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TAI SABAKI

THE FORGOTTEN EXERCISE


OF BODY SHIFTING
BY
Dr. Ed Hudson (6th Dan)

nfortunately the art of body shifting (tai sabaki) and foot movements (ashi
sabaki) has been lost in most shotokan organisations. This is of grave concern,
especially when many noted martial artists, including well known shotokan
instructors and even the late Bruce Lee stated that the person with the superior foot
work will always win the fight.
Historical evidence has shown the historical lineage of Japanese karate from Okinawa
back to China. The Chinese martial arts are replete with the importance of body shifting
and foot work. In some instances, Chinese forms advocate that their specific forms are
based on this entire principle.
This emphasis on body shifting and foot work can be found in many other forms of
martial arts. The importance of foot work is also a foundational plank in western
boxing. If such a diverse range of martial arts acknowledge the importance of foot work
and body shifting, why has shotokan chosen to neglect it?
The answer could only be that various shotokan organisations did not teach it in the first
place, were taught it but have now forgotten it, were taught it but have chosen not to
practice it.
Has shotokan lost this treasure? The answer would have to be a resounding yes!
The obvious question is then why? It is the author's opinion that most shotokan
organisations simply stopped teaching tai sabaki due to the focus on sports karate. The
objective in ones training will always determine how one trains.
Is body shifting and foot work important? Should it be practiced? Is it essential for
effective self defence? The answer is yes to all these questions.
Most shotokan students acknowledge that kata hold the keys to self defence. So why the
need for tai sabaki? Kata encapsulates effective self defence techniques to common
forms of physical aggression. Kata can be practiced individually with out the need for a
training partner. Kata is the text book to which one can refer to obtain information on
how to defend oneself against a particular attack.
However, kata is not a dynamic representation of a real life encounter. Kata represents
in a stylistic way what one could do in a certain situation. Tai sabaki shows one how
this works in reality.

It is the author's opinion that these two training forms (kata and tai sabaki) are interwoven. Having one without the other leaves the student with only 50% of the
knowledge, the effectiveness and the understanding on these highly effective
techniques.
Tai sabaki (body shifting) and ashi sabaki (foot movements-stepping and sliding) are
extremely important skills and exercises that must be practiced by karate ka. This is
evidenced by Chidokais emphasis on these training exercises referred to as kihon
ukekamae san (180/90/180) and tai sabaki. These training exercises should be
practiced every lesson as they form the link between the self defence movements
found in kata and their real-life applications.
Kata is a static, fixed, linear, stiff exercise that is neither dynamic nor representative
of how the movement would be used in real-life1. In fact Choki Motobu called kata
practice as lifeless. This does not mean that Motobu regarded kata as unimportant.
He stated that the principles of kata never change and he spent most of his time
practicing kata applications and movements2.

Motobu using Uchi uke to get out of a grab from behind.

Motobu explained in greater detail the principles that are incorporated when one
practices tai sabaki. The first thing one learns is maai (engagement distance) and ma
(the space or interval created by tai sabaki) in an effort to effectively use ones
technique.
The second principle is to place oneself in a position superior to your opponent
making his technique virtually ineffective.
The third principle of tai sabaki is to make use of the space created by moving ones
body in an effort to subjugate any opponent3.
Shoshin Nagamine who counted Choki Motobu as one of his principal instructors,
devised a list of key factors that students should incorporate in their training from his
analysis of tai sabaki and lessons learned from Miyomoto Musashi. Nagamine exhorts
students to no only understand these principles but diligently train in them and apply
them instinctively4. These principles are listed in order of importance:

Tales of Okinawas Great Masters, 2000, Shoshin Nagamine, p 100


IBID p101
3
IBID p101
4
IBID p 102
2

1.
2.
3.
4.

The ideal technique is one which can be provide simultaneous defense and
offense
One should strive to use both hands simultaneously in defensive and offensive
manner
The hands and feet must be used in conjunction with each other to maximise
optimal defensive and offensive performance.
Seek to understand the value of angular movement and learn body change
through mastering foot movements.

You will note that the above principles are all embraced in the various tai sabaki
exercises practiced by Chidokai (Refer to Chidokai publication Tai Sabaki and its
Practical Applications).
Not only did Choki Motobu and Nagamine emphasis and practice these tenants,
Gichin Funakoshi also admonished students to adopt similar training regimes5.
Unfortunately, many shotokan organisations who profess to be the legitimate
successors to Funikoshis shotokan do not practice these concepts nor do they
incorporate it into their training regime.

The above applications are from Tai Sabaki ichi (the first tai sabaki exercise) used against a lapel
grab.

KARATE-DO KYOHAN, 1973 GICHIN FUNAKOSHI, P 235.

In an article published by Mario Mc Kenna in the Shoto Journal Aug 2002, he


translates an interview with Tomosaburo Okana a student of Gichin Funakoshi. This
article refers to the tai sabaki of Funakoshi known as juji tai sabaki.
This tai sabaki exercise is none other than what we call kihon ukakamae san
(180/90/180). Okana states that he learned this from Gichin and Gigo Funakoshi.
Clearly, tai sabaki was practiced and taught by Funakoshi.
Tai sabaki allows us to practice what we know from our katas by adding the additional
dynamic of body shifting and foot work. Tai sabaki takes a technique and works it into a
real life application format. Bringing to life the body dynamics of your would be
attacker and your own effective response.
These tai sabaki exercises were being taught in the Chidokan system back in the early
1960's. This would indicate that tai sabaki was a legitimate exercise which formed part
of the shotokan training syllabus at least 40 years ago.
Funakoshi himself stated that the student should practice defending against attacks from
the front, the side and the rear and attacks from several attackers from both sides or
from the front6. This form of practice is inherent in the tai sabaki exercises presented
here.

Karate-Do Kyohan Gichin Funakoshi Kodansha International 1974 p 235