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1,000 Punches

In some schools of Karate, it is common for students to engage in lengthy kihon (basics) practice. Sometimes the students will do 1,000 punches, 1,000 blocks, 1, 000 kicks, etc. Day after day, year after year, the students practice seemingly endless kihon.

I recently spoke to a senior about this. To me, it would seem that while kihon has its place, the time might be better spent practicing kata.

This senior replied to me, "we are training our bodies and our spirits."

Of course, we know this to said be true about Karate training in general. But the point was that there is a spiritual benefit to thousands of punches, blocks and kicks. The traditional metaphor is the pounding, heating, and folding of metal to form a samurai sword. Our spirits, like raw metals, must endure the endless practice of kihon to gain strength, patience, and perseverance.

Is this true? Does kihon strengthen our spirits?

Personally, I do not think so, or at least not that much. The presumption is that our spirits need conditioning. For military recruits, I could see that repetitive drills could be useful. Soldiers must be willing and able to follow orders, to act immediately.

But to be honest, Karate is the opposite of military training -- at least it was not so in Okinawa. The traditional Okinawan model is a very small training group in which the Sensei tries to make each student the best he can be. Uniformity is not stressed. Group dynamics are downplayed. Things are pretty informal.

It is not that kihon is not useful, it is that kihon is only useful to a certain extent. Beyond that usefulness, other forms of training are more useful, particularly to advanced students. Beginners need kihon. Advanced students need some kihon too. But an advanced student might be better served practicing 20 minutes of kihon and 2 hours of kata rather than vice versa.

In kindergarten and 1st grade, a child learns the alphabet. Each letter is practiced over and over. The strokes must be in the right order. The shapes must be correct. But in later grades, the child will learn words, how to read and write... to express himself. College students do not need to practice writing the alphabet -- college students use computers!

Endless kihon is supposed to be aimed (at least in part) at working on the spirit. Is the intent to strengthen and control the spirit? I don't know. It seems to me that kata practice is an expression of the spirit. Through the focusing of the mind and body through kata training, the spirit is expressed. We do not beat down or control the spirit -- we somewhat create the opportunity for it to be expressed and perceived.

Of course, this can also happen with kihon. But kihon offers only limited opportunities for learning. Kata, because of the movements, changing directions, transitioning from one movement to another, etc., offers considerably more opportunities for learning.

I appreciate students who practice thousands and thousands of kihon drills. I do not doubt that kihon training can produce good techniques. And perhaps in large groups, it is be best way to train.

But in small groups, particularly advanced groups, there are other layers to Karate training that can produce excellent results. A large group cannot be run like a small group, and a small groups does not have to be run like a large group.

And I have to just say it -- in my opinion, Okinawan Karate is not and was not aimed at training the spirit per se. This very notion depends on a separation of the body, mind and spirit, that may not be natural in Okinawa thought, particularly in the old days. Okinawan Karate may have been aimed at training the character and instilling certain gentlemanly traits -- traits that were considered necessary for Karate experts. But these were social and character traits, not spiritual things.

The notion of training the spirit through rigorous physical training is a Japanese thing. The harder the training the better! The more it hurts, the more your spirit improves. Says who?

For an Okinawan man, after a long day of work, a good evening would be a good meal and getting together with friends to drink some awamori, play the sanshin (Okinawan samisen), and sing songs. That would be a great evening! (This has been told to me by many older Okinawans.) Karate was something like that -- an enjoyable form of expression with useful self defense and health benefits. It was not a form of spiritual punishment.

Just my opinion.

And please remember, I did not say that students should not train hard. I only suggested that kihon is not the only or necessarily the best way for advanced students to spend their limited training time. And anyway, kata is comprised of basics.


Charles C. Goodin