The Scholar Warrior

Traditional Karate in a Modern World

by Michael Pekor

It is well known that Traditional Shotokan Karate is one of the most powerful methods of self defense and physical fitness available anywhere. This has been proven time and again for centuries on the battlefield and in martial arts tournament competitions. Even more importantly, Traditional Shotokan Karate has proved to be an unrivaled tool for building real mental focus and the ability to sustain attention. In today's world of ADD and ADHD, the value of this benefit cannot be overstated.

For hundreds of years, long before Pilates and yoga became the “fads of the day,” Shotokan karate training has been recognized worldwide for producing physically powerful and highly focused human beings. With its special emphasis on “Zanchin,” a Japanese word meaning “mental focus,” and “Kime” (pronounced “Key- May”), or the focusing of physical power, Shotokan Karate has refined the art of mental and physical concentration to the highest degree. As a result, traditional karate students tend to experience significant improvements in their physical fitness, self esteem and academic studies.

Originally a battlefield fighting art, Shotokan Karate has survived to this day for its many ancillary benefits, which include improved health, strength, fitness, balance, conditioning, flexibility, mental focus, stamina and confidence. People all over the world practice Shotokan karate as their sole form of exercise and find its study and practice more fascinating and beneficial with each passing year. While the benefits of traditional Shotokan karate are many, this article will hone in on the particularly important benefits of mental and physical focus and concentration and their relationship to confidence and success.

One of the backbones of Shotokan karate training is the study of ancient sequences of choreographed self defense techniques known collectively as “kata.” As a karate student embarks on his study of kata, he is forced to concentrate on learning to move his body in a highly precise and powerful way. In an effort to execute the movements of each kata with the correct timing, sense of balance and proper body positioning, the karate student learns the art of bringing his attention “down into his body.”

So what exactly does “bringing attention down into the body” mean? Bringing one’s attention down into the body means that, rather than being stuck in “analytical thought” about the movements of the kata, (or in other words trying to direct the movements from a “mental control room in the head”) the karate student gradually strengthens his ability to actually feel what is taking place on the inside of his body. Tuning into these important physical sensations provides the information needed to transform the new karate student into a highly skilled master. Attention begins to naturally pick up a wide variety of “feelings and sensations” including, but in no way limited to, tension and relaxation, expansion and contraction, weight shifts and balance, the movement of “Ki” or “internal energy,” the entire spectrum of emotion and spatial awareness. This may sound strange at first, but the implications of honing this “harnessing and directing of attention” are staggering.

In today’s modern world, almost everything we do involves only thinking. The role that the body plays in navigating one’s way through daily life has become increasingly diminished. We press a button to do almost everything and rarely need to do any hard physical labor. As a result, people have become very good at thinking about things in short spurts while at the same time becoming weak, lazy, highly distracted and sick. Our disconnection from and neglect of our physical being is causing an alarming deterioration in our ability to stay focused on anything for an extended period of time. This is precisely why traditional Shotokan karate training is now more relevant and valuable than at any other time in history. Whether studying for a big exam, negotiating a business deal or listening to a speech, the ability to sustain attention is paramount.

As a teacher of physical education and practicing NYS licensed mental health counselor/hypnotherapist, I see the detrimental results of our societal neglect of the body every day. Children today are weaker, less coordinated, and in worse overall physical condition than at any time in recent history. Rather than “playing tag” or “playing ball” or even just “playing outside,” kids today spend the majority of their time sitting behind a keyboard. Their fingers may be fit from all of those key strokes, but sadly that’s where their fitness ends. Getting kids to be able to jog a mile, do a few decent pushups or touch their toes has become an almost impossible task. Obesity, heart disease, and loss of bone density are just a few of the natural results of this scary trend in our way of living. And physically defending themselves? Forget about it!

Aside from the obvious physical problems that lack of exercise creates, there are a whole host of mental, psychological and emotional difficulties that arise out of a sedentary lifestyle. People today lack confidence, are more prone to depression and anxiety and develop negative self images and low self esteem as a result of simply being weak and out of shape. Additional social consequences including being unable to participate in recreational sports and being left out of social circles and events.

One last negative effect caused by our current way of life is quite possibly the most serious and far reaching problem. Because our physical being has been so neglected, our bodies hurt. We cannot sit for extended periods of time without our backs hurting. We cannot listen to a speech without being constantly distracted by our own physical discomfort. We are losing the ability to sit and learn for long periods of time. This destruction of our ability to concentrate due to being physically weak is chipping away at our children’s ability to be successful in school and in life in general.

Traditional Shotokan karate provides a potent remedy for all of these modern day problems. Karate students immediately begin to become stronger from the inside out from day one in karate training. The legs become as solid as a rock. Students learn to stand in deep stances and remain focused, relaxed and highly alert for extended periods of time. The ability to sit, stand and move with perfect posture and composure is built into the training from the start. The mid section becomes extremely powerful which improves posture and self image. The upper body becomes supple yet powerful. Confidence, self esteem and self image are all radically enhanced as a result of the felt sense of strength, power, precision and control fostered through karate training (not to mention the great improvement in appearance!).

Karate students learn to remain calm, relaxed, focused and in full control in the midst of chaos. Practicing karate techniques against punches, kicks, throws and many other forms of attack, produces a certain poise and confidence in karate students that simply cannot be learned anywhere else. One may learn to be calm and relaxed in yoga class, but unless that sense of poise remains when the pressure is on, it is of no use. Karate teaches people to be calm and relaxed while facing the most stressful circumstances. Holding stances despite the burning in the legs, executing precise techniques in the midst of a barrage of punches and kicks, and “keeping one’s cool” after being accidentally hit a bit too hard by a fellow karate student, are all examples of how traditional Karate training builds practical, powerful concentration in its practitioners.

In short, traditional Shotokan karate is a gem from the past that has the potential to change lives in more ways than can be mentioned in this short article.

Michael Pekor is a black belt in Shotokan karate and the founder/director of Tai Chi-Kung Fu of Long Island.


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