I am physically unable to relax my upper body during kata. Should I give up Karate altogether?

gpseymour

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I have seen dozens of people come into the dojo and start doing kata better than me after mere months,
During my time as a student, many more talented people came into the dojo. After 35 years, none of them are still active. Only one O can recall ever made it to Shodan.

You have lots of time, or very little. If you want to develop, the time is well spent either way. What does it matter what others do?
 

gpseymour

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Correct me if I'm wrong but don't professional fighters "muscle through" their techniques all the time? Is there really a problem with using the upper body to generate power? In every physical altercation I have been in, the other guy was NOT relaxed, and I still had a hard time subduing him.

I've even seen some videos of Lyoto Machida doing kata, and he does them so slowly and rigidly, yet nobody complains about his fighting ability.

I'm tempted to go the "just live with it" route and continue muscling through kata, because honestly that seems closer to what professional fighters do anyway. And of course, that is literally the only way I am able to do kata.
Kata shouldn’t require muscle, except in those where tension is purposely introduced for development (though this won’t be the same as accidental tension).
 

JowGaWolf

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If you get the same feedback, maybe consider supplemental training in something that focuses on relaxation. Tai chi and Aikido both have this kind of focus.

Know that some people progress slower in learning relaxed power, just like any other area of skill development. Slower development doesn’t mean you can’t keep developing.
I didn't know Aikido had a similar focus. I learned something new today
 

JowGaWolf

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The softer the style of Aikido, the more it focuses on relaxation. But even the relatively “hard” aiki arts need this focus.
Sounds like something a lot of people can use with the Pandemic stress going on. I wonder how well classes on relaxation will do these days?
 

_Simon_

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G'day and welcome to the forum :). I really appreciate your honesty and also your desperation too.

No, this is something I don't feel you should quit. In fact I reckon nutting this issue out will be incredibly significant for you. And haha do not get surgery for this ;), and monetary reward, I wouldn't recommend hehe but I appreciate your willingness to want to see this issue through!

I also struggle with incredible tension issues, manifesting as a severe pelvic tension issue that I've endured the last 3 years almost. Also upper body tension within my own karate practice too, so I can very much relate to this. It's been a work in progress for me, and still is, but I've come a really long way and my technique is dramatically different and more relaxed and free nowadays.

It will not happen instantaeously. Some thoughts:

Either a) your sensei just thinks you're tense but perhaps your structure/movement just looks in a way that suggests it's tense, but really is not. Or b) there really are unconscious tension issues.

If the tension really is there, a few things come to mind... is it possible you're trying too hard to relax? Relaxation comes through letting go of excess concern. When you fill your technique with excessive ambition, that is, being overly concerned with the 'shape', form and perrrrfect technique, it can really hike up into your upper body and manifest as tension. It's like an over-concerned seriousness that is filled with solarplexus driven ambition, and it can really stifle the natural flow of technique.

Sometimes this is deeply psychological and many including myself will tense when being watched, ESPECIALLY when your instructor is watching you directly. There can be an inherent need to please, get approval from, impress, show that you're strong etc, and perhaps the constant commentary that you need to relax is actually gnawing at you as you feel like you're being MORE watched than ever before, hence tensing to TRY HARD to relax.

I'm not sure if you struggle with this (tensing when feeling like you're being watched), but this is deeply psychological and you'll need to look into any core beliefs you have hanging around within yourself, whether it's related to fearing authority figures, needing approval, needing to 'appear strong' but really coming from an insecure place etc. The body does not lie, and tensions show up in response to how you hold yourself, which filter through core beliefs.

I'm being direct and honest about this as I can sense your desperation.

Another thing is I noticed in your original post you wanted EXACT, PRECISE, SPECIFIC detail. This to me shows a little (or maybe more) perfectionism... and I think this may speak to the core of it...

I may be very off the mark, but these are just some thoughts that I hope are helpful in some way.

I came from a very very hard style of karate, and I had/have to unlearn a LOT of tension patterns, so I feel your struggle man.

Another thing, I'd recommend stop comparing yourself to others bro! It'll just eat away at you in so many ways. We're all on our own individual, unique journeys and paths, this is yours. Own it, and see the gold that's in it for you. Doesn't matter if others have 'got it'. Chances are you've got great things others don't too!

But seriously, with all this stuff, one... step... at a time. Take a really nice deep breath. Like you've just walked for 1000 years straight, and finally get to take a load off and sit down. That sort of breath. Sink into that feeling of relaxation and learn to be with it. It may take time, but it will absolutely, without a doubt, be time incredibly well spent.
 

_Simon_

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I'd also REALLY recommend checking out Hotton Sensei's videos, watch them all to be honest haha, as he speaks to moving karate from a rigid, tense, robotic art into a more natural, fluid, relaxed and free way of practicing. He is Shotokan too, but teaches alot from an aiki angle. His channel is below:

https://youtube.com/channel/UCekOUbElva0WIWCkB14nOfA

He's been a godsend to me haha.

You also mentioned earlier it's specific to kata, that's really interesting... perhaps because it's a whole routine that you have in mind, and that it must be a perfect presentation? But yeah connecting to your breathing and moving from your centre will be your best friend here. Shoulders down, eyes up, good posture, relaxing immediately after every technique, coordinating breath, and checking in every now and then with how your body's feeling, upper body getting tight: shaking your shoulders out. Karate should always start from a baseline of relaxation, everything comes FROM there, and returns to there.

And very importantly, incorporate really slow, quiet sessions at home. Ones where you're more listening and really being in tune with your body as you practice. Sessions do NOT have to be a slogfest where you destroy yourself or where you HAVE to be exhausted by the end of them.

More importantly, being more aware of how you carry yourself in everyday life will probably be of most benefit. What's your tension like through the day? At work/school? While you walk? Specifically when you're hanging out with people? When you're on your own? Let your everyday be a point of inquiry. And I don't mean getting obsessed and overly vigilant about scrutinizing yourself as that's not helpful haha, but let it be a gentle curiosity. Observe and be aware of it as it'll probably be pretty revealing.
 
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Buka

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I have considered it but I have seen plenty of people do kata without having a history of doing Tai Chi (or hell, half of the relaxation exercises I've been doing for the past several years).

"Considered it".....okay, and?

Give it a try, bro, it won't hurt any, honest.

If you ever come to Maui, let me know. I believe it's a fairly easy fix.
 

Yokozuna514

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I have been doing Karate for 7 years (currently in WKF Shotokan, 1st kyu brown belt, training in Canada). My sensei keeps telling me to relax my upper body and use my legs/hips for power. However, no matter how much I consciously try to do this, he keeps telling me I am too tense. I have been trying so hard for the past two years or so to relax my upper body and generate power purely from my legs/hips. I have reached a point that where I am trying so hard to relax that when I do kata, every technique I do causes my upper body to wobble and gyrate around like crazy. It almost looks like I'm drunk because of how much I'm trying to relax myself. But my sensei keeps telling me to relax even more, and at that point I don't even know what to do. I do not have any physical issues, as I am completely able to perform plyometric exercises of the legs/hips while simultaneously relaxing my upper body. But when it comes to doing any kata, it's like all of that goes out the window because sensei keep telling me "relax your shoulders." Your katas would look stiff and have the appearance of little to no power.

I've tried stretching, I've tried strengthening my stances, I've tried abdominal exercises, I've tried kime exercises, I've tried contracting my lats, but to no avail; sense keeps telling me "you're too tense."

I have two options:
a.) Just keep doing Karate incorrectly and probably never receive my black belt (as this is something that I have seen people get failed for during Dan testing).
b.) Quit Karate altogether.

If both of these seem like bad ideas, then someone please, for the love of God, tell me exactly how to correct this problem. "Just relax," "work on your flexibility," "make your stances stronger," are vague answers that will not help. Right now, I am looking for a precise, exact solution to this problem so that I can stop performing kata so poorly and start doing Karate like I'm supposed to. I want to know what the exact secret is to relaxing the upper body. I want to know the precise order in which the muscles need to contract, what trajectory they need to follow, the timing of the contraction, the position of my spine, the position of my foot, the timing of my breathing, etc. I need extremely precise details on how to relax my upper body and perform kata correctly. I don't care if it means spending years on shoulder conditioning, I don't care if it means taking some weird supplement, I don't care if it means getting some bizarre surgical procedure to make my shoulders more relaxed, I don't care if it means getting cybernetic enhancements to force my shoulders to relax. This is starting to get annoying and I want to fix this problem so I can finally do Karate correctly after 7 years of training.

Ok, first off, nice to see someone else from Quebec on this board. Welcome. In regards to your question, there can be a number of things going on as to why you are receiving this feedback from your Sensei. I do Kyokushin so we have many of the same kata and have seen this problem from time to time. Watching you do the kata would be the best way to give you proper feedback. Based on what you said the issue is "relaxing upper body", I wonder if your stances are 'live' when you perform your katas. If they are not, then your katas would have an appearance of having your upper body disconnected from your lower body which means that the power from your punches would appear to look as if they are coming strictly from your arms and shoulders.

As many have already said, power comes from the ground up and it is the hips that is the conduit that connects your stance to your punches and blocks. The issue could also be timing related or breathing related. Your Sensei may also not wish to "spoon feed" you the answer so that you continue to polish your katas until you find your own answers.

You can also seek the advice of a higher rank in your school to ask them for their feedback. They will be able to watch you and perhaps give you the guidance you need to correct the issue. Good luck.
 

punisher73

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I am assuming that you already know how to "technically" perform all of the techniques. By that, I mean you know how the body should move and work when throwing a technique.

One of the drills I used to have my students do when they were very stiff or trying to muscle everything. Was to adapt a "tai chi" attitude with their kata. Perform your kata very slow and relaxed. Notice where you get tense when you move. Analyze this, is the tension necessary to the movement? For example, if I have my hands at my sides and my arms are hanging naturally and I just lift my arm straight out to the front. There should be no tension at all in the biceps or triceps, JUST the deltoid.

Do this for the whole kata, move slowly, analyze any tension you feel. Do NOT put in any "kime" at this point. Eventually, when you can go through smoothly and without excess tension, add in the "kime". At the point of impact, tighten your entire body and then immediately relax. Analyze: Are you tightening up before impact and putting the breaks on your technique? After impact, are you keeping muscles tense that don't need to be? You can also do the reverse of this (Sanchin if you know it), do a dynamic tension throughout and then after point of impact, relax completely after that. Analyze if there is any tension.

It is a yin/yang thing of tension versus relaxation.
 

gpseymour

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Sounds like something a lot of people can use with the Pandemic stress going on. I wonder how well classes on relaxation will do these days?
Calmness apps seem to be doing well. Unfortunately, I don't really know how to teach it absent the MA practice - what I know is tightly integrated into the way we practice NGA.
 

Acronym

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My best guess is that it's so ingrained into your muscle memory that you may need to change your mechanics entirely.

It can also be mental.
 

PhilE

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Lets say you are around 30. You've been doing karate since you were 23. You feel you should have learned to relax after 7 years, when it took you 23 years to become tense. About 16 of those was when you were where a child, and most susceptible to the pre-programming of body misalignment.

This state of relaxation was something that yogis, monks would practice to attain for years, maybe even decades.

Maybe it was in the karate system once, I don't know. But I'd make a guess that the internal element of karate has been omitted when it became more sports focused. So modern karate may not help you to relax by itself. Though of course the flow of endorphins from regular exercise, will always be a major source of health and happiness.

Tai Chi, Chi Gung, Iyengar Yoga (avoid any style of yoga where the teacher had had one month of training). If you can afford it, try massage, acupuncture, osteopathy etc.

Don't quit, there are forever going to be major obstacles in your training, that's training!
 

PhilE

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Correct me if I'm wrong but don't professional fighters "muscle through" their techniques all the time?

No, a pro sportsperson would damage themselves with excess tension.

Have a read up on George Foreman, he describes the success of his comeback due to a release of nervous tension in his body.

Think of relaxation as a cat about to strike, or Bruce Lee's 'whip,' concept.
 

Hanshi

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I found that in teaching aikido the most difficult thing for most students is to learn relaxation. Meditation helps some but not others. Perhaps you are confusion strength with power. They are not the same thing although strength is one of the many components of power. I tell students to think of their arms & legs as whips, not rigid weapons. They are pliable until the moment of impact. An oversimplification, yes, but an interesting way to visualize it. Using strength and being "stiff" saps energy. Remember, limbs pliable until the instant of FOCUS. Other than that all I can think of is maybe trying grappling. But you will always run into the same need to be relaxed and pliable. It isn't physical, either; it's mental.
 

GodSpearCQB

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First of all real power generation that comes without effort (I.E. relaxed) comes from the use of sinew and not muscle, or at least not flexed muscle. In Liu He Mantis we have a concept called opposition. If you turn your torso all the opposite of your legs and hips to the point that it can go no further you will feel an elastic tendency to realign that is caused by muscles and tendons being loaded through wringing. Just like a rubber band. There are many exercises that can help you form that same opposition anywhere in the range of motion. Research Baji Quan, Bagua Zhang, Liu He Mantis and use the exercises in these arts to augment your speed and power generation. You will get your blackbelt and this information is all over youtube. Here are some of the exercises I do
Liu He, 7 Star, Mi Men, Ba Bu, Baji, Pigua, bagua montage Kung Fu
 

wab25

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Consider small steps first like practicing kata without the arms at all. Just let them dangle at your sides. Work on stepping properly with correct breathing. Remember there is a kinetic chain that occurs at the feet and legs and you are constantly tightening and relaxing the leg and core muscles just to get the stepping correct. Work on that first and cultivate the loose feeling in your arms and shoulders. You want to get used to that feeling and space so when you hunch your shoulders and tighten up your arms, you'll swiftly know mentally that you're in a bad posture again.

Do your kata like one sings in the shower or alone in their car - uninhibited, uncaring how you look or sound. Go thru the moves without trying to impress anyone with your speed and power, especially yourself.

Do this for the whole kata, move slowly, analyze any tension you feel. Do NOT put in any "kime" at this point. Eventually, when you can go through smoothly and without excess tension, add in the "kime".
Do these. Actually, go back and re-read these posts and try them.

I have an "advantage" I have a very hard time memorizing sequences. So, when I learn a kata, I have to spend time just learning what moves to do in what order. So, I spend a lot of time outside of class literally just working on the order or sequence. Meaning, I practice them slow, and with no thought to any energy at all. If you were to put a video of me practicing this, it would be the worst kata you ever saw. Since I am focusing on the order, I am completely relaxed.

Once things open up, go to a mall or other location where there are lots of people. Try doing your kata there, without drawing any attention to your self. Make all the movements small, just barely enough to say, I was in the right pose. Here you have to stay relaxed... if you have tension, you will draw attention to your self.

Another approach is to make all the hits in your kata, pushes instead. Each push is pushing a cart with a bunch of balanced glassware on it. Make the blocks and punches into throws and joint locks. Work on making the transition from one move into the next as smooth as possible. Make it a dance.

In class, you do it hard and fast. But your own practice... slow down, make it gentle. Add strength and speed into one part only. Try different parts. Try different timings. Do the hard parts soft and the soft parts hard. Play with it.
 

isshinryuronin

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During my time as a student, many more talented people came into the dojo. After 35 years, none of them are still active. Only one O can recall ever made it to Shodan.

"Even a plodding buffalo can travel 1000 li." (miles.) Chinese proverb.

"
Slow is easy and easy is fast" SEAL proverb.
 

_Simon_

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Do these. Actually, go back and re-read these posts and try them.

I have an "advantage" I have a very hard time memorizing sequences. So, when I learn a kata, I have to spend time just learning what moves to do in what order. So, I spend a lot of time outside of class literally just working on the order or sequence. Meaning, I practice them slow, and with no thought to any energy at all. If you were to put a video of me practicing this, it would be the worst kata you ever saw. Since I am focusing on the order, I am completely relaxed.

Once things open up, go to a mall or other location where there are lots of people. Try doing your kata there, without drawing any attention to your self. Make all the movements small, just barely enough to say, I was in the right pose. Here you have to stay relaxed... if you have tension, you will draw attention to your self.

Another approach is to make all the hits in your kata, pushes instead. Each push is pushing a cart with a bunch of balanced glassware on it. Make the blocks and punches into throws and joint locks. Work on making the transition from one move into the next as smooth as possible. Make it a dance.

In class, you do it hard and fast. But your own practice... slow down, make it gentle. Add strength and speed into one part only. Try different parts. Try different timings. Do the hard parts soft and the soft parts hard. Play with it.
Yep I just reread those, very helpful for me! And well said.

I just wish the fellow would come back and let us know how he's going, hopefully he chimes in! If not, all these posts have been helpful for me anyway :)
 

gpseymour

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Do these. Actually, go back and re-read these posts and try them.

I have an "advantage" I have a very hard time memorizing sequences. So, when I learn a kata, I have to spend time just learning what moves to do in what order. So, I spend a lot of time outside of class literally just working on the order or sequence. Meaning, I practice them slow, and with no thought to any energy at all. If you were to put a video of me practicing this, it would be the worst kata you ever saw. Since I am focusing on the order, I am completely relaxed.

Once things open up, go to a mall or other location where there are lots of people. Try doing your kata there, without drawing any attention to your self. Make all the movements small, just barely enough to say, I was in the right pose. Here you have to stay relaxed... if you have tension, you will draw attention to your self.

Another approach is to make all the hits in your kata, pushes instead. Each push is pushing a cart with a bunch of balanced glassware on it. Make the blocks and punches into throws and joint locks. Work on making the transition from one move into the next as smooth as possible. Make it a dance.

In class, you do it hard and fast. But your own practice... slow down, make it gentle. Add strength and speed into one part only. Try different parts. Try different timings. Do the hard parts soft and the soft parts hard. Play with it.
I never thought about it, but I have this same advantage. When I put together my kata, I spent so much time doing exactly what you describe here - trying to remember the sequence to get to the next bit - that I had to ignore the intended energy for a time. Once I had them down(ish), I was able to start looking at the intended energy, and ended up learning to use different levels (maximum smoothness, maximum precision, maximum power, maximum distance, etc.).
 
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