Are the ASAI exercises really necessary? 浅井空手の運動が必要な理由
The short answer to this question is “yes”. I will share the reasons why I claim this and I hope you will see where I am coming from, even if you do not agree with me one hundred percent.
If you have participated in any of the seminars that I have held, you would have discovered that you had to go through some physical exercises after the warm up was finished. Many people find these exercises to be very challenging. Some people may think they are not necessary. In fact, I have received several criticisms about these exercises claiming they were harmful to our bodies. These criticisms came following the YouTube videos that I have shared, which show squat kicks, bunny hops, kicking from seiza position, etc (photos below). The critics claimed that these exercises could damage the knees. Others have also mentioned that these exercises were unnecessary for karate training even if the exercises might not be harmful.
In a way I understand why they think that way. However, many of us are missing one very important fact. I feel it is my responsibility to inform karate practitioners what we are missing. This short essay will explain why these exercises are necessary, not only for Asai karate, but also for all karate practitioners.
To understand where we are now, we must study the history. Do not be alarmed as we will cover only the superficial matters.
I am sure you will agree that the original karate was formulated several hundred years ago. Some claim more than five hundred years. However, there are few written materials to support the exact starting period. On the other hand, there is one book that describes the existence of Kenpo jutsu in Okinawa. The book is called Nanto Zatsuwa (南島雑話, photo left), and is comprised of five documents written by Satsuma (薩摩) Samurai, Nagoya Sagenta (名越左源太 1819-1881). Nagoya was exiled to the Amami Islands (then part of the Ryukyu Islands or Okinawa). During his stay there between 1850 – 1855, he recorded his experience in Ryukyu in the mid nineteenth century. It’s in this book you can find 2 drawings titled “Kenpo-jutsu” (拳法術).
So, we know for sure that Kenpo jutsu or karate had existed at least towards the end of the Edo period (17th – 19th centuries). This was of course before the introduction of a mechanized transportation system in Japan. This brings us to a very important fact that many people tend to forget. The people at that time had to walk everywhere.
Even though there are no documents to prove this, many scholars believe that the average Japanese person walked at least 20km, or at least 30,000 steps daily. So, what is the big deal about this? Well, we must compare this to the average number of walking steps made by modern day men.
The Walking Site recommends we should walk 10,000 steps daily. According to this site’s article, a sedentary person may walk only 1,000 to 3,000 steps a day.
Here is the link to the full article: http://www.thewalkingsite.com/10000steps.html
This means that we, the modern man, walk anywhere between one tenth and one thirtieth of what the ancient Japanese used to do. This must mean that our legs are not as strong as the people in those days.
Another big difference between the ancient Japanese and the modern man including modern day Japanese, is that we rarely squat or sit in seiza position. Those actions not only strengthen our legs but they stretch the ligaments of the knees, which results in stronger construction of the knee joints. In addition to this fact, when combined with the less walking life of today, this becomes the cause of the increase in the knee injuries among adults and also children.
These are only two major differences in physical ability between the average persons in the Edo period and the modern day man. Modern day sports science has been able to make some athletes into super humans, as we can see the in new world records in the Olympics. However, among the general population, the modern day conveniences make us “weak” and less physically capable.
So, this is the one major reason why we, the karateka, must engage in some of the special karate exercises. In Asai karate, we have more than 150 different exercises. The three major concentrations are in the areas of flexibility (below left), balance (below center) and foundation or legs (below right ) strengthening.
Let me explain briefly what those three concentration areas are.
Flexibility means the flexible movements of the joints. According to Student Doctor net, there are 360 joints in our body. Yes, the flexibility of all the joints is important, but we focus on a few major joints that are important in karate and all martial arts. One important area is the pelvis and leg (commonly called hip) joints. The other two major areas are the shoulder joints, and the spine or backbone joints.
When we play with a baby we realize how flexible he/she is. We seem to lose this naturally as our modern day “easy” life demands less physical work and that assists in the subsequent loss of flexibility.
Balance seems to be an odd one, as we are so natural and feel so well balanced when we stand up and walk. But just think of the roads that we now walk on every day. Most of the roads and the streets are well paved. The roads long ago were unpaved. They were filled with the rock and very uneven. In addition, now we have comfortable athletic shoes, with the thick rubber or sponge cushions. How long can you walk bare foot in the country side on an unpaved road? Most of us train in a dojo with a wooden or tile floor that is flat and has no obstacles. Therefore, we must train to improve our balance ability. We do not run bare foot on a country side road, we train in our dojo with a standard floor. But in Asai training we stand on one leg for a few seconds, with some arm (punch) and/or leg (kick) movements at the same time (photo right). If we can improve our balance standing on one leg and perform a technique, then our balance of standing on two legs will be improved significantly.
The third category of foundation strengthening, probably does not need much explanation. The foundation means legs including the lower body area called tanden, which plays the key role of connecting the legs to the upper body. Our legs are definitely weaker in general than the people of the Edo period. This means their expectations of the leg strength, mobility and movement were much higher then. They could probably continuously kick ten thousand times and more. They could jump up from seiza position to kiba dachi or zenkutsu dachi very easily and quickly. They could shift, turn, rotate and move much faster using their strong legs. In other words, their techniques were faster and stronger in general during the Edo period.
So, now you understand what physical areas we focus on to build our body in order to bring our physical condition closer to where we used to be. This conditioning of our body is called: karate body. It means that the body condition is now ready for karate training. Karate body does not mean, however, that it is a body with karate skills.
It is true that the science is advancing and the society seems to be becoming more advanced. More things are getting convenient and we can get or do things faster. However, we must not erroneously believe this advancement is beneficial to our body. Whether you want to believe or admit it, modernization has brought a lot of hazards to our life such as air pollution, tap water contamination, leakage of the radioactive material to the ocean, etc. Recently genetically modified food is a hot subject and many people fear of the negative side effects from food that has been altered and/or modified.
So, the modernization of the society does not necessarily mean a happy ending for human beings. One big concern should be our health and our physical ability. No matter how convenient our life may become, I am convinced that one cannot be truly happy unless he has a strong and healthy body. I hope you agree that mind and body are closely related, or should I say that they are inseparable.
Without considering karate training, I proposed that some basic exercises are necessary for us to stay healthy and you probably agree. Now, we need to think further as we are the karate practitioners. Why?
I have written many essays about the difficulty of karate techniques in the past. The key point is that karate is based on the most sophisticated and complex physiological and interpersonal conditions. I will not repeat the full explanation of this concept but let me give you a summary.
One of the simplest physical competitions is competitive running. You can compete under the simplest rules, that you must run the pre-set course without disturbing the other runners. Most of the track and field events belong to this category. The swimming competition is similar. The competitors must learn how to swim but the basic idea is the same as the track and field events. The gymnastic competitions also belong to this category. The mastery of the techniques itself is hard and challenging but the competitive concept is simple and not complex.
The games that require some tools are a little more challenging. The examples here are: golf, javelin, hammer, bicycle, ski, and skating. I am sure you can think of many others. Yes, it takes a lot of training and the mastery of the tool use such as golf club, bicycle, ski and skate. It can be very difficult and may take many years but the basic competitive idea is the same as the sprint or running. You do your thing without any disturbance or influence by or from the competitors. At the end, you simply compare the time, score, length, etc. to see which person did the best.
The second category that is more sophisticated includes the interactive sports: meaning that there is an offense side and a defense side. The examples are tennis, ping pong, hand ball, volley ball, baseball, etc. The competition is done either individually or by the teams. The idea, however, is the same between them. In this category, it is clear that one side is an offense side and the other is a defense side. The server of the tennis can take some peaceful (without getting disturbed) time to get ready to hit the serving ball and the competitor. However, this category is more complex because you or your team must react to the competitor’s action such as a served ball, a ball thrown by a pitcher, or hit by a batter.
The third category is the competitions that have no clear cut offensive or defensive sides, which makes the competition structure more sophisticated and complex. This group includes basketball, football, soccer, water polo, etc. In this type of competition either side can capture the ball, then that team instantly becomes the offense side. An offense side can easily become the defense side as soon as it loses the ball.
The fourth category is more complex as the competitors have to be offensive and defensive at the same time. This group includes boxing, wrestling, judo and even sports karate. Within the game or match time, the competitors must always be attacking and defending. In other words, a defensive move can turn into an attacking or counter attack technique.
Then the most complex system is the martial arts including the system of self-defense and other fighting arts including budo karate. The fighting arts (not sports versions) are much more complex than any sports you find in the Olympics. They have no rules such as game time, prohibited techniques, mats, ring, judges, rest, etc. Anything is possible thus it must be considered and prepared for. Failing means critical injury and possibly death. This is why training in martial arts takes so much time. Consequently, it requires much physical and mental ability.
Provided that you have agreed with what I have written above, we must realize that the ancient karate masters were really something very unique and rare. This is true and it is not an exaggeration that such a master was available only once out of a hundred million practitioners.
Regardless whether you agree with what I have written above or not, it is undeniably true that the kata we love and practice every day were created by those ancient geniuses. Even if those ancient masters were not super human, we all agree that they had developed extra ordinary level of physical skill. We understand that the techniques that were selected and enclosed in the kata were supposed to be the most important and common ones. They say that one can master the karate skills if we can truly understand the techniques from kata after repeating them thousands of times.
I am sure that those masters were physically more developed than the average karate practitioners. In other words, I believe that their legs were very strong, their ability of balance was excellent and their body was very flexible. There are other attributes to make one a karate master, but those three physical abilities are minimally necessary for the karate skill.
As a conclusion I want to summarize that there are two main reasons why I propose that all karate practitioners engage in the physical exercises that are practiced by the members of ASAI.
One is for the general health purpose. With the modernization and the convenient transportation vehicles and the tools our bodies are less able and weakened. The exercises we do would not be extra ordinary feats that require unusual ability for the people of the 18th and the 19th centuries. Of course, many millions of people go to the gym and work with the weight machines and or jog/fast walk for the health purpose. This is true and those exercises are great. However, the objectives of most men are to bulk up the muscles from lifting weights. Through running most people seek general conditioning and body weight loss. I am not completely objecting to these exercises, but I must say they are not sufficient and some are counter effective to karate training.
Most of the weight training does not include flexibility and balance training. In fact, bulking up the muscles typically make you less flexible. You may have a bigger calf or the leg muscles, but standing on one leg will continue to be challenging if you do not train for it. Jogging may give you some general conditioning but not necessarily a strong foundation. In other words, it will not give you enough strength to do a one leg squat or pistol squat.
It is true that being good at these three fundamental abilities will not guarantee you will be an expert in karate. However, they will help in your effort to improve your karate skill. This is the second and most important reason. Those ancient karate masters were, in general, physically more developed and advanced. Therefore, since this is the case, when performing the kata that were created by them wouldn’t it be easier to understand and appreciate them, if our physical condition or ability was closer to theirs?
I conclude that unless you are at their physical (also mental, though I did not include in this essay) condition, you will not be able to fully appreciate and understand those kata. Those special exercises may not bring you to the level of the ancient masters, but I guarantee that you will be much closer than where you are now.