relative position preparation

or: the proactive nature of kata movement

after a reasonable time teaching karate, the frequency with which certain questions or issues arise can be a useful barometer of your teaching, and can highlight assumptions you have made, gaps in your explanations, and flaws in your demonstrations. less frequently, but perhaps more interesting, is where students' questions can highlight gaps in what you yourself were taught, or show the things you picked up without explicit instruction during your training. discussion of one such point follows; i'm not aware of it being identified as a principle in its own right, hence i have taken the liberty of giving it the name relative position preparation. it will, of course, be already familiar to some, and obvious or trivial to others, but where i have been repeatedly asked questions relating to hand/arm position in kata, i felt it was worth expanding on explicitly here. if this idea is unfamiliar to you, it is my hope that once you understand the idea, you will begin to see its application (figuratively) everywhere.

sensei, in this move, where do the hands come from?

good question, i'm glad you asked! chances are, you're asking because the answer isn't simple, so let me offer two ways of thinking about it:

1. your technique should be as powerful as possible. the bigger the preparation, the greater the movement, the better.
2. your technique should be as fast as possible. waste no time getting from the initial posture to the completion of the technique.


the question naturally becomes how to reconcile these two ideas, on the surface opposed to each other. of course this idea of 'as much as possible' is a little simplistic, and there is a balance to be struck here, but the key is to understand that these two ideas are not opposed to each other if they are connected and viewed in the right way. the difficulty is that often, a desire to make a large preparatory movement is twinned with an allowance of the legs to move slowly, and this can lead to an unsatisfactory technique and questions as to what, exactly, one is supposed to be doing. unravelling this unfortunate symbiosis of big preparation and slow legs leads to a general principle that will apply across all kata, and reconnects technique to the core and the context of true utility.

it is a general feature of kata that movements are forwards; that is to say, most often you travel in the direction you are facing, and if you change direction then you also change the way you are facing to match. the first clear 'retreat' movement in your karate kata career is the fourth shuto-uke in bassai dai. bassai dai! that's two years you've spent exclusively moving into opponents. this apparent contradiction with the (natural) idea that defensive movements tend to lend themselves to a retreating action leads to the conclusion that kata must be extremely proactive in nature. indeed, from day one with kihon kata (taikyoku shodan) you are performing blocks with a fumi komi full step forward, into the opponents space, and this pattern persists through all advanced kata. the simple interpretation of blocks as entirely defensive can seem a little misplaced, since the kata themselves are not defensive/retreating in nature, and the use of 'blocks' as strikes can often make more sense in the context of the application (and the embusen). the emphasis of the kata, as the emphasis of karate, is direct and overwhelming.

an instructive example of such a move that can often cause confusion is the double-handed morote uke, often translated as augmented block, found repeated in the second half of heian yondan. the translation as augmented block, while not actually a misnomer ('double hand receive' might be closer), could be considered misleading, and often moves involving both hands lose their interpretation. but that is for another article. illustrated here below is the principle of relative position preparation applied to this move; further examples then follow.

the principle of relative position preparation

it may be considered a general principle that if you are moving towards an opponent, your hands should not be moving away from them. hopefully the logic of this is obvious, but in the figure below note how the movement forwards of the body is matched by a movement of the hands in the opposite direction. here, the preparation of the hands is demonstrably large, which might be an occasion for praise, except that the matching of this preparation with the forward motion is to present yourself to your opponent, within their striking range, without performing either a strike of your own or a suitable cover/block.


body moves forward to the opponent, hands are withdrawn

now consider the alternative: as the body moves forward, the hands remain stationary relative to the dojo, and it is the body moving forwards that brings the hands to the side, as the preparation for the move:


body moves forward to the opponent, hands are held stationary

now we see that the preparation is caused by a change in the relative position of the hands to the body, but not an absolute change in position of the hands. as you move, it appears that the hands retreat towards you, but rather it is you who are moving towards them.

note how it is the speed of the legs, the stepping, that determines which regime you are in: with slow legs the hands are withdrawn to the body, away from the opponent, because the arms are faster than the legs. if the arms and legs are moving at the same speed, the hands remain stationary as the body meets them. and in the end, where the legs are moving the body faster, the arms are moving towards the opponent even though they are being drawn in to the body:


body moves forward to the opponent, hands are advancing as they are drawn in

in all of these cases, the hands perform the same general movement. the difference is the transfer of the responsibility for the technique away from the hands and to the body, and the speed of the step reconnects the arms to their purpose. rather than a swinging double-handed block from the arms alone, the technique uses core projection through the leading arm to create an open target for a close-range ura-tsuki. in application, breaking contact to swing back in again with the arms makes less sense that flowing forward while maintaining contact/control with the opponent. (this is an important principle for moves that superficially appear to be double-handed blocks.)

further examples of relative positioning preparation in heian kata

morote uke in heian nidan

spinning tetsui in heian sandan

opening move in bassai dai

where the movement in the kata is decisive, such as the opening move in bassai dai, the difference between slow and fast feet is crucial to making the technique applicable. compare the two versions below, measured against the starting positions:

the principle of relative position preparation in not in conflict with the pattern of the kata as you first learn it, but is a potentially useful change of emphasis or intent that avoids the situation where you move into your opponents range without either offensive or defensive arms preceding you. there are plenty of interpretations of moves where the arms drawing back is a legitimate application, trapping or unbalancing, but these are generally performed while maintaining a strong stance and not on the move.

particularly in kata that one learns as a novice grade, there can be a tendency to consider the kata as being 'known', in as much as the sequence of moves is second nature, but often there are advanced concepts, only internalised at senior level after much training, that can be fed back into those kata to improve them. the idea of relative position preparation is an invitation - and only if it is useful to you - to re-examine the relationship and the connection of the core to the limbs during movement, as an additional depth on top of the basic movement.

- neil jerome, 2015



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