What is Gamaku? ”ガマク”って何？
At a karate dojo in Okinawa, you may hear a sensei yelling to the students, “Gamaku wo irero” which means “Put gamaku in”or “Gamaku wo kakero” which means “Apply gamaku”. I suspect the term of “gamaku” must be very foreign to the Shotokan practitioners unless you have had a chance to train in one of the Okinawan styles like Uechi-ryu or Goju-ryu. So “What the heck is gamaku?”, you would ask. We will investigate together to see if this is something new to the Shotokan training or if it is something we already know or have.
Let me explain the meaning of this word, gamaku first. It is an Okinawan local term and it describes the soft area at the sides of the waist line at the top of the pelvis. This term is used typically for an Okinawan woman who happens to have a very small waist line. Of course it is used for both men and women when it comes to karate training. This word is also used in Okinawan dancing which has been closely related to Okinawa-te for many generations. I wrote about this in another article in the past and I also posted a video tape of Master Uehara Seikichi 上原清吉 of Motobu-ryu 本部流 performing a dance, “Bu no mai”.
Here is the URL in case you missed it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vitxPuC7sTI
So, you would ask what has the waist line got to do with karate? It is obviously related to karate techniques but the literal meaning could miss-lead us. There are two different methods of gamaku and this fact, as it was with Muchimi, may be causing some confusion even among the Okinawan karate practitioners. Let me explain both and see if anything I describe is familiar or related to the training in Shotokan.
First we need to define the bodily area that we use to do a gamaku technique. By knowing this it becomes clearer the difference of the two methods.
The first method’s gamaku area:
The gamaku area in this method covers not only the waist line area but all the lower abdominal area including seika tanden (the core of the lower abdominal area). Here is a photo of Sensei Higaonna doing gyaku zuki with a gamaku application. In the photo a red circle shows the gamaku area. I will discuss the actual mechanism of gamaku application later.
The other method is applied to a smaller area as shown in the photo below. The photo shows a kaki zuki technique and it is supposedly done with a gamaku application at the right hip region. The red circle pin points the particular area where gamaku has to be put in or applied. This is the very area the original non karate term of Gamaku describes. Probably the ancient masters “borrowed” this term to explain or command the technique as the general area was similar to where the technique was to be applied. We will discover later with the explanation of the second method, that this application is not limited to this small area.
Now you know where the areas of our body that are used for the techniques are. Next, let me explain the methods or mechanism starting with the body area covering the entire abdominal region. Regardless of the first or second method, the objective of the gamaku technique is, in general, the same. It is to improve or increase the power generation as well as the body shifting and the balancing. Then how do you control or apply gamaku? Mastering gamaku control is not easy but it is not too difficult to understand the mechanism. What you need to do is to imagine that your abdominal area is a balloon or you are holding a ball that is filled with water inside the abdominal cavity. The illustration of its mechanism is shown here (below).
This ball or balloon may be small when you try to create such a “mechanism” initially, then naturally the effect is also small and partial. As you train more and become more efficient and gain more control, the balloon can expand from the shoulder area down all the way to the upper knee area. Once again review the red circle shown in the first photo (Higaonna sensei gyaku zuki). So the mechanism is simple, if you wish to shift the center of gravity of your body, you will shift the “water” from one side to another, up and down, forward and backward, etc. This applies not only for the balance of your body but also for creating a more lethal technique by increasing the power and the speed. This mechanism may be foreign to some of you but it is definitely not ridiculous or unrealistic. We must remember that more than 50% of our body is indeed made from water. Particularly, in the abdominal area, we have a lot of internal organs and naturally the content of the water is much higher than the rest of our body. By using the trained internal muscles one can maneuver or move/shift a group of the internal organs (the water) to accomplish this mechanism. In the past, I have posted a video clip of Rickson Gracie doing his yoga exercises and one of them was used to train the internal muscles of the abdominal area. Here is the clip again so you can observe how he trains the entire abdominal muscles.
This exercise is an excellent one for your health (Yoga calls it “fire” breathing) but Rickson was not doing this for the health purpose. I am certain he did this to train for his MMA fighting. How? With the way he trained his abdominal muscles you can easily understand how he can put or apply gamaku to whichever the part of his abdominal area he chooses. This is the very reason why once he could get on top of the opponent he was almost undefeatable on the floor or the mat,. If you have not noticed the way he used to fight, I suggest that you to watch several of his fighting videos and see how he fought. You will notice his strategy was not to knock someone down with his punches from the standing position but rather he tried to bring the opponents down to the mat then he got on top of them and beat them till they surrendered. By controlling the gamaku or the center of gravity of his body because he could stay on top of the opponents and remain there without getting dislodged by his opponents. The opponents simply could not get him off as he could keep the perfect center of gravity not matter how hard the opponents tries to get him off balance.
OK that is with MMA. Okinawan karate-ka do not do as much ground fighting as they do in Brazilian jujitsu, then why do they say it is critically important to develop gamaku? To keep the balance or to change the center of gravity, you may tell me that you can use the arms and the legs to accomplish the same task. It is true and you can do it that way. Our body is made up of many joints and the small parts, so it is easy to shift the hip joints to keep the balance. For instance, if you want to shift your balance to your left side without lifting your right leg, all you have to do is to shift your hips to the left or simply lean your upper body to the left side. This is easy and what’s wrong with that? You would know the answer only if you are practicing bujutsu karate. In bujutsu (life and death fighting) you must minimize your body movements to prevent detection by your opponent or your slightest movement becomes a tell-tale. Keeping the balance by shifting gamaku enables you to stealthily move. This is why developing gamaku is indeed critical and important in bujutsu karate. In the modern day sports karate the competitors constantly jump up and down and in this environment this subtlety is not required or needed. Just think, if two persons are fighting in a duel with a knife in each others hand, would these people choose a tactic of jumping around? Most likely not if you wish to survive. You would rather not be moving at all or only a little and very slowly if you must. I respect the ancient masters who had considered this aspect to this degree and their ability to create the exercises needed to build this technique.
To understand how gamaku is being applied, you need to understand the concept of the center of gravity in our body. Now this concept is not rare or unique to the human being. In fact, there is a center of gravity in almost everything we can put our hands on. Many of you already know, the center of gravity of our body when you are standing is located in our mid section near the seika tanden. The exact location changes constantly as we move. In addition to the concept of “center of gravity” there is another concept which is important in martial art, center line of our body which is called Chushinsen 中心線 in Japanese, literally “center line” or Chushinjiku中心軸 (center axis). As we stand on our two legs, it extends from the tip of your head to the tail bone as shown in the illustration (left). It is aided by at least two more lines (right one in the illustration) which are called Soku jiku 側軸 (side axis). I will not go further into this subject at this time. I suggest you will refer to my book, Shotokan Mysteries where you will find a chapter in which I explained in depth on the center of gravity and the center line of our body.
Let us do a small experiment. Imagine that you are standing straight up in front of a large mirror (better if you really have one) in shizentai (natural stance). Pick a particular point in the mirror scene (if possible, something right behind your head) and set your eye on it so you can see if your body moves either left or right. Now lift up one of your knees (it does not matter which one) just as you would prepare for a mae geri. Did you notice that your body shifted or moved towards the supporting (or standing) leg? This is a very natural thing and it is needed to keep your balance. Now try to do the same knee lift without shifting or leaning? Could you? If you did it slowly you probably could not stay in the same position but if you lifted your knee and put it down very quickly, maybe, you were able to stay in the same position for a very short time. I suspect that you tensed your waist and abdominal area at the very moment when you engaged in the quick motion of lifting your knee and then returning to shizentai. Try it from zenkutsu dachi and see if you can do this. If you could do this with the lifting of the knee then try a mae geri without shifting or leaning. Could you? If you have not developed gamaku control you are unable to do this.
You probably have to lean, even a bit, to the supporting side to compensate the lost of gravity. But, a lateral leaning is so visible that your opponent can easily detect your movement. What most practitioners do are either lean to the supporting side or some kind of fake movement (steps or hand movements) to muffle the kick as he cannot hide it. This is exactly why the competitors of sports karate must jump up and down but this is another subject so I will not go into a further explanation in this article. To be able to kick without shifting you will need to “put” or apply a gamaku technique, an invisible shifting of the internal organs to compensate the weight off-balance.
I need to add that there is also a center line looking from the side of our body. Most of you may already know that we have to shift our center of gravity forward if we wish to walk. This concept may be easier to understand as we walk daily. However, you may not consciously realize that you are indeed doing the fine movements of getting off balanced and recovering the balance every time we take a step. In fact you cannot move or take a step to any directions if you do not shift the center of gravity or make yourself off balanced first.
If you are a brown belt and above, you have practiced Bassai Dai many times so you know the initial kamae where your hands are in yin & yan position with heisoku dachi. You may have learned that the very meaning of Bassai is to break into a fortress and capture it. Thus, your teacher probably told you to have a very fast and powerful first step. Do you remember that? Do you also remember if he taught you how to do it more than “go faster”? Probably not. I see many practitioners bend their knees in this initial stance. I know why. This position can get you off the stance and you can jump forward much faster. However, I am sorry that you are not supposed to bend your knees in this stance. I also see this error in Tekki Shodan, too. Did you know that you are not supposed to bend your knees here either? Believe it or not, these two katas are exactly the katas to learn how to develop gamaku. With Bassai (Dai and Sho), you learn how to catapult yourself to the front and with Tekki you learn how to step aside quickly by shifting gamaku. This particular technique is one of the important techniques you are supposed to learn from those two katas. Yes, this is the method every sensei should teach for the first step of Bassai and Tekki. As I mentioned earlier that I have already written a chapter, “Unstable Balance”, in my book, Shotokan Mysteries, on this particular subject. Please read this chapter for the details as I explained how to control and manage your body to have an explosive and fluid movement.
I need to go further with Tekki. This kata is amazing that it has so many important training points that are not normally explained in the Shotokan dojo training. I have written an article on this and it (The secret teaching points of Tekki) was featured in Classical Fighting Arts magazine last year. I introduced the concept of “invisible leg” and its training in Tekki namigaeshi. Yes, one of the bunkai for this technique is a foot block, a kick to the opponent’s knee, etc. But, unfortunately, it is almost all forgotten or ignored that the most important objective of namigaeshi technique is to develop strong gamaku.
I can post many photos of the shotokan practitioners who are demonstrating the beautiful invisible leg technique. I will share one here (I believe this is done by JKA Miyata sensei). Of the two photos above, the one on the right demonstrates the invisible leg (of right leg). He lifted his right leg without leaning to his left to balance by using his gamaku to lift the leg up. Almost any yudansha can do this for a split second with a great effort but it is difficult to keep the upper body relaxed and sustain the balance for a half a second or longer to execute the proper namigaeshi in Tekki. What you need to do is not only tensing the right waist area but also (the more challenging) you need to shift or push the internal organs to the left side to balance while the right leg is in the air. The more gamaku control you have developed, the longer you can stay in the air. The benefit in the actual bunkai is an undetected kick for an example. The opponent will not see the tell tale sign by your upper body leaning or moving while you are throwing a kick.
Here are two training video clips by Goju-ryu instructor explaining gamaku application with mae geri. Sorry it is in Japanese only but you can pick up the points he is trying to teach.
Goju ryu’s gamaku training video Part 1
Gamaku training Part 2
OK, let us go to the second method.
In this method, they emphasize the side muscles called abdominal oblique that connects the hips and the upper body. In fact there are several layers of these muscles in the abdominal region. One is the Internal abdominal oblique and the inner one is called the transverse abdominis (see illustration below).
As we cannot feel the internal muscles even if we are aware that these muscles exist. This is why the Okinawan masters had to refer to the soft area at the edge of our waist which is mostly our skin and fat as “gamaku”. For this reason, if the application of gamaku is explained in textbooks showing this area as the application part, it can cause some confusion. You need to receive an in depth explanation from an expert to truly understand where it is done. The hidden fact is you use the internal muscles to stabilize the connection between the hip region and the upper body to achieve better balance and the maximum power in a technique that is executed. I have explained that for the first method, Bassai can be used to train the gamaku application for the quick forward shifting. For the second method, it is said that Seisan or Seishan is used. By the way, Seisan kata is the forefather of Hangetsu, a familiar kata for the Shotokan practitioners. In Seisan a training practitioner uses Sanchin stance, on the other hand in Hangetsu we use Hangetsu stance. Sanchin is a much shorter stance (see the photo left, Uechi ryu or Pan Gai Noon) and the practitioner must learn how to generate the power and stability by tensing the inner muscles that are located at the sides of the waist. You tense them alternatively left and right as you take the steps and execute the upper body techniques both blocking and punching. It is important to note that all through the process, you must keep your lower buttock muscles tight and pull the bottom of the pelvis forward so that the seika tanden area will be also pushed forward. As the kata performer takes a step forward, the inner thigh muscles should be tensed to create a stable stance when a stance is locked in. This maneuver or mechanism here is in fact a part of Chinkuchi which is in the future plan bucket. The important point I must add here is that our body is holistic and works together. In other words, all the parts are not only joined but united (or coordinated). In fact, you cannot move one muscle without affecting all the others no matter how small it may be. So, when you apply the gamaku technique it must coordinate with other mechanisms such as chinkuchi and muchimi. By “coordinate” I mean both increase and decreasing the tensions in different parts of our body. It may sound confusing but think of our body as an orchestral group with many different musical instruments. If all the instruments played loud it will not create music. Each instrument must coordinate and play its part (loud, quiet, slow, fast, etc) to make beautiful music. Our brain is the conductor and it is up to the brain to conduct the different instruments, our muscles.
Anyway, this mechanism of inner muscle tension is difficult to explain with just words, but if you have been practicing Hangetsu with the deep breathing method then the explanation above will easily make sense to you. I have written an article on Hangetsu and explained the true purpose of this kata and the mystery of its stance. In it, I did not, of course, refer to Gamaku but I did explain the necessity of tightening the buttock muscles and connecting the upper thigh muscles use in order to attain the correct stance and the power of the technique. For the details of the execution and the unique explanation of Hangetsu kata, please refer to my book, Shotokan Myths (page 157).
I assume Tekki kata is also used to learn the gamaku application which is applied to one side of the waist. The example techniques of Tekki best suited for this training are probably kagi zuki and mawashi enpi uchi, even though one can train gamaku in every technique. In addition, as you progress in this method a practitioner learns reverse breathing method (expand the abdominal area as you exhale and reverse) to bring the internal organs up and down for better balance as well as for more sinking power to aid an upper body technique.
In the second method, the emphasis, at least initially, is placed on one side of the waist instead of the total abdominal area. I assume the stage of developing gamaku at the side of the abdominal area is only a start as it is more difficult to develop the total control of all abdominal muscles. Eventually, the second method will advance to the total control of the internal muscles of the abdominal region which will be the same objective as the first method.
In general, though the area each method specifies is slightly different but the basic concept of gamaku and its application is very similar. More importantly for the Shotokan practitioners that despite the term, Gamaku being foreign the applications I described above can be trained by simply practicing some Shotokan katas. In addition, I believe we regularly practice the buttock tightening and pushing the pelvis forward in our kihon. In the photo shown here (right), you can see that Sensei Kagawa 香川政夫 of JKS is teaching a student a gyaku zuki technique. In fact, this photo comes from his instruction video and some of the readers may have a copy. Here, Sensei Kagawa stressed that the punching shoulder needs to stay down and also the importance of the hip region that is connected to the supporting leg (left leg if it is a left gyaku zuki). He does not use the term of gamaku but the concept he tried to covey was very similar to the second method described above. Other Shotokan experts and senior instructors such as Asai 浅井, Kanazawa 金澤 and Yahara 矢原 (photo below) teach the importance of seika tanden and inner muscles though they do not use the term of gamaku. This means the Okinawa karate concepts of balancing and generating power have been handed down to the modern day Shotokan karate. Unfortunately, it seems some important objectives and methods of kata teaching have not been widely taught. I notice that the popularity of bunkai study is increasing which is a welcomed trend. I hope more Shotokan practitioners will add the internal muscle exercise and training as they practice these katas mentioned above.
I am confident that you will be able to improve your karate techniques in general as you develop gamaku ability. Now that you have learned what gamaku means and that the training method is readily available to us, there is no excuse for us not to include it in our training.