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Techniques are usually first practiced in a stationary position, which isolates the arms and legs. These techniques are then applied during stepping and hip rotation exercises, followed later by difficult and complex applications, combining several different techniques, stances, and movements. The three most important aspects of good technique are: expansion and contraction of the body, concentration of power, and proper speed of technique. The order in which any technique should be studied is mechanics first, followed by dynamics and control.
A strong stance is critical in developing the strong foundation required of Shotokan karate. Stances provide stability while executing techniques, and allow you to position yourself to deliver those techniques. They are practiced in place, moving forward and backward up and down the floor, and finally moving in various directions, combining different stances in different situations. Shotokan stances are practiced deep in order to strengthen, and make supple the legs and hips. Low stances may seem uncomfortable, but they produce maximum stability and develop strong legs and hips.
There are two categories of stances, inside tension and outside tension. Inside tension stances are categorized by stances in which the knees are brought in toward each other, and outside tension stances have the knees push away from each other. The shape of the stance and the tension in the muscles should provide stability to withstand impact when striking or being struck. Stances also provide the framework for balanced footwork.
The most commonly used stances in Shotokan karate are Zenkutsu Dachi (forward stance), Kiba Dachi (straddle stance), and Kokutsu Dachi (back stance). Zenkutsu Dachi is the most common of these three stances, mainly because it is a stance which is most natural for the human body, whose legs prefer to move forward and backward than sideways.
I have encountered two different schools of thought for correct posture: straighten the back "literally" and straighten the back "naturally".
Some Shotokan instructors are adamant that students roll their pelvis upward in front, and downward in the back by tucking in the buttocks, creating literally, a straight back. This is un-natural and very damaging since the backbone is meant to be curved in three places; the Cervical (into the neck), the Thoracic (between the shoulder blades), and the Lumbar at the base of the spine.
Keep the back naturally curved with your chin up and head in an upright position in all of your stances and movements. This natural posture will result in better mobility, more effective breathing, and less energy consumption. More importantly, a natural posture will result in less harm to the back in the future.
Breathing is our most important and constant body function, and is tied into everything that we do. Proper breathing is performed from the lower abdomen, with the abdomen expanding to breath in and contracting when breathing out. People have different breathing patterns for different situations, and many people have difficulty breathing under high stress situations. Improving your breathing is a focal point for all types of martial arts.
When do you breath in, and when do you breath out? Some instructors teach their students to breath in when blocking, and breath out when striking. This method assumes that blocking techniques require less strength, as blocking is usually a small deflection. My preference is to breath in during preparation and breath out on all techniques. It allows one to execute multiple techniques and important techniques with strength (exhaling is stronger than inhaling). Also, should an opponents stray technique infiltrate your defences, the body is tense and strong enough to absorb it.
A kiai is a yell or shout given at a particular moment during karate techniques. "Ki" means energy or spirit, and "ai" means meet or match. The kiai is used in kumite (sparring) to improve breathing and to strengthen the techniques applied to an opponent. Also, the exhalation at the end of a kiai tenses the body and strengthens the abdomen allowing the student to better receive a counter attack from their opponent. The kiai during techniques helps to keep the student from holding their breath during their motions, which weakens the technique from tension in the body. Emitting a kiai ensures that exhalation is smooth.
When advancing forward or backward, the torso must be kept erect and unmoving, therefore, the centre of gravity is in vertical alignment through the hips, stomach, and chest. Key points to consider when advancing or retreating are as follow:
The hips are used to add body weight and force to techniques by increasing the mass that is being accelerated toward the target. These motions also increase the amount of distance the technique will cover, increasing the striking force. Two of the largest muscle groups in the body are the buttocks and the abdominal muscles, therefore, utilizing their power, as well as the hips, will add strength to any techniques. As the hips turn, the torso and buttocks are added to the force of the technique.
Flexibility in the hips is very important. Exercises to enhance hip rotation include turning the hips from a forward facing position (square) to a nearly sideways facing position (usually about 45 degrees) and back again. The outside hip joint moves forward and backward, while the inside hip acts as a hinge. This can be practiced without technique, and then with techniques added. It is very important that the knees remain locked in place without moving.
The pivot point in hip rotation changes depending upon the situation. It is always either one hip joint or the other, never the centre of the body. Rotating on the centre of the body would mean that one leg is retreating while the other is moving forward, eliminating the effect of the rotation.