Block the Line

Years ago, at a drinking party in Japan, I finally worked up enough nerve to pose a question that I was afraid would sound stupid. But it was something that had bugged me for a long time. Why do we have the separate basic exercises Kihon Dosa 1 and Kihon Dosa 2?

These are the beginner punching and blocking exercises, where you do oi-zuki going forward and then block walking backwards. In the first set, the only block you do is a slow soto-uke. In the second, you do the other three basic blocks.

What is so important about soto-uke that it is singled out this way?

I asked my question of Sakamoto-Sensei, who sat beside me, matching me sake cup for cup. He nodded his head and said simply, “Centreline training.”

According to Sakamoto-Sensei, the correct finishing positon for soto-uke is the centre of the body, not off to the side.

I nodded my head as if I understood and took my next sip of sake, none the wiser.

Since then, I often thought about the remark and pondered the sense of splitting up the blocks in two exercises. Over time I began to teach beginners in my dojo the four blocks in a single set (high punch forward, jodan-uke back, middle punch/uchi-uke, middle punch/soto-uke and shiko-zuki/gedan-barai). But I was always nagged by doubt that I had missed something by not sticking to the original forms.

The matter came up again as we were producing the illustrations for the new Ryusei kyu belt manual. As sets of images were completed, I e-mailed them to Japan for Sakamoto-Sensei’s review. For Kihon Dosa 1, he returned the correction seen above. Our illustration showed the left soto-uke with a finishing position in the upper left quadrant of the body.

Sakamoto-Sensei’s photo showed his soto-uke in the dead centre of his body, with a line drawn through the middle of the picture, so I would get the point.Ah, centerline training . . .

Power from the Centre

The centreline theory is common to many Asian martial arts. If you imagine that a vertical line runs down the centre of a body, from the top of the head to the bottom of the torso, this is where you direct your attacks.

Not only do many of the body’s vital points lie along or near this line, an attack to the centre is difficult to avoid. If you hit to the right or left side of the body, the defender can twist to offset the damage. But a shot straight at the centreline – the axis around which a skilled martial artist rotates – causes maximum damage and destroys equilibrium.For the same reason that you would attack the centreline, you need to defend your own.

Both blocks and punches depend on the centreline for generating power.

But beside the need to attack and defend this imaginary line, it is important to use the centreline to generate power. This concept is most easily understood when performing oi-zuki (lunge punch). If you imagine your centreline extending directly out in front of your body, your attacking fist should intersect this line.

To test this, leave your fist out in punch position. Have a partner push against the fist head-on, with all his or her bodyweight. If your fist is in the correct position, you should be able to hold their weight. If it is off the centreline by just a bit, then your shoulder will rise up and you will be pushed off balance easily.Both blocks and strikes should use the centreline to get full body power behind the techniques.

Blocking Power

To my mind, the most difficult of the four blocks to perform is soto-uke. It is awkward and it is the hardest one to do forcefully. To work at all, soto-uke requires the proper use of your centreline.

This may be the reason that the block gets star treatment in Kihon Dosa 1. It is designed to develop centreline awareness. The block is done slowly, with tension, so the student can also get a feeling for which muscles to use and the correct way of moving the arm.

If your centre and hand aren’t lined up as you begin soto-uke, then you are only using your shoulder strength.

To do the block properly, you have to move your centreline and arm together, with a rolling motion of the hips.

Beginners are taught a large, basic block motion. However, senior practitioners should be aware that this motion is larger than it needs to be and ineffective in parts. The usual starting position for soto-uke has the student take their blocking hand to their opposite hip, while their centreline faces forward.

If the instructor grasps the blocking hand in this position, the student won’t be able to perform the block. Since their centre and blocking hand aren’t lined up, the student can only use their shoulder strength.

For the soto-uke to be strong, the arm and centreline have to move together through the entire blocking motion. To get the proper feeling, try this exercise. As you stand in forward stance ready to block, have someone hold onto your forearm with one or two hands.

Now perform the block by rolling your hip in an exaggerated manner, always moving your arm and centreline together. At the end of the block, don’t try to angle your arm out past the centreline, because this is a weak position. Concentrate instead on pulling your elbow toward your centreline.

Your whole body should move together. If the arm moves alone, then the block will be weak.This movement should work easily, without a lot of muscle strength. If the partner work turns into a contest of strength, then lighten up on the holding force until you get the proper feeling for the move.

Sticky Hands

In Okinawa, the basic blocks were sometimes taught as very hard moves, like attacks that could destroy an opponent’s limb. I’ve seen documentary footage, for example, of senior Goju-Ryu practioners pounding their arms together doing the blocks, building up their pain tolerance and developing destructive force.

But the blocks can also be used to softly redirect energy, more along a Chinese model. Take, for example, sticky hands or pushing hands practice (tui shou). This is a two-person drill from the Chinese internal arts that teaches you how to become aware of an opponent’s attacking energy, redirecting it as it tries to disrupt your centreline.

To further develop the centreline awareness, try Chinese
pushing hands or sticky hands practice, in which you redirect the attacking force.

In the one-hand version of the practice shown here, you are blocking from the inside, like soto-uke. As your partner pushes straight toward your centreline, you don’t resist with your blocking hand, but draw it back with the incoming force.

At the same time, you rotate your body and centreline, so the attack is deflected. And then, in a continuous motion, you counter with an attack to your partner’s centreline.

To do the block properly, the blocking arm and your centreline must be lined up through the whole motion. If they are not, then you only use your arm strength.

The Inside Story

Turning the centre to block is essential to properly perform no. 7 Niseshi bunkai. The twisting-body shuto done here is called by Sakamoto-Sensei, “irimi-shuto.” Irimi is a term often used in aikido and involves entering directly into an attacking technique.

By twisting down on the spot and redirecting the punch, the defender gets inside the attacker’s guard, to apply a throw. If the defender tries to push aside the first punch with just his arm strength, the attack will smash through his defence.

For the first block to work, the defender must draw the punch to his centreline and rotate his body, redirecting the force.

To deflect the punch, the defender has to rotate around his centreline. He should use the back of his blocking hand to draw the punch towards his centre, twisting his body to redirect the force. Because the momentum of the punch is never checked, the attacker is unbalanced (kuzushi) and vulnerable to a counter.

This type of defence is very similar to pushing hands practice and shows how a soft middle block can be used to open up an attacker.

A Backhanded Block

In many karate styles, the typical basic, open-hand middle block is shuto-uke (knifehand block). This is seldom used in Chito-Ryu or Ryusei karate. Instead we see haishu-uke, or backhand block. Without the strong forearm rotation, this move tends to be subtler than shuto-uke.

In Henshuho no. 7, a backhand block deflects the attack.

In no. 7 bunkai from Henshuho, for example, the defender uses a haishu-uke to block a punch, before retaliating with a shuto-uchi and nukite. Again, if the defender tries to push aside the punch with only the back of his hand, he will fail. He must draw the attack to his centre, accompanied by a small body twist or shift, to deflect the force.

In fact, a senior practitioner should always use a body shift when he blocks. This is the same philosophy as kobudo, where you rarely meet an attack head-on; instead you always shift at an angle out of the line of force. So the block becomes your insurance policy rather than something you bet your life on.

Keep an Open Hand and Open Mind

Some people criticize the basic blocks as being “unrealistic.” They are seldom seen, for example, in kumite competition. But the critics forget that the four blocks are just the beginning, teaching you the ropes before you move on to more advanced technique.

The trouble is, the requirements for basic technique are clearly laid out, but the bridge to more complex applications is often shrouded in mystery. If you looked at O-Sensei’s technique, he would use a lot of subtle, flowing open-hand moves, much smaller and different than the techniques we first learn.

The concepts learned in our four basic blocks can be applied to the more advanced parries at the end of Sanchin. Remember, keep your centreline.

As senior practitioners, we are supposed to take the concepts we learned in our fundamentals and make them work in more sophisticated applications. Look at the open-hand blocks at the end of Sanchin – they protect up, down, outside, inside, just like the four basic blocks.  But they are much smaller and faster to apply, and more natural, once you get the hang of them.

And they will work, if you master the use of the centreline, with the other fundamentals, including the correct use of hips, breathing, shime/shibori, timing, distance, etc.

The trick is, you have to give yourself permission to start playing around with what you know, to develop a more advanced karate – one that works for you. You need to have an open hand and an open mind.

—Peter Giffen
Barrie Ryusei Karate