a note on turning

or: the essence of kata

the level of detail that is pursued throughout shotokan karate training can be bewildering at times. training within a certain organisation can - perhaps unintentionally, and certainly mistakenly - lead one into blindly believing in a single 'true' version of a move, that there is 'correct' karate (that you practice, naturally) and then there are those who have lost their way. exhibit 'a' in support of this would be, well, pretty much any discussion of martial arts on the internet, ever. this sort of thinking happens, it's out there, and it really is as ridiculous as it sounds.

if you have been privileged enough to train with a variety of different instructors, perhaps even in different styles or arts, then you will have no doubt that there are as many different styles and interpretations as there are exponents of martial arts. some individuals take this to the extreme, leaving established associations to develop their own distinct style of karate, but these organisations are usually hampered by their dependence on one person in the end. within a broad style 'label', such as shotokan karate, it is easy to see a very wide variety in style between exponents who are equally effective (contrast perhaps asai sensei with yahara sensei as a striking example). at an advanced level, style and interpretation are layered onto the basic forms of prescribed techniques in order to best suit the individual.

even more than this, the application of karate by definition involves a response to an opponent, and so rigidly prescribed techniques must give way to situation-specific adaptation and a certain amount of initiative. it is necessary to understand not only the 'perfect' technique when practising in the dojo without a partner, but also the scope of how the same principle and intention of the technique can be adapted, corrupted, and stretched while still being useful. the variety seen within the same kata across different karate styles and associations is one useful indicator of 'scope', since the movements are different while each is considered correct. without this second aspect of understanding, technique becomes for display only, and not application. the iconic gyaku tsuki is a devastating technique for the power that can be generated through the hip rotation, but the simplicity and speed of the punch can still be used to good effect even without, if the situation demands it. an abiding memory of competition karate i have is jamie donaldson, fighting for the manchester team, who managed to score a gyaku tsuki on his opponent in the middle of being swept. with both legs up in the air, and falling to the mat, he saw the opportunity open up and scored a superbly controlled jodan punch before hitting the ground. the referees, to their credit, correctly recognised the quality of the technique and awarded the point. in retrospect, it is likely that the punch was governed mainly by reflex to an available target than a conscious thought process, but this is a valuable point in itself: rather than being concerned by being thrown, retaining a focus on the opponent and a calmness in the clinch allowed the recognition of an opportunity, whereby a conditioned reflex could be executed to great effect.

understanding scope as distinct to compromise

in a real life situation, or for sport or otherwise, the requirement to adjust will always be present. the ability to make adjustments to techniques smoothly and automatically is an outcome of continued training, where you gain a feeling for what might be too close, too far away, too difficult, and so forth. a technique that is modified to fit the dynamics of an attack, perhaps by making a short stance or incomplete preparation, should not be viewed as inferior, provided that the technique is maximally suited to the situation. this is part of the scope of the technique. if the technique could have been applied better, but wasn't, then this is a compromised technique and must be worked on. the aim, when training such exercises with partners, is to as much as possible work towards the 'perfect' technique, and this will drive you to move faster, earlier, to a better position, generate a powerful stance, successfully find the correct target, and so forth. there is a difference between finding yourself in an awkward position for the counterattack and making the best of it, because there was nothing else to be done, and being resigned to poor technique always leaving you in the wrong place.

kata: the battle against zero opposition

since kata is performed without opponents (and bunkai is most often considered a separate thing), the need to be responsive and instinctively adjust technique is removed, and we are free to pursue the 'correct' form of a maximally effective technique. this requires some consideration of what each technique actually is, of course, but there is no obstacle to performing a 'perfect' technique that precisely matches our intention.

in such cases where movements are blunt and their primary purpose is apparent, there is a continual striving for improvement but very little actual confusion. one area where there can be genuine confusion as to what a move should look like, and by inference what a movement is considered to be doing, is the act of turning in kata. specifically, slow turns in kata.

turning in kata is actually a complicated subject. why do we consistently turn left in kata, more often than not completing a full net turn left from start to finish (and sometimes more?). why does it sometimes feel like we are turning into an oncoming technique/opponent? and, the subject of this article, what exactly is the correct line for turning?

there are many ways to interpret turning in kata. from a practical/historical sense, if you have a limited training area then you should really aim to stay within it, and so not doing a large number of pre-determined moves in the same direction kind of makes sense. turning is practical in this sense, but has no meaning for karate. that is not to say that the turns we do have in karate were not designed to have a useful purpose, just because they were necessary in a pragmatic sense. turning is incredibly important, and is very much a feature of kata rather than a bug. thus we have the idea of turning as facing an opponent, escaping from an opponent, closing range on an opponent, changing the angle on an opponent, sweeping an opponent, throwing an opponent, and even (my favourite) rolling around an opponent.

the two most common turning points in kata that cause confusion - perhaps uncertainty is a better word - are the second slow kokutsu-dachi kakewake uke in heian yondan, and the penultimate move in bassai dai where the shuto uke is turned slowly through a right angle. i will discuss these here as specific examples, although the main idea here is applicable much more generally.

the essence of kata

the purpose of turning may be many things, in the same way that most movements in kata can be applied in a number of ways. richard amos sensei describes this neatly, when considering repeated moves in kata that while on paper are ostensibly identical, due to their position, direction, or combination may be thought of as different applications. to elaborate on this idea: where there is a variation of application for a particular move, the move actually performed in the kata must be all of the applications without being a specific one, capturing the uncorrupted essence of the move that is the true principle at work. making a move entirely specific to one application may better hone that one interpretation, but will limit the ability to understand the scope of that same move among the inevitable variations in circumstance that application will bring. in turn, this is an argument for appreciating and examining the variants of moves seen across styles and organisations. the way a kata is prescribed in one association may have a particular application in mind, and thus stylising the kata performance towards that single intention may obscure other uses. for kata, depth of knowledge must include not only the 'correct' movement, but also the variation and scope, the essence, of technique.

the extremes of turning in general correspond to either full engagement or full withdrawal; i refer to these as the outside line and the inside line, respectively. the figure below shows the outside line for the turn (penultimate move) in bassai dai, where the foot is not drawn in at all but follows the circular line from start to finish, as if the entire body is rigidly rotating on the left foot:

outside line turning for penultimate move in bassai dai. even with a strong kokutsu-dachi, this is difficult to achieve. commonly (including here to some degree), the body is turned separately to the foot moving, in either order. note that the KUGB recognises this line as 'correct' for this move, so it is worth investing time into trying to take this line without having to resort to a lean-in-push-off from the front foot.

turning on the inside line, by contrast, is a complete withdrawal away from the start direction, before the turn, and then expanding on the new direction:

corresponding inside line turning. withdrawing the weight towards the stationary foot allows for more control of balance, but leads to a two-stage movement that appears awkward and does not conduct the body weight in a smooth turn. commonly, the turn becomes incremental and 'jagged'.

these two extremes correspond perhaps to specific applications, which in turn implies a certain type of opponent behaviour. it is more useful to consider that, if these are the extremes, they convey the scope of the move rather than the essence, and we are best served in kata by pursuing not a compromise of the two, but an encompassing of the two. to withdraw allows the pushing front foot to direct the body, and to gain control of the weight by bringing it more towards the ground contact of the non-moving foot. conversely, a directness of locus confers a smoothness and purpose. consider the schematic shown in the figure below, and note how a balance of the two extremes gives a smooth curve that contains both directness and increased control.

the extremes of the possibilities for turning lines include a wide sweeping action, and a complete withdrawal, and suggest different applications. a balance of the two neatly combines these features, and is desirable for performance of kata to look controlled and purposeful during slow movements.

in the specific case of bassai dai, the fact that the arms are not withdrawn through the move gives perhaps more credence to the outside line. in heian yondan, however, the movement of the arms can be interpreted at either extreme similar to the foot movement, with either a straight pressing across for the outside line or a withdrawal and opening symmetrically forward for the inside line. here, it is necessary that the arms and feet match each other. the lines for heian yondan are shown in the figures below:

turning in heian yondan, inside line.



turning in heian yondan, middle line.



turning in heian yondan, outside line.



-neil jerome, 2014


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