66. Kamae: Taking a “Posture”

Taking an aggressive kamae.

One of the terms a beginning martial artist in Japanese budo learns is “kamae,” which is defined as the “stances” or postures one takes. There’s an awful lot of kamae in something like karatedo, for instance: zenkutsu dachi, sanchin dachi, musubi dachi, shikodachi, and so on. By comparison, in many koryu styles there aren’t all that many, and I found that in many cases, as long as you get the posture more or less right, then it’s not emphasized so much as the right flow from one step to another, from one kamae, in a way, to another.

What I surmised is that kamae, as important as it is, should not be so hard and fixed that it stops your motion or “flow.” Having a “flow” is a notion so obvious in such budo as aikido, judo or kendo that there isn’t much discussion about it. However, because there are so many kamae in karate kata, a problem often arises when a student becomes too stiff. He or she mistakes “kime,” or focus, with being static.

First, the postures themselves. Kamae are positions you assume, momentarily, that best express your physical and mental state and intent. It is a posture that gives you the best position and location for the next step. Without a good, strong foundation in proper posture and body alignment in a kamae, nothing will be effective. If you can’t assume a proper jodan no kamae with a sword (proper that is, befitting your own style), you can’t cut down the right way. If you can’t get your feet and knees in proper alignment in hanmi kamae, you won’t have a firm foundation to swing your bo around. Worse, bad body alignment will eventually lead to muscle strain and chronic injuries.

I have students who are introduced to the basic kamae and they “get it” right away, because the kamae aren’t some super-mystical esoteric yoga-like position. They are derived from very natural positions, since the best positions for combat are the ones that allow the body the most natural and freest of movements. These students are the ones blessed with proper body alignment and a natural athletic ability in their life previous to training. I also have students who have been with me for decades and they still struggle with kamae, because for most of their lives they have been putting their bodies into bad postures: slumping shoulders, bad hip alignment, bad knee positions, bad breathing habits. For them, taking a “proper” kamae means they have to consciously fight what their body has been assuming is “natural” since childhood.

Kamae is a position most appropriate for the combative situation. It is also an expression of one’s attitude, individually, and a stylistic attitude in general. For example, although there are movements forwards and backwards in the particular koryu that I study, there are no “back stances” per se, in which the greater part of the body weight is put on a back foot. There are momentary steps, of course, but in assuming major kamae, there are none that I can think of (with the exception of a posture called Kasumi (“Morning Mist”), but that posture, much like a karate-style Neko Ashi Dachi, is only prepartory to an advancing attack).

I once asked one of my teachers about it. He said, in effect, “There’s no back stance because the attitude of the samurai was to always move forward. Attack, attack, attack. Even if you have to pull back in retreat, you can’t act or feel like you’re being routed, because then you lose control, you lose composure, and you lose the battle. So even if you have to withdraw, you have to have the attitude that you are momentarily pulling back but are still engaged, ready to move forward again in a moment. It’s better to go forward and die attacking, because there’s a better chance of you surviving that way than if you turned your back to the enemy and tried to run off. You’d be cut down from the back.”

The thinking goes, if you lean backwards or run backwards, you may disengage the enemy, but you won’t be able to follow up with your own attack quickly, and the vacuum left by your retreat will allow the enemy to follow through on more attacks…Unless you withdraw while still protecting yourself, and having the potential to quickly counter if the enemy jumps in recklessly.

Kamae are important, but they are momentary postures. They aren’t meant to be taken and kept like a stone statue, forever immovable. They flow from one to another as the situation changes and you move accordingly. So particular postures have to be balanced with a seamless flow of motion.

Sometimes my students get that blend wrong. Students with karate backgrounds often tend to break up a kata into too many discreet, static positions. It’s okay for basic learning, but they have to learn how to “flow.”

On the other end of the spectrum, other students try to get from Point A to Point C without going through Point B. They want to “flow” too much, and they forget about the logical process, trying to get to the end without going through the intermediate steps.

For example, I was once teaching a counter to a backfist: Step back, at the same time strike the attacker’s wrist. Hook the wrist with the blocking hand, pull the attacker off balance to his front, and slam the other hand into the attacker’s neck, then throw him down. Done right, the step-by-step moves are actually a seamless flow. For the technique to work best, there’s got to be a flow to it, without any stops. On the other hand, each linked movement has to be done before another is effective. If you don’t block effectively and then pull the opponent off balance, the strike to the neck won’t work because the opponent will still be in control of the situation.

One student kept trying to get to the neck strike without effectively blocking the punch. He would step back, off balance, put up an ineffective block and then concentrated on the neck strike. No, I kept trying to correct him. “You need to take it step by step more. You have to do the initial deflection, grab and disbalancement properly, or your neck strike simply won’t work, because his first punch will have hit you in the head. And then you haven’t grabbed and disbalanced the attacker, so what’s to stop him from simply stepping back away from your neck strike, or counterpunching you with his other hand?”

This balance between kamae and “flowing” in martial arts is something that many people can learn from simple repetition in practice. For me, the concept was also enhanced by a study of Tai Chi Chuan and, oddly enough, Japanese tea ceremony.

With the former, the basic Tai Chi set is a whole series of postures, assumed with very little distinct “stops.” As my Tai Chi teacher would say, they are made of “linked positions,” one flows into another. Stopping for too long would stop the “flow of chi.” There ARE stops, sort of, but they look more like momentary slow-downs, not static positions.

In tea ceremony, the effort of the host is to create a sense of ease, of elegance, flowing movement. Again, there are momentary pauses, but they’re not supposed to be stiff and tight. One posture, called “kagami bishaku” is especially considered beautiful. In the beginning of the tea preparation, the bamboo tea ladle is picked up and held between the two hands in a vertical position in front of the one’s body. The ladle’s cup is facing your face, as if you are looking at a mirror (kagami). There’s a practical reason for that. You want to check the carved bamboo cup to make sure there are no holes in it. But the posture also, seen in profile by the guests, creates a distinct feeling of elegance if the tea practitioner also has good seiza posture. It is a momentary, fleeting position, and then the rest of the temae (“kata”) continues. Muscles are not stiffened, the jaw isn’t clenched. It’s not a tight, stiff posture. It’s a natural position.

That’s how kamae in martial arts should also be, I think. Natural and expressive. Nothing more, but nothing less.

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11 thoughts on “66. Kamae: Taking a “Posture”

  1. I tend to think of “stance” as static….”posture” on the other hand, both mentally and physically, is something one maintains while in action and throughout movement. Maybe that’s why there isn’t that much emphasis on how a static position appears: the idea is maintaining proper posture throughout combative movement?

    1. “Stance” as static, and “posture” as more fluid, held in a movement…Good idea, Kit. I was still going through a lot of ideas even after I wrote this. It’s not a finished piece, I think. There’s still lots more to think about in terms of “kamae.” “Maintaining proper posture throughout combative movement” basically means being in control of one’s body while disbalancing and making the opponent off balanced? That means you are able to move with more freedom because you have the advantage. That speaks to not just posture, but movement, as two sides of a coin. Hmmm. Interesting concept! Another blog!!!

  2. I agree Kit, good posture shows “stillness in movement and movement in stillness” filled with intent.

  3. An interesting point on stances. Frankly, at my current level – 6th kyui -, the utility (or intended utility) of certain stances in Karate escape me. Easy ones, like zenkutsu dachi, are obvious. But Neko achi dachi (cat stance) really don’t seem advantageous in a sparring/fighting situation.

    The best I’ve been able to discern is that positions like that are only to be used momentarily, such as to receive an attack and be poised to counter. And in doing so, immediately leave that stance as the counter attack dictates, rather than to stay rooted in the stance and try to counter attack without leaving it.

    I mean….why else would such stances be created? Or even maintained after all these centuries?

    1. As for why such stances were created…this is my own conjecture, and it may be totally off base, but I think there are really very few kamae necessary, really, for real combative movement (for example, in a mostly sportive budo like judo, you just have shizentai, jigotai and then variations on those two, and that’s pretty much it except for the ground grappling stuff), but I have often thought that many different kamae are exaggerated postures that develop balance, muscles, etc., for more subtle shifting of weight and body alignment. So, for example, the neko ashi dachi is just a momentary position, and perhaps in reality it would entail only a slight shifting of weight to one foot prior to deflecting and/or kicking or receiving a strike. If you look at the stances of some Okinawan karate systems, they are more relaxed and “natural” than, say, the Japanese styles, like Shotokan. Maybe part of it is stylistic. Or…I wonder if it’s also not emphasis on developing the right muscles, so you overemphasize the stance in kata, but then can shorten it and speed up the movement in a “real” situation. In tai chi, there are a variety of stances and movements, but really what I figure is that it’s just teaching me to shift weight from one foot to another in a combative situation without losing balance, and so the variety of positions are to develop very strong leg and hip muscles that react fluidly to outside stresses and still maintain strong positions.

  4. I think Wayne’s comment about “momentary steps” is spot one when it comes to “stance” or kamae that are recognizable and named…it is a snapshot from within a series of movement.

    But I guess I would look at that as the omote of kamae…the ura is the maintenance of posture, of center, and of physical organization during movement: in modern terms I would call this one’s fighting platform. Not in the sense of a static, say siege tower, but rather of a tank…

    Training stances/kamae in isolation (omote) works to develop the platform (ura). On the modern range we train “stances” and even moving and shooting, but this practice is somewhat circumscribed for safety reasons….there is an element of this present in koryu when you are swinging oak weapons at each other full speed and distance is important – and maintained – when people move and stand “properly.”

    Real world changes everything, though, and while stance is much more fluid, the lessons learned about platform should hopefully be inculcated so that one “gets what one needs” in the moment to either deliver a strike or throw with power, or to get the hits one needs (with firearms).

    Some people are naturally better than others simply because some are more in touch with their bodies, and will intuit the platform level quicker than others. A tactical friend of mine once noted that in his experience people with in depth martial arts experiences seemed to move better with firearms….if not necessarily shoot better ( ; )

    I think bringing in the psychological aspect is important – what IHS calls “looming,” and I show in my personal protection classes how movement and weapons handling in one manner can give an entirely different psychological pressure to an opponent than doing so in another way.

    1. Kit presents a good addition to the discussion; kamae as a “base” for delivery of attack or defense. It might seem self-evident, but what I like is the analogy with larger-scaled tactical concepts. You need a base from which to strike an opposing enemy, or you have a kind of mobile base. In any case, you need a strong foundation or the strike might not be as effective; in an individual martial arts sense, unless you are in balance, a strike will not be as effective.

      There is also the notion of “looming”; definitely a seed of an idea for another blog on presence in kata….! One of the systems I study has an interesting take on it, and it goes into not just a kind of “looming,” but also on deception and feeding false subliminal body language to the aggressor to lure them in…

  5. Wayne, this begs for another installment on this subject… I was just thinking about how to write about this important part of kamae. The tactical, strategic, psychological part of kamae is huge. Looking forward to your next offering. Great stuff!

  6. Here’s a tidbit… Tomiki, Kenji Sensei, hachidan judo, judan aikido was famous for his basic idea of “mushin no mugamae,” or “quiet spirit of no specific posture.”

    – Chuck

  7. I’d also be interested in a treatment of the concept of ‘kurai’ 位, not so much in terms of relative rank or position, but rather in terms of position as in “location” or “being situated at”…..I think the former may be more a buDO concept, the latter has tactical implications in a buJUTSU sense (understanding the problems with that dichotomy)…my thinking being relative position – and.or position of advantage – is a critical piece in strategy and tactics, especially the closer the quarters. Curious whether the concept is addressed in the latter format in your experience.

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