By Iain Abernethy
Throughout the various katas we can see many differing stances being assumed. It is common practise for karateka to spend many hours trying to perfect these stances, which is no easy feat! Gichin Funakoshi (founder of Shotokan) in his book Karate-Do: My Way of Life wrote, "The Horse-riding stance, for instance, looks extremely easy but the fact is that no one could possibly master it even if he practised every day for an entire year until his feet became as heavy as lead." So why do we set ourselves such an arduous task? And what purpose do the stances serve anyway?
Before we go on to discuss the function of stances, I feel we should quickly look at what the stances are not for! It is very common for many of the stances utilised throughout the katas to be explained as positions taken to strengthen legs or improve balance. A fundamental concept of Bunkai-Jutsu (the understanding and application of the katas in actual combat) is that every single kata movement is for use in combat. Whilst certain stances may have physical benefits, that is not their primary function. The primary function of all stances is disabling an opponent in combat.
The stances within the katas are all used in one of two ways. The first way that stances are used in combat is to ensure the correct distribution of bodyweight. The correct use of your bodyweight is a must if your techniques are to be effective. All techniques must be applied with the entire body and not just the striking limb. It is also important to understand the way in which the stances would be utilised in a real fight. The word 'Stance' has connotations of something fixed and immovable. In combat, however, situations are constantly changing and hence the stances should also be in a state of flux. The distribution of the bodyweight should not be fixed, but should be constantly changing depending upon the technique being utilised at that time. Stances will be assumed as and when required, before instantly shifting the bodyweight to the next appropriate position.
Within karate circles there are often a debate as to which is the best way of performing the stances. Some say that stances should be high, because this increases the mobility of the karateka. Others say that the stances should be low, because this means the karateka's centre of gravity is also low and hence any techniques that are delivered will be more effective. However, common sense should tell you that you should assume whatever stance is required at that instance! If you require mobility, the stance should be high at that particular moment. If you require stability, then stance should be low.
As an example to illustrate how the stances can be used to project bodyweight, we will examine the application of a sequence from Pinan (Heian) Yodan kata. For the purposes of this article, the key thing to note is the way in which the reverse cat stance ensures the effectiveness of the final elbow strike.
The opponent's punch has been checked as a strike is delivered to the side of the jaw (Fig 1). The opponent's head is then rotated around and down as their arm is rotated upward (Fig 2). A knee strike is then delivered to the opponent's face (Fig 3). The leg is extended in order to strike the opponent in the groin (Fig 4). Reverse cat stance is assumed as an elbow strike is delivered to the opponent's back (Fig 5).
The elbow strike itself is directed downward. By moving into reverse cat stance the karateka's bodyweight is projected in exactly the same direction as the elbow strike. This means that the elbow strike will have the required power to incapacitate the opponent. If reverse cat stance were not assumed at that point, the elbow strike would have little effect because it will not have the karateka's bodyweight behind it. It is vital to understand that the stance itself represents the final position of the body. It is not the final position of the stance that ensures the elbow is powerful; rather it is the movement of the body into the reverse cat stance that ensures the correct projection of the karateka's bodyweight.
The stances are a vital part of any kata movement and should never be overlooked when analysing kata. If a movement is performed from front stance, then this means that the technique in question requires the bodyweight to be forward. Likewise, if a movement is performed from horse stance, then it means that the technique requires the bodyweight to be dropped straight down, and so on.
The second way that stances can be utilised in combat is to use the position of the legs to control the opponent's motion. Take a look at Figure 6 and see how reverse cat stance has been used to control the position of a floored opponent. The right leg is placed close to the opponent's back. The opponent's arm is pushed across the karateka's thigh to effect an arm-lock. The nature of this lock will make the opponent want to sit up in order to alleviate the pain in their elbow. However, the opponent will be unable to sit up because the rear leg of the stance is positioned so that the karateka is kneeling on the opponent's head. The opponent will now be unable to move and the karateka has one free hand with which to strike.
In the second type of application, it is the final position of the stance that incapacitates the opponent, and not the movement of bodyweight as the stance is assumed. So when we are looking at the way in which the stance aids the distribution of bodyweight, it is the way in which the stance is assumed that is of most importance. When we are looking at the use of the physical position, it is the end position of the stance itself that is of most importance.
All of the stances within the katas can be used in both of these ways. Stances ensure the effective projection of bodyweight, or they limit the opponent's motion and control their position. In this article, we have looked at two ways in which reverse cat stance can be utilised. For a more detailed look at the function of all the remaining karate stances, I'd refer you to chapter 14 of my book Bunkai-Jutsu: The practical application of kata.
When attempting to determine the purpose of a particular kata movement, one key thing that you must consider is the stance being used. You then have to decide whether it is the way in which the stance is being assumed that is incapacitating the opponent, or is it the final position of the stance itself. Stances are a vital part of the techniques of kata and their combative functions must never be overlooked. In his 1974 book, "The Heart of Karate-do", Shigeru Egami wrote, " Despite a lack of complete understanding, one should not assume that the movements have no meaning or function. I advise performing the movements, thinking about them, and interpreting them in your own way, concentrating heart and soul. This is practice. " Never accept that the stances are simply some kind of balance or strength exercise that have no combative function. The stances are a vital part of the combative applications of the kata and their importance cannot be over-emphasised.
This article has been reproduced with the permission of Iain Abernethy
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Iain Abernethy has been involved in the martial arts since childhood. Iain holds the rank of 5th Dan with both the British Combat Association (one of the world's leading groups for close-quarter combat, self-protection and practical martial arts) and Karate England (the official governing body for Karate in England). Iain regularly writes for the UK’s leading martial arts magazines, he has written a number of critically acclaimed books on the practical application of traditional martial arts and he is a member of the "Combat Hall of Fame".