Sunday, 25 January 2015

Health Benefits of Karate Do Training (Continued)

In a previous post, I presented some of the health benefits of Karate Do Training. The blog may have seemed a little bit one sided due to the fact that I only focused on the positive impacts of Karate Do training. Furthermore, I had to end the blog before addressing the Mental and Spiritual benefits that I stated I would. In this post I would like to get back to this thread, but before doing so I would like to clarify one important point regarding the information I provided in that post 'Health Benefits of Karate Do Training'. The information I provided was taken from a book that Chitose Tsuyoshi Sensei, the First Generation Soke and founder of Chito-Ryu Karate Do (O Sensei) wrote, "Kenpo Karate-do Universal Art of Self-Defense." He wrote this book in the late 1940s (1946 or 1947) eventhough it was translated into English by Christopher Johnston and published in 2000 by Shindokan International. (the Cover of this book is pictured below)
Training approaches have changed a great deal since this book was written and since it was published. The audience for which the book was intended must also be considered when we read it. It was intended for Japanese Nationals living in post WWII Japan. Many were malnourished and in poor physical health. This book was expressing the benefits of Karate Do training as a way to increase the general physical health of Japan as is stated in three very important sentences in The Purpose of Studying Karate-do where O Sensei writes, "In order to re-build the New Japan, we must first ensure that we are in good health. To begin with, to perform sound physical exercise is to study Karate-do. Initially a way to protect ourselves, Karate-do is the most complete form of physical exercise" (p. 90).

While sports training methods have grown in leaps and bounds in the 70 years since the end of WWII, the health benefits of continued exercise such as the practice of martial arts which now often includes various forms of cross training such as running and other strength training, speaks for itself. There are, however, some things that we do need to be careful of when teaching or training specific 基本 Kihon, Basics and 技 Waza, Techniques, namely the danger of injuring our joints due to the application of stress caused by unnatural twisting, torquing, and pressure. It should be noted that these injuries are not caused by the technique itself but rather by our misunderstanding of how it should be practiced. There is nothing unhealthy about Karate Do,  but the limits of our understanding often lead to unhealthy practice habits. I am no exception. I have had my fair share of injuries which resulted due to my limited understanding. However, since studying Japanese Language and Culture and after coming to Japan and developing relationships with various Karate Do Sensei my understanding has increased and my injuries have reduced in number and severity. I would have to say that only recently have I begun to practice at a level that I feel is indeed increasing my health without a high risk of injury to my joints. It took me almost 25 years to understand, but in the past 2 years I really feel that my Karate Do has changed for the better namely due to deeper understanding in two major areas. I would like to tell you about them. The first area will be the focus of this post and the second I will write in a following post. The first area deals with a more natural use of muscle combinations, focusing on contraction, stretch, and a state in between which may be referred to as neutral, natural, or relaxed.
Muscle Use
During my time training in Japan I have grown and and deepened my knowledge base in many ways, all of which have impacted the way I approach my personal training. One of the major epiphanies I had was the realization of how to use the muscle groups in my upper body, namely my shoulders (Trapezius) and Lats (Laissimus Dorsi) in a more natural working combination through out the movements of 基本 Kihon and 形 Kata (See photo below for muscle groups discussed).

The Catalyst for my Growth
As you may remember, in one of my very early posts, I briefly wrote about the car accident that I was involved in that ended up being a kind of catalyst for initiating this blog as well as a book project. I would like to also add that before the accident, I was already in very intense pain due to 2 herniated discs in my mid-to-lower spine. For roughly 3 years there wasn't a day that I spent without pain. On a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being little pain or discomfort and 10 being excruciating debilitating pain, most of my days were higher than 5. The body is an amazing thing because it can adapt to this pain. It got to the point that on the days when I was at a 5 or slightly lower I actually felt really good although very fatigued and easily annoyed by small things happening around me. After an MRI revealed the cause of this pain I began a rehabilitation process of specific stretches and slight lifestyle changes. I was fortunate because I didn't need surgery to correct the problem.

But, shortly after realizing the cause of this persisting pain and beginning my rehabilitation process the pain was compounded by the car accident which resulted in minor whiplash among some other minor injuries. But, I know it could have been a lot worse had I not seen the car coming from behind and prepared myself before impact. Shortly after the accident I asked myself, how I could have known to look at just the right moment to give me enough time to prepare for impact or whether I was just lucky. I write about this accident in more detail in the book that I am working on and discuss the connection to a term known to many martial artists as 残心 Zanshin and how I feel that my years of Karate Do training may have saved my life.

Here I just want  to point out that the pain I experienced and the rehabilitation process that I undertook affected my general training which impacted the way I approached Kihon and took my training in a whole new direction that I feel, is more healthy than before.
(Car Accident, Summer of 2012, Kumamoto, Japan)

No Pain, no Gain
After injuring my lower back I was forced to realise the importance of posture, not just in the movements we perform while training, but throughout the day on a regular basis. This helped me to better recognise which muscle groups I was using in my lower back and abdomen for proper posture throughout the various movements of Kihon, Kata, and other training sequences and became a major focus of my research and training for about 3 years. Specifically, I looked more deeply at how various muscle groups in the human body work together. I focused on the muscles around hinge joints such as in the arms and legs as an example to create a clearer picture in my mind. I would recall this mental image of muscles working in pairs flexing and stretching as I practiced various movements and try to concentrate on feeling how the muscle groups in my body were working as I performed the movements. I guess, in a way you could say that, in this case, my gain was a result of that pain.

A Closer look at the Example that Brought it all Together for Me
As I said earlier, I focused on the muscles around hinge joints to create a simple mental image of how they work. Taking the example of the biceps for instance, I asked myself, if when my bicep is flexed or Contracted 縮む Chizimumy tricep naturally Extends 伸ばす Nobasu as it works in the opposite to the muscle being contracted, how can I properly control the amount of flex and stretch or Chizimu and Nobasu in the appropriate muscle groups in combination in other parts of my body such as the shoulders and lats? (See photo below)

I had been focusing on this for a long time because almost every Sensei I had ever met here in Japan always made it a point to tell me to relax my shoulders, but only recently did it become clear to me that even though I felt fairly relaxed in my movements, I was obviously not. I was still punching with my arms and not my whole body. Let me try to explain. In order to generate real power to deliver a punch or strike with maximum force and proper 決め Kime or Finish, we need to use our whole body not just our arm strength. The only way to do this is to relax and flex appropriate muscles in the upper body in a kind of chain reaction until the point of contact, but the thing that always confused me was the fact that we cannot totally relax. This bothered me for a long time. The advice I was receiving was simply リラックス Relax, and nothing more. There was no in-depth explanation on how to relax or which muscle groups to relax and which groups to tense or advice to only to tense these specific muscle groups at the point of impact or slightly after depending on the desired result. Or maybe, I was getting the advice only not understanding it. Either way, I decided to research the muscle groups of the body and as I focused on the biceps, everything suddenly became clearer to me. To my surprise, it was relatively easy to achieve the relaxation that these Sensei were talking about once I understood this anatomy. I began to focus more on maintaining a sense of flex in my Laissimus Dorsi by moving the tension from my Trapezius essentially moving the tension from my shoulders into my lats and achieving the 脇閉め Waki Shime that the Sensei were always talking about. Instead of focusing on stopping my punch with my arm muscles I began stopping it using my Abs (Rectus Abdominis) while also paying careful attention not to loose my balance through always knowing the 軸 Jiku, Pivot Axis and where my weight should be.

I still have a very long way to go but this was a huge personal breakthrough for me. Let's compare two photos to see the difference. The first was taken during my very first 滝行 Taki Gyou experience in 2002 and the second photo was taken at this Year's. You may notice some pretty big differences, I know I did!

脇閉め Waki Shime
I would like to take a quick look at the term Waki Shime as it is a very important aspect of Karate Do training and often a central point of advice given by many Senseii all  over the world. Let's start by taking a closer look at the kanji and break it down in order to build our deeper understanding of the components of Waki I am of the opinion that it means a lot more than just armpit. If we look at the radicals of this Kanji separately we can see it in a new light. Below is a short definition taken from:
that you can find online with a simple search.

(Above, Taki Gyou 2002, Kumamoto, Japan)

(Left, Taki Gyou 2015, Kumamoto, Japan)

Radicals in Kanji
A radical (bushu) is a common sub-element found in different kanji characters. Every kanji has a radical or a radical itself can be a kanji. Radicals express the general nature of the kanji characters. A radical is the part of the kanji character that gives you a clue to its origin, group, meaning or pronunciation. Many kanji dictionaries organize characters by their radicals. There are 214 radicals. Don't worry about learning all of them! I doubt most Japanese can recognize and name them all. However, if you memorize some of the important radicals, they will help you to figure out the meanings of many kanji. (, Japanese Language)

Radicals are roughly divided into seven groups (hen, tsukuri, kanmuri, ashi, tare, nyou, and kamae) by their positions.
hen tsukuri kanmuri ashi
tare nyou kamae
                                                                                                            (, Japanese Language)

In the case of 脇 Waki, we can see there is the radical of 月 located in the region of the 扁 Hen area of the Character located on the left hand side of the character and three 力 grouped together in the 旁 Tsukuri area which is also referred to as "the body" of the Character. I would like to talk about this in more detail in my next post before we address the components of breathing as developing these physical attributes greatly effect the development of, delivery, and focus of our core power. I also urge you to conduct your own research and perform your own tests while training especially with regards to posture, breathing and effective use of muscle contraction and extension throughout the movements performed.

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