10 posts / 0 new
Last post
MartinJutras's picture
Ancient Karate & Softness

Hello everyone,

First post here. After 35 years of Karate, I started being interested in Chinese internal arts, particularly Taichi. Recently, I started to apply the softness of Taichi to my Karate practice and I'm on a very interesting path (for me at least). I'm practicing katas in a much more fluid, soft and flowing way, more like Shotokai does. Okinawan Karate has a different perception and application of power compared to Japanese Karate (Kime vs Muchimi), but the Katas are rigid nonetheless (yes I understand that you can be relaxed yet explosive).

That made me wonder if, in ancient times, katas were practiced the stiff and rigid way they are practiced today. Does anyone have any information on that? Thank you. - Martin Jutras

Wastelander's picture

Well, I wouldn't say that we have much in the way of historical documentation on that subject, but based on what we do know, it's fairly likely that karate was more fluid in the past. Of course, there is the obvious trade relations with China that I think everyone knows about, as it relates to influencing Okinawan culture and martial arts, although they were influenced by Japan, Thailand, Korea, and many other countries, as well. We know that the fighting arts of Okinawa were developed by the nobility, and different levels of nobility approached their martial arts differently--"Bushi" Matsumura Sokon supposedly once complained about the martial arts that the royal family practiced being impractical, flowery, and dancelike, which certainly suggests a high level of fluidity. Of course, once you see modern Motobu Udundi, that is pretty evident. For something a bit more karate-like, you can look at KishimotoDi, which originates with Sakugawa, but bypassed Matsumura and Itosu, and tends to be significantly softer and more fluid than most karate. Getting a bit closer to modern karate, still, we have arts like Ryukyu Kenpo and Matsumura Seito, which are supposed to be closer to the way karate was done pre-Itosu, as well, where you can find practitioners who move with soft fluidity, and practitioners who take the harder approach--you can actually see the evolution of that in video over the past 50 years, as well.

For my own practice, I occasionally do like to practice my kata in a flowing manner, without stops. It's definitely a different feeling--more combative, in a way, and easier to move through the techniques quickly, although you can do it either at full speed or at more of a "Tai Chi speed." If anyone hasn't taken the time to work through kata in that way, I highly recommend it.

MartinJutras's picture

Thank you Noah, that's a very valuable answer.

Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture

My two cents:

Yes, I'm sure that (well I know, because you can find extant Okinawan Ryu that do it this way) there were people who historically praticed Kata in a less rigid fashion. I think that part of what happened is that people began to adopt demo-style performance as the "correct" way to do things. Like a teacher might over-emphasize a movement to teach a certain aspect, and people assumed it should always be done that way.

I have to say though, as a Tai Chi practitioner as well as a Karateka, in practical term Tai Chi has it's own issues in this regard. There are all kinds of things (perhaps even more) in supposedly "correct" Tai Chi practice that are far removed from martial applicablity; That is fine if it's not a primary goal of course.

So there's "fluidity" for health/wellness, but it isn't necessarily the same as fluidity for martial purposes.

PASmith's picture

When I have shown alternate bunkai/boonhae to my TKD club-mates I make a point of trying to get them to disregard, or put to one side at least, the labels that have been applied to the techniques. "Low block", "middle block" and the like. IMHO sticking to such (often incorrect) labels can inhibit exploring the techniques beyond the basic and flawed kick/punch/block stuff. I illustrate this "unhelpful label" idea by showing a palm pressing block from TKD, a palm pressing block from it's Karate progenitor roots and "part the wild horse's mane" from Tai Chi. How calling something a "block" can colour your perception of it as a technique (it must be blocking something right?) while something more ambiguous like "part the wild horse's mane" doesn't limit in the same way.

And, as far as I'm concerned, the three techniques are the same technique/movement just with differing stylistic nuances. In the TKD version the hands move in a fairly circular manner, the Karate one more linear while the Tai chi one is slower, more "flowing" and more "Tai Chi" like.

This is basically a log winded way of me saying that I think it's perfectly legitimate to explore Karate in a softer manner. I often do patterns/kata at a slower and smoother speed. Or paying particular attention to the transition movements. Or making the movements smaller, more compact, lower or otherwise less taxing if I am injured. I have ongoing back issues but at its worse could still run through patterns if I didn't do the kicks full whack or very high.

Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture

One thing that is an interesting exercise I picked up from Tai Chi and applied to Kata is to not only practice slowly and with fluidity, but very fast and fluid. I do this with both of my Tai Chi forms as well. So you use the same sort of fluidity, only fast and with very few "breaks" or moments where kime happens, and very few points that are static. It's closer to the way I've seen some people move in both external and internal Chinese arts.

I found a few links that illustrate this kind of practice:



I feel like this kind of practice in particular (which obviously neccessitates being able to to do it slowly and with fluidity first) greatly improves coordination and general body awareness.

Heath White
Heath White's picture

This is not exactly what the OP was talking about, but one thing I've found useful is to practice my forms at full speed, but "floppy," without locking any muscle at the end of the movement.  Don't even clench the fist.  Earlier in my training I found I was very stiff doing forms and basics--this was encouraged by the way we were trained--and I realized I had to relax to get speed and power.  So I started doing my forms as relaxed as possible.  Then after you do that a couple of times, practice locking muscles just at the end of the movement.  It made my forms better, and it also helped other students stop being so stiff.

Tau's picture

Hopefully Iain will chip into this.

When we do the residentials with Iain we're invited to submit topics to be covered. One of our number asked him to look at Bunkai for T'ai Chi Yang-style form. Iain's obseration, in brief summary, was that whereas our stances are snapshot of a moment in time of transitioning T'ai Chi's smoothness and continual flow had that concept at higher level. I've looked on YouTube for the clip but can't find it. 

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

When it comes to combat, we need to be both fluid and explosive. When it comes to forms, we are looking at “the map to guide us through the terrain” and not the “terrain” itself. In order to give that map clarity, we can see differing approaches in modern karate and Tai-chi.

Karate kata keep the explosiveness, but “snapshots” some positions so the details of these “key frames” are made clear. The term “key frame” comes from animation and was introduced to me by Jordan Giarratano (karateka, self-protection instructor and artist) and I think it’s a really good simile:

“A key frame (or keyframe) in animation and filmmaking is a drawing or shot that defines the starting and ending points of any smooth transition”.


Taichi has a different approach in that it slows things down in order to ensure key details and positions are effectively trained and communicated. This approach keeps the flow but loses the explosiveness.

There are therefore advantages and disadvantages to both approaches, but you need to make one of these compromises otherwise the form loses clarity. It should also be remembered that no training method is complete in and of itself. The intentional “flaws” of forms in order to ensure clarity are not an issue because other complementary forms of training will address these issues i.e. partner drills, pad drills, sparring, etc (which all have their own intentional “flaws”).

When it comes to the practise of my own kata, I personally do a mix. One common form of practice for me is to alternate between doing the kata explosively with the traditional rhythm, and then doing it a slow and flowing way. The kata is typically done five times starting and ending with explosive (so two interspacing soft and slow versions). I find the slow ones useful for concentrating on body awareness and the internal “feel” of the movements. The normal ones are done with a more combative, aggressive, and externally focussed mental state.

With my obvious biases as a lifelong karateka out in the open, if forced to choose between the two approaches, from a combative standpoint only, I would go the karate approach because it better allows for the practise of the vitally important mental state. Slow-flow is quite meditative and relaxing, and it is great for really breaking down technique, but it does not support the dominating mindset needed for combative function. That said, a mix in personal practise as part of a holistic training matrix allows for the best of both worlds.

All the best,


Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture

Some forms of Tai Chi (Chen for instance, being the original form) still involve plenty of explosive movement. Once Yang style began being taught to aristocracy as a health thing, health Tai Chi was a thing and subsequently lots of forms of Taiji lost much marital emphasis in their mainstream presentations.

Much like Karate, lots of the stuff Tai Chi is missing today can be traced back to some specific historical changes..in this case the fact that it is often not really taught as a martial art at all.

All the serious martial Tai Chi people I've known personally (granted that's just a handful) do things fast as well.  Similarly, push-hands practiced can vary widely in what it looks like if its a martial school versus a mostly health/meditative one, from what I've seen.

I am not sure that we truly know a form if we can't do it both fast and slow. To make an analogy to reading a manual, someone who has really internalized information from a manual has read it slowly with an eye to detail, has done "speed reading" with it at times, picked out specific pieces to work on, and most importantly, applied and developed the information from the manual in some kind of actual application.