Relaxation, Relaxation, Relaxation – an Emphasis Lost!

This is a copy of an essay passed on by Sakamoto Sensei, written by Jonathan de’ Claire BSc(Hons) PGCE, instructor of the South Glamorgan Karate-do Shotokai (KDS) group.

When we first begin learning Karate, generally youth is on our side. The raw power and passion of youth further develops into adulthood and this can be extended into our thirties and even forties if we keep on pushing ourselves. We can spend hours pounding the makiwara, putting every sinew of our body and every ounce of strength into each battering thrust. Then as our bodies change with the onset of the inevitable ageing process, so must our approach to Karate training. As the speed and strength we have relied on for so long begins to fail, we look elsewhere for inspiration.

It is about this stage of their career, that some begin to discover the power of relaxation. The physical power is waning, so some actually try to relax for the first time, emphasising a different focus in the search for a different way. To their surprise, their techniques actually start to improve. No longer forcing techniques, they seem to have less raw power but the feeling and the result is actually better than when they were at their so called peak! Then, they read an interview in which a high profile Japanese Sensei advocates this type of approach as age advances. The Sensei even suggests the use of Tai Chi or another softer art to compliment Karate practice. Inspired by this they look back at other interviews and notice this same underlying advice from all of them! Relax as you get older, you have to change, strength is for the young. They continue to change, it feels good.

With less effort they seem to be producing better and better results. The shoulders are relaxed, the breathing is normal, the power is flowing into the target. They wonder, what if I had practiced like this when I was young? What would my practice be like now? Would it be better?

Now is it only me, or does it strike you that something is screaming at us here? It’s so obvious! Still don’t know what I am getting at here? Well let me explain. If older is paired with softer and relaxation is interlinked with more power by so many senior Sensei’s on such a regular basis, then surely this must a positive link! If so, then why wait until your age enforces this type of approach? Why wait until you have already wasted many years of practice before you research, the obvious benefits of a more relaxed perspective of Karate and the techniques within it? Why aren’t students learning how to be relaxed from day one of their training?

It is all very well to say that we need to go through the power training in our younger days to truly understand the need for change and appreciate relaxation. But some people don’t change. They keep smashing away in the hope that, one day, doing the same thing will, miraculously, improve their technical ability if they repeat it enough times! Even if you wanted to change, it is even more difficult to alter something that has been ingrained through years of learnt tension. Years and years can be wasted and that ultimate goal seems even further away. We learn everything, the novice karate-ka does not come in the door screaming and shouting as he or she tries to put every ounce of their strength into each technique as they try to impress. This is taught or imitated from seniors. As a novice, they are in the best position of their lives to get the benefits of relaxation. The female of the species especially, seem to be fluid and soft before instructors change their perspective of how karate should look! I use the word look, because how karate looks is probably one of the major villains in the piece. Everything is done to look outwardly powerful and impressive. So much wasted energy is used just for appearance sake. Yet, the best technique, is usually the one that you feel minimal effort has been utilized and yet the results are better. How can this be? So you go back to smashing and screaming, tensing and contracting, that is how you have always done it, that is how they all do it, how can it be wrong?

There was a time however, in the middle of the last century, when the subject of softness and relaxation was very high on the agenda of what were the probably the most innovative and forward thinking group of Shotokan Karate-ka ever assembled under one roof. This group searched for the truth with few of theconstraints of yesterday’s men. The Shotokan dojo, after the nights usual practice had finished, was the scene of much physical questioning. Open minded research and the sharing of ideas was the order of the day. Improvement was the emphasis regardless of what had gone before. Change would surely come!

Spain 2002 in the Basque stronghold of Bilboa. A group of Shotokan students have gathered at an open course. These karate-ka’s are searching. Their search is for something different in the way they practice. They are searching for an emphasis to their practice that is far removed from today’s competition dominated thinking.

At the end of the course, an instructor asks a question. Whilst gesturing in the form of an oi-zuki technique, he says “Sensei I have been training for over 30 years, but today you have made me realize that to generate real power, I must physically relax and let my energy flow into my opponent. Could you help me achieve this with an exercise that would help me develop this?” The Sensei answers “Well….. for you, it is not so much a question of an exercise that can help. It is more a matter of you using the correct body condition necessary, to enable you to achieve your goal”.

This Sensei went onto explain in some detail, that in order to achieve the optimum effect desired, ones own body condition must first be relaxed and fluid. The joints must be mobile at all times, allowing energy to flow through the correct muscle chains from the point of origin to the point of contact, untethered by any constrictions through muscle tension. In this manner the optimum amount of energy can be transferred into an opponent. The Sensei went onto demonstrate this as he sent attackers reeling through the air in a devastating and jaw dropping manner. The Sensei being referred to – Master Mitsusuke Harada the Principal Instructor to do the Karate-do Shotokai in Europe.

Projecting energy into an opponent is high on Master Harada’s agenda. His result – the total disruption of an attacker’s body condition before an attack can be delivered. Master Harada has constantly reiterated his mindset when engaging an opponent “Never give an opportunity!” he emphasizes. Master Harada encourages his senior students to work with a heavy Bokken and Bo Staff. What is the reason for this? It promotes an understanding of how to use ones own body when not using a weapon. Not just from a technique point of view, but most importantly it gives the correct feeling necessary, the feeling of energy projection.

I have seen Master Harada wielding his Bokken using projected thrusts that transmit their focus outwards. Then on a given signal a student would remove the Bokken and another would attack him. Master Harada, still using the feeling of the Bokken, would destroy the advancing oi-zuki in mid-attack using a Bokkenless thrust of his open hands. In his hands, Master Harada explains, is still his Bokken (even though it has been removed). His mind is still projecting his energy to the tip of his now imaginary weapon and this projected energy is what meets his attacker. The results, I assure you, are truly astounding! Master Harada creates the same shattering effect using the Bo Staff.

But unlike many of his contemporaries and peers, Master Harada did not wait until his body was forced to change through the ageing process before he advocated this approach. Now 75, he has been researching and promoting the correct body condition needed to allow for energy to be projected for well over half a Century. It is a synthesis of elements that come together in a moment, it is something Master Harada calls “Hakkei” and one of those key elements is especially important. That element is relaxation!

It is easy to imagine softness and relaxation as appearing almost floppy and rag-doll like. On the contrary, this is a major misconception. A conception that is often acquired by reading about it, rather than experiencing it. Indeed some Shotokai groups and their spin-offs do adhere in some way, to this kind of practice, but with disappointing results that have shown little in the way of progress. Master Harada, on the contrary, uses a massive amount of explosive power when he delivers his disruptive energy into an opponent. “All power comes from the legs, it is obvious!” he exclaims. From there, a chain of strong muscular expansions transmit through the abdomen and back, bypassing the shoulders as it heads into the arms as the free flowing joints deliver the energy to the penultimate point of contact. He has described his body as having the feeling of an expanded balloon. He emphasizes this muscular effect rather than an inward contraction. When the balloon is released, the muscle power surges forward unconstrained by tension.

Having previously written a couple of articles and produced an interview with Master Harada. I have been approached by a number of Karate-ka from across the globe with an interest in attending one of Master Harada’s seminars. You may remember a Polish Shotokan practioner who wrote an article for the SKM, about his experiences at the KDS summer school. Anyway, almost to a man (or women) except for a humble few, they have claimed to have understood and agreed with the emphasis Master Harada placed on relaxation. In fact, they went further than this to say it was in line with what they were currently practicing themselves! Indeed, some wanted to exchange ideas with Master Harada. This is where reading about something and creating a subjective perception can drastically distance itself from another’s personal experiences. To read about the way in which someone practices and declare you do the same can result in a sobering experience when you actually get to physically compare the two.

Many came to attend Master Harada’s seminars. Some as individuals, some in small groups, sometimes a whole club would attend from other organizations. But no matter where they came from, they all had one thing in common – they all said that what they saw and experienced was nothing like they had imagined it, or had experienced before. For Master Harada’s group, the KDS, his practice has constantly been in metamorphosis. His practice is always evolving, always in a state of flux, but with the same underlying basic principles. For years the KDS have been working towards his ultimate goal of ‘Hakkei.” For years relaxation, the correct – body condition, weight distribution, distance, and timing, not to mention sensitivity to an opponents movement and energy flows have been fine tuned. All this, under the guidance and watchful eye of one man. Little wonder that exponents of other groups find it almost impossible to physically succeed or even comprehend what Master Harada is teaching in the space of a weekend or so.

Looking back, when Master Harada first noticed the “awesome” Yoshitaka Funakoshi in 1943, he seemed to dispose of the other black belts with relative ease showing none of the display of outward power, that most of the other blackbelts seemed to find necessary to show. Yoshitaka’s father Gichin Funakoshi’s techniques were soft and relaxed unlike many of his younger students who looked so rigid in comparison. Master Harada has often described and indeed demonstrated his teacher’s technique. “There was no apparent power and yet his result was undeniable, even in his latter years’, explained Master Harada. It was as a student at Waseda University that Master Harada was fortunate enough to gain first hand experience of the power of relaxation through Shigeru Egami, the man that was soon to be his mentor. He was the training partner of both Yoshitaka Funakoshi and Todoa Okuyama, his name was Shigeru Egami. Having had an encounter with the Aikido Founder – Morihei Ueshiba, Egami had rethought his perception of power. Through research, Egami was astonished by the effectiveness of a soft and relaxed striking method. He soon realized that the stiff and rigid movements he had utilised for the past 25 years lacked true power and were seriously flawed. Master Harada can still recall “the sickening pain he felt, even through 3 or 4 cushions.” It was a strange sensation, even though he was struck in the abdominal region, the pain emerged at the back of his body as it traveled after contact.

This change in thinking was further confirmed by revelations in practice brought to him by Tadoa Okuyama. His former training partner at the Shotokan was now practicing under Master Hokken (Noriaki) Inoue the founder of Shinwa Taido. Having returned from self-exile in the mountains, Okuyama had apparently challenged Inoue, but could not win. Okuyama was not so much interested in this form of Aikido, but more specifically in the explosive techniques that he could discern within it. This explosiveness within a soft and relaxed body condition astounded Egami who sought to reproduce this effect within his Karate.

A week before leaving Waseda, in April 1955 Harada had an unforgettable encounter with Okuyama. Having previously disappeared a couple of years earlier after a disagreement over practice method at the Waseda Summer camp, Okuyama astonishingly reappeared, at Egami’s request, to test Harada. Harada faced Okuyama, but it was over almost before it had begun! Okuyama was upon him “It was truly incredible” Harada recalled, “and so fast”. An open handed palm attack to Harada’s head took away any chance of him winning in a moment. Okuyama had not even seemed to have touched Harada “But I feltthe power…… such power. I had never felt that before, anywhere!” Master Harada seemed shaken by his recollection, such was the impact it had made upon him, and now, more than half a decade later the strength of that moment was still imprinted in his memory as if it was only yesterday. Indeed Master Harada went onto state that Tadoa Okuyama was the finest and most advanced Karate-ka with whom he had ever practised with. This view was also shared by his mentor Egami. Master Harada said that Okuyama had broken with tradition and “found something different”, but we could not, at that time, understand what it was.
After the encounter, Okuyama had recommended that Harada cease using the makiwara. Instead, he advised him to hang up a piece of paper to punch. A kind of physical koan had been set for Harada to understand. It took him 30 years to solve his puzzle! Harada explained “Okuyama gave me a different perspective, my outlook on the nature of impact has completely changed as a result. It was then that I realized why Funakoshi O’Sensei just touched the makiwara, rather than push through it.”

Tragically, it was after all this time researching, that Egami’s body failed him and he was struck down with illness in the mid 1950’s before he could pass it onto to the mainstream of the Shotokan group. Luckily, in Harada there was someone who could pass it on.

When Harada left Waseda he took a post in Sao Paulo. It was in Brazil that Master Harada began to develop his own practice based on what Egami had given him. Whilst in Brazil, challenges by Capoeirists had made Master Harada aware of the need for free movement and adaptability in his practice. It also emphasized the need for a greater understanding of rhythm, as it was his attunement to his opponent’s rhythm that allowed him to defeat them. These encounters with different arts caused an evolution in Master Harada’s Karate. It was to become more free-flowing with natural movement as the key to containing would be attackers. This way complemented itself to the relaxed and dynamic research he had previously experienced with his mentor Shigeru Egami.

In Shigeru Egami, Tadoa Okuyama and Yoshitaka Funakoshi a great Karate revolution seemed to be imminent. Their challenging ideas and innovations brought new ways of producing true explosive power through a relaxed body condition. This would surely be the way forward! Alas, history has shown us otherwise. Yoshitaka died in his late thirties, Egami never recovered fully after an operation for stomach cancer and Okuyama never returned to Karate feeling stifled by the resistance to change. What seemed so promising produced almost nothing in the mainstream of Shotokan Karate. For without these men willing to push back the boundaries of the art, little changed.

Luckily for Master Harada, he had left the constraints of his homeland and could carry on walking through the door that had been opened for him by Egami. Now this seventy four year old master has 60 years of practice under his precisely knotted belt. Sixty years of working on relaxation as a means to power. It is only now, that his developments have been accepted as the true way that Gichin Funakoshi intended for his Karate to develop back by those in the Shotokan dojo today.

Now in 2004, Master Harada is still pushing back the boundaries and developing his practice and that of his groups. Having recently managed to track down his old teacher Tadoa Okuyama (still teaching what he simply calls Budo) in Kyoto, he is certain his path is the right one after confirmation from his former tutor now in his eighties. Together they discussed ideas and developments Master Harada had made. Indeed, Master Harada gleaned some new emphasis on his idea of Hakkei. At present his personal development seems to be accelerating at a frightening rate say his technical group. But still, at every course he teaches the same word is emphasized more than any other…..”RELAX!”.

So, in conclusion. Why wait to bring relaxation into your practice? Start now, teach it to your new students from the moment they begin training. The results will speak for themselves I can assure you. I have personally seen the product of a life’s work using a relaxed body on many, many occasions and I am still astounded each time I witness it. Master Harada has also succeeded in passing this onto his students. Master Harada’s senior group though generally older than most, are still the fastest and most dynamic of his students. Years of being relaxed and concentrating on the correct body condition for practice has allowed them to continue to improve despite advancing age.

I challenge you, if with years of practice experience, you are being bettered by younger men or women purely because of their gift of youth, then something is drastically wrong with the way you are practicing Karate. Age should not limit you. There is a little man of 5ft 5in who is 75 years old that I know who can testify to that. Master Harada still practices daily, putting his body to the test in the quest for constant improvement. You could do the same, but first you need to relax!

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