構えは何ですか: What is Kamae?

Kamae “構え” basically means stance, yet there are several ways to approach kamae.   In Japanese, we have the verb form of Kamae, which is “構える“Kamaeru, which has several meanings as well, which it means; to prepare, to adopt a posture, to be ready and so forth.  Without going too deep into a Japanese lesson, let’s discuss the finer details about Kamae in general.  

Kamae is first a posture or stance, it is made up of specific rations involving the shoulders, elbows, hips, knees and feet, around the spine and our cores.  Whether it is shizen no kamae, ichimonji no kamae or hicho no kamae, there are similarities and specific ratios that are maintained.  From, the knees and elbows when connected in kamae form straight lines to the floor, the shoulders and hips are also lined up, the feet also are lined up in most kamae, but connected to another point that makes up the kamae.  There are some kamae that seemingly break these ratios, most notably is bobi no kame, but it also generally follows the same structural ratio.  I want you to keep in mind, the kamae I am specifically discussing are the way kamae is demonstrated and done by Noguchi Sensei and the late Oguri Sensei there are similarities by other Dai Shihan, but they differ slightly with their approach to kamae.   See my post “On Balance”.

Tengu in variations of ichi and hoko no kamae.

These ratios make up the majority of what makes or breaks a good kamae in my opinion.  In addition to these ratios, you have a control of balance as well as weight distribution.  Generally, you should maintain a kamae without much of a shift in balance, when you raise a single foot of either the front or back leg at any given moment.  Basically, in kamae you should maintain an ability to easily lift either foot.  If you must radically shift your balance to either leg, you have misplaced your balance somewhere it shouldn’t be, and you will not be able to adapt quickly enough to either counter or move into a better spot if a sudden attack comes, or by the third attack you will be “cooked”.

In addition, being able to easily move with minimal shifting of balance, we must look at the general structure of Kamae and purposes.  Kamae is meant to control lines, and both guard and guide attacks and defenses alone these lines.  Look to them as barriers set up to control the flow of water or air.  How would these kamae look in a wind tunnel?  How would water flow around these kamae in a river?  In addition, kamae is also intended to affect both our own mental states as well as the mental states of the opponent or uke.  They are meant to create a type of pressure on the opponent.  Both, easing or putting on pressure or energy in the kamae is important, all the while controlling the flow of that pressure along lines you choose.  At the same time, you can increase your confidence and calm your mind in these kamae.  Now, I am not waxing poetic or philosophical on purpose here, but this imagery might be helpful. 

Tengu in variations of Hicho and Ichimonji no kamae

 

Kamae helps guard and protect vital areas on the body, it also helps hide both movements and intentions.  Free use of kamae, comes from understanding your body and balance fully.  Taking kamae also requires practice and should be thoroughly studied and understood.  Kamae is not necessarily static, but first you need to understand your own structure and balance for techniques to be learned and acquired.  Will your Kamae break or faulter under pressure, will a breeze knock it over?  Yet through proper practice and time you should be able to understand kamae more intimately.  Through the process of Shuhari “守破離” you will arrive at a place where Kamae simply blends into what we call “体術” taijutsu.  Kamae, in addition, to balance is just one of the fundamental principles that is Taijutsu.  

Bo Practice before class at the old hombu dojo.

The Hidden Aspects of Kata Training

The Hidden Aspects of Kata Training:

Most martial arts training is begun using kata as the starting point before moving on to henka. Henka is often seen as the goal, or rather they see the goal as the ability to easily and freely change given the situation. Kata training is the bridge to henka and the ability to freely change in any given situation. However, kata training is often neglected not because it is unimportant, but rather it is not well understood. Most seem to merely use the kata as a general guide for a technique. In addition, the kata is often practiced with the wrong mind-set, which undermines its purpose. To neglect the kata is to miss its hidden importance. To see the hidden we should first explore the easily seen aspects of kata training.

The Seen

On the surface kata training is a practice to help the practitioner to gain insight on how to perform technique. The apparent aspects of all partnered kata are the following: proper distance, timing, posture, position, targets, rhythm and execution of technique. Every kata has a starting distance. The starting distance is primarily based on the target the aite is going for. The starting distance is also affected by the type of attacks the aite is making and the weapons he is using. So, the starting distance of a sword or a bo attack is different than the starting distance of a punch or kick. One’s posture in a kata also dictates the aite’s available targets, it also controls the starting distance. The timing of the kata is also based on the type of attack in relation to one’s position with in it relative to the technique. Rhythm is a product of timing, distancing and positioning of strikes and the targets.

With these basic aspects there are benefits. Kata practice allows the practitioner to grasp the basics of timing and distancing, kamae, positioning and the execution of the technique. This practice helps create muscle memory. With increased muscle memory the movements can become second nature. This also allows for one to appear “softer” with the application of the technique. Proper body dynamics are taught via the execution of the technique along with the movements leading up to it. These benefits are probably nothing new for most people, however the proper practice of kata training is probably unknown.

In every partner based kata, one has a target and a strategy for executing technique. Whether one is an aite or tori one ought to figure out what movement is best, given one’s target and/or technique. This can be clearly understood by a quick analysis of one of the basic techniques. For example, one of the targets an aite has is the throat or the face. He must figure his distance to the target and how to execute the strike. He also must choose how deep he wants the strike to enter the target. Also, the aite must choose where he wants to be next, in case he can’t land the strike. In other words, the aite doesn’t blindly attack, but rather he is attacking with intention and without compromising his position. The aite’s role is first and foremost to look for a way to attack effectively without compromising his balance and posture. The role of the tori is similar. The tori in a kata is defending against an attack. The tori must choose how to present the target, the direction of deflecting or blocking the strike and how he will enter to execute the technique. The tori must adjust and set up the initial distance based on how he presents the targets to the aite. Using any kata these points are probably easily seen and understood. However, there is a deeper dimension to kata practice that is neglected or misunderstood.

The Hidden

Kata practice is not merely for learning a technique or understanding the mechanics of a movement. The kata are passed down for a reason, and the practice of the kata ought to make up the majority of one’s practice. The kata is deeper in design than the mere passing on of the techniques, it is meant to develop the practitioner by pushing past the limits of mere movement. Kata practice is perception training.

The practice of kata allows the practitioner to develop certain senses and certain perceptions that are necessary for henka as well as entering the world of mushin. Through strict kata practice one learns and develops the ability to perceive what cannot be seen or rather the movement behind the movement. Also, it allows to make one’s movement imperceptible. One shouldn’t rush through the practice of kata training, but rather take everything in and carefully control one’s mind and body throughout the kata. It is important to move slowly and precisely in the beginning. Later, the speed of the movements should vary as well as different types of tempo given the control of certain points. To do this type of thing effectively one needs to spend a lot of time working on both the mechanics and one’s perceptions of the aite’s movement, and a lot of time with the kata itself.