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JOHN TITCHEN

BEGINNERS WORK? WHY WE SHOULD SPEND MORE TIME ON THE HEIAN FORMS

Approximately three years ago I was chatting with a well known senior martial artist and I mentioned that I had put together a flow system for the Heian Kata, teaching students how to flow from one move to another within the techniques of the five steps in response to habitual acts of violence. “Now do the same for Bassai or Kanku Dai,” my friend replied. I mention this because it would seem to me that there is an unspoken implication in that reply, that the Heian are ‘okay’, but they are beginners forms – you should be working on the real deal. It is an assumption that I disagree with and the purpose of this article is to explain why.

My previous article on the Heian forms looked at what we know of their history. In their present five stage form they are at least one hundred and five years old. The kata upon which they are based, Chiang Nan, and/or Kushanku and Bassai/Passai is at least two hundred and fifty years old, The survival of the moves from these forms suggest to me that it must have held great value for generations of martial artists.

In their present form the Heian are taught as beginners Kata. We are aware that some techniques have been simplified or altered for teaching purposes by Anko Itosu. But what is a beginners form? A few simple techniques to keep them busy until they are good enough to learn the real stuff? On the contrary, I would argue that it is the beginners forms that are the real stuff, the core of Karate. The later forms that are studied in lesser or greater numbers are merely additions, variables, to this core.

So what do the Heian forms teach us?

On the defensive front we can see footwork that teaches us how to move inside, round or through an attack as well as shifting offline. There are flinch reactions to deal with high level and middle level attacks, not only punches but also low and high level wrist grabs, pushes, lapel grabs and head butts. In addition to this there are moves that can defend against less common attacks such as headlocks, attempted full nelson holds and even drunken tackles.

On the offensive front that these Kata take on a frightening aspect. Using the fists, blade of the hand, forearm and the elbows there are potential strikes to the arms, chest, neck, jawline, inner thigh and back. There are throws that take the balance from below the centre and throws that take the balance from above. There is stepwork that trains practitioners to unsettle their assailant’s balance by bumping into the inside of the thigh with the knee at Sp10 and on the outside of the thigh at GB32, usually combined with high and mid level attacks. There are kicks – some of which seem to be aimed at the groin or lower abdomen, others which seem to attack the weakest points of the leg (again in conjunction with upper level attacks) and knee strikes. There are strikes that can be followed through with holds, strangles and head locks. There are straight arm bars and s bend locks. Many of the offensive techniques use proprioceptive striking and the sequence of many moves suggest alternative techniques as redundancies in the event that the initial attack has not had the desired result.

It is true that the techniques of the Heian seem to be blunter and lack the finesse of ‘more advanced’ Kata. This is a positive rather than a negative factor. Under pressure our awareness is reduced and our ability to use complex motor skills are diminished. As a fighting core we need to be able to use techniques involving natural defence reflexes that use the blunt tools of the forearm and elbow. Can you see the pattern here? Gedan Barai, Age Uke, Shuto Uke, Uchi Uke… The pattern I see is called the HeIan.

Anko Itosu changed the name of the form from Chiang Nan to Pinan, Peaceful Mind. Mastery of the Heian Kata should bring a peaceful mind since they are truly a beginner’s kata. The first thing I want my beginners to be able to do is to deflect attacks and counterattack. The Pinan/Heian Kata teach students how to do this. But they go further, they teach even more important basic principles: free flowing movement, multi-level striking, unbalancing, combining percussive and grappling techniques, vital point striking, technique redundancy…

Beginners need the same things that advanced martial artists need – a training regime that teaches them how to fight effectively. The Heian/Pinan Kata, practiced with intent (and if possible with a partner), provide that routine. They are not merely a stepping stone to more advanced Kata, they are at once both the advanced and the basic kata – the core system that most karate styles are based on.

The conversion of Karate from a fighting system to a martial way or sporting activity has resulted in many of the lessons of the Pinan/Heian set going unregarded and untaught. It is small wonder that many Karate styles sought out extra Kata – they were seeking a stimulation, fighting ability and technical knowledge that a deeper study of their core Kata would have provided – had they been taught it as anything more than a form of physical exercise.

I’ll be training later today. The Kata I’ll be picking to reinforce my ability is the Heian.

john titchen

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