September 5th, 2007

Go no sen or Sen no sen…

Two of the timings in Japanese swordsmanship are Go no Sen and Sen no Sen. In the Go no Sen timing, we block the initiating attack and then counter. The timing of this time of counter attack is one / two. One is the block and two is the counter attack. Sen no Sen on the other hand, is counter immediately upon the attack. Experience and recognition play a large part in successfully executing Sen no Sen timing.

Go no Sen – an example of this timing might be an attacker lunge punching to the face, we might upper block with the lead hand, and counter punch with the back hand. Attack and block are one count, counter punch is the following count.

Sen no Sen – in the example attack of a lunge punch to the face, the defender in this example steps off axis and towards the attacker, blocking with back hand and striking with the front hand. The counter punch occurs on the same count as the attack.

The ability to recognize the incoming attack in enough time to slip the punch and step inward instead of stepping out of the range of the punch is a function of experience and practice. The problem with Go no Sen against an attack is the counter attack is difficult to attack moving backwards, and the timing and distancing (ma’ai) of the attack continues to be controlled by the attacker. In Sen no Sen, the defender changes the timing and distancing of the attack, by making these changes, the defender now takes the initiative and controls the distancing and timing of the exchange.

One of the other changes in Sen no sen timing is looking at times when the striking hand being the front hand, and the back hand being the blocking hand. Though seemingly counter intuitive, if you move towards the attacking technique, what starts out as the front hand, becomes the back hand.

In sword fighting you often hear the saying, when in doubt move forward, in karate it is often said never back up – it is our natural instinct to get out of the way of, and often move back from danger. By giving ground, especially in a linear retreat, we are in a difficult position to disrupt the attackers tactical plan. In fact we are staying in the line of attack. The line or direction of defense will determine distancing, and just as importantly timing. So when we talk about Go no Sen or Sen no Sen timing, we are inherently talking about the line/direction of our counter attack. As a strategy Sen no Sen suggests we study a counter that is more disruptive tactile plan – taking the initiative of the attack by launching a counter attack to meet and penetrate the initial attack – going forward, not backward.

July 23rd, 2007

Starting from the ground up

Gravity Stances

When we first learn or teach stances, we pay attention to the shape and weight distribution of the stance.

  • Front stance – 60% weight on front foot, 40% on back, bend the front knee so you can’t see your toes, front foot and knee facing forward. Back knee locked foot mostly straight, slightly cambered outwards. Feet should width apart, hips and shoulders facing forward, back straight.
  • Cat stance – 90% weight on back foot, 10% weight on front foot. Front foot and knee facing straight forward, heels form a ninety degree corner, heels lining up, back foot pointed inside of 90 degrees from the the front foot. Back knee bent acting like a shock absorber. Hips and shoulders angled (depending on what angle your system points the back foot).
  • Horse stance – 50/50 weight distribution, feet/knees pointing straight forward, knees pushed outward – like riding a horse… etc.

We learn about how we stand on the ground, or how we fight/use gravity to stand in a karate stance.

Leverage Stances

If all we did was kick and punch in karate, then perhaps we could live with standing upon the ground and accept that stances provide different positions that we hold our weapons (feet, hands) changing the ma’ai / distance with an opponent.

As we study bunkai, or try to better answer questions such as “how low do we need to be in stance” (and why), stances become more than kicking and punching platforms. Many simple bunkai begin with the opponent stepping in and grabbing your wrist. Many Pinan kata will start with a step away in cat stance as the opening move. Why cat stance?

Scenario: Attacker makes a single hand cross hand grab

Attacker: steps in right foot forward grabbing your right wrist with their right hand (cross grab)

Defend: Steps away from attacker sitting into cat stance right foot back, right hand chambered, left hand come up in a shuto strike to attacker’s face.

  • Stepping away from the opponent allows us to use the front foot to push away from the attack
  • Bending the back leg lets us drop our weight further dis-balancing the attacker.
  • Turning the hip and shoulder away from the attacker slightly further stretches the attacker out, and at the same time brings the front attacking hand in position to strike the opponent.
  • Ma’ai changes enough to allow a counter while maintaining control of the movement – in Pinan 3 or 5 the front hand shuto could be a atemi to the face.

As we look at bunkai, we may find that stances may often generate power backwards as well as forwards. Often dis-balancing the attacker initially or after the initial atemi. Perhaps as well as striking forwards we also need to have stances supporting pulling backwards.

Cat Stance revisited- do we change the percentage of the weight on the front foot to accomplish the bunkai above? Not necessarily, we still keep the center of gravity 90% towards the back foot – however, as we bend our back leg and drop our weight, we push against the ground with our front foot. If we’re not moving backwards we counter the push backwards with the back foot and knee pushing forward and countering the push. By both legs/feet pushing towards each other they act like braces – so instead of standing on one leg and balancing the other infront – the two legs work together in an isometric type of bracing.

Why? In addition to the scenario above, what about the question about “how low is a proper cat stance?” If you get in to a sitting on a chair low, it’s hard to move, you must come up to move, if you’re too high it’s easy to topple, and if you’re standing too high and try to punch there is not a strong enough platform. If you were playing tug of war, you wouldn’t stand up and pull, you drop your weight and dig your feet in. Same idea, similar reasons.


All stances have a balanced tension between the front and back foot. For reasons of counter attacking for better preparedness to move, and to enhance the stance’s ability to support and generation and delivery of power.