One of the first stances taught in karate is ‘kiotsuke’, literally stand to ‘attention’, with feet together, spine straight, chest open, shoulders back and head up.
Often in a karate dojo you’ll hear the call for kiotsuke shortly before the prompt to bow or before beginning kata. The instruction is often barked, as a result of the art being hijacked in its public infancy by the prevailing militant mindset of the Meiji Era. But when kiotsuke is ‘ordered’ in this fashion it loses much of its purpose, and in the rush to stand soldier stiff, trainees bring rigidness from body to mind.
Just screaming ‘kiotsuke’ in a class is about as effective as frustratingly telling a distracted child to ‘pay attention’. Plenty of teachers tell children to ‘pay attention’ but few actually understand and explain how to do it. There is a science behind it, physical structure and poise that actively serves to stimulate the preferred mental state; with a straight spine we can breathe more efficiently and calm the mind. Nothing in karate need remain mystical or superfluous if one takes the time to analyse and learn about such micro movement.
What is the correct way to assume ‘kiotsuke’?
With kiotsuke let’s start with the physical body. The first clue I realised years ago was in the minor difference between bowing in mainland and Okinawan styles. In preparing to bow the first group places the feet together with the hands extended down the outside of the thighs, whilst the later stands with toes parted and heels touching, with hands lightly upon the front of the thighs. I’ve come to feel this is another subtlety indicating an earlier adoption of Daruma’s zen in Okinawa, or perhaps an earlier route of its transmission.
In any case, like I tell the juniors, ‘be your own scientist’. Stand in both ways now and feel the difference for yourself. (Do it.)
What’s the difference? It’s very subtle.
The earlier ‘Okinawan’ approach, with heels touching and toes parted brings a natural tensing around the perineum without causing undue tension in the inner thighs. This allows the hara to be engaged without bringing tension to the limbs; therefore facilitating the free flow of ki in the body. One of the ways to get people to start engaging the hara is to practise tensing the perineum. This should never be done forcefully or by contracting the sphincter as such can lead to ill health. Instead, it is like needing to pee but having to hold it while you find a toilet; doing that is already engaging the lower muscles enough. That’s how you practise when you have your feet apart in another stance, but standing with heels together makes this a natural thing.
The practicality of this is that the body is in a relaxed/primed state and able to respond fluidly.
Which brings us to the next aspect of kiotsuke. Rather than thinking ‘Attention!’ consider ‘giving attention’ or ‘enhancing your perception’. I asked some of the children the other day, ‘what does a teacher mean if they say ‘pay attention’, and the replies ranged from ‘listen’, ‘look’, ‘do something’ and ‘concentrate’. All of which engage the three aspects of the physical body because they require sensing. This is a good start.
Enhancing your perception
Karate is both a journey in the physical and spiritual. One is a grounding process and the other is uplifting. One is contracting and the other expanding. You have a body and so you are in the physical but the spiritual side you have to make yourself available to. If you are strongly identified with the physical then that is all you will know, you have to make yourself receptive to the spiritual.
Essentially, training in the physical is a process of self preservation and in so doing we build up walls and armour for protection, but these walls are tomorrow’s prisons if we don’t also nurture the desire to transcend them; the spiritual path. Through the foundation forms of Sanchin (three conflicts = unification) and Naihanchi (internal divided conflict = unification), we can come to the realisation that these two longings are not in opposition, self preservation is in the physical body but if you have the awareness to separate the two there is no conflict.
When you next practise kata pause for a moment in kiotsuke and now think in terms of ‘plugging in’ to your environment. Open the senses and relax the mind. Stop seeing yourself as separate from the world around but realise you are a part of it. Inhaling and exhaling with the trees, feeling the air upon your arms and face, the ground beneath your feet, the natural rhythms of the environment, the rise and fall of your breath, the beat of your heart and the pulse of your blood. Perhaps your body is gently swaying or feeling like surging in spirals, perhaps you are already grounded and centred. Self gauge your current state.
Becoming receptive to all around us is an ability available to everyone.
This is kiotsuke.