcrum in lowering the hips. At last, the gluteal muscles are put in place, working as they are supposed to.
At the same time, by erecting the spine through raising the ribcage and the sternum from a drawn in lower belly (tanden), one establishes the flexible connection between the upper and the lower body through the obliques, which is essential for transferring power from the “heavy” pelvic base to the “lighter” pectoral girdle. And which most modern practitioners lack since tournament Karate doesn’t need this particular connection. Remember: Tournament and belt-exam kumite (sparring) only reenact violence, merely reducing it to a symbolic gesture to be judged like a performance. I do not say Karate athletes would not punch hard. I say most of them move in a disconnected way. Some might disagree, but then why do they do push-ups to improve their tsuki-waza (punching techniques)?
But how to squat? Well, if you are in pain during squatting, if there is no chance of squatting without raising the heels or aligning knees and feet, then do not squat in the first place. It is that simple. Like every movement or technique, squatting needs to be assessed over some period for individual conditions and limits. A way of assessing your personal way of squatting is shown by Dr. Ryan DeBell from “The Movement Fix”:
Quick Hip Assessment for Squatting:
Squatting and Midfoot Rotation:
So, how does one apply the markers of a functional squat on Karate techniques? Since the positioning of the feet is essential for Karate footwork — mostly known as „stances“ (in jap. tachigata) — we may apply the same parameters valid for the squatting position to our Karate stances: the angle of your feet and the degree of opening your hips to the front etc. As an example I picked the kokutsu-dachi (back stance) as it is done at the beginning of the second through the last Heiangata (the basic kata usually taught in many schools of Karate).
But to understand the value of a stance and how to apply the assessing of movement we must dig deeper in what a stance in Karate means. Stances are not the fixed and rigid positions we must force our bodies into. Most Karate practitioners experience pain in their knees, some in their backs, during their career. And that is a definite clue of stressing the wrong points in „building“ a „stance“.
According to Yokoyama Kazumasa there are just two types of stances: naihanchi and shiko dachi. While naihanchi dachi is characterized by parallel feet with a slight inward rotation of the calves, shiko dachi has the feet pointing outward and outwardly rotated calves. So, naihanchi contains — functioning as a category — the other stances with similar features: heisoku, heiko, kiba, hangetsu and sanchin dachi. While shiko is found in musubi, hachiji, zenkutsu, kokutsu and sochin (or fudo) dachi (Yokoyama 2016: 58 f.). According to the Motoburyu Blog, there is evidence that Naihanchi — as a kata — was first practiced with the feet pointing outward (shiko) and later with the feet inward (naihanchi), with the latter originating in Itosu’s influence from Naha-Te (a predecessor of today’s Karate) and the therein predominant Sanchin kata (ib.).
These two details are extremely valuable regarding the assessment of Karate stances. For one, we can reduce all the stances to two categories with each showing distinct features of moving and positioning, that is teaching „principles“ of stances. For another, it is possible to switch to either principle according to what the assessment of your squat reveals. Coming back to our example of the kokutsu-dachi: There is no sense in doing this with the feet inward, but it has produced some form of „implicit wisdom“ to keep up a JKA-style kokutsu-dachi (with a rather turned-inward rear leg) while a shiko-dachi works better for the rear leg and knee by rotating the calves outward.
To illustrate this, please watch John Cheang Fook’s kata „Heian Godan„:
What we see here resembles a kokutsu-dachi with the center of gravity closer to the middle than to the rear. The feet are in the usual 90 degree angle, but the direction of the feet seems randomly. Furthermore he is doing shiko where the JKA standard teaches naihanchi (in the kiba dachi positions where Mr. Fook is definetely using shiko dachi). Asking Mr. Fook about this matter, he answered that he was doing the stances as he felt which way was more natural to him. So he is individually assessed. And with good results.
As a consequence, we should accept the fact that there are Karate practitioners positioning the feet in either naihanchi or shiko according to their liking and their bodies. History has it that this is OK, since individual changes had always been made before. Assessing the position of the feet, knees and hips, with rotating the calves more or less to find your individual squatting position and applying this to your Karate stances is therefore not only an option but it is essential for Karate as an art of movement.
Motoburyu no burogu (2016): Transition of Naihanchi (translated by Ulf Karlsson), https://ameblo.jp/motoburyu/entry-12165656023.html, 05/30/2016.
Yokoyama Kazumasa (2016): Principles of Karate — Revealing the fundamental concepts of nature used in Karate. Wadokai Netherland.