Karate. What comes to your mind when someone mentions the martial art, karate? Is it a hard, fast, brute force type of martial art? What comes to your mind when you hear the term, Kung Fu? Is it a soft, fluid, Internal Martial Art? Is it the art of Tai Chi or Shaolin Gung Fu, Chi Kung (Qi Gong) or something like that? If you’re like most people, that’s what comes to mind. But, what if I said that Judo, Aikido and even, Karate is an Internal Martial Art?
My first acquaintance with the martial arts was a brief training in karate, but it’s been so long ago that I’ve forgotten what style it was. After that, my training, mostly independent, dealt with styles of Kung Fu, such as Long Fist, Wing Chung and Chin Na. I really liked the soft styles with their fluid motions and emphasis on breathing.
Karate was just hard, combative and had no finesse. Or so I thought. Now that I’ve been practicing traditional Shotokan Karate for a few years, I see where my ignorance found root – the movies and television. On a side note; when I mention to my mother that I’m going to karate class, some of the first words out of her mouth are, “You know you’re too old to be kicking and jumping.” Despite my efforts of trying to explain to her that there’s a lot more to karate training than just kicking and jumping, she only knows karate from television and the movies. And to her, they’re all the same. Sometimes it’s hard to change an eighty-four year old woman’s mind.
Fortunately, I was lucky enough to get a freelance job, redesigning a karate school’s website. And after a couple of years of resisting the suggestions to try a few classes, the Sensei (Chief Instructor) of the school made me an offer that I couldn’t refuse. So, I started class and with my independent/self study of martial arts, I didn’t think I would have too much trouble and would catch on quickly.
Several things happened. I found out that I was not in the physical shape that I thought I was in, that I was not as coordinated as I thought I was (despite playing drums occasionally) and that karate has a lot more intricacies than I thought.
Progressing through the ranks, I found that the more I progress, the more there is to learn. Granted, at first, the focus is on learning basic techniques and forms, there were phrases that were constantly repeated. Phrases such as, “relax your shoulders,” “keep breathing,” “focus and flow with your partner,” were a few that I heard and still hear often. At the time, I thought I was doing them correctly. As you may have already guessed, I wasn’t. I found that somewhere in the middle of performing a technique I started holding my breath or I tensed my shoulders, like I do when I’m sitting in front of a computer. And I definitely wasn’t flowing.
The more that it was pointed out, the more I realized that on a practical level, all of the issues that had kept me from karate and gave me the perception that it was solely a hard martial art faded. I began seeing that the elements that make a martial art internal; focus on and use of ki (chi), relaxation, internal power, fluidity, control of body, mind and spirit, etc. are found in Shotokan Karate.
A lot of times when a person sees a karate demonstration, they generally see the beginning or intermediate stages of the karateka or practitioner’s development in the art. In the early stages, most of the movements look hard, when there’s actually a combination of hard and soft techniques. But, if a person has a chance to see a really advanced practitioner, he or she might see the subtleties and fluidity that is the internal nature of the art. That is to say, the advanced practitioner can perform the same technique as an intermediate and beginning practitioner and the internal X-Factor will be evident. The power will flow from the inside out.
So, understanding that a hard style may be soft and a soft style may be hard is just coming to grips with the eternal balance – the yin and yang of life that is the core of all martial arts. And that includes karate.
Outward perceptions can be deceiving. Look inside.