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Kamae 2

Theory - Aikido - Beginner - White Belt

Side view of kamae We can see from the previous chapter that kamae is both an idealized body shape (a static form) and a training process to progressively train the body to adopt a set of body shapes that maximize certain physical properties.

Axial Loading

One these properties of kamae is the transmission of loads down along the length of body structures, like a column bearing the weight of a building down its length and into the ground. This is called an axial load, and our bodies are designed to withstand a very large amount of it. In many places very heavy things, such as clean water, are carried long distances balanced on heads. In order to be able use the least amount of strength possible, the weight is kept perfectly balanced: the muscular engergy that is used instead just needs to keep everything aligned, favoring endurance rather than brute strength.

Nearly all force applied to a body is ultimately dissipated in contact with the ground. Some is transmitted there directly through an axial load. The rest is received in the hinged places on our bodies: our joints. Their movement is made and, more importantly for this purpose, restricted by our muscles. Our muscles, of course, are already tense to a certain extent, assuming we are in anything other than a flaccid relaxed state. A force applied to us, being resisted by our muscles, will either overpower that resistance, or require the muscles to tense further and further to successfully resist our falling down. Unless the body is properly aligned, the stronger person will likely prevail. In addition to good alignment, mechanical advantage can also be used:  when larger and stronger muscle groups (e.g. the core muscles) are pitted against much smaller and weaker muscle groups (e.g. a wrist), then the larger & "stronger" person can be moved -- to some extent, even if one is in less than ideal contact with the ground or one's body is poorly unified.

Breath Power

Front view of kamaeThe second property of kamae is this unification of the entire body, connected strongly to the earth, in generating force at a single point in space and time. This was called kokyu ryoku (or "breath power") by the founders of Aikido. Both the form and timing of kamae are of course idealized concepts, a sort of notional "best place, position and time" for a given situation. That is why training is an ongoing process, a progressive refinement of the body's responses.

Fast responses, those deeply ingrained ones which we do unconsciously, and which are the only movements swift enough to produce the kinds of timing required, happen "automatically". This is another way of saying that they happen without our having to think about them, without engaging the "higher" brain functions (the neo-cortex). Instead, the cerebellum is involved, the hind-brain, the part that learns to catch a ball and ride a bike. Through repeated training we increase the degree and likelihood of the body "naturally" adopting kamae-like principles during real-world incidents requiring Aikido.

Kamae, as a body position, is highly formalized, looking nothing like what any sane person would actually do with their body during an altercation. Instead, like a fire drill is intended to improve what people end up doing during a real fire, should one occur, so too does training and repetition in the basic forms of Aikido improve the shapes a body ends up in when trying to apply Aikido technique. The ritualized forms and shapes also create a shared framework in which to collaboratively study the art with other practitioners.

Kamae as practical exercise

The basic kamae exercise begins with standing tall and upright. The head is erect, eyes taking in the big picture, shoulders down and relaxed. The arms are hanging by the side, straight but not locked, hands gently open and ready. The weight is settled down, legs straight but with knees unlocked. The feet are heels together, with a 90 or so degree angle between them. Weight is evenly balanced between them.

At it's simplest, moving into kamae consists of stepping forward into a left or right sided stance, holding the position for several (ideally 20-30) seconds, then coming back to standing with feet together. This is then repeated on the other side, and again on each side, etc. The concept of "stepping" forward into the stance, however, is inadequate to describe the subtle and complex things going on. As seen in Part 1, connection with the ground is the most important feature. Develop sensitivity to the soles of the feet and their traction with the surface one is standing on. The toes grip gently when standing or pushing off, and are opened when gliding forward. The distribution of weight within the front foot is forward, over the ball or even the big toe, while the back foot's is evenly distributed, with the outer "blade" of the foot strongly in contact with the ground.

Suriashi

In the basic movement of stepping or falling into kamae (as in all standing Aikido movements), the front foot (left or right foot for left or right sided stance) glides forward, remaining in contact with the ground. The ideal height for it to float off the ground is just enough to reduce the friction to the point where movement is possible, but not enough to cause the hips (and thus the center of gravity) to float up during the movement. This is called suriashi in Japanese, literally meaning sliding feet, and is an important concept in Aikido.

Same side and opposite side stancesThe maximum efficiency sought in Aikido movements would have all movements (including those that can be very powerful) to actually consist of relaxing a set of muscles and letting gravity do all the work. This is in contrast to the standard view of power which would hold that power would be delivered at the moment of, and by the act of, tensing a muscle or group of muscles.

Falling into kamae can be initiated by the subtle act of shifting the center of gravity forward until it over-balances the toes and foot movement becomes necessary to avoid falling flat on one's face. The front foot then glides forward using suriashi, keeping the same angle as was between the feet initially (e.g. ~90 degrees). The distance is about the distance a normal walking pace would produce. Another measure of this distance is that once in the stance, by dropping down onto the back knee, the knee should come to approximately the mid-point of the arch of the front foot.

The height you are standing when your legs are this far apart is the height of your starting stance for all movements and techniques. All subsequent steps and movements will, ideally, be slightly lower (in a wider stance) using the force of gravity from each movement downwards to move ourselves and our partner. The height of a stance affects two important properties of that stance, and inversely so. The higher the stance, the more mobile the person, but the less stable they are. The lower the stance, the more stable they are, but the less mobile. Initially we want high mobility, light on the toes during a free-range of motion phase or with multiple attackers, but once we have closed the distance with a violent attacker being subdued, the movements will tend to get lower, using the force of gravity to assist, getting progressively more stable (though less mobile) as we come down to the ground (hopefully ending in a pin).

During the movement into kamae, with a lot of forward momentum, the front foot sometimes naturally "wants" to slide further forward than what would produce a comfortable starting-height stance. In this case, at the tail end of the movement, the back leg can come forward, thus "bringing up the rear". Care should be taken while doing this to keep the flat foot of that sole, particularly the outer, far "blade" of the foot, and to keep the back knee locked straight, thus preserving a strong connection to the ground throughout this motion. Keep good foot-knee alignment (front toes point the direction the knee would move if you relaxed it) and try to keep the center of gravity between the legs rather than riding up over the front leg, putting too much weight distribution forward and risking a loss of balance.

Practicing this "falling into kamae" movement, and the basic building blocks and movements, over and over, produces successively smoother weight transfer, greater balance and stability, and an ability to move using suriashi on even the most challenging surfaces.

Weight forward

The weight in kamae is forward, 60% over the front foot and 40% down the back leg. Energy is sent down both legs, with the back leg locked solid and the front knee soft and pliable. Care must be taken not to overbalance forward, especially while in the act of stopping forward momentum, by keeping a proper 60/40 weight distribution and with a sense of the weight settling to the inside of the front knee.

The front knee is relaxed forward, far enough that the big toe is invisible, pointed in the same direction as the foot is pointing. Constant maintenance of this proper relationship will help prevent knee injuries. For example, the foot and knee tend to be out of alignment at the end of strong movements forward, or longer pivots. The following movements can then strain knee ligaments and tendons, collectively doing repetitive strain damage over time. Knee injuries are unfortunately fairly common within Aikido dojos, though when done properly, training in Aikido basic movements can instead make the knees stronger and more flexible, and less prone to injury and inflammation. Great care should be taken to practice slowly and with good form, especially initially as body habits are building up.

Upper body as a conduit

During the movement into kamae, the hips are kept squared with the body facing forward, ending up perpendicular (at 90 degrees to) the direction the stance is pointing. This squared hips position is a difficult one to maintain, requiring great effort at first, but permits energy being channeled from the upper body to connect with the lower body's frame and thence to the ground. The upper body is angled forward but mostly upright, with a very slight curve in the lower back. The shoulders are down and relaxed, head upright, chin in.

When first beginning in Aikido training, and when focusing heavily on lower body positions, the hands can be placed on the hips. For example, this can be done, as a variation on practice, with moving into kamae, basic building blocks, basic motions, suriashi practice.

In the full form of kamae, the arms are out in front in a position reminiscent of holding a sword. The arms are straight but not locked, with a gentle curve (this curve has been described as being akin to the curve along the length of a Japanese long sword, the katana). When the hands move during basic movements, they move in unison, as if one were holding an imaginary sword, and the hands were thus joined by a physical object. The high hand is the hand on the same side as the lead leg, held at the height of the sternum (breastbone). The low hand is below that, with the wrist cocked back slightly, in front of hara or center of gravity (this is the point about an inch or so below the navel, which is most crucial to power and balance). The fingers are spread wide, with energy being projected out into them.

Energy is also directed squeezing the upper body in towards the midline, with the lats muscles in the back tensing gently to squeeze in towards the middle both at the palms and at the elbows, as if one were holding between them an imaginary beach ball that was being squeezed inwards. This produces a strong focus on the mid-line of the body, an imaginary plane out in front of us on which kamae is projected. If one were holding a sword in this stance and swept it up and down but not side to side, it would travel along this plane. Imagining holding a sword in kamae is also a great way of developing an intuitive sense of the direction our mid-line and thus the focal points of our power.

Efficiency of movement

During the movement going from standing into kamae, the practitioner should strive to have the least amount of change, of deformation, of their body as possible. Only the front knee leading out to produce a weight-forward stance, and the shoulders which allow the arms to swing up into position, need really change between the starting position of standing feet together, and the final position of standing in the stance. The upright body, in particular, is naturally aligned when standing at the ready, and this should be preserved through moving into kamae and establishing a strong back leg to connect with the ground. As stances get wider and technique movements bring us closer to the ground, we will try to maintain an upright upper body where at all possible. This is best exemplified in the technique of moving from kamae into seiza (the formal sitting position).

Kokyu-ryoku (breath power) can also be developed by paying attention to making every motion a single fluid movement, with arms and legs moving in concert, and discrete movements having still points in space and time where everything comes together at once. If paused at that moment, they should show that the body was in its ideal form and position. This is especially true for body movements which are broken down into discrete sub-steps during basic movements, basic building blocks and when techniques are being studied in broken down form. This can perhaps best be exemplified by the moment at the end of a cut, during a front cut with bokken (sword) technique, where the goal is to allow gravity to move the sword, and then to bring it to a halt perpendicular to the ground, with your body movement, your arms and the sword all coming to a stand-still together at the same moment.

Checklist training method

As a notional "ideal" body shape, there are tiny particular features about every body part that make that part more or less conform to the ideal of kamae. Like the difference between an idealized yoga posture and our actual bodies doing stretches, we want to keep in mind the principle and while training, gently strain with each body part towards that more ideal form. Because there are particular minutia attached to the positioning of each body part, there is a lot to remember.

One way to approach this is to use a "mental checklist", a process of sequentially tightening up or improving the "kamae-ness" of each part in succession. This is best done from the ground up, as it also reminds us of the ultimate source of our power. The phrase "come to kamae", or make a more "kamae-like, or basic, form" mean progressively improving the alignment and tension in each part of your body in accordance with the principles in the kamae shape. When done alone during basic movements, this will feel like extending the flow of energy out into the whole form of the stance. With a partner during an exercise or technique the effects of this are felt even more dramatically, as uke (the "attacking" partner during training) will feel their loss of balance and the corresponding increase in solidity and connection with their partner (nage or shite in Aikido parlance), with each improvement in kamae.

The checklist, beginning at the ground and running up through the body:

  • Feet
    • Each angled about 45 degrees from the midline, and roughly 90 degrees apart
    • Heel and "blade of the foot" flat, toes gently gripping
    • The feet are one pace apart (stance width such that back knee comes to midway across front foot arch)
  • Front leg
    • Knee bent, soft & relaxed, springy
    • Bent far enough that you can't see your big toe
  • Back leg
    • Straight, solid, conducting force along it into the ground
  • Weight distribution
    • 60-40 to 70-30 as needed
  • Hips
    • Squared (perpendicular to the midline), with a strong "back" hip
  • Torso
    • Aligned with the back leg, such that the whole body has a forward-inclined, gently-curved shape
    • Not totally upright (with too strong a bend in the low back) but also not canted forward with a bend at the hip
  • Shoulders
    • Down and relaxed
  • Head
    • Upright, chin in
    • Eyes open, calmly taking in the big picture, wide focus
  • Arms
    • Out in front of you in a mock sword-wielding stance
    • The higher hand corresponds to the lead leg, the lower hand the back leg
    • The high hand is at the level of the sternum, the low hand at the level of the "hara" or center of gravity (around or just below the belly button or dogi belt knot).
  • Elbows
    • Very slight bend, giving the arms a gentle curve - the same curve that appears when the arms are relaxed at a person's side
    • Down and in
    • Gently pressing in on the midline (tight lats - latissimus dorsi)
  • Hands & Fingers
    • Fingers spread, with engergy projected out into the hands
    • Both ring fingers parallel to the floor (lower / "back" hand is cocked back further at the wrist)
    • Palms on the midline plane

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