The Okinawans used to say that we should use our whole body like a “whip”. This is certainly true of Shuri Te from which Shotokan is primarily derived. But how often do you hear that today? We are told to “snap back” many of our techniques, but that is not quite the same thing. It is not uncommon to hear instructors telling students that the Kage Zuki (hook punch) in Tekki Shodan should feel like a “vibration” through the body, but that is as close as most of them get. Even fewer actually explain how to get that “vibration”, leaving it for the student to work out for themselves.
Tetsuhiko Asai, 10th Dan and founder of the JKS (Japan Karate Shotorenmei) was renowned for his whip-like techniques, but most mainstream Shotokan organisations are not. Ironically, Asai also studied White Crane Kung Fu upon which Shuri Te (hence Shotokan) was largely based, so he went very much back to the source of Karate’s origin.
If White Crane Kung Fu and Shuri Te both place great emphasis on whip like technique, why did we lose it as it developed into Shotokan?
I believe that we lost it due to the over emphasis on forceful exhalation and tension in order to produce Kime as described in my previous article. Using the body like a whip requires a high degree of relaxed movement, which is not possible when we focus on an overly tense Kime. Pre war Japanese Karate was not focused on real combat or health, it was focused on physical and mental development to toughen up young men quickly for conscription and war.
So is there any advantage in bringing back whip like techniques?
Absolutely yes (many already have)! When techniques are based on strength and force, (which is evident in overly tensed kime) we will have trouble as we get older to maintain the same level of strength. But however old we get we can always learn to relax more and we can continue to improve our structure (as described in my last article). That makes it far easier to take this relaxed whipping method into our senior years and still stay effective than it is with say a boxing punch (which is fantastic for the young). The high degree of relaxation required for the “whip” feeling means that it also takes less effort to perform.
Hirokazu Kanazawa, 10th Dan and founder of the Shotokan Karate International also studied Tai Chi in great depth and has included some Tai Chi principles in teaching his version of Shotokan. Tai Chi and other internal Chinese martial arts are renowned for their highly relaxed explosive power, known as Fa Jing. Although Tai Chi is not in Shotokan Karate’s lineage like Shuri Te and White Crane Kung Fu, it is another example of Shotokan development, taking it back to what it once was and making it more relaxed and “whip” like.
Many Shotokan Karateka of all associations have followed Kanazawa’s example and taken up Tai Chi as well. I consider myself very fortunate that my own Sensei, Paul Mitchell is very much into Tai Chi and teaches it too.
These developments also makes it more user friendly for the more mature warriors amongst us. Many masters of old who practiced Shuri Te, White Crane & Tai Chi trained well into old age. However, many of us today have trouble coping with the harder versions of Shotokan as we get past 50. Certainly few remain in their 60’s & 70’s.
So How Does A “Whip” Actually Work
Basically, it is moving energy along some kind of flexible material like a wave. The easiest example is simply to snap a towel. As you start the movement one end of the towel is held in the hand that performs the whipping motion whilst the tip of the towel that snaps (or strikes) is held behind it in the other hand.
As the whipping hand moves rapidly forward, the towel obviously moves with it and the snapping end is released. When the whipping hand stops, the towel continues to travel forward. But as the whipping hand is still holding the towel, that end of the towel is unable to move further forward. Where the moving portion of the towel starts to pass the stationary portion the towel will bend. As the towel continues with its forward travel, so more and more of it will come to the limit of travel where it is restrained by the whipping wrist, therefore more and more will become stationary. In turn, the bend in the towel will travel along the length of the towel until all of the towel has reached the limit of its travel. This bend travelling along the length of the towel is a wave of energy moving along a flexible material.
But of cause, to get a proper snap of a towel (or whip) you move the whipping hand forward then sharply jerk it back. This means that at the portion of the towel travelling forward does not just stop when it reaches the limit of travel, but that limiting point is moving backwards just as fast. The result is that the bend in the towel travels the length of the towel much faster as it is now being acted upon by a backward force as well as forward force. Without relying on strength or even without any extra forward motion, we have created a much faster wave of energy, which is what does the damage.
If you’ve ever been whipped with a towel you know can really sting. Now imagine doing this with your body with lumps of hard bone in it.
Use Of The Hips
When asked to compare Kung Fu and Karate, Bruce Lee famously said, “Well, a Karate punch is like an iron bar — whack! A Gung Fu punch is like an iron chain with an iron ball attached to the end and it goes Wang! And it hurts inside”.
With all due respect to Bruce Lee, this statement is only partly right. Comparing the Karate punch to an iron bar may be applicable to the early post war Shotokan Karate exported to the rest of the world. In fairness, this would have been most of the Karate that was seen in the USA when Bruce Lee was still alive.
We should also bear in mind that Bruce Lee was promoting himself and his teachings in competition with Japanese masters moving there at the same time.
However, Bruce’s statement is certainly not true of Shuri Te and it is certainly not true of the way more and more Shotokan Sensei’s are beginning to teach (as discussed above).
We have always been told that punching power is generated by rotating the hips. But we do this don’t we? Well, not completely, most people do not do it entirely correctly. What most people do is to rotate the whole torso as one unit!
But the torso is one unit, what’s wrong with that? We are also told that our body should be relaxed. If the torso is truly relaxed and the hips rotate rapidly, then there should be a very small delay before the shoulders start moving to catch up. The rapid twist of the hips will create a very slight twist in a properly relaxed torso. This is how the “wave” moves up the torso and it requires a high degree of relaxation.
But if the torso is moving as one solid unit with the shoulder rotation exactly matching that of the hips, then there is only one conclusion. That is that there is too much tension in the torso, effectively locking the shoulders and hips together. We certainly need a certain amount of tension in the core muscles as we move; but it is easy to over-do it and use too much tension. This is where we need to train a lot to get the correct balance between a small amount of tension to support our structure and enough relaxation to enable the technique.
There is an exercise that is often used as part of the warm up that will help you to get the feeling. But first just try trying a few Straight Punches (Choku Zuki) from an upright stance with your feet parallel and shoulder width apart. Take note how this feels, particularly the arms and hand. Most people will have a powerful thrusting feeling.
Now for the exercise. Again standing with your feet shoulder width apart and parallel, completely relax your torso and let your arms dangle completely relaxed by your sides. They should be relaxed to point of being limp. Generating the movement from your feet, rapidly rotate the hips clockwise, pause for your arms to settle, then anti-clockwise, pause for you arms to settle. Repeat this a few times.
As you rotate your hips, you should have the feeling of the dangling arms being thrown clockwise then anti clockwise, following the hip movement. If you can analyse your own movement, you should find that your feet generate the movement making the hips move first, your shoulders move fractionally afterwards, then the arms move. You should feel a kind of wave going through the whole body, powered from the floor ending up to your hands flopping around in a circular fashion as if they are being “thrown” around.
The hips will have finished their rotation well before the hands settle. It is very important that you feel this wave travelling through the body and the arms being “thrown”, as you will see soon that it is very central to how you can perform most of your techniques with a whip like feeling.
Now keep this rotation of the hips, keep the complete relaxation of the torso, but just redirect the direction of the arms so that instead of going circular they go forward and back (in roughly the same lines as if you were punching). Keep the arms as relaxed as you possibly can, do not even bother to make a fist. Certainly do not attempt kime at this point. The only muscular exertion that you should use in your arms is enough to redirect them forward, not an ounce of strength more. After you’ve done this a few times, you should start to get the feeling of the arms being “thrown” forward in a straight line (rather than in a circle). This is what you are looking for; if you haven’t got that feeling, then stay at this point until you have.
When you can generate the rotation from your feet and feel the arms being thrown, then you can start to make a fist. Gradually start adding a small amount of kime. However, the moment you lose the feeling of the arms being “thrown”, then relax more again until you get it back. Gradually increase the amount of kime until you are punching normally, except you keep that feeling of the arms being thrown.
Now go back to the original exercise again, letting the arms move in a circular manner, but this time take out the pauses. Rotate the hips clockwise, but before the hands complete their journey, rotate the hips sharply anti clockwise. In the same way as you pull back a towel when you snap it, you will feel your hands “whip” against the side of the body much faster than before. Repeat this several times until you can easily generate that feeling of the arms whipping against the sides of the body.
Now go back to your standing punch (Choki Zuki). Punch as before with the feeling of the arm being thrown, but this time rotate the hip a fraction further, then let them settle back as the punch is flying out. Don’t worry about pulling the hip back, just let it settle back naturally.
Compare that with the feeling you had when punching just before you tried this exercise. For most people it probably felt like they were thrusting or extending the arm. However, if you are doing this correctly, the punch will now feel like it is just happening automatically as it is truly being powered (thrown) by the hip. It should be faster, crisper, more powerful and take much less effort.
To extend or thrust the arm, then by definition you must use the muscles in the arm to generate the movement. When your punch is truly powered (thrown) by the hip, the arm needs very little muscular effort at all to move it. The arm only needs enough muscular effort to direct it where it is going to and to apply kime (just enough to support the structure) at the end.
This is especially useful with combinations. For example if you use your hips this way with an Age Uke (Rising Block), then as the hips settle back you can use this as the start of the hip rotation for a Gyaka Zuki (Reverse punch), hence this combination can be performed much faster. If you go onto Youtube and search for “Kagawa Age Uke”, you will clearly see that as Kagawa (8th Dan, Technical Director of the JKS) performs Age Uke, the hips rotate rapidly forward then settle back a fraction. There is a very definite whip movement in his hips.
Some people may argue that the use of body weight moving towards the target is a very central Shotokan principle and that if we let the hip begin settling back before we have completed our technique then we are moving our body weight away from the target at impact. If we are using our body like (as Bruce Lee said) “an iron bar” then I would agree that we should not settle the hip back. However, when we use our body like a whip, we use our body weight moving towards the target to initiate and generate that wave which travels through the body and (like when we pull back when snapping a towel) that wave continues through the body to its climax. Even if the hip settles back as the technique climax is being reached, that wave of energy will still contain the full power from the forward hip movement that generated it.