Around 30 years ago I was taking a private lesson in Iaido with Okimitsu Fuji and we were practicing a form called ‘Uke Nagashi’ which involved me kneeling down with him walking towards me and cutting down towards my head. I had to stand up drawing my sword in such a manner that it deflected his sword and then I would pivot and cut him from neck to hip in one fluid motion.
As we did this our swords clashed as I blocked his. “Uke!” he said as he walked back to repeat the process. The swords clashed again and he looked visibly annoyed as he repeated “Uke!!”… When it happened a third time he looked exasperated and said “what do you think ‘uke’ means?”
“’Block’, Sensei..” I replied.
“No, no, no,” he said, “no wonder we were clashing! Uke means to ‘receive’ – to ‘invite in’, in fact the opposite to ‘block’!”
In that moment I received ‘kensho’ – a sudden enlightenment as many aspects of my training fell into place. I’d been practicing Tai Chi for some time and also working on push hands drills with Nathan Johnson practicing the skills of yield, blend, stick, follow and redirect, but hadn’t managed to apply them to my karate training. That simple translation lifted the veil and enabled me to see the spirals in our blocking movements and enabled me to apply the Tai Chi and Nathan’s drills to them. I was immediately able to formulate a complete push hands system with them that I’ve successfully taught worldwide to thousands of students to this day.
Alongside the punch, the four basic blocks of karate are the first movements learned when you walk into a karate dojo. To many, they seem to be large basic movements and are used in the beginning to block that basic punch upward, outer to inner, inner to outer and downward.
Many sparring or fighting based training clubs and ‘reality based fighting’ clubs have now stopped using these fundamental training techniques classing them as ‘unworkable’ ‘impractical’ and ‘old fashioned’.
I feel that these movements require much further examination to understand the ‘magical’ role they play within any good training syllabus. These movements are found within virtually every martial art, armed and unarmed, in one form or another, why is this?
Firstly, they cover the parameters of the body down to the thighs that are likely to be attacked, they also cover the range of movements that an attack is likely to be intercepted with. Using the basic movements, the student learns the interception points and angles required to meet an attack and exactly how far the attack needs to be redirected to miss striking the body.
The arms are moved at strong postural angles to the body enabling them to be supported by the body structure right down to the ‘root’ at the feet, anything that is strong for ‘blocking’ (or redirecting) an attack is also strong as an attack in itself.
These moves can be practiced with both open hand and closed fist – and in their own way, both are equally effective. The movements can be employed as strikes, locks, throws, dislocations and escapes with devastating effect and without having to change the movements in any way.
Using both hands multiplies the effectiveness and the number of techniques that can be used. If you place both hands together in front of you in a ‘praying’ position, this is the strongest position of the arms to the body for striking, locking and throws. Then half turn the body until the fingertips of one hand meet the elbow of the other, this is the start position of all the ‘blocks’, a natural guard with the arms still strong and used for ‘passing’ hands, figure four locking, strangles and chokes.
The hands then pass until the ‘fingertips to elbow’ position is reached again with the other forward arm rotating into the ‘uke’ ‘receiving’ or striking position (after all, that’s just another form of ‘receiving’ along with locking or throwing).
When the fist is closed, it is pulled back at the wrist, shortening the tendons and making the entire arm strong in all directions, connecting it to the body and down to the feet, without having to tense a muscle. Every part of the arm and hand available can be used for striking and the middle finger joints make a deadly ‘Tai Chi’ style punch into the throat, under the jaw line, upwards into the nose, under the cheekbone and into the corner of the eye socket, typically then being pulled across the bridge of the nose. These techniques can be applied whilst wedging through the opponents arms at close range. With an open hand the fingertips and both edges of the hand can be used to poke, gouge and ‘cut’ to the same points ‘snake style’.
These techniques also give the correct distance, angle and technique to strike the points on the forearm, deadening the opponents’ arm and setting up the points around the jaw line.
The uke then changes from a ‘wedge’ to a ‘ball’ with the arm spiraling in the direction of the uke so that the opponent gets the same impression as hitting a ‘spinning ball’, and with sensitivity training, this is where you can blend, stick, follow, redirect and make the opponent’s structure go weak, making them far more vulnerable to a ‘punishing’ follow up.
At this point the shape of the arm changes with the fist pulled down at the wrist, the ‘yin’ to the other ‘yang’ shape, again making the arm strong in all directions and perfectly shaped for forearm strikes, punching with the first two knuckles, hammer fist striking or striking with the middle thumb joint.
The upward uke strikes to the neck, jaw line and behind the ear, the outer to inner uke to the temple, behind the ear and the neck and jaw line, the inner to outer to the neck or temple and the lower uke will bring the opponent to his knees with a hammerfist to behind the ear or strike to the groin and lower regions. Open hand cuts, pokes and gouges to the same points.
We also train all these techniques with the children specifically for escapes from a grab or hold, the spiraling action means that if the arm is rotated using any of these motions it will take the arm out of the grip at the weakest point.
I would consider these techniques as the building blocks for understanding how to use the body powerfully, how to utilise the principles of softness, the wedge and spiraling action with good postural alignment for most of the striking, locking, throwing, dislocating, strangling and choking techniques in the ‘traditional’ karate training syllabus.