Heian shodan is a shorin kata containing 21 movements (waza) with 2 kiai points. It is the first kata you learn when joining Shotokan karate. In Japanese, heian (平安) means “peaceful mind” and shodan means “first level“. Heian shodan was adapted from older kata by Anko Itosu to make them more suitable for young karateka.
Being in the shorin category, this kata focuses on being flexible, soft and slow with quick, sharp movements. In this kata you will learn:
- the first punch,
- 2 stances,
- 3 blocks, and
- 1 strike
However, as the years go by, you start to take a lot more from this kata, partly in combination with the other heian kata as well as more “advanced” kata. Depending on your belt ranking, you will have a different focus when studying and practicing heian shodan. These are cummulative and not mutually exclusive.
For the White Belt
You’re just getting started in Shotokan karate. This is the first kata you learn. Your focus: just the movements. Memorize the movements so that you don’t leave any out on your kyu test.
Memorize the movements.
Memorize the movements.
Get that? I can’t stress enough how important this is. I don’t want to spend time going over each movement, but there are several charts on the Web with each of the kata’s movements depicted.
The most difficult part of this kata for you will likely (based on my observations) be the 270 degree turn at movements 10 and 18. For these turns start practicing them as 3 individual parts for now. Let’s take the first turn for example. You’re facing shomen with your right arm above your head after doing a rising block (“Step 0”) and your right foot is forward. Now:
- bring your left foot (which is behind) up to meet your right, meanwhile setting up for a lower block with your left fist up by your right ear (still facing shomen)
- put all your weight on your right foot and rotate on the ball of that foot
- after the turn, you are facing the right side (if shomen is north, you are facing east) with feet together and set up for a block, so step forward with your left foot and do the lower block
Read the above 3 points in isolation, do one until its correct, then move onto the next and do both together until they are correct and flow well.
For the Yellow Belt and Orange Belt
Now you know the movements of heian shodan without much difficulty. Time to move on. At this level, you want to start working on minor refinement of your technique. Don’t think that by the time you reach green belt your technique in heian shodan is perfect, but it will be much improved, trust me. Here are a couple things to work on:
- fist placement: the retracted fist should be palm up with the thumb over the first two knuckles and the whole fist above your belt. On a rising block, the fist should be one fist-length from your forehead and high enough that it doesn’t block your line of sight. Test this by doing the block and then taking your retracted fist and putting it between your other fist and your forehead.
- deeper stances: make sure your knee forms a plumb-line above your big toe and that the weight distribution is correct (60-40 for front stance, 30-70 for back stance)
- speed: faster set-up on blocks and quick execution of the technique. This does not mean that you move between techniques faster. It should still take about 40 seconds to complete the kata.
These points will prepare you for the next step.
For the Green Belt
At the green belt level you start learning one-step sparring. This is going to teach you about quick reflexes and counter-attacks. In relation to heian shodan, you’ll begin learning to wait a little longer in the timeline of a single movement before executing a block or punch.
You’ll also start to focus on how your body moves between each position of the kata, keeping your hips at a constant height, not adding extra foot movements, all the while maintaining correct form.
For the Purple Belt
I clearly remember that purple belt was the point that we started learning about the applications of heian shodan, or heian shodan bunkai. Foremost in my mind is the issue anyone above brown belt took up when reading the introduction to this article: you learn more than one strike.
Many of the techniques in heian shodan are in fact strikes. In addition to the hammer fist strike as the 4th movement of the kata, the 3rd age-uke (rising block) and the 2nd and 4th shuto-uke (knife hand block) are also implemented as strikes, not blocks.
Run through the three age-uke a couple times then come back and finish this section. The first two blocks are still blocks, but in kata bunkai, after the second block here, you grab the wrist of the arm you’ve blocked, and strike the armpit with the right arm age-uke while pulling down on the opponents arm.
As with many kata bunkai, there are other equally as valid modifications of this strike, for example:
- instead of striking to the arm pit, use the age-uke to strike closer to the elbow and pull down on the opponent’s arm with your left arm. This will provide a lever action which can break the arm at the elbow.
- instead of an age-uke, make a rising elbow strike to the lower jaw. The intent here is to stun the attacker by causing damage to either the lower jaw or to the nose. This is especially effective in combination with a follow-up such as the next bunkai, but is quite effective on its own for disabling an opponent.
An often forgotten application is of the move immediately following the 3rd age-uke. The common application of this is simply a spinning block, however I have found it useful to consider this in light of the last move before it. Because the last preceding move is a “blocking strike” think about this: what do you do with the guy you are holding that you just elbowed in the face/armpit? Let him go?
You are about to generate a wonderful amount of torque, so why waste it. Throw him at the person who is attacking you from the right and use his body to block the attack. It really does not require much modification to convert the turn into a basic hip toss, given that you already have most of the required elements in place.
- execute the age-uke / age-empi as usual, either one will work
- don’t release the arm with your left hand while you turn
- extend your right arm so that it is “across” the opponent’s chest, alternatively you can just grab the right side of their head
For the Brown Belt
HIPS! You’ll want to practice heian shodan along with bassai dai. This is the point in Shotokan karate where you really start to learn about hip movement. You’ve been taught this earlier, but real emphasis is going to come now.
For me personally, I had difficulty with abruptly stopping all body motion after a technique. For example, with the 3 gedan ukes after the cresent kick, I couldn’t tense my body enough to bring all of my body parts to a perfect stop after each block. I didn’t really have a “belly”, but it did seem to jiggle. To execute this block correctly, you must tense EVERY muscle completely (at first). After you master this, you can find within your own self which muscles to contract in order to stop all motion, without unnecessarily tensing muscles that don’t assist in sharp blocking technique.
You are expected to improve the fluidity and rapidity of your 270 degree turns in heian shodan as well as exhibiting clear understanding of hip rotation and vibration when executing shuto-uke with reverse hip rotation. This practice will go a long way to improving your bassai dai.
For the Black Belt
I’ll tell you how high the expectations are at the black belt level for heian shodan: this kata is the only one that does not qualify for use at a tournament.
You must be able to perform this kata so well at the shodan and above level that its considered to be “too easy” for a tournament/competition. It’s the only Shotokan kata that is not eligible for competitions. If all rotation, sharpness, mental preparation, and physical athleticism is not present for this kata, don’t be in too much of a rush to move on to other advanced kata.