This can apply equally to any traditional martial art, not just Karate.

Have you ever demonstrated a way to protect yourself (or seen somebody else do so), only to have somebody else say, “but that’s not really Karate”, (or whatever martial art you practice). This can be particularly true when styles that are considered primarily striking arts (like Karate, Taekwondo, Kung Fu, etc) start using grappling applications like throws, locks, restraints, escapes and the likes. People can be quick to pigeon-hole what they consider to be part of a martial art or not to be part of it.

Are they right to do so? Does this keep a martial art ‘pure’, so that they don’t all just merge into each other?

I’m sorry to say, but that kind of thinking is really missing the point. Originally, the martial arts were to protect the practitioners life; so can you imagine somebody back then saying something like, “I’m not using that technique as it’s not from my style”! Of course they wouldn’t; they’d absorb anything that might save their lives.

Preserving Traditional Martial Arts

Originally the Okinawans in particular did not have much sense of “styles”, to them if it worked they’d use it. When a master felt that their student had learned all that they could, it was not uncommon to send the student to another master to learn that masters best technique. They never confined themselves to “styles”, and why would they? That would mean missing out on knowledge that could potentially save their life one day.

The Chinese however have always had different styles, but if somebody came along who could teach them something new they’d learn it and often end up merging the 2 styles and creating their own. That’s partly why China has thousands of different styles of Kung Fu.

So the idea of preserving a traditional martial art . . . . . isn’t traditional!

Principle Based Vs Technique Based

But more to the point, we focus heavily of perfecting techniques, which we will never be able to use (in a formal manner) under the pressure of a real determined assault. Some modern martial arts, such as Krav Maga, argue that they are principle based rather than technique based. In other words, they learn a principle of movement or combat, which they can apply in many different ways in a number of different circumstances. This makes a great deal of sense, because think how many techniques you’d have to learn if you had to learn a different technique for every conceivable form of attack you might encounter. And then you had the remember which one to use under pressure!
So why are so many traditional martial arts technique based?

Because . . . . . . . . wait for it . . . . . . they’re NOT!

The techniques we learn in traditional arts, especially those that are considered primarily striking arts are there TO TEACH US PRINCIPLES OF MOVEMENTS!

If I take similar styles like Karate/Taekwondo/Tang Soo Do as an example; each of those styles have a rising block, a downward block an inside block and an outside block. Now I use the term “block” loosely as that is the usual nomenclature that they are known by. But basically, we are learning to generate power upwards, downwards, left and right. Stop and think about that for a minute!
Yes, we are very picky and precise over how we perform these movements, but as I’ve discussed before, we train on a number of different levels. There is a basic fighting application (well - several actually), we learn body mechanics so as to apply power is these different directions and learn self-awareness by being aware of what each part of our body is doing.

Multi-Purpose Techniques

Now having learnt to generate power in a number of different directions, the number of different ways that you can use that power is only limited by your own imagination. For example, generating power to the one side with an outside block, I could use that to:

  • Strike to the jaw-line
  • Strike with a large weapon such as a staff using both hands
  • Strike with a small weapon (keys, pen, phone) with one hand
  • Whilst restraining their arm with the pull back hand (hikite), striking their arm could apply pressure as an arm bar
  • Same as before, but hit harder and brake the joint
  • Oh yes . . . . . . . to block a punch with!

So when for example you put on an arm bar and somebody else suggests, “but that’s not Karate, because Karate doesn’t use arm locks”, they are missing the point. It’s not about the technique, it about the principles we learn from practicing that technique.

Actually Using A Technique Under Pressure

Now, you’ll be pleased to hear, it get a bit messier now!
The final application of the technique doesn’t need to actually look very much like the basic technique that we do in the class line-work.

If I take a basic reverse punch for example; in basic form I start with in a nice stance, punching hand on the hip, the other arm extended, back nice and straight and so on. But what are the principles that I’m actually learning?

I’m learning to:

  • Coordinate my breathing with my punch
  • Coordinate release of punch with body weight moving forward
  • Structure of the hand/arm so that I don’t damage myself or lose power by joints buckling on impact
  • Lower my body weight

Now lets just suppose that I’m in a pub (that’s kind of like me) and I get into an argument (that’s not really like me)! It gets to the point where I can’t talk him out it and he’s going to attack me so I decide to strike first.

Do I need to get into a stance?
No. That gives away my intention.

Do I need to put the punching hand on my hip and extend the other one?
No. Again it gives away my intention and also takes the punching hand further away from the target before I actually punch.

What do I need to do? Well I’m glad you asked me that!
What I need to use are the principles learnt from practicing the reverse punch.

I can lower my body weight simply by softening and slightly bending my knees. From whatever position my hands are in (should really be in the “fence“), I can strike whilst coordinating the punch with my body weight moving and breathing, and I can use correct structure of the hand/arm.

Will this look like a classic Karate reverse punch?

Hardly! But without learning those principles from studying and practicing the reverse punch, my pub punch would be nowhere near as effective. And I don’t even have to pull the other hand back to the hip, how exciting is that!!

This applies to all techniques. Performing Kata/patterns/forms teaches us body mechanics, co-ordination, self-awareness and so on; but trying to apply the fighting techniques under pressure with the same degree of accuracy, isn’t going to work! Accuracy of movement is great in solo practice, but you must let that go when you’re applying it. And when you’re applying a technique don’t worry about whether or not your style uses that kind of fighting method; the main acid test is . . . . . . does it work under pressure? If it does, keep it; if it doesn’t, ditch it.