The Stances of Karate – Form, Function and Footprints

Today I was looking through my library, trying to figure out which martial arts books I haven’t read in a while.

One of the books I looked through was “Watashi no Karate-jutsu” by notorious Karate pioneer/brawler/scholar Motobu Choki, which happens to be one of my favorite books. It’s a great read, containing many gems, and the somwhat rugged personality of Motobu really shines through in some places.

The book is seriously a must-read for Karate enthusiasts.

But that’s not what I want to write about right now.

What I want to write about is Karate’s obsession with ‘stances’, In Japanese known as tachi (or -dachi if preceeded by another word). You see, when I flipped through Motobu’s book today, I noticed something really funny, that has got to do with stances.

In a paragraph entitled “Collection of Sayings by Motobu Choki”, the following can be read:

“#34. There are no stances such as neko-ashi-dachi, zenkutsu-dachi or kokutsu-dachi in my Karate. Neko-ashi is a form of “floating foot” which is considered very bad in Bujutsu. If one receives a body strike, one will be thrown off balance. Zenkutsu and kokutsu are unnatural, and prevent free leg movement.”

Now, what do I find funny about this?

Nothing in particular.

But… when you read a few pages further, when Motobu demonstrates some typical old Karate self-defense techniques, something interesting happens.

He starts to use stances!

Which he, just a few pages back, claimed he doesn’t.

Don’t believe me?

Well, see for yourself:

An escape from a rear bear hug, with a picture perfect zenkutsu-dachi.

I even drew some red lines to make it clearer:

If this isn’t a zenkutsu-dachi, then I don’t know what is!

But wait, there’s more.

Look at this neko-ashi-dachi, that he apparently “never uses” because it “is considered very bad in Bujutsu”

(Okay, so he doesn’t actually lift his front heel, like we do today in our modern form-orientated Sport Karate, but the weight is clearly centered above the back foot, which happens to be the purpose of neko-ashi-dachi)

You thought that was all?

I’ve actually got one more zenkutsu-dachi (a variation of the first one):

And with some red lines:

So what’s up with this?

Was the great Motobu a lier?!

Did he write that he “never uses stances”, only to secretly love them?

I don’t think so. However, what I do believe is that Motobu often used several different stances (as indicated in the pictures above), but he made a simple mistake that everybody who practises Karate makes now and then.

He confused function with form.

Form with function.

And from that simple misunderstanding stems the never-ending debate on Karate and its stances. Modern desktop warriors battling on forums, keyboard fighters arguing on websites… I mean, you only need a quick Google search to find the following:

“[…] karate is a joke. Its useage of classical stances and lack of speed make it a very impractical […]”

sidekicks 83

Or how about this:

[…] complex series of impractical stances and poses, are typical of traditional martial arts, and anyone practicing such crap would be killed if he fought a real […]

-Defendu

I could find so much more, but I wouldn’t want to give them more space on the internet even if they paid me.

On the other hand… when you think about it, maybe our precious Karate stances really are somewhat impractical. I mean, maybe they are right? You could never execute a swift kick from shiko-dachi, right? Or how about trying to throw a big, hard, right hand knockout punch from neko-ashi-dachi?

Good luck doing that!

But here we go again: Acting foolish.

Because now we are again, just like Motobu, confusing ourselves with the real purpose and use of the different stances.

From the beginning, the function of the technique dictated how the form would look like. Constructing some kind of form from a blueprint was never the goal. Today, it is the opposite. We are reverse-engineering everything based on stances that we don’t even understand to begin with.

We are trying to do things, but we are using the wrong tools.

A house will never be stable if built on quicksand.

So I figured, since Karate has this obsession with stances, and some uneducated people like to pick on that, how do other martial arts do?

I took a look.

And here’s what I found:

This is Western fencing.

They call this move the “fente”. Or simply “the lunge”.

They do not care how many degrees the toes should point somewhere, or how wide or long the stance should be. The point of the stance is to reach forward and stab the opponent. How the stance (form) then looks is up to you, as long as you reach your goal (function).

We would call it a zenkutsu-dachi.

And what do we have here?

Two Thai boxers preparing to exhange vicious blows with each other.

But look at the feet.

The stance they use is called Jod Muay, meaning “fighting stance”, focusing heavily on being light on the front foot (for quick kicks, checks, blocks, parries and knees) while remaining heavy on the back foot.

In Karate, we would call it a typical neko-ashi-dachi.

For the purpose of Thai boxing, experience has shown it is the perfect stance.

And here’s some regular modern Olympic boxing.

Now, I didn’t find a good picture of it, but when two boxers are in an infighting exchange, using short, fast techniques like uppercuts, body blows, and hooks, guess what stance they are using?

The short range boxing stance would be what we call sanchin-dachi. Perfect for close quarter, core muscle-dominated fighting.

But since I didn’t find a picture, you’ll simply have to believe me.

And finally, the last martial art that I’m “borrowing” stances from:

Wrestling.

Using the best stance for Wrestling means finding a good balance between stability and mobility. You must be able to withstand your opponents attempts at takedowns, while simultaneously being able to bring down the opponent.

There is even a saying that goes “Without a good stance, a wrestler doesn’t have a chance”

The answer lies in what we Karate people refer to as kiba-dachi.

————————

So, what do we make of these four different “Karate ” stances that other martial arts use?

Karate, being highly influenced by the Japanese systematical “everything-must-be-cut-to-pieces-and-fit-into-a-box” mindset, has 20-30 stances, neatly divided into several different categories.

But in reality, nearly every other martial art has this plethora of stances too.

They just don’t focus on the outside that much. They never cared about dividing everything into categories, divisions and fields.

Other martial arts (often more modern ones) still have their original goal known to the practitioner – which happens to be beating an opponent. And to do that, you only need a basic understanding of the underlying form. The stance, or kamae. From there you evolve, and your techniques will allow you to freely flow into different forms, depending on the situation.

When it comes down to it, mastering how to control your bodyweight in different scenarios is all that you need. Accomplish that, and you’ll never have to think about stances again.

Because that’s the whole point of stances anyway.

“When one has reached maturity in the art, one will have a formless form.

It is like ice dissolving in water. When one has no form, one can be all forms; when one has no style, he can fit in with any style.”

-Bruce Lee

It is important to learn forms and stances, but it is equally important to forget them, once the meaning behind them has been absorbed.

Or else you might never go beyond what Bruce Lee once called the “classical mess”.

22 Comments

  • JamesD.
    'It is important to learn forms and stances, but it is equally important to forget them, once the meaning behind them has been absorbed.' True, it is important to 'forget it' once you understand it. The problem is that the meaning behind them (as well as all other techniques) is much more than what many artists ever learn. For example, to say that stances are nothing more than learning proper weight distribution, is, in my understanding, a basic level understanding that one should learn on his/her first day in the dojo. Stances are tools to be used and like with any tool (weapon) in our respective martial arts, the stances have offensive as well as defensive applications. They were not designed for stagnant use, but were (and are) meant to be fluid. The breaking down of and regimentalization of the footwork, though well intentioned I'm sure, eventually led to the stagnation of said stances within the kata & kihon.
  • ANDREY TAMPA BAY FL
    2010-1,19. 6 33 PM TAMPA TIMES.OSHU !!THIS ARTICLES IS INDEED VERY INTERESTING.PLEASE I HAVE A QUESTIONSENSEI MYAGI NEVER CONFER BLACK BELT SHODANOR NIDAN GRADE TO ANYONE. PLEASE I LIKE TO KNOW WHO INTRODUCETHE DAN KARATE SYSTEM IN OKINAWA ,AND IN TOKYO ,JAPAN IN KARATE.PROBABLY IT COME FROM THE BUTOKUKAI.PLEASE LET ME KNOW .AND HAVE A GOOD LIFE IN THE CHINESE NEW YEAROF THE WHITE TIGER, STARTING FEB 14.OSHU AND TRAIN HARD !!ANDREY GOLDMAN. TAMPA FL.
  • diman
    I think the you are citing in illustration 12 is more like a 'kiba' or 'shiko' dachi than 'zenkutsu. The person behind is in a zenkutsu. In terms of function 'kiba dachi' is effective for lateral stability in case he does not want to be thrown to the side or wants to throw him around his hip and 'shiko dachi' is stable from being pushed forward or backward.
  • Well, we could look at it this way too. Stances, like upper body postures, are transitory. We're not supposed to be frozen in them. Consider a traditional oi-tsuki in zenkutsu-dachi. Got that picture in your head? Good. Well, all that is is a snapshot of a sequence of body movements that led up to it and a precursor to the body movements that will flow from it. It's just a point frozen in time. We're not supposed to be frozen in it though. We move.
  • You could look at it like this to - zenkutsu = forward motion/pushing techniques kokutsu = moving backwards/pulling techniques kiba = pressing down/getting your body weight under your opponent's etc, etc. plus loads of variations on those themes too.
    • diman
      There is more to be said beyond the picture. My comment is only about what I see in that picture alone which as you noted is just a 'frozen point in time'. There being many variations and interpretations on stances and technique I was only curious to see if my perspective had any merit.
  • There is an esoteric side to martial postures that is grossly misunderstood and commonly overlooked in mainstream martial arts. Both static and fixed posturings have a range of positive and negative qualities divided into two categories of skill level: exoteric or biomechanical efficiency, and esoteric, (here meaning inner)dealing specifically with internal energy principles. Stances are never either/or, i.e. functioning in one or the other dimension. Only the consciousness/ego of the user of stances fixes their relevance. A man grossly superior in brute strength may never have need to activate any esoteric principles in his stances if his opponent is less organized than he. Sloppy technique prevails over sloppier technique. Some martial arts stances may seem stylized like the Neko Ashi Dachi particularly because the Asian masters reached a high level of understanding about such posture's energy receiving/energy sending qualities. This quality has become a lost art within an art.
    • Noel Minay
      Mabuhay! As Hayashi Tomio was saying there could be some breathing techniques to be done coupled with the intended stances ie the energy points that is best utilised (or stimulated) in preparation for gathering enough force (or energy) to be delivered with a strike or kick, etc. (My own thinking)--NM
      • All movement is a form of acupressure both self-directed and 'other' directed. When evaluating the merits of various stances you must not look at the parts separate from the whole. Every stance generates multiple levels of pressure that prime the muscles for leveraging, convey one to or away from an opponent and ground strikes. Stances affect the arms. Arms affect the stances. This is because the body functions as a one-piece unit, each part adding to or deleting from the primary objective. Each combat discipline 'packages' body posturing to best maximize the goal. In other words, there is a postural 'recipe' unique to various fighting arts. The better the package, the more bang for your effort. A cat stance may appear over-stylized and unrealistic within some combat arenas, but for the highly skilled Okinawan master, it proves an extraordinary internal energy-receiving (recipe) posture. We see very clear evidence of this idea in the terminology Tori and Uke, receiver and sender, respectively. As stated in an earlier post. This internal side to the traditional fighting arts is disappearing.
  • Jesse,What translation of Motobu Choki's book would you recommend?Thanks!
    • Patrick McCarthy's, by far! (IRKRS)
  • Gerry
    I agree that stances are all transitional. In addition I interpret many stances as necessary since the non-striking hand is often used for grabbing and pulling. In my Shotokan mindset lower and stonger stances are needed to counteract the force generated when attempting to off-balance or throw a person.
  • An interesting debate. Here is what karate has taught me after 30 years: one must begin somewhere and stances are as good a place to start as anywhere. Stances in and of themselves don't really help us much unless we come to understand that facilitate the work we are doing (or about to do). So I agree completely with the concept of fluidity mentioned above. But how many times have we watched novices practice techniques that are not done effectively because the stance they were using did not facilitate that work, either because the stance was not done correctly or it was the wrong stance for the required work. So in my opinion, It is necessary to teach stances but also necessary to teach what work they facilitate. I hope this helps
  • ANDREY
    PLEASE WHAT IS THE NAME OF THE STANCES ON THE GROUND FLOOR IN KANKU DAI AND KANKU SHO ? SOMEONE TOLD ME RYOTO FUSE ? LIKE WHEN YOU ATRART RUNNING IN THE OLYMPIC RACE. THANKSW
  • Paul
    If you try to experiment woth stances (even boxing stances) you will find out why it is important to place your feet well.
  • Roberto
    is it a joke? That first photo is not zenkutsu dachi..your draw is incorrect as the left knee is bent my friend..that stance is kiba dachi, not zenkutsu dachi
    • Well, with all due respect, if your kiba dachi (lit. "horse-riding stance") looks like that, then I would very much like to see the horses you're riding! ;) All jokes aside though, Motobu has his weight to the front (away from the attacker) in the image, which is more akin to the zenkutsu (lit. "front bent leg stance") as opposed to the 50/50 weight distribution of the kiba dachi (which would make no sense from a practical standpoint in the context of this self-defense sequence). But thanks for chiming in!
      • Yahia
        Well, I have to tell you, Jesse, that my Kiba Dashi does look like that and probably yours. It does is a Kiba Dachi. It is a perspective effect that fools you. His left leg is NOT straight and is bend, the axis of the camera is just not too good. You can see that by the fact that the body is not aiming the correct direction for a zen Kutsu. Even more, the left foot is not aiming to the your supposed "front", but is perpendicular to the leg, just perfect for a Kiba Dachi. It would be very interesting to know where this picture comes from and what was the original description. Other point, going forward with a ZenKutsu, have you tried to strike groin with your left hand (as in the picture) when the opponent would be on your back/right side ?!?! Just improbable and highly ineffective (no precision no power...). While if you are in kabi dachi, and your opponent is just in your back, a short step on your right would easily allow you to aim at your opponent's groin. Much more logical ! Tell me I am wrong and I quit your youtube channel ^^
  • Marcílio
    I have seen some okinawan kobujutsu kata in the internet, and the funny thing is that they do not seem to display any kind of formal stances. D you believe that in karate, this was the same in the past?
    • Indeed Marcílio-san, when you see advanced Karate practitioners (traditional stylists) perform kata too, the outer shape of stances seem to mean less as the inner mechanics are gradually developed and understood. To an onlooker, it looks like the stances have "disappeared" - when they have in fact only been internalized. In the past there were definitely fewer stances, and they were significantly less defined than today.
  • Irwin Chen
    I believe it begins with the Taiji Standing Position which allows the practitioner to 'feel' minute movements in the body. As the body adjusts and becomes a whole unit with the 'Dantien' its 'Steering Wheel', everything else (stances) becomes natural, round and fluid. And in time, becomes functional in application.This is purely Internal and the 'transitions' become invisible or illusionary. There are several levels (height) of Standing based on experience generally to strengthen the body particularly the 'Kua' region which is the essential driver of all the stances.Cheers!
  • davish
    Real fighting is a chaotic situation. Stances are to be learned in martial arts until mastered and then "forgotten" in a real life fight. They should flow naturally and be used more or less "by the book", depending on the fighting flow. You are right, there are stances in every fight system, even if your trainer just says "put your leg in front and stand sideways", it is a stance, just because it doesn't have a proper name on that fight system, it is a stance nonetheless. To be glued to the floor in front of your opponent on a street fight can be dangerous yes (if you're using fixed stances), the fighter must adapt his style according to the situation and not only on stances but attacking and defending as well (when using your arms / body). I think it's like throwing a punch - the more you free yourself, the better. You can deliver lighting speed attacks and classify all of them in Karate terms, just not in a very classical Karate stance perhaps, but the basis is there (kokutsu dachi, zenkutsu or fudo dashi, etc). I think eve Bruce Lee, although trying to discard his classical Wushu training, used techniques of Kung Fu all the time. He was a bit radical when speaking, almost discarding the classical martial arts knowledge, but his basis was strong in Kung Fu. One can be careful and look beyond the fixed systems, beyond the stances and adapt accordingly and most importantly, learn from every experience and art out there, Karate (or any other martial art) shouldn't be a closed book.

Leave a comment