Wednesday, June 27, 2012

A Brief Outline of Okinawan Kiko (沖縄気功)

© 2012 Ryan Parker
Daruma: putative creator of the Kiko method of the Ekkin-kyo
   
Kiko techniques are Okinawan exercises used in "old style" karate. They are essentially the Ryukyu version of Qi-Gong (chi-gung). In fact, Kiko is the Japanese pronunciation of the same characters ( 気功).  Some Okinawan instructors have retained the use of the older Chinese pronunciation while others simply refer to this training as Kokyu-ho ("breathing methodologies").  In general these methods are similar to the Iron-Shirt and Golden-Bell Cover methods of Qi-Gong in terms of both practices and effects.

The training can allow the practitioner to safely and painlessly absorb full power strikes to such vital area as the trachea, sides of the neck, base of the skull, stomach, floating ribs, kidneys, spine, groin, and knees etc. The exercises also help to develop martial power that can be applied in defensive and offensive techniques.


It appears that the Sanchin kata of Naha-te and the Naihanchi kata of Shuri-te were the two kata most often associated with this training.  In both traditions, the order of training progressed from 1) Tanden Breathing, to 2) Shoshyuten, and then to 3) Daishyuten. These methods were supplemented by 4) Shime or Kitae training which vigorously tests the rooting and body-connection of the practitioner.

Both styles utilized some form of tension to strengthen the muscles and tendons of the body. Naha-te used a lot of “dynamic tension”.  Shuri-te emphasized “connective tension” (gyame) instead of “dynamic tension”. Rather than the hardened musculature of “dynamic tension”, Shuri-te more emphasized a springy feeling (i.e. not hardened) expansive tension sometimes described as “muchi” in the Okinawan language.

According to legend, the theory behind the Kiko exercises taught in Okinawa traces back to around 520 AD. At this time the Buddhist monk Daruma traveled to the Shorin Ji temple in China. On arriving, he discovered that the monks at this temple were weak and unhealthy. Daruma taught the monks a set of exercises to develop their ki in order to restore their strength and health. It is said that since the monks at the Shorin Ji temple could not own weapons they began to practice unarmed martial arts for self defense. It did not take the monks long to discover that the exercises Daruma had taught produced tremendous power for the martial arts. Daruma's method of Kiko, recorded in two books called Ekkin-kyo and Senzui-kyo, eventually reached Okinawa and merged with the Okinawan fighting arts(1).


Today many Okinawan masters still regard the Kiko methods attributed to Daruma as an invaluable component of their art:
  •  Higaonna Morio sensei says that the teachings of the Ekkin-kyo and Senzui-kyo are "the most fundamental precepts of Karatedo." [Okinawan Karate-Do: Okinawan Goju Ryu vol 1].(2) 
  • In a similar vein, Hokama Tetsuhiro sensei says that “Karate without Kiko is not karate”  [Essence of Goju Ryu Vol 1]. Hokama Tetsuhiro sensei has also published a brief "training guide" dedicated to the Kiko training of the Ekkin-kyo [History and Traditions of Okinawan Karate].
  • Funakoshi Gichin says “By strengthening the body through the method described in the Ekkin sutra, one can acquire the prowess of the Deva kings. Polishing the mind through the Senzui sutra develops the strength of will to pursue the spiritual path.” He then passes on an Okinawan oral tradition, which states that “these two sutras together give one the power to move mountains and the ki to envelop the universe” [Karate-Do Nyumon]. While this statement is obviously poetic hyperbole, it does show the high regard these methods were held in.
  • Mark Bishop writes “Included under the term ‘secret techniques’ are the ‘secret principles’ which, in some styles, take the form of breathing, relaxation, and intrinsic energy circulation exercises that are considered by some to be one thousand times more important than any technique and should be studied carefully.” [Okinawan Karate: Teachers, Styles, and Secret Techniques] While I do not claim that Kiko is “one thousand times more important than any technique” the statement does illustrate how Bishop’s Okinawan informants view these exercises.

It is not known how Kiko works from a physiological perspective, but the Okinawans based their Kiko and vital point striking on traditional Chinese medicine. Since it is unknown how these methods function from a Western perspective we will examine them from the traditional Eastern perspective. This does not indicate that the author feels that this model should be regarded as literally accurate. Rather, it is intended to provide a descriptive language to discuss these methods as well as providing a look at their traditional explanations.

In traditional Chinese medicine it is believed that the body takes in energy (ki), primarily through breathing, and circulates it through well defined pathways called meridians. A person will have excellent health and strength when his ki is smoothly circulating through the meridians. Kiko exercises are methods by which a person can build up and circulate his own ki.

Tanden Breathing

The first stage of Kiko in Okinawan Karate consists of building up energy in the tanden. The tanden is said to be a point a couple of inches below the naval that stores the vital energy of the body. Acupuncturists call this point Kikai, which means sea of ki, because of this. These initial exercises consist primarily of specialized forms of deep abdominal breathing. These are exercises in which the student visualizes ki gathering in the tanden in conjunction with the breath. Some exercises are performed as a part of normal karate practice while others are done separately.

Shoshyuten Kiko

After students build sufficient amounts of ki in their tandens, they learn how to circulate this energy through their two primary meridians. The student will lead the energy through the meridian called the Governor Vessel. This meridian, called Tokumyaku-kei in Japanese, controls the “positive energy” and the 6 positive meridians of the body (3) When the ki is lead through the Governor Vessel during Kiko exercises, the positive meridians and their corresponding organs benefit.  The student must also guide the ki completely through the Conception Vessel. The Conception Vessel, called Ninmyaku-kei in Japanese, controls the “negative energy” and the 6 negative meridians in the body. (4) When the ki has been lead through the Conception Vessel the 6 negative meridians and their corresponding organs benefit. Once the ki fills both the entire Conception Vessel and the Governor Vessel it flows though both in a continuous cycle. (5) At this point the student has begun the “Small Cycle of the Sky” or the Shoshyuten(6).

Nuun Breathing

Another method the student may begin to use is Nuun breathing. (7) Nuun breathing is an additional form of abdominal breathing. It involves retaining the breath while performing special muscular "locks". This type of Kiko increases the circulation of blood and ki to the internal organs. Nuun breathing also flushes out accumulated toxins thereby improving the condition of the internal organs. Finally, Nuun breathing improves the flexibility of the internal organs and their protective facial coverings. (8)

Daishyuten Kiko

Once a student has become proficient at Shoshyuten breathing and any related ancillary exercises he will begin the “Large Cycle of the Sky” or Daishyuten training. In Daishyuten training the student learns how to circulate the ki through the entire body. It expands upon Shoshyuten training by circulating the ki through the limbs in addition to the two primary meridians. Initially, Daishyuten training can be performed by standing in a Karate stance as one visualizes the ki circulating through the body in coordination with the breath. This can be done for 20 or more minutes at a time. This training increases what is called “tendon strength”. This type of strength is very different from normal muscular strength. Karate masters maintain tendon power to a very old age. Later, when proficient in the static training the student will perform this exercise while doing kata.

Rooting Training

During Daishyuten exercises the student visualizes merging his ki with the earth. This is often called this “rooting”. When a student has mastered basic Daishyuten training he will begin testing the skills that can be built by “rooting”. He does this by having a partner push his body at both slow and fast speeds. When a student can take both slow and fast pushes he has developed a strong base for his defensive and offensive techniques. Rooting is not a matter of muscular development. Rooting relies on the ability to lead kinetic energy to the soles of the feet and into the ground. The postural and visualization training done through Daishyten kiko greatly facilitate this. It also relies on the ability to unite the entire body into a whole, an ability developed and improved through this kiko exercise. After creating a solid root, a student may practice maintaining the connection of the energy (both kinetic energy and the ki) in their upper extremities with their lower body. A student may test his ability at this by having a partner attempt to twist or bend his outstretched arm. Another way to test this is to have a partner try to push the student back by strongly pressing on a student's arm. In Okinawa, when these types of training exercises are utilized to test kata performance they are usually referred as Shime or Kitae.  Sanchin and Naihanchi are the two kata most associated with this training methodology, but in theory this can be done with any kata.

Often the martial arts community regards tests like these as representing a very high level of “ki development”. In reality these type of tests only represent foundational exercises.

Bu no Chikara

When they are good at these tests students begin practicing what are sometimes called "energy transmission exercises." “Energy transmission exercises” do not involve projecting your ki beyond your body to affect your attacker without touching him. What an "energy transmission exercise" does is train the ability to lead the ki to the striking limb in conjunction with correct body mechanics. This greatly increases the power of a blow. The one inch punch (sun zuki) exercise is one example of this type of training. The Okinawans call the type of power created by these types of exercises "bu no chikara" or “martial power” When a student has well developed martial power his instructor may infer that the student has reached a good level in Daishyuten training and rooting. (9)

The Daruma Exercise (a.k.a. Dako)
Several examples of  the "bundle" and "bag" hitters which can be used in Okinawan kiko
The instructor might also introduce Daruma exercise training (also called "Dako" meaning hit-training). The Daruma exercise is a form of moderate impact conditioning and it can be said to stimulate all of the 14 major meridians. The practitioner uses a small bundle of thin bamboo sticks (10) to firmly tap the entire body and thus will condition along the length of each meridian. This exercise expands on the Daishyuten training and increases the amount of ki flowing through the meridians. After firmly tapping the body with the bundle-hitter , the student may massage the body with his hands. This is essentially a type of acupressure-like massage to ensure that there is no stagnation of ki and blood and that they both flow smoothly. The Daruma exercise has many beneficial effects. The vibrations relax bodily tensions and stimulate blood circulation. These vibrations also shake out accumulated toxins. The Daruma exercise strengthens the “muscle meridians” and skin. It also strengthens the organs and bones. With daily practice, the entire body becomes robust and sturdy. An elongated bag filled at one end with mung beans (or similar material) is also sometimes used in a manner very similar to the bamboo bundles. Slightly more care needs to be exercised with these types of "bag hitters" as they have a tendency to cause significant bruising if used too vigorously. For best results this training should be a relatively "light" and progressive type of training not requiring great physical strength or endurance. For instance, at 70 years old Higa Yuchoku used the Daruma exercise every morning, at midday and in the evening. Mr. Higa, even at this advanced age, retained the ability to take full power blows to nearly body surface, attributing this ability to this type of Kiko training (11).


The training we have outlined above is only fundamental training in Okinawan Kiko. This foundational training, called Ekkin Kiko, is the "tendon changing energy exercises" used in Okinawa. The more advanced exercises used in Okinawa, called Senzui Kiko, are the "bone marrow cleansing energy exercises." This advanced training is said to strengthen the bones and create more red blood cells. It also thought to balance the endocrine system and energizes the cerebrospinal system. When mastered, Ekkin kiko and Senzui kiko can give the practitioner tremendous martial power. The practitioner also experiences excellent health and abundant energy.



It should be noted that, while Kiko training has many benefits for the martial-artist, it was not originally intended to be a martial practice. Rather it was, and is, intended to be a health promoting practice that potentially can increase the life span of the practitioner. The martial benefits, while important are to be seen mainly as secondary effects of a health improving practice.

These exercises quite possibly play a significant role in the amazing longevity of Okinawan Karate masters. Many Okinawan Karate masters have continued to teach their art well into their 90s. As you can see Kiko training can be an invaluable asset to students of Okinawan martial arts.


Notes

1) Many scholars doubt the veracity of the Daruma legend, however, this is the traditional explanation offered for the origin of these exercises. Many scholars have noted that the earliest reliable references to this training which are still extant are from the Ming dynasty

2) It is likewise quite interesting to note that many Okinawan teachers attribute the Sanchin kata to Daruma, a belief which is certainly derived from the fact that Sanchin training is based on the direct application of Ekkin kiko to martial arts training.


3) The “positive energy” is called “Yo-ki” in Japanese. Yo being the Japanese pronunciation of the character read “Yang” in Chinese. The six “Yo” meridians are: Large Intestine, Stomach, Small Intestine, Bladder, Triple Warmer and Gall Bladder.

4) The “negative energy” is called “In-ki” in Japanese with “In” being the character pronounced “Yin” in Chinese. The six “In” meridians are: Liver, Lungs, Spleen, Heart, Kidneys, and Pericardium.

5) In order to connect the Governor and Conception Vessels the students must touch their tongues to their pallets. Often this is done only during the inhalation phase of respiration. 

6) Goju Ryu sometimes uses the "wind path" version of Shoshyuten training which is the reverse of that usually done in Shorin Ryu. This is related to the extensive use of "dynamic tension" as the "wind path" helps to prevent the body from becoming overly yang or "fiery". However the same underlying theories apply and I believe the above text applies equally well to both schools.

7) Nuun (also sometimes spelled “Mnun” or “Noon”) breathing is introduced at varying times in the different Okinawan arts. In some schools it is introduced before Shoshyuten kiko.  In other schools it is considered a more advanced method and is only taught after Daishyten kiko and rooting.

8) Although Nuun breathing is considered a “Hiden” or “secret” methodology, and can be employed in any kata, it is sometimes explicitly taught as part of the training for Suparinpei kata.

9) This discussion of rooting and martial power should not be taken to imply that karate is an “internal art”. Generally, “internal arts” attempt to maintain a strong body connection and rooting at all times, while karate sees this as only being necessary at the extension of techniques when contact is made. There are other differences as well.

10) In modern times a bundle of very thin and flexible stainless steel rods is also often used. Stainless steel obviously was not available in ancient times.

11) This was at the time when Mark Bishop wrote Okinawan Karate: Teachers, Styles, and Secret Techniques. Mr Higa passed away in 1994 at age 84.




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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Oyata shinshi has passed but his legacy lives on


I was profoundly saddened to be informed by two different people that Oyata shinshi has passed away. A truly great light has been snuffed out. This loss is compounded by that of Logue shinshi's passing less than a year ago. While their flames no longer shine , they lit many candles on their journey through life. Those candles continue to burn and they shed light for us all.

I feel real sense of loss from the news of Oyata shinshi's death, but I am also deeply grateful that the world had this great man for so many years.