Kamae or fighting stance refers to the physical posture one assumes in combat.
“What is the best fighting stance?‘ is a question that gets asked a lot. This is a perfectly reasonable question to ask because positioning your feet, hands, torso and eye focus is crucial for both protecting yourself from incoming strikes and initiating effective counterattacks when necessary.
However, according to Funakoshi, only beginners are concerned with the physical posture when fighting, experienced fighters or master fighters would stand naturally and he was absolutely right.
Experienced fighters understand that a ready state of mind is far more important than the outer physical form. You may assume the best fighting posture possible but if your mind is not fully present and, instead, filled with anger, tension, arrogance, animosity, fear, or other similar emotions, your ability to be fully attentive to the present situation and swiftly respond to your opponent’s actions could be compromised. Put simply, when your mind is clouded, your reaction will be slow and you can’t fight effectively.
On the other hand, if you stand naturally but your mind is calm and perfectly clear, you will be able to react instantaneously, appropriately and unconsciously to any situation and fight to the best of your ability. This state of “mind with no mind” or “mushin no shin“, however, requires many years of dedicated practice.
Therefore, novices may be overly concerned with the physical form, but masters understand that the mental “kamae” is far more important. They may stand naturally, yet they are as ready as they can ever be.
“Do not become distracted by overconcern with whether the physical form of your kamae is good or bad”
“No matter how impenetrable your ready stance may look, it is of no use if your mind is asleep.”
“No matter how full of holes an opponent’s kamae may appear, if his mind is prepared, you must be extremely cautious”Unknown
Motobu Choki (1870-1944), an Okinawan karate master, also held a similar view about kamae being more of a state of mind rather than a mere physical form.
There are various types of what is usually called posture (kamae) but I want you to know that these are just outer forms…
In the case of real combat, if a person says you should always adopt the posture like this or that, I would object and say that there is no fixed outer form in postures (kamae).
I argue that this is because posture (kamae) is a state of mind and not a mere physical outer form. It is always important to be prepared to deal with the requirements of the moment, that is, in case of being attacked, in an instant situation.
Therefore, it should not categorically be said that “this posture is good” or “that posture is good”, judging only from its outer appearance.
In short, you should pay attention to the fact that posture (kamae) is a matter of training your martial strengths every day, and coincident with it, to train your mind and spirit.Motobu Choki
Richard Kim, in his book “The Weaponless Warriors” tells the following tale about the great karate master, Matsumura Sōkon (1809 – 1899), who served as the bodyguard of three Okinawan kings. This tale is a great example of the importance of the state of mind over the physical form.
Uehara was a craftsman who happened to be a karate expert of some note. Having heard Matsumura’s reputation, Uehara approached the great master to ask for lessons but Matsumura refused. Uehara decided to challenge Matsumura who felt that Uehara needed a lesson in common courtesy and agreed to it. Uehara then told Matsumura to be at the king’s graveyard at five a.m. the next day for the fight.
The next day, Uehara arrived at the graveyard one hour early to familiarize himself with the terrain and gain an advantage. He discovered the graveyard was filled with a dense mist concealing even the nearby grave markers. However, when he reached the top of the hill, Uehara found Matsumura was already there, waiting for him.
“Uehara,” said the baritone voice, “I have been waiting.”
The craftsman completely lost his composure and spun wildly in the direction of the sound. From out of the misty shroud stepped Matsumura, a spectre of fearsome proportions. He had outsmarted Uehara, being sure to arrive even earlier. This was not lost on the craftsman, who now gritted his teeth knowing that Matsumura had the advantage of knowing the terrain.
“Are you ready, Uehara?” added the bushi, still walking slowly forward in an ominous manner.
Without speaking, Uehara jumped back into his kamae, while Matsumura stood watching him calmly, his hands remaining at his sides. Random and panicked thoughts began to rush through Uehara’s mind. He was plainly losing his nerve. In desperation, he attacked with a loud kiai, caught sight of the self-assured look in the eyes of Matsumura and promptly stopped short. He then jumped back, his mind now racing, and tried desperately to get a hold of himself. He viewed Matsumura, still standing in the same pose, his determined features etched out of the shadows by the morning light.
“Uehara,” said Matsumura in his calm baritone, “do something.”
The craftsman circled for a better position and tried to regain some of his composure. Suddenly on the spur of the moment, Uehara made one last desperate attempt. He shouted and began to lunge at Matsumura, but the sight of the bushi’s eyes brought forth images of terrible superhuman things, like Fudo-Myoo.(1) Uehara’s body would not obey the desperate commands of his mind. He simply fell to his knees and began to sob, totally defeated.
“Do not feel ashamed,” advised Matsumura, “you badly wanted to win. You could taste it in your mouth. But it was your only thought, and it defeated you.”Richard Kim
While Uehara assumed kamae, his mind was all over the shop and filled with fear, desperation, and a desire to win. Matsumura remained in a natural stance, but his mind was calm and free of any hindrances. Matsumura was ready for anything Uehara may throw at him and Uehara knew enough to realize that he had lost the battle of the mind and hence already lost the fight before it even began.
Note 1: Fudo-Myoo is a fearsome Buddha and a fierce protector of the Buddhist Law who is said to be able to see everything in the world, burn all evils and save all sufferings. His statues are often seen guarding at Buddhist temples.
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