The proper stance is a foundation of karate technique. It’s a prerequisite for synergistic effect of mental focus, breathing action and muscular contraction increasing and peaking simultaneously.
Karate stance is a framework for the energy circulating between the body, the ground and the target. Respectively, the purpose of each stance is to make this framework fully effective by:
– Allowing full activation of all body segments
– Supporting individual technique through utilizing that activation by applying combined forces in certain direction and in specific way (determined by the stance used).
Although there are many different factors responsible for each stance’s efficiency I am mostly going to focus on the energetic aspect of a stance with the addition of some elements of anatomical nature.
Shotokan Karate Stances
Formation Of Energy Lines Or Powerlines
In order to understand karate stances as well as the technique itself, we need to introduce the concept of energy lines or “power lines”. These are the lines of intensified (and ideally optimal) support, formed along legs, torso and arms. In the case of stances, the legs are especially important, with their individual segments (feet, lower leg, upper leg), being properly aligned and mutually supportive. Each segment’s local energetic “max out” plays a vital part in unified, synchronous effort of the entire body during blocking, punching or kicking
In order to provide a technique with optimal support, both the left and right sides of the body have to cooperate fully and form before the mentioned energy lines or “powerlines”. These lines of connection between the body and the ground require a certain angle and proper alignment of individual segments, in order to effectively support each movement. Even slight differences in the angle between the leg, ground and the trunk will produce very different results.
The proper stance reflects proper angles and alignment, by utilizing both the legs in all situations – an essential feature especially when providing enforcement for hand techniques. This translates into using powerful leg muscles while throwing a punch – not a bad idea at all!
For example, to illustrate the point, in the case of a reverse punch in zenkutsu dachi, the powerline formed along the back leg is a main source of power and stability for the punch. The observable, often emphasized rotary action of the hip is a result of engaging the back leg, rather than the source of the power itself, which comes mainly from the grounding action of the back leg and engaging the trunk together with the punching arm. This is the process of the formation of the active powerline along the entire punching side of the body, using proper stance (pic 1).
Pic 1a and Pic 1b above. Utilizing the leg muscles to empower the arm action during the throwing of a medicine ball, using the reverse punch’s pattern. The stance plays an important role in utilizing the leg muscles during all stages of the punch (stability of the tailbone, position of the spine) and allows the forming of a defined energy line along the leg.
On the other hand the hip rotation deprived of the leg energetically extending towards the ground, produces little result.
Providing the movement, with the support of energy lines formed along legs, torso and arms, is a vital role of each stance. As a matter of fact, the powerlines formed alongside the body in a dynamic way, are the techniques.
In our reverse punch example, the back leg is the most powerful part of the chain and must engage, by extending towards the ground and perform the action similar to the one used in a glide technique of shot put. Naturally, during the punch the body structure is stabilized and entire effort takes place in front stance with both feet firm on the ground. Chain reaction involving the ground, lower and upper body results in increased power of the punch when compared to isolated action of the arm/upper body only.
Based on combining the energy lines in an optimal way, the rational design of karate stances brings the opportunity for full body support, while executing various blocking, punching, striking or kicking techniques (in the case of kicking, it will be the role of the supporting leg that represents a certain “part” of the stance; for example, in order to provide full body support while executing front kick, the position/angle of the supporting leg should be identical to the back leg’s position in a proper front stance, while providing optimal support for the forward punch).
As karate techniques vary, so do the stances used to support them.
Moreover, various strategic circumstances may require different stances to make use of the potential they offer. For example, the arm extended forward will require different positioning of the hip joint and back foot, depending on the forward or sideways direction of the force being delivered.
Pic 2a. Arm in the punching position, hips partly open. Back leg enforces the action of the front leg. The stance sufficiently supports the technique in a forward direction.
Pic 2b. The arm positioned as before, but this time the force is directed to the left, just like in a left hammer hand strike to the side. In order to provide the arm with sufficient support here, both legs and the muscles of the back, have to engage fully by adjusting the stance. Lateral rotation of the back leg is slightly bigger than in the previous example and so is the hip opening. Changes in the position of the hip and back foot, allow you to maintain optimal energetic connection, between body segments at the time of impact. Although the adjustment may seem very small and not easy to notice, the result differs significantly.
The above example illustrates the case, when the change in the force’s direction requires significant adjustment of body structure in order to provide complete support to the arm and fist. Changing the angle of the hips (pic 2b) together with outward rotation of back leg allows full activation of both legs together, with engaging the muscles of the back, at the time of applying the force to the side. On the other hand, failing to adjust and keeping the stance unchanged (2a) will reduce the use of both legs (especially the back leg) and bring an excessive tension to the arm instead. Even though the position of the upper body remains practically unchanged compared to a forward punch, such a stance will significantly weaken the technique and disturb the cycle of energy circulation, by locking it up in the shoulder (also losing the potential for the reaction).
Reduced amount of support observed in such cases, is a typical characteristic of an incorrect stance (or – to some extent – the wrong choice of stance) and as such, requires proper adjustment.
On a physical level, the process of forming the powerlines along the legs, requires the presence of some basic factors. These factors can be regarded as universal characteristics that allow the body to become a working physical channel for the energy. They are determined by our very anatomy and apply consistently, regardless of differences in external form/body configuration.
As a model let’s use the natural standing position and see the application of some principles of alignment along the segments of the leg.
In order for each leg to form an efficient powerline, the ankles and knees have to be aligned with corresponding hip bones and form a perpendicular line from the ground up. Aligning the leg’ segments this way, allows uninhibited energy flow and its natural, complete transfer from the ground up (pic 3).
Pic 3. The natural, “ground zero” stance. The ankle, knee joint and hip bone form straight lines along each side of the body. While the observable width will slightly change in different stances, the energetic aspect of alignment shown here, should remain the same.
Pic 3a. “Ground zero” stance allows an unobstructed energy flow through the body. Here the activation is increased due to the push from outside. Proper alignment and positioning of individual segments, allows a formation of a strong activating current along the body. Such a stance is naturally strong and has an ability to neutralize the push.
Pic 3b. The stance with both feet rotated outward at the start. This type of positioning of the feet greatly reduces the potential for legs’ muscles activation and provides little support.
Even a gentle push from outside causes loss of balance (and so will punching against heavy target in such a stance; the energy transfer between the body and any sizeable object will overwhelm the body structure and cause the stance’s collapse at time of impact).
While describing the stance shown on pic 3 I used the expression “ground zero”, because the relationship between foot, knee and hip shown here, is universal to other stances. Most importantly it allows full activation of the powerful muscles of both legs, thanks to the energy ascending upward in a spiral fashion.
This process is the foundation of both strong stances and strong techniques and for that reason must be “duplicated” in other stances, regardless of their external form.
Naturally it is also the most efficient way to connect to the ground – you can easily see that while walking straight forward on the street. Any change in the positioning of foot, knee or hip will (to some degree) interfere with the effort and make the walk less natural and more difficult.
Naturally, this simplified interaction with the ground during walking applies to running or performing karate technique in various stances (for walking itself, it is also the process of energy/momentum transfer).
As I already mentioned, even though the width of the stance will slightly change based on its individual character, the internal functioning remains the same.
For example, in the case of a reverse punch in front stance, the line along the front leg will look similar to that shown on pic 3, but the back leg’s ankle will be closer to midline (pic 4a). That is due to the outward twist of the back leg and simultaneous opening of the hip joint. Compared to the ground zero stance, the hip, knee and the ankle of the back leg, rotate outward to the same degree and “point” to the same direction.
Thanks to the fact that each component moves to the same degree, the adjustment doesn’t affect the energetic coherence of the powerline formed along the leg when compared with pic 3.
Pic 4a. Gyaku zuki in left zenkutsu dachi – front view.
Correct positioning of the legs allows full formation of an active powerline along the right side of the body and maximum energy increase/ transfer in a back to front direction.
In order to allow the energy circulation between legs, knees and ankles must stay within hips’ width. Compared with “ground zero” stance the ankle of the back leg moves closer to the midline, due to the lateral rotation of the entire leg and opening of the hip. This also allows the back leg to remain energetically aligned with the spine.
The cases of too narrow and too wide front stances, as shown in the pictures that follow (4b & 4c), deal with inefficient energy management within the body’s physical structure. They both fail to sufficiently engage the back leg and produce power, either by locking the hip joint (Pic 4b) or through reduced interaction between legs (Pic 4c).
Pic 4a shows the correct positioning of the legs, allowing full engagement of “active” powerline along the punching side of the body (back leg/right side), together with supportive – receptive* action of the front leg, which is forming the receiving or “passive” energy line, during the punch (more detailed description of the energy lines formed in karate techniques can be found in the article “Yin and Yang in karate”). Naturally, upon completion of the punch the energy rebounds from the ground up in the form of reaction through the front leg, making it available for further use.
Pic 4b. Front stance is too narrow, the back leg is too close to the midline. In our reverse
punch example such a position limits the back leg’s engagement and prevents the hips from adjusting themselves, to adequately support the technique and transfer the energy to the punching fist.
*The action of the left leg is supportive just prior to the punch (empowering the back leg) and receptive during/after the punch (receiving the reaction/closing energy circuit).
Pic 4c. Front stance is too wide. The feet and knees on both sides are too far away from the midline, keeping the legs in the position preventing full mutual support. As a result, the energy circulation is disabled making reaction after kime weak and hard to utilize.
While previous example (pic 4b), at least leaves the front leg in a somewhat correct (usable) position, this case negatively affects both.
The weakened energy circulation present in the stance shown on pic 4c can be confirmed by the partner applying a gentle push from behind (around pelvis area). The diminished role of the front leg due to improper positioning is reflected by the failure to receive/ return the energy of the push and inability to neutralize it.
Instead of possible enforcement, an increased energy input will cause the structure to collapse even upon gentle push. In such a stance the improper alignment of individual lower body segments will not allow distribution of the force in any usable way.
Keep in mind that harnessing the energy by front leg in such a way that in above example is no different than when capturing reaction energy upon executing a punch (active transfer of ground reaction when punching kizami zuki and receptive action during gyaku zuki; both cases require formation of a potent energy line along front leg). Although in our example the push provides the energy from outside the rooting action of the front leg is no different than at the time of internal energy increase, while performing the above mentioned techniques.
Apart from its anatomical and technical aspects, a karate stance must always address strategic circumstances as well. For that reason some stances are designed for delivery of very short kime and for allowing prompt transition towards final technique at the same time. This is a common case with block/counter sequences
where the powerline formed along the blocking side of the body is meant to be very temporary. The good example its transitional nature is a combination of shuto uke/ gyaku zuki using back stance-front stance transition. Although the body provides short support for deflecting block in back stance by activating the powerline through the front leg/front side of the body, the full involvement of the body center is delayed until the finishing (punching) technique. Even though the body center does shift slightly while blocking, its advance is incomplete and cannot provide full support for the blocking side. The complete forward advance happens while changing from back to front stance with simultaneous execution of reverse punch.
Pic 5a. Shuto uke in kokutsu dachi
The left leg along with left side of the body forms an active powerline, while the action of the back leg has a quality of enforcement and support. The left ankle, knee and hip joint stay on one line, allowing instant activation of the left side of the body and utilizing the ground reaction, that enforces the block. The stance allows easy transition after kime.
Pic 5b. Kizami zuki in front stance. The active powerline formed through the front leg/front side of the body is identical to the previous example. Hips remain open but different positioning of the body center makes the stance slightly longer, allowing both legs to form energy lines that are optimally angled.
While this stance would provide sufficient support to the block used in the previous example as well, the following transition would be less easy, due to longer kime of the block resulting here. Strategically speaking – instead of using the gap created by opponent’s action, blocking side would create one instead.
CLICK HERE for part 2 of General Concepts Of Shotokan Karate Stances