How To Relax in Karate

“Relax more!”

shai_hai_and_jesse_enkamp_training_sanchinHave you heard a sensei say that?

I have.

A gazillion times.

During my travels around the Karate world, dozens of masters have told me to relax more. I used to hear it in every dojo.

My techniques were too stiff, tense or awkward.

To be honest, this made me frustrated…

I knew I needed to relax more.

But it seemed impossible when someone commanded me to do it!

I used to get so angry at myself for this. I felt ashamed for not being able to do what my sensei wanted me to do. It was soul-crushing.

Until I started noticing a pattern:

The more I tried to relax, the stiffer I got.


Perhaps I should just stop trying?


It was like a magic spell had been broken.

I became relaxed.

Holy cow!

That made me realize my mind is not separate from my body.

They are two sides of the same coin.

  • A strong body cannot exist without a strong mind.
  • A flexible body cannot exist without a flexible mind.
  • A relaxed body cannot exist without a relaxed mind.

The problem was never in my body.

It was in my mind.

You see, in my struggle to relax, I had built up tension in my mind. This was reflected in every ounce of my body. The more I tried to relax, the stiffer I became. It was as unnatural as forcing myself to sleep.

So, I stopped trying.

I just…

Let it go.

And it worked.

It freakin’ worked man!

When I stopped trying to relax, relaxation happened to me.

It wasn’t forced. Simply allowed.

No effort involved. Just effortless.

And I think this can work for you too.

Try it out and let me know how it goes!

Or rather, don’t try…

(Get it?)

Good luck!

PS. Thanks to the 100+ Karate Nerds who attended my US seminar in Boston this weekend! A video of the dynamic hip mobility exercises is available this week only for members of Karate Nerd Insider. Looking forward to my upcoming seminars!


  • Walter
    So funny, yesterday my sensei told me to leave these tensed delta muscules home, and will probably tell me this tonight again... :-)
    • It's about tensing at the right moment, Walter-san! ;-) Keep training hard & smart!
  • AK
    Counter-intuitively, I find that what most karate people actually mean when they say "relax your shoulders" is "tense/use your lats".
    • This is why terminology is so important for proper communication in Karate. The dojo needs to be a learning environment where we can understand each other clearly!
  • Maggie
    You are so right. I get told all the time! So about a month ago I started smiling. A big smile, because I was exactly where I wanted to be and this is more fun than anything else I do. So there I am with the big grin an sweat running down my face. And you know what, sensei smiles too. Maybe I worked it out Jesse? Either way training goes better when I smile.
  • Michael
    That's actually a great way to do it. I'll try this at training tonight!
  • Agreed, Jesse-san! Relaxation is a byproduct of training... it shouldn't be approached directly. Telling people to RELAX is like telling people to BE CONFIDENT! BELIEVE IN YOURSELF! Good luck with that! You can't just flip on the confidence switch... you have to do the work that leads to confidence. Thanks, Sensei!
    • Sensei Ando, that's so true. It has to come naturally, from the inside. Like so many things ;-) Keep up the awesomeness!
  • Jack
    I am always told to relax, don’t be so tense! So one time I really made a big effort to loosen up and “flow” more while going through some kata work, my sensei pulled me aside after some time and says “what’s up with you tonight? Why are you not putting in any effort!?!” :(
  • Joseph J. Truncale
    Here is a tip for you. As a lifetime student of the martial arts and a retired police officer I found relaxing has everything to do with controlling your breathing. I taught my police students and karate students to focus on a simple combat breathing method. (1) Inhale through your nose to a count of 4. (2) Hold to a count of 4 (3) Exhale to a count of 4. (4) Hold to a count of 4. Repeat a couple times and you will automatically become more relaxed. JJT
    • Sheila
      I have always known that to be called "square breathing. In see yoga and mindfulness exercises that simply balance the in and out without the hold, and I think it is less effective. As a low-ranked karateka, but an avid surfer, I believe the hold (in and out) are the essential part for contolling anxiety, releasing tension, reducing heartrate and preventing drowning to boot.
  • Chantal Denise
    Being relaxed is a common calling in our dojo, also for the higher belts. I am too tensed as well, probably still breathing incorrectly and letting go when I shouldn't. And then my circulation collapses. Especially slow movements with a lot of resting cause problems. Since I am slender and tall, for me Karate probably is exactly what it is for a giraffe to go down for a drink... The positive side about going horizontal is, that I have learned what it means to be part of an association. Everyone is really supportive and caring. Traits I love in this Martial Art. You rarely find this team spirit in other sports, or ballet, where I come from.
    • Awesome Chantal-san! The team spirit and social support of Karate associations is essential, but can sometimes backfire when politics get in the way. You seem to have found a good place! Keep it up & thanks for being a Karate Nerd. :-)
    • Chantal Denise
      Thank you for making this awesome blog and sharing your knowledge! :)
  • Tense shoulders - plaguing me for all of my training. Just the other night my Sensei said that just like riding a bike, one day I'll "get it" and I'll be moving better. OK, so now I have a hint - it's all in my head... Wait, that doesn't sound good... Uh... It's mental? Uh oh, even worse. OK well, you know what I mean ;-)
    • Karate is 99% in the head, Joelle-san! But you already knew that ;-) Good luck & thanks for sharing!
  • Arvin Guanio
    Nice article! Thanks Jesse-Sensei!
  • Michael
    It actually worked! I tried thos last night during training at my dojo, and sensei whi is usually very held-back when it comes to compliments told me he was very surprised at my performance that time. Thanks Jesse!!
    • Awesome Michael-san! That makes me super glad to hear. :-) Keep it up!
  • John Preece
    going for my second kyu this weekend. Lets hope I stay relaxed (I wont, but i can always dream). Great article as always, though not quite the new MMA direction you want to take (hahaha) ;)
  • Matthew Dear
    I had that problem too until I stopped trying and my movements felt fluid and smooth. My sensei always says to the class whenever we are practicing gyaku zuki that you start being relaxed and then explode. And once you thrust out your punch there's a 3 second delay of kime and then pull back. Not to mention he kept on telling us to swing your hips not your shoulders.
  • Shotokan Cyclist
    OK, I'll keep trying, although how I can stay relaxed when I'm putting all my effort into making my punches and kicks as hard as possible is beyond me (for now!)
    • Norman V Cain
      Relax and your punches and kicks will be faster and more powerful than you ever imagined
  • Rudi Zampa
    Gruß article is Vers important ans every well educated Trainer schuld know why and how. As you know this ist essential Goju ryu as well as for it her styles or shools. From Mythos experience Beginner are struggeling most with this issue. It looks like they cannot move because of the Body tension! So its our responsibility to realize and to correct accordingly.
  • Rudi Zampa
    Great article! This is a very important topic and every well educated Trainer should know why and how. As you know this ist essential for Goju Ryu as well as for other styles or shools. From my experience Beginner are struggeling most with this issue. It looks like they cannot move because of the Body tension! So its our responsibility to realize and to correct accordingly. Sorry for my stupid posting before but auto correction is not always working well!
  • Fabi from Brazil
    Hi Jesse Yes this is the word that I most listening from my sensei. And you're totally right only when you stop effort to get this you start getting. And probably this is the concept about "action with no action" that the wise people say on orient. By the way is my suggestion of next subject to you. What do you think? Thanks a lot Oss
  • Norman Vadeboncoeur
    Exactly! One of my many weaknesses is remembering to breathe... I find when I relax I breathe and when I breathe I can relax. It's a vicious circle. :) I was one of the 100 Karate Nerds who attended your seminar this past weekend. Thank you so much for your time and insight! It was a pleasure meeting you!
  • David Pearson
    Will try that I am always told too stiff and relax hopefully it works. I am 3rd kyu most gradings it's been good but tense I know I can do it I also do not want to dissapointed my sensei.
  • Wesley Brown
    I have also heard this both in Japan and Okinawa from all of my Asian sensei and it seems so easy for them and they sometimes do not understand why its not easy for us westerners, especially Americans. We are born into a world of stress, it becomes more apart of who we are than not. Our society breeds stress in our schools, our work, our social circles and in our politics... Heck, even a vacation does not relieve stress. By the time you get a few days into it and do relax, you realize you have a few days and your going back and you get stressed again... HAHAHA. What i guess i mean to say, sometimes the idea of relaxing although needed to perform, is not always as easy for some... but we still try... and we may never relax as others think we should.
  • Hairo
    So what would you tell your student if you want him or her to relax [his or her mind]?
    • I would make him/her feel confident + secure in what he/she is doing. And tell him/her to smile :-)
      • Hairo
        Thanks for the reply, Jesse-sensei. I plan to be an instructor, very soon, and reading your articles fills me with knowledge to succeed with this.
  • Orlando Sanchez
    Being relaxed is incredibly difficult for me. I can feel it in my trapezius us as my I tend to keep my shoulders tensed upward. The simple things sometimes take the longest to master.
    • Hitorikko
      Me too #omg
  • Hitorikko
    Thanks! Now I think I can relax more when I do kata >w<
  • Ben
    Hi Jesse, I've got a tournament coming up in a few months and one of the things I've noticed is that I struggle to take hits, especially when the opponent starts to rain them on. Do you have any advice? Exercises to build muscle or just technique, anything would be appreciated. Thanks in advance, Ben
    • Work on your tai-sabaki (body movement) and ashi-sabaki (footwork). Don't stand in the rain!
  • Akshat
    Yes that's true . To relax u should empty your mind rather than telling yourself to relax .
  • Relax! is what I say and hear more in my dojo followed closely by: Relax more! I really think the usual way to practice kihon in most dojos ruins our ability to relax...
  • I really think that relaxation is an underrated part of karate. It is so important, and what makes karate different from other types of martial arts. I actually wrote about this topic about a week ago on my own blog: Anyways thank you so much again Jesse-san, for another amazing karate article. I always enjoy to learn from you.
  • Tiny bit of insight a week ago. We were working on, well, I don't know what to call it - like "pushing hands" or sensitivity drills, except no structure - just free play at close range with the objective of trapping. We started off with just arms and hands. At one point, Sensei pointed out, "If you stiffen up, that just makes it easier for me to trap you." Light bulb! I made more effort to stay loose. We moved on to using the entire body at close range. It was a flowing game of evasion, deception, luring, and trapping. Every time I stiffened and tried to defend with stiffness or power into offense with muscle, I lost opportunities and/or advantages. On the surface, these were exercises in strategy, anticipation, intuition, and working at close range. But I think Sensei also wanted me to learn loose, fluid movement in a context that would give me instant feedback. Now let's see if I can apply it next time I'm doing kumite.
  • Jeff Weese
    A bit late on the comments however - I am told constantly to relax. I would tell my Sensei "But I feel relaxed" and he would tell me "I can feel the tension across the floor". I will try this evening, to just not think about it.
  • Great advice Jesse! I find that I'm most guilty of being overly-tense during kata, when I'm trying to make everything look crisp and clean - snapping the gi and all that. I was told the same thing: "Your kata look fine - you just need to relax more. Let it flow." I had some success by going through the kata again, this time purposely avoiding the gi-snap, but ironically I didn't think about not thinking about it. Definitely going to play around with this concept a bit!
  • IMHO, it seems that the concept of blending tension with relaxation, or "mochime" can be a difficult thing for westerners to grasp. For one, most westerners have never seen or felt mochime. lol Also, we tend to think in binary terms...where things are either hard or soft. For example, Americans typically think of Uechi-Ryu as "half-hard, half-soft." I remember being among those who tried to categorize which techniques were hard and which were soft. We would put WAY too much strength into our training, because hey...more strength is MORE! But, it was explained to me at some point that everything is actually a blend of those two elements. Some things have more hard, and some more soft. The perfect Sanchin (or anything else) employs a great blend of pliable tension. Sometimes I use this comparison to help people understand. If you push down on a beam made of steel, it moves very little because it's very rigid and stiff. If you push down on a similar bar made of strong rubber with the same force, it will move much more because it is more flexible. It has strength and pliability. THAT is pliable tension. Be the rubber! haha
  • hi all im 50 years of agemaile way just over 10 does shota kan karate over 20 years ago got up to 2nd brown just got back in to it over year agao sparing to in club not long just got in thing is sparing with 3rd dan belt much bigger than me to got told off for punching had like to now how to relax my punch for not hitting had can any one help i also watch you tube lot about shota kankarate to also coming to my black belt to
  • Tim Biersteker
    My last sensei was ALWAYS trying to get me to relax, until he passed away in 2010. I will continue to strive to do so, in both mind AND body. Thank you, Jesse Sensei!
  • colin
    Hi Jesse et all, Thinks for doing a great job of sharing wisdom. I have been trying to work out the meaning of 'relax' for some time. Certainly being 'told to relax' or 'trying to relax' doesn't work. It tends just to increase frustration. I'm trying to spend more time meditating to clear my mind which I hope will help. After reading this think I'm being too serious about my training and a smile would help a lot. Maybe Sensei should say 'lighten up' or 'smile' instead of relax :-) Clearly a lot of Sensei see a lot a student 'not relaxed' and this state is impeding there techniques. What are they seeing? what is not working right when a student is not relaxed? Being a westerner I feel I'm struggling at being in a state of 'relaxed awareness'. Is this about mindfully living in the moment?
  • Dan Campbell
    Thank you Sensei Jesse, my first move of the Shotokan kata "Jion" was way to tense, and applying this technique really helped! Arigato.
  • Ian
    As a Dr I find the worst thing you can tell someone who is tense/stressed or anxious is “Relax”, the best thing is - be BUSY!

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