Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Kihon: basic or fundamental?

In stereotypical Japanese karate, the three pillars of karate education are said to be kihon, kata and kumite.   Okinawan karate has a different emphasis, with greater regard being given to things such as hojo undo and analysis of kata technique/principles.  Still, common to all is the practice of isolated techniques such as punches, blocks and kicks: kihon.

In English, I often see kihon translated as "basics" or basic techniques.  (a disclaimer: I have no ability with the Japanese language.  Just as my Italian is limited to a few musical terms, so my Japanese is limited to the smattering of martial arts terminology that most karateka pick up along the way.  This post is going to be entirely not based in my deep understandings of the Japanese language.)   And indeed that is how I practiced the majority of my karate for several years when I learned shotokan.  A typical training session would spend the major portion of the time stepping forward with oi-tsuki, and back with gyaku-tsuki (or one of the 4 "basic" blocks).  In my first month of training, I estimate I did at least a couple of thousand punches.  In this way, I learned how to kick, block and punch.  While my shotokan training was with a small independent group, my brief experience with the JKA indicated that very little was different in their approach to training.

What is the rationale behind this, and what effect does it have on the mind of the practitioner?  It was explained to me that we focused so much on the basics:
  • in order to perform the practised techniques without conscious thought
  • to produce the "perfect" technique
  • because the concept of ikken hisatsu (one strike, one kill) was to be found in the perfect technique, and that training in this manner would develop the appropriate skill and mindset (I suppose, because we would do each technique as an isolated instance that was training the one hit side of things?)

For the most part, kihon training was done, because that's what you did.  It was an end in itself.

In my current goju training we perform kihon as well, although for a much reduced portion of training time.  Similarly we perform many of the techniques in isolation and mostly into the air (although we do sometimes use pads/hands as impact targets).  There are a few differences though in how I do kihon in my new dojo compared to how I originally did it:
  • more techniques are practiced
  • the aim is to develop the techniques so that students understand how to do them.  Then, they apply them in paired work/kata/flow drills.  The technique is not the end in itself
  • The kihon techniques are themselves being used to teach and reinforce certain core principles of movement.  Shifting, body alignment, hip use etc... are the (deliberate) foci

If you were to take a snapshot of kihon training at the two dojo, they would look pretty much the same.  The difference, for me, is in the way in which kihon is being viewed.  In one, kihon means basic, as in simple or not complex.  In the other, it means basic, as in fundamental, underpinning everything.  I know which I prefer, and I definitely know which improves me more.

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