Okinawa is well known for its citizens living long lives. It has the largest percentage of its population living to over 100 years old in the world. This is put down to the food that they eat, their joyous outlook to the world, the absence of industry and their fondness of physical activity. In Okinawa, body image and health is very important. Traditionally men would keep their body in shape through the practice of martial arts, whilst women would train in dance.
During the 20th century the Okinawan martial arts (previously known as Chinese Kung-Fu) were divided by two terms to give them a definitive Okinawan Identity. These terms were Karate and Kobudo. Karate is well known and very popular as a worldwide Japanese cultural export, whereas Kobudo (a multi-weaponed martial art) is lesser known and less widely practiced.
Hojo-Undo forms an essential part of both Karate and Kobudo training and can be summarised as the process of strengthening and conditioning the body to make it strong and supple enough to undertake the complicated and extravagant movements involved in martial arts practice.
However what is unique to Kobudo and cannot be found in Karate are the constant impressions that are left upon the body through the regular use of various weapons. The weapons have different weights, sizes and structures that require unique approaches in handling, manipulation and power generation. For this reason is suggested that Kobudo offers unique fitness benefits and the physiques of the dedicated Kobudo-Ka are unique.
Jikishin Kobudo is currently researching the different training benefits of each weapon through consultation with academics and fitness professionals and will publish the results in the coming months. This article acts as an introduction to this work and begins the dissemination of its research with some insights into the general benefits of Kobudo as a collective art.
Kobudo has an excellent position in the promotion of health, fitness and the physical condition. As an entity, it offers the practitioner two types of human movement – Moving oneself and moving an object. The concept of how to optimally move as a human may often be lost as a focus in modern gyms; however this is the very essence of traditional martial arts.
Kobudo promotes the stimulation of both slow and fast muscle twitch fibres in the muscles and seeks to delegate a technique's functional requirements to each area of the anatomy. The legs provide the key powerbase and the engine of the body. Sunken stances support the building of tensile holding strength where the quadriceps, hamstrings, hip flexors, stabilising muscles and connective tissue around the knees and ankles are loaded with the body weight moving with the legs in many configurations of flexion and extension.
The upper body provides the dexterity, control and accurate delivery of the technique and are where more explosive movements are used, once the inertia of the bodyweight has been overcome by the legs stepping - The fast twitch stimulus of the upper thoracic and shoulder girdle during strikes is greatly enhanced. Although unloaded, the speed, power and neurological overload can cause a response of growth hormone to stimulate the repair of micro tears in the muscle similar to many field and track athletic disciplines.
The core and trunk region has a great demand placed on it - Acting in a similar way to a 'car chassis' as it provides the taut structure to brace the body for an explosive movement or keeping the body upright during dynamic movements. The added rotations, concaving and expansive movements add great health to the spine in addition to repetitious flexion of the abdomen, serratus, lats and rhomboid structures to strengthen the overall trunk security and capability.
In no particular order, and of course this is not an exhaustive list, the practice of Kobudo offers benefits across all types of fitness
• The capacity to produce fast, explosive movement of maximal power during strikes, jumps and blocks.
• Pure holding strength of connective and muscular tissue from sunken stances and steps, pressing and core strength.
• The increase of cardiovascular capacity during fast, repetitious kata, hojo-undo and kumi-waza to elevate the heart rate and put pressure on the demand for exceptional technique under time pressure.
• The range of movement in joints and the undoing of modern life in offices and cars such as the cultivation of hip, ankle and thoracic mobility.
• An increase in the flexibility of the muscles during dynamic movements – Raising the internal temperature of the body and increasing the elasticity of muscular tissue.
• The dextrous nature of using and manipulating the many different weapons of Kobudo is excellent for spatial and hand-eye coordination. As an extension of motor-neurone control, or the ‘mind-muscle connection’, the executing of techniques to target is trained and trained again during kata, hojo-undo and kumi-waza. This is demonstrated as a call and response mechanism, the brain recognises a stimulus and responds in an accurate and effective manner.
• The training of balance combines the holding strength in the trunk, hip girdle and legs and the internal awareness of how the body is postured. This can be demonstrated where posture and bodyweight is turned to maximum leverage such as in an Osae Uke (or ‘pressing’ block) In the short-term this allows the correct stance and execution of technique and in the long-term can be a deciding factor between healthy joints and the acceleration of worn knees, shoulders and key areas of the body.
Of course in addition to the benefits of physical training come risks. The risks, either due to vulnerabilities found in an individual’s physique, the mis-judged execution of a technique, poor preparation in the warm-up or the level of intensity of practice. We can never eliminate risks in the dojo or on the sporting field, however the healthy relationship between Sensei (teacher) and Kohai (student) must incorporate what is most suitable for them. This element can transcend the practice of martial techniques and move to look to the journey of the individual student on their path.