How Low Do You Need to Go?

Gigo Funakoshi

In karate we spend a lot of time working on our stances. Practising them strengthens our legs, sure, but that’s not their main point.

The stances are designed so we can lower our weight into a rooted posture, enabling us to execute strong blows, blocks, throws and joint locks. But the equation many people make is: low stance = power. So the lower stance, the more power, right?

Certainly, that seems to be the belief held in a style like Shotokan karate, marked by its deep stances. See, for example, the picture of Gigo Funakoshi, son of style founder Gichin Funakoshi. Under Gigo Funakoshi’s technical direction, Shotokan moved from its old Okinawan roots to a modern Japanese version based on knowledge of body mechanics. He led he charge to adopting lower stances.

So many Shotokan stylists would view the son’s stances as better or more progressive than the father’s.

Gichin Funakoshi

In Chito-Ryu karate, we use the higher karate stances taught by O-Sensei, himself a traditional Okinawan martial artist. To some practitioners, the higher stances exchange the deep-rooted strength of the lower ones for greater mobility and speed.

But do you really need to give up one for the other? In a word, no.

Some Chinese martial arts use a progressive approach to stance development. Beginners start low, to get the feeling for proper rooting. As they become more proficient, they can stand higher while still keep a strong root.

A strong root is achieved through an internal drop. A tai chi master I have trained with likens this to a building imploding. In a normal explosion, the building shrapnel flies out.  But if the structure is brought down through implosion, it falls in on itself.

So an internal drop has this feeling of your structure loosening and falling inwards. How is this accomplished? Well, that’s the million-dollar question. Suffice it to say that it’s a fundamental skill that takes a lot of painful practice.

Tai chi and qigong have specific standing practices for internal development. While these may involve the circulation of energy (ki or qi), many are also designed to make you release the tension in your body (both the tension you are aware of and holding tension you are not), so your weight drops into the floor without impediment.

Squatting to lower your weight might have some benefit, but the tension in the legs makes your weight float, so the root isn’t as strong as it could be. By releasing your body tension properly, your weight drops into the ground, whether or not your stance is low.

Unfortunately, Gigo Funakoshi died young, at age 39, from tuberculosis. If he had lived longer, his investigations into stances might have led him to understand the technique of his father, who could stand high but still be strong, well into his old age.

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