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How many attacks?

January 20, 2010

This is a quiz I like to give advanced students: choose a short sequence of movements, like the ipponme kata (which has three steps followed by two cuts), and ask them how many attacks are in the sequence.The first answer, naturally, is “two”, meaning the two obvious cuts. OK, I say, but what about the “blocks” that come before each cuts? Why couldn’t those be attacks, given the right situation? Then, what if I were to stomp on your foot in one of the three steps? What if I were to put a shoulder into you? What if the “blocking” motion is actually a strike with the tsuba, the fist, or the elbow?

I think that most martial artists have probably encountered this facet of kata before – they’re never just what they look like. The Chinese have a concept called “seven stars”, referring to the shoulders, elbows, hands, hips, knees, feet, and head. These are the natural striking surfaces of the body, because those are the bits that stick out; it’s pretty difficult (though not technically impossible) to strike someone with your ribs or your throat, just because they’re recessed areas of the body. When you put a weapon in your hands, you add some additional striking surfaces, but they’re basically all variations of striking with the hands.

So, the way to think about this is, for each motion, how many of the seven stars are available as striking surfaces? If you think about all the possible variations of movement and all the places where an enemy might be, it turns out that in general every movement can be a strike with any surface. This usually blows the student’s mind, so I have to go through several dozen examples of strikes hidden within the apparently-simple ipponme kata before they start to get it. Since I can’t easily demonstrate any complex movement in writing, imagine simply stepping forward. How many attacks do you see? Some possibilities:

  • Every movement forward could be a strike with the head.
  • The leading shoulder and hip can always strike.
  • Every time you pick up a foot, it can be a kick or a stomp.
  • When the foot moves forward, the hips and shoulders turn, which can drive a strike forward with the leading hand, elbow, or knee.
  • Similarly, the trailing hand and elbow (though not knee, usually), can strike backward on the same movement.

Now picture the same movement while holding a sword (which effectively introduces one more joint into your arm), and think of all the extra options it gives you in terms of striking with the point, the edge, the guard, the pommel, and so forth.

Obviously, it’s impossible to keep all of this in your head simultaneously while you’re performing a kata. So, what good is it? First, if you maintain structure and balance throughout your body during every movement, then all the strikes are there whether you’re aware of them or not. If a target should suddenly appear, you’d hit it with some power (though obviously not as much as if you were to focus the strike), and without disrupting your own movement.

Second, this is one reason why you need to perform thousands of repetitions of each kata. When every smallest movement can be an attack, it takes that many tries just to think of all the possibilities, much less to drill each and every one of them. While you’re doing all of this, of course, you’re also honing your body awareness and your movement, which will make everything else easier.

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: when you think you understand something, you don’t. Look deeper.

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