My empty hands

My empty hands

I come to you with only karate, empty hands. 

I have no weapons, but should I be forced to defend myself,

my honor, or my principals, 

should it be a matter of life or death, of right or wrong, 

Then here are my weapons, 

My empty hands.

                                                       ~ Karate Creed

I was reflecting on this poem last night.  During class, I was instructed to work on the makiwara – a 4×4 with a think leather pad attached to the top of it.  This is a traditional Okinawan training tool – their version of a punching bag.  There’s not much to it – the leather is there to keep you from scraping your knuckles, and for about 10 minutes, I stood there, punching a piece of wood.

Don’t let anyone tell you differently.  When you start working on a makiwara, it hurts.

Bruiseday photo!  Knuckles immediately following punching the makiwara for 10 minutes

Bruiseday photo! Knuckles immediately following punching the makiwara for 10 minutes

And the practice is controversial.  While punching a chunk of wood is quite common in Okinawa, where karate originated, there are very few Western dojos that still use the makiwara.  There is a fear that repeatedly punching and stressing the bones in your hands will lead to arthritis, or that the training has no real world application… and yet I wonder.

Arthritis is not particularly known as an affliction of Okinawan karate students…

But more importantly, I do think this has real world application.

Most adults, if they’re lucky, have never had to his another adult in a fight.  And if you don’t train, you’ll have to use your imagination for a little bit.

If you’re ever in that unfortunate position of having to defend yourself, your family, or your principals, and you have no weapons, then you always have your hands.

Choose a single finger on your dominant hand, and tap your head.  Just above your ear.  Your skull is pretty hard, right?  How about your elbow?  Your ribs?  Knees or shins?  All bone.

The movies try to convince us that in a fight, we can punch someone in the head, and not only will they fall down, but we’ll be perfectly fine.  The only time the hero punches someone and it hurts is either a) because we are meant to see that the enemy is much stronger, or b) because it’s meant to be funny.  A typically hero doesn’t have broken knuckles, split and bruised skin, injured wrists or elbows or shoulders…

But as someone who has hit a lot of heavy bags in my time, I can tell you that if you don’t punch right, even a punching bag will badly hurt your wrist if you don’t hit it right.

So why not just punch a heavy bag?  Why punch a 4×4 mounted into cement?

It’s simple really.  I can cheat a punching bag, and hit mostly on target without getting hurt.  But if I punch the makiwara wrong, I know it immediately.  Of course, if I punch it right, it will still hurt.  But the more I hit it, the less it hurts, and the harder I can hit it next time.  My skin gets thicker.  My bones get thicker.  And I get used to the feeling of hitting something really, really solid.

For the martial artists out there who are poo-pooing my examples, I know you would never aim a punch at someone’s skull.  But all of us, at one point or another, have accidentally punched someone else’s incoming punch.  Working a makiwara helps ensure that if you punch someone else’s fist, that one of you will be standing, and the other will be nursing a full set of broken fingers.

I’m not saying that makiwara training is better or worse than any other conditioning.  But if you’re looking around a “classical” dojo, and there isn’t an unassuming wooden pole with a pad attached to it, you might want to ask the sensei his thoughts on makiwara training.  (After all, it might be hidden in a locker, only to be pulled out when the senior belts are training.  Makiwara is not for kids or junior belts…)

For me, I just like to think that in a matter of life or death, right or wrong, that my empty hands are the best weapons I could ever ask for.

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