Basic Physical Principles of Martial Arts and Ways

by Ed Thibedeau, May 2007

In most martial arts or ways instructors mention “principles” The implication is that you have to understand the principles in order to be able to perform whatever style martial art or way you are practicing.

In most cases the instructor will give a short English definition of a Japanese term without exploring the full meaning of the word. In some martial arts and ways this omission of detailed verbal explanation is intentional. The point being that the student should discover the principle on their own through physical and mental practice. This often leads to frustrated students who soon quit. In some schools the English definition has been shortened to the extent that all semblance to the original Japanese meaning or intent has been lost. Students, and instructors, perform a maneuver but with little or no comprehension as to why they do it.

The aim of this report is to provide a thorough understanding of the major mechanical or physical principles related to effective execution of techniques. To begin with, working definitions are provided for each of these major principles.

Taisabaki

In the simplest form taisabaki is defined as body movement. In reality taisabaki is an intricate principle that must be fully appreciated in order to perform any martial art technique. In a deeper sense taisabaki is the management of body movement. It is not simply moving your body but rather it is managing your body movement in a controlled and explicit manner to allow you to perform and properly execute techniques.

Ashi sabaki 

This is the principle of foot movement. Ashi sabaki is moving our feet in specified ways depending on the intent of our movement and the distance or maai between our self and our opponent. There are two general types of ashi sabaki related to martial arts.

Tsugi ashi – following/sliding foot. This type of foot movement can occur in any direction.

Ayumi ashi – normal walking, stepping one foot ahead of the other. This type of foot movement is  usually done in a forward or rearward direction.

Kamai

Kamai is posture. In jujitsu kamai implies a posture ready to defend ones self. Basic natural posture is known as hontai. This is a posture of natural stance with our hands at our sides. Jigo hontai is known as self defense posture. This is a slightly wider than normal stance, legs bent slightly at the knees. Knees are flexible, not locked. Most importantly, our hands are raised in some fashion to our mid torso in a position to be able to parry or block strikes or perform strikes or grappling. Variations of jigo hontai are numerous. The use of various weapons requires the use of many different kamai from those used with empty hands.

The important thing to know and remember for empty handed techniques is that when one foot slides forward of the other foot the hand for the forward foot must also move forward of the other hand. Depending on the specific style being taught, the forward hand may be at the same height or higher than the other hand. Having the forward hand higher than the other hand is the generally preferred posture as this affords the ability to parry and block to protect the head and shoulder area while the lower hand can do the same for the torso and hip area. In the case of weapons the specific type of weapon being held will dictate which hand is forward. In the case of swords the right hand will always be forward (assuming the usual right hand grip). In the case of jo and depending on the specific technique being executed the hand of the forward foot may or may not move forward with the foot.

The goal of having a good kamai is to maintain a posture where you are centered and balanced and ready to move without hesitation in as many different directions as possible.

Maai

This is usually considered in the simplest form to mean the engagement space or distance between combatants. Like taisabaki, maai has a deeper meaning and is a principle that must be fully appreciated in order to be able to perform techniques effectively. Maai is not simply engagement distance but is the principle of knowing the correct distance at which specific techniques can be executed from effectively. Conversely, and more importantly, maai is knowing what techniques are effective for any given distance between you and your opponent.

Along with appreciation of the distance there must also be appreciation for the actual angle of attack between two people. Although certain techniques work at certain distances they may not work at certain angles of attack even though the distance or spacing between opponents is correct.

Kuzushi

This is the breaking of an opponent’s posture. It is the unbalancing and off centering of your opponent. In a deeper sense it is the unbalancing of your opponent while maintaining your own center and balance. Terms like hara, tanden, jushin, shindashi are sometimes used to define the center of gravity or center of balance. Disturbing a person’s center and balance may be done by physical contact or by physical movement without actual contact.

Tsukuri

Is the entry into a technique. While this term is generally used in the context of fitting in for a throw it actually is applicable to all techniques, whether grappling or not. Tsukuri means to position your body correctly in order to execute a technique most efficiently and effectively. This could be as simple as stepping forward when striking with a jo or the required stepping, turning and lowering of center required to perform a koshi nage (forward hip throw).

Kake

Kake means attack or execution of the technique. This would be the actual swinging and striking with a jo or the hip and torso rotation required to throw a person with a koshi nage.

Applying the Principles

Now that we have a set of definitions let’s see how they all work together to correctly perform or execute techniques. The following is a description of these various principles in the context of a judo shiai. If your not familiar with judo that’s not a problem. The descriptions are detailed enough that the actions can be transferred to any martial art.

To begin with two opponents (uke and tori) face each other at some distance and bow to each other. Using taisabaki with ayumi ashi walking they approach each other. As the distance between the opponents closes to within a couple of feet or so they start walking in tsugi ashi. This allows them to take measured steps while maintaining as much balance as possible until they have the correct maai for actual engagement. At the same time they start tsugi ashi they should adopt their offensive/defensive kamai, namely they have their arms raised out in front of them which will allow them to grip the opponent, along with taking a slightly wider stance and lowering their center.

Uke and tori move around in tsugi ashi feeling each other out while trying to adopt a maai that will afford them the opportunity to get a grip and perform a technique. Once they grip the next objective is to perform kuzushi on the opponent. Once kuzushi is in effect tori moves in the correct manner to put himself in a position to perform a throw, this is the tsukuri. In actuality kuzushi and tsukuri occur almost at the same time. Kuzushi must be maintained during tsukuri.

Once kuzushi and tsukuri have occurred all that is left is the kake or completion of the throw. This is done while holding uke in an unbalanced position and then tori manipulating his own body (leg sweep, hip rotation, etc.) to complete the throw. The goal is to perform kuzushi, tsukuri, and kake quickly and smoothly, expending as little energy as possible.

While Tori has some degree of control over how uke will move about he will not have full control. The level of resistance and the difference in experience levels between uke and tori will be the major factors as to how much tori can unbalance and control uke. You can’t predetermine (except in kata) that you will perform a specific technique. The actual maai and angle of attack established between uke and tori will allow for certain techniques while attempting others would be a waste of time and energy. This is why it’s important to know techniques and their variations so that for any particular maai and angle of attack you find yourselves in you’ll be able to execute an appropriate and effective technique.

It should be appreciated that in judo, jujitsu, and a few other arts techniques are performed while lying, sitting, or kneeling on the mat, this is often referred to as newaza, or suwari waza. These principles apply in newaza and suwari waza as well as in standing techniques (tachi waza). Proper appreciation and use of these principles in newaza will greatly improve a person’s ability to apply techniques while expending as little energy as possible.

In the above scenario each principle was described in a sequential linear way. In actual practice many of these principles can, and in many cases should, occur simultaneously. Furthermore, it is quite common for certain mechanical principles to be repeated: the maai may close to engagement distance and then be opened up again, switching movement between ayumi ashi and tsugi ashi may occur – depending on the maai and the reaction of uke, kuzushi may be gained, lost, and regained. The important point to understand is; what is the next principle that must occur, from where you currently are, in order to execute a technique.

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