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.