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Heian Nidan


Heian nidan is a shorin kata containing 26 movements (waza) with 2 kiai points. It is the second kata you learn when joining Shotokan karate when you are a yellow belt.  In Japanese, heian (平安) means “peaceful mind” and nidan means “second level“.

Being in the shorin category, this kata focuses on being flexible, soft and slow with quick, sharp movements. Being relatively new to martial arts, most people will not have developed a lot of power yet. Heian nidan takes advantage of this fact and helps you develop quick movements which will be the basis for strength and power later.

On top of heian shodan, this kata will introduce you to:

  1. a double raising block
  2. 2 blocks which double as strikes
  3. side snap kick (with simultaneous back-fist strike)
  4. spear-hand strike
  5. reverse hip rotation
  6. inside-outward block

Like heian shodan, heian nidan is directly descended from kanku dai. Even beginners can see where the two overlap: the simultaneous kick and back-fist strike, and the two sequences of knife-hand blocks and the spear-hand strike, as well as other less obvious ways.

Heian nidan seems lighter than heian shodan, has quicker, sharper movements with more direction changes and rapid sequences of techniques. If you’ve grinned and bared it during white belt and heian shodan, it starts to become worth it now. Heian nidan is a fun kata at first, and a great kata for bunkai which you’ll learn later in your karate development. So where do you start?

For the Yellow Belt

You’ve passed your first grading, you’ve got a new belt, you’re really coming up in the world, huh? Welcome to karate. Your kata curriculum begins with the characteristic Shotokan block/strike: shuto-uke kokutsu dachi, the knife-hand block in back stance.

How important is shuto-uke right now? We can just look at the numbers:

Total movements in Heian Nidan: 26
Number of shuto-ukes: 7
Percentage of Heian Nidan which is shuto-ukes: ~ 27%

If you focus on shuto-uke, you’ve already covered over a quarter of the kata. So what matters in shuto-uke? First, there must be outward pressure between you knees. There’s a tendency to let the back knee move in toward your center line when it needs to form a plumb-line above your big toe. Your feet should form an “L” shape, and NOT a “T” shape. Try finding a hardwood floor and stand in back-stance along the same direction that the hardwood flows. Your heels should both be on the same piece of the hardwood. Now the hands: the absolute key is to have your forearm, wrist, and hand in a single plane. Secondly, the hand which rests at your sternum should be perfectly parallel to the floor; this includes your thumb. Don’t allow the thumb to curl up toward your face and keep your hand flat.

That’s enough for now. There’s a lot more to learn, but we take it in steps and you’ll get around to other issues in due course.

For the Orange Belt

Reverse hip rotation is a gnarly demon that most karate beginners struggle with when joining. Your mind says “Sure, looks easy enough” and your body says “Uh uh, we don’t move like that!”. Its something that your foot, knee, hips, and shoulders are all going to have to get together over drinks about and hash it out. There’s going to have to be an agreement here before we go any further. Fortunately, there’s a support group!

The support group begins by helping you put your best foot forward.

In heian nidan, the reverse hip rotation is executed together with an uchi-uke. You’ll have to pull your front foot back about 3-4 inches in order to get the block, but DON’T focus on the block and DON’T focus on the foot (or the knee). If you focus on bringing the foot back, your knee will come back first and you end up dragging the foot with it. Let the hip bring the knee and foot back.

Begin by forgetting about the block. Lower your arms for the time being. With either foot forward (your best one, I presume?) put 100% of your mind on your hip on the same side as your front foot. With a strong jerking motion, wrench that hip backwards, all the while maintaining your center line and the position of your other hip as much as possible. Your retracting hip brings the knee back and your foot along with it. Your leg may still be straightening, but this is easier to correct than the alternative.

For the Green Belt

Begin working on timing now. Sequences 16-17-18 and 19-20-21 are both uchi-uke with reverse hip rotation, then front-snap kick followed by reverse-punch. The time here is   1—2-3 with the punch reaching full extension at the same time that the kicking foot returns to the floor.

For the Purple Belt

A point that I was going to write in earlier but felt that its a little two difficult until now relates to how you ensure the correct form for your knife-hand block: by focusing on the other hand! The purpose of this block is tension at the moment of impact to provide stability. If you begin to feel tension and mild pain in your forearms, wrists and hands, you’re on the road to doing it right.

When you’re blocking hand is leaving the side of your head, focus on the retracting hand and make sure that when it comes to a stop at your sternum its perfectly flat and parallel to the floor. The tension you’re forced to apply here will translate to your other hand and help that hand end in the right spot. Moreover, tensing the retracying hand at the moment you block increases your shoulder expansion and lends more stability to your lateral muscles.

For the Brown Belt

Now you don’t want to have too much tension on your hands, arms and shoulders when blocking since this slows down the technique. There’s a deeply entrenched myth going around that tension at the moment of impact provides power. In fact, it slows your technique. Muscle tension is meant to restrict body moment or expand the body. Tensing your arm muscles when punching only slows things down.

For the Black Belt

There won’t be much “new” material for you now, but general improvement on all techniques is what we’re after.

For the front-snap kick followed by reverse-punch techniques, you have your standing leg bent to support your body when snap-kicking, so now push off of that leg explosively when reverse punching. This extension of the back leg adds forward momentum and pressure into the floor resulting in a stronger punch.

In the green belt section, I said to complete the reverse punch at the same time as the kicking foot lands. You still want to do this for competition maybe, depending on the organization your with, but in practice, complete the punch an instant before your front foot lands. Whenever your front foot is contacting the floor, motion is being hindered and energy is going into the floor, and not into your target. The time between completion of the punch and your foot landing on the floor should be as short as possible, but definitely present.

So that’s where I am right now. I’m continually working on deepening my knowledge of heian nidan and I could write a little more here but there’s no need to overload.

What have you learned from heian 2?


Karate in Everyday Life: Riding the Bus


I like riding the bus. It gives me 30 minutes each day to read, daydream, nap or… practice karate.

Since returning to karate again from a 1.5 year hiatus, I’ve looked for ways to get back into shape and hone my skills. After having to stand occasionally on the bus I realized it was a good opportunity to get more in touch with my muscles and even strengthen my stances.

So while everyone else is sitting or holding the overhead rails, I try various shallow karate stances to see what works best. Give it a try. Here’s what I’ve found.

At first I thought sochin dachi would work the best since it has almost equal side-to-side support as front-to-back support. This is true, bus the majority of the motion on the bus is front-to-back, largely because of the incredibly wasteful stop-and-go traffic. So sochin dachi was good, but I needed more forward support.

The next try was with zenkutsu dachi. This is all about frontal support and works great when the bus driver slams the brakes. But then he nails the gas peddle almost as aggressively and the 70/30 weight split of zenkutsu dachi fails and I found myself switching to kokutsu dachi.

I should take a moment to point out that these are not full, deep stances. You’re eelcome to try that out on the bus, but the awkward stares grow more and more sinister.

So, kokutsu dachi. This was actually the most useful stance in practice on the bus. A shallow kokutsu looks more natural than most others and provides all the front to back support you might need. Turning my stance so that it was maybe 20 or 30 degrees off center on the bus let me deal a kittle better with the side-to-side motion too, although not as well as sochin. But again, most of the motion is front to back, and if I could maintain a light of sight out the front window of the bus I was able to tilt my whole body in anticipation of turns and still keep a shallow kokutsu dachi without holding onto the hand rails on the bus.

So far, that’s what works. Tomorrow: hangetsu dachi.

Effective Written Tests


Some clubs require a written test when examining for shodan (1st degree) and above. The tests may be general or very specific, although the specific parts don’t usually come until yondan (4th degree) and above. I don’t know the details of your club or organization, but if its a shotokan club there are bound to be a certain number of common elements that your instructor will be looking for.

The question is, what makes for an effective written test for testing karate knowledge?

I had the same sort of question when I was taking some computer science programming courses in university. How do you make an effective written test for programming? Its easy to ask what the “static” keyword means in C++, or the difference between an abstract class and an interface in Java. But are these questions effective? Some of the questions I would get on programming written tests were to the effect of: “Write a program that will parse a string of input and output only the year.” On paper? Certainly not effective. In this case, being in front of a computer is essential.

It seems that theoretical questions or factoid questions are appropriate for a written test while practical questions require a practical setting. How might this translate to karate examination?

To begin, what would you expect to gain from administering a written test to your students? There’s no point making up a test if you don’t know the goal. We’re taking about effectiveness and not creating questions for the sake of it. So what’s your goal?

Few students are going to be able to describe on paper any real understanding of most techniques an even fewer are going to be able to describe anything complex. That doesn’t mean they don’t understand it, it means they can’t describe it in text or perhaps even vocally.  If you want to know if your students know the principles of a round-house kick, get them to do it a few times and then walk you though it. Having them describe what they are doing and prompt them with questions as to why they do certain things  a certain way. “Why do we raise the knee up to the side before rotating and not bring our knee forward before rotating?” Its near impossible to put this on a written test. Given some time the student may come up with a description, but it’ll take too much time and that is ineffective for a 1 hour test, for example. A research paper or essay might work, but that’s another topic for another day.

Questions that will work include: factoids and trivia. Traditional clubs may have the easiest time with this. Questions about karate’s origins and the purpose of the art are short answers if the question is worded to be specific. Factoids about techniques and kata are also easy questions. Here’s a simple question which is effective if you want to test kata trivia knowledge:

1. How many movements are in each of the following kata:

Tekki Shodan: Heian nidan:
Kanku Dai: Heian Yondan:
Sochin: Unsu:

I call this a warm-up question. It’s not a valuable indicator of your student’s kata knowledge per se, but it get’s their brains working in the right direction in preparation for the following questions. An effective follow up to this question, if you want to test for a students ability to identify patterns in kata and extract common threads, is going to be far less trivial but still be short and specific enough to be covered in about 10 minutes of a test:

2. For each Heian kata, give a single 2-movement sequence that the kata shares with Kanku Dai. (mirror image versions are accepted as well)

Your students will likely work through each of these kata in their minds and try to remember common patterns. This is good. It encourages them to do the same thing in their spare time and in preparation for future tests. Your students will eventually get to a point where they will know the answers without working through the kata in their mind’s eye. They’ll thank you for this.

If kihon, kata, and kumite each make up about 33% of karate, then there’s about 30% of karate you can’t put on a written test: kumite. I can’t think of any questions on kumite that give you real, valuable, insight into your students understanding of sparring. You can ask about foot placement, which muscles are used in some given techniques, and questions about theory and sparring principles like go no sen and sen no sen, but what does this tell you? That they’ve read Best Karate Volume 3 and 4? No, this evaluation isn’t effective for you or your student. People who don’t really “get” kumite can answer these questions flawlessly and vice versa. Is that what you want? You want to know how they move. Have they learned principles you’ve taught them. Effective examination for kumite requires a practical. Unless you can tell me what useful information you can draw from any kumite-related written question, and why it’s useful.

Why all this talk about effectiveness anyways? Why not just test for the sake of testing? Why not include questions for the sake of requiring that the test take more than 60 minutes to complete?

It boils down to why you’re doing it. Teachers don’t make work for themselves for fun (unless they are somewhat twisted). Typically, caring teachers test students because they have a genuine interest in seeing that the student has grown. There are tests that show what percentage of a topic the student understands, and there are tests that gauge the students growth. Which do you give?

The primary goal of any examination must be to give the student an indication of how much they really know and to actually teach them. Exams teach through requiring repetition. The purpose of your test should NOT be to give you an indication of how much your students know. Most of you know this for regular karate examinations. The same holds true for karate written tests. This knowledge isn’t helping your students at all and only vaguely helps you. Unless you’re making barrels of money or becoming a local celebrity by operating a karate club, which isn’t the case for most instructors, you don’t spend hours after work or leave your kids at home on weekends to go work out in japanese pajamas with others just so that you get accreditation for how good a teacher you are.

That doesn’t mean you, the instructor, can’t take from the test ideas about what your students know. This helps to direct future classes and form future tests. It provides positive feedback as to how you are doing as an instructor and as a test creator. Take this new data and role with it, create more tests; more effective tests.

The Most Problematic Basic Sparring Error


You see it all the time in martial arts competitions, and especially so in MMA matches. A kick is thrown or a punch launched and the fighter on the receiving end does what? They move straight back. In the case of MMA, they actually seldom move at all.

The Problem

But I’m not talking about MMA here, I’m talking about Shotokan karate. Among all the errors that sparring competitors make in class while practicing and invariably in competitions, not moving or moving straight backwards is the error that unnecessarily results in the most lost points. This error is unnecessary when we consider the other obstacles leading to errors. For example:

  • The opponent is faster
  • The opponent is taller
  • You have insufficient energy to spar
  • Stuff on your mind

The first two of these are overcome by correcting the direction you move when defending. The third is solved with a routine of eating and sleeping well and takes place outside the dojo. The fourth problem is much harder to fixed and I wouldn’t consider it an “unnecessary” error; its inevitable, persistent, and complex.

But improper movement is correctable—maybe not easily corrected, but its not impossible.

Anecdotally, I have never seen someone move backwards as fast as another person can move forwards. It’s a characteristic of our species: our dominent direction of locomotion is in the anterior orientation of our bodies, what with our eye socket position, forward facing knees and flexing motion of the hips and ankles.

I’m guilty of making this mistake. I think we all are. I believe this behaviour stems from an instinctual need to increase the distance between ourselves and a threat. Moving parallel and in the same direction as an approaching threat is the best way of increasing that distance. But increasing distance is not going to provide you with a way to score, in competitions. If the attacker can close the distance between you two faster than you can increase it, they can continue to move forward and continue attacking while you are stuck in a loop of defending or focusing your mind on increasing the distance more. In the context of tournaments, where the commitment of your technique (speed, power, intensity, focus) is considered, few karateka can move backwards and generate the power needed to compensate for the forward momentum the attacker has to add to their own technique.

The solution: move diagonally.

The Solution

Now if the defender moves to the right or left they reduce the closure of the attacher slightly, and by less than moving straight backwards, but the advantage comes by way of changing the angle of the attack, and controlling that angle change. By waiting until the attacker commits a technique and then moving out of the way of that technique, the defender makes it very hard for the attacker to change direction to compensate. Meanwhile the defender, you in this case, has moved very little, has changed the angle, is well-grounded in the floor, and can even move forward slightly to counter-attack.

This being said, breaking the habit of moving straight backwards is a challenge. Fortunately for you, the solution is simple but may take a long time depending on your age, your athletic ability, and open-mindedness.

Practice with a friend as much as possible. Find someone else who might want to practice this same thing. Take turns, starting slowly, being the attacker. The defender moves to one side or the other and counter attacks. Now move the defender so that there is a wall (preferably not drywall) a couple feet behind the defender. Now the defender has no choice but to move to the side or backwards diagonally.

The key to this practice is for the attacker to strike like they mean it. That doesn’t mean it has to be hard or killer, but it has to be convincing. This simple drill is not meant to change the speed of your footwork (although that might be a positive side-effect), but to change your mindset. Do it until your subconscience realizes why it should make you move that way. Do it until your body wants to move that way and you don’t have to remind yourself that moving to the side is more effective. Your chipping away at your instrincts and over-writting it with new muscle memory. As you get better, speed up the drills. As you speed up, make it more free and allow either person to attack. At this stage, both parties still need to remember that this is practice and that your not trying to win points from each other, so have a slight pause between each attack.

Eventually you’ll get to the point where you can free spar and naturally move diagonally to the side, unforced. When you do, you’ll thank yourself for it.

Tournaments Keep You Sharp


Let’s envision a world where you can quantify your karate ability and give it a number on some karate-scale. One component of that score would be your kumite (sparring) score. This score would indicate a mathematically sound, and universally accepted value of your sparring ability which is quantitatively comparable to other people’s kumite-score, K.  For example, it can be computed that:

kumite-score(Phil) < kumite-score(Andy)

Read more…

Yoga and Karate Cross-Training


Practicing two martial arts or sports on a regular basis is not a new notion. But a cross-training combination that you might seldom read about is karate and yoga. Yoga has become increasingly popular over the last 10 years among suburbanites and the health-conscience. Its benefits have been postulated for millenia and more recently shown to be valid in ways that were originally unknown. Some of the health benefits include improve circulation, muscle tone, dissolution of lactic acid buildup, mental rejuvenation, increased flexibility and improved balance.

Read more…

Membership Fees: Comparing Karate to Other Activities


This is just about impossible to nail down exactly as different clubs have differing parameters within which they operate. Some charge more or less depending on the size of the club, the purpose or intention of the instructor(s), whether or not they own their own building, and resources available to club members. Factors influencing membership fees will be discussed in more detail in a future article.

The prices I’ve found are not definitive. These prices will vary depending on city, target audience, organization, facilities, etc. I can’t give an authoritive summary of what it will cost to get into certain activities in your city, but what I can do is give an idea of what to expect when you join a club here in Halifax.

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