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Flow

This thesis was presented for my Yondan, in Duisburg on May 4, 2024.

If you enjoyed reading it, please leave me a comment

Thanks

Sylvain





Introduction

In the practice of Do karate, there are many intertwined and inseparable principles, and choosing just one is a challenge.

Some concepts are clearly identified, have a name in Japanese or English and benefit from abundant literature, others are implied.

Over the last few years I have become familiar with principles and concepts that were unknown to me. Among these are the principles of fluidity and continuity of action, which I found difficult to integrate despite their apparent obviousness; the end of one sequence prepares and is the beginning of the next.

I started practising karate in the early 80s, with a pupil of Kase sensei. We practised sincerely and were physically demanding, repeating kihon until we were exhausted, katas that we were asked to do as quickly as possible with the motto, "lower, faster, stronger", all with forced breathing to underline our efforts...

It was a great energy that went well with our youth, but it was not without its finesse and subtlety.

Bad habits die hard, and I'd like to say that it's easy to get rid of them, but that's not true... it's a challenge I find hard to face after years of rigid, jerky work...

 

The problem

I'm aware that I've been formatted by my experience over the past decades. At every training session, I fight against my stiffness, against my shoulders that rise, against my face that grimaces, and so on.

When you see martial arts practised by the general public in the world of sport or in the media, it's often demonstrative, overdone and sometimes the demonstrations lack the fluidity of the Kung Fu films from Hong Kong in the 70s, where the actors moved with the regularity of a metronome. It's all visual, too visual even, and when it's too visual, it sounds wrong.

"You can only see well with your heart, what is essential is invisible to the eyes..." Antoine de st Exupéry, The Little Prince

At every seminar, I realise just how essential continuation and fluidity are for progress in Karate Do.

How can I develop these skills? What are the limiting factors, and how can I become softer and more fluid?

Writing this thesis is an opportunity for me to refine an important area of work for my progress in Karate Do.

 

How might we define continuity and fluidity ?

 

At a seminar one day, I was struck by a simple and particularly telling explanation :

Let's imagine that energy is a river, the technique is like a boat, when the boat stops, the river continues to flow and takes the boat to the next stage, the energy doesn't stop... By following this analogy, when a technique is delivered, there is conservation of energy to prepare the following technique and under an apparent stop, the energy doesn't stop inside the body and is ready to be released again....

Each technique prepares the next ...

We keep the zanchin... (which is translated in Kyudo as "persistence of mind" or "continuation of the shot...").

And you maintain your intention without contracting, but without completely relaxing your muscles...

It's simple to read ... but not easy to do

 

A few points in the direction of fluidity

 

I remembered from Nishiyama sensei's writings that the practitioner must have a calm mind and stable emotions.

Emotional stability refers to the state in which you can deal with your emotions calmly, and it determines the way in which you deal with problems that arise ...

It's a notion that encompasses everyday life and not just the moment when we're practising in the dojo.

What happens if we are overwhelmed by stress or uncontrollable emotions?

?

Physiologically, our heart rate will increase, as well our respiratory rate, our breathing will no longer be abdominal but thoracic, and our field of vision will narrow under the effect of stress.

In the long term, stress will have residual effects on the muscular areas affected, which will modify posture and our ability to move. From an anatomical point of view, the cervical, lumbar, psoas and diaphragm areas are the most affected. These tensions will create respiratory limitations, and a retraction of the posterior muscular chains (which cause a rounded back effect).

In this case, it is difficult to free a movement to its full extent, and to ensure fluidity and continuity...

 

It can be useful not only for karate Do, but also for life, to think about your lifestyle, the essentials, to reflect and work on your posture by all appropriate means, osteopathy, relaxation, yoga, abdominal breathing etc.

 

Obsession with performance

 

Here's another limiting factor that can have a negative influence on our minds : we live in an era of image. Looking our best, being competitive, is programmed into us from an early age and is supposed to be proof of achievement and integration into society.

At work, in sport, in human relationships, we're always under pressure to do more, to do better than others and to prove it - Our social networks are the most visible symptom of this.

On a day-to-day basis, it's a pressure from which it's best to break free.

Giving the best of yourself, being honest with yourself, being fully aware of your skills, enjoying the practice seems to be much more productive than falling victim to the obsession of wanting to achieve a goal at all costs.

The objective remains uncertain ; if I do gyaku tsuki , perhaps I will be able to perform an ikken hissatsu ... But maybe not ! My body and mind must continue, my energy must go forward, without judgement, without opinion, just be ready and proactive.

It's a not-so-Western attitude that demands unusual humility.

In the definition of traditional karate Do as defined by Nishiyama sensei, the aim is not to be the best, the winner  but to continually improve oneself.

 

If you free yourself from the pressure of other people's gaze and focus on your practice, in a vision where value judgement is absent, you can overcome the negative dimension of your ego and carry on, just concentrating on the present moment, the here and now, as in sophrology or meditation.

Practice becomes meditation in action

Freed from this pressure,then, the group becomes a source of enthusiasm, emulation, shared knowledge and fulfilment.

 

A few words on physics and physiology

It's impossible to talk about continuation and fluidity without taking a closer look at the scientific dimensions, and ,as my son does research in physics I asked him to explain the principle of kinetic energy to me as simply as possible…

The kinetic energy of a moving object is equal to half its mass multiplied by its speed squared → Ec = 1/2  mv2

So when you throw a punch, to increase the energy you don't need to influence the mass, but the speed, and to do this you need to use the whole kinetic chain developed by the body as a whole, from the ground through the centre to the technique.

If you multiply the speed by 2, the energy (in joules) will be quadrupled (x4).

If you multiply the speed by 3, the energy will be multiplied by 9

If you multiply the speed by 4, the energy could be multiplied by 16

 

The use of body dynamics; shift, rotation, vibration, drop down, lift up, pendulum go hand in hand with the concepts of fluidity and continuation...

 

Work on basic stability and the posture itself; anchoring, connecting the centre, deep abdominal muscles, dorsal muscles, postural muscles, etc.

Check daily for correct alignment, the direction of the sacrum towards the floor, the occiput pulled upwards, eyes back, soft look, soft chin, low shoulders, relaxed face, avoiding unnecessary contractions that stiffen the body and block movement...

You can take care to always keep your direction, guiding energy towards the target without dissipating it,

Adapting these principles to your own physical limitations, of course.

Power can be developed through specific muscle-building exercises in explosive strength, plyometrics or progressive resistance exercises, so that the muscles adapt gradually.

 

Now let's look further !

I was thinking of a phrase by the French writer Sacha Guitry ;

"When you have just heard a piece by Mozart, the silence that follows is still his »

Music is a good example of what I'm trying to understand : everything is linked, the objective is the path and it fades in time.

In solfeggio, not everything is quarter note without rest, whole note, half note, quarter note quarter rest half rest, etc., with rhythmic figures, everything is in harmony working towards a goal much greater than the note itself.

I've been lucky enough to be able to share (and work a little) with tai chi and aikido teachers, disciplines where fluidity and continuity of movement are essential and are not parasitized by an obsession with strength.

I had a striking experience during a tuishou (sticking hands) exercise in tai chi ; in front of me, Jocelyne Basile, the sifu,  the instructor, older and much lighter than me, effortlessly, without any contraction, did with me what she wanted, while I felt contractures in my back, my arms and my neck ....

How do you achieve this state of relaxation and continuous movement ?

Did it have a name ?

I was really enthusiastic, telling myself that I had to aim for this fluidity and continuity of action ...

 

流 NAGARE

 

I finally got an answer, not from the Chinese arts, but from aikido.

I came across this concept by chance in the course of my research

This ideogram can be read in several ways; the most common meaning is to flow... just like the metaphor of the canoe on the river.

But that's probably not only by chance.

Nagare means 'flow' in English, and this principle can be technical, psychological or emotional, expressing the ability to make things flow, to be fluid in order to provide the right response at the right time... or the ability to keep a firm and free mind.

My friend Kevin Hocquart sensei, yondan in aikido ,in Cannes, kindly explained the concept of ' ki no nagare ' to me, which can be translated as the flow of Ki; achieving a fluidity of action which, according to him, could lead to a dimension of precognition through experience of working kihon and katas.

This concept of fluidity, enabling an appropriate response to be delivered without thoughtful action, ki no nagare, could define the overall idea of what I'm looking for ...

Fluidity, bypassing the brain ...

I took the liberty of contacting Leo Tamaki sensei (student of Tamura sensei, direct student of o sensei Morihei Ueshiba) who sent me some informations from his interviews to enrich my understanding.

 

Akira Hino sensei; budoka and musician (Okinawa);

 

" All movements have a rhythm. A jerky practice will be clumsy and won't allow you to develop real ease. In Japanese martial arts, the concept of nagare, flow, is essential. This is a very difficult point. Feeling the melody, even more than the rhythm, makes it easier to practise.

 

Suga Toshiro sensei talks about Ueshiba sensei's work;

 

"Previously, atemis were much more pronounced, but O sensei changed that. Marking the atemi 'cuts' the technique (...) Master Ueshiba was against decomposition.

Atemi must be possible due to distance and time but it doesn't have to be done because it hampers the movement. In Daïto ryu they have retained a way of doing things where it is marked but Osenseï's research went through the ki no nagare and in its application the technique is carried out in a single time.

 

From an interview with Daniel Toutain sensei, a student of Saïto sensei;

 

Saïto sensei was very strict on the precise points that Master Ueshiba insisted on. He was uncompromising about this because he considered that kihon, working on the basics, was fundamental. But at the same time he told us that all this would gradually lead us to work in ki no nagare which is more fluid, and that finally all this led to something that the Founder called Takemusu Aïki, ; the possibility of creating endless techniques like a spring that never runs dry. In fact, Master Saito used to tell us that towards the end of his life O sensei talked more about Takemusu Aiki than Aikido. And he added : "Afterwards, you can create your own Aikido from there. It will be Takemusu Aïki, you will have your own form."

 

Again this metaphor of water, shared in many Budo styles, omnipresent ...

 

 

The precept of Funakoshi sensei 

 

 mizu no kokoro; the mind like water ; keep your mind calm or you will not understand your opponent ,

 

Bruce Lee's famous phrase:

 

"I said empty your mind! Be formless,... shapeless,... like water ! Now Water can flow !Or Water can crush ! Be like water my friend!

 

Or even Myamoto Musashi:

 

We must make our mind like water. Water takes on the shape of the containers that hold it, whether they are square or round. Water can be as small as a drop or as large as an ocean.

 

Flow...NAGARE...

 

The explosiveness of a torrent, the force of a river, the ebb and flow of the ocean, the calm of a lake's surface...

It all seems so simple…

A Zen proverb says:

The conductor can read a score, all the notes are there, the movements, the harmonies. But without the musicians, it's just paper, ink and silence.

Our brain can have a clear vision, but without the cooperation of our whole body, that vision will be nothing but chatter.

It's not a question of working harder or faster, but of working in the right direction, avoiding repeating the same mistakes over and over again.

Being aware of this already helps us to understand the direction we need to take.

Specific exercises can be used, with partner resistance or elastic bands.

Many other exercises can be used to help students understand this principle;

In kihon, concentrating on continuity means you don't lose focus in the middle of the exercise.

When working with a partner, continuity means that you don't have to rely on pre-established work, but that you remain fully aware, ready for any eventuality.

In kata, continuity is an essential element. Breaking continuity at an inopportune moment shows that the meaning of the kata has not yet been understood; it just needs to be worked on again.

In kogo kumite, a break in the continuity of the action results in a "yame! so there's a possibility of not scoring any points...

It's an endless and subtle subject ...

"Movement is the principle of all life" Leonardo da Vinci

I've often asked former practitioners to take up karate with me.

And often the answer is, no, I'm too old, it's too hard, it's too brutal...

All the elements of karate-do that we practise, respect for biomechanics, including fluidity and continuity, respect for the human being as a whole, mean that our discipline, as well as being an educational tool for the very young, can also become an element of continuity as we get older.

Learning to control your muscular connection, learning to deliver the muchime and then being free for what follows, in tune with your own body.

This limits overuse of the musculoskeletal system and avoids the risk of joint and tendon damage.

You improve your cardiovascular condition, and reduce the consequences of long-term illnesses and the appearance of neoplasic lesions.

 

And you learn not to give up.

You learn to go with the flow, the movement , the life .

 

The other meaning of the ideogram 流 (NAGARE)...

流 can also be read RYU, which I had always associated with 'school', but which more subtly expresses the flow from the source, from the sensei to future generations. This concept really covered much more than I had imagined...

 

 

 

 

As a conclusion to a never-ending subject ...

 

It was ambitious to tackle the principle of continuity in just a few pages.

The subject would merit entire books and knowledge that I am far from possessing: physics, psychology, medicine, philosophy, many dimensions other than the simple dimension of exchanging kicks and punches...

 

I started from a personal weakness with the aim of identifying the elements that would enable me to become softer, more fluid, and conserve the energy to keep the action going.

 

The principles may have been said a thousand times, explained and demonstrated, but it's never a waste of time to sit down, think for yourself, test, check, integrate your thoughts into your training and go deeper into the concepts.

 

I had grasped the pragmatic dimension of the concept, and the notion of Nagare, which expresses fluidity and continuity in a single word, just gave me a better understanding of it.

 

The study of Karate-Do is endless

 

When you start on this journey, you know when you begin, just as you know where the source of a stream is, and the further you go, the more you are swept away into the immensity of the ocean, like the humble human beings that we are, 60% of whom are water ...

 

All that remains is to tame the flow ...

Everything’s fine, we've got life ahead of us.



Aknoweledgements

 

First of all, I'd like to thank the sensei and instructors of our association who give me the opportunity to grow and progress at every meeting, and who, little by little, have become a real family at heart. There's no need to name them, they know it...

 

I would like to thank my children Anaëlle and Loïc, who have helped me to refine my questions and clarify my thinking. 


 

 

 Thank you Jocelyne Basile for introducing me to the principles of tuishou



 

 Thanks to Kevin Hocquard sensei for guiding me through the concept of ki no nagare

 

 I would like to thank Leo Tamaki sensei who was kind and unselfish enough to send me informations on the notion of nagare.

 

 A million thanks to Sophie, my anchor, my partner in crime, who knows how to put my feet back on the ground...

 

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