the intensity of slow moves

or: a smaller glass would be entirely full

the use of slow moves in kata begins with heian sandan, which may be as early as several months into your training. in fact, in all higher kata, slow moves are always present; in some cases, such as nijushiho and wankan, they take a defining role in the story of the kata. in application, slow moves are obviously not to be performed as in the kata; elmar schmeisser's 'rules' of kata interpretation as outlined in rob redmond's book 'kata: the folk dances of shotokan kata' offers the principle that:

slow movements mean "This is difficult." Pay attention to this technique because it will be very difficult to pull off in the real world.

this idea of slow moves being difficult, and thus requiring care, is familiar from everyday life, where we may carry a loaded tray more slowly, or drive our car slower when attempting to squeeze through a small gap. the simple act of slowing down through an action allows the observation-orientation-decision-action cycle (known as 'the OODA loop') to operate with finer resolution; we have a greater chance to analyse and adjust as we go. in order for this prescribed slowing down to be useful, we must have a clear idea of what the aim of the move is (or the different applications may be). when moving quickly in kata and performing blunt movements like punches, the application of the move (or at least the simplest interpretation) is often self-evident, and the intent of the performer is trivial to discern, but slow moves can suffer in apparent intention from a lack of direct power delivery.

in the opening move of heian yondan, arguably the first place where the performance of slow moves causes difficulty (while there is a slow move in heian sandan, following the kiai this can often be treated/performed as a recovery move, rather than the more useful interpretation of the hip throw o-goshi), it is common to wonder (or worse, to be told) how long the move should last. while perhaps this might be natural for the beginner, at an advanced level this question must be unasked, and a greater insight applied to the performance.

imagine the beginner who is perhaps told by their instructor that the first move of heian yondan should last four seconds (i have heard that this is indeed prescribed by some, though i have never heard this in the KUGB); the beginner, who is still primarily concerned with the sequence of the kata and less with the much more important principle and intention of the kata, might aim to spend precisely this long on the move and the move appears to be empty, merely 'filling time'. at a more advanced level, the intention of the move is directing the timing, and so an application over a shorter time may actually be a much more connected, purposeful technique.

consider this way of representing timing in the context of intent, where intent reflects the quality of the move in terms of direction, commitment, psychological focus, and connection of the mind to the action of the move and the implied application. the move might be represented as a box, the length of which is the timing of the move:


a slow move lasting for a long time, and a short time, represented as empty boxes

if this box can be 'filled' with red, representing intent, then we can see the difference between moves that differ in conviction; a shorter move that is entirely purposeful has no part wasted, and will thus be superior:


the intent of a movement must direct the timing

the answer to the timing then can be seen to be a function of the content of the movement; a soulless movement that is arbitrarily drawn out in order to be 'slow' does not engage either the karateka (useful for karate) or the spectator (useful for competition).

it is my contention that it is preferable to allow the intention of the movement to dictate the timing from day one, and then with developing understanding slow moves may be allowed to be lengthened. a slow timing itself is not the goal, and must not guide training; this way, the karateka is never performing a technique without considering the application of the self.


develop from understanding, rather than attempting to fill an arbitrary criterion unconnected to application

the video below shows two contrasting versions of this opening move from heian yondan; in the first, striving for an exaggerated tension, position, and timing, renders the move almost entirely without context. the second style of movement is shorter overall, but the body is engaged and connected. the move appears less contrived, and has more relevance in the context of how the technique may be applied swiftly.

with this in mind, the performance of slow moves comes back to relevance of kata, and the utility of the techniques contained, even though the performance of kata may be separated from bunkai as it seeks to demonstrate a principle of movement integral to many applications rather than a single (often simplistic) application. the superficial aspects of the movement (timing, positioning) are reconnected to the core of the body, and the core purpose of karate.



pdf of rob redmond's book kata: the folk dances of shotokan

video of o-goshi

kata video page for heian yondan

- neil jerome, 2014



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