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Yoga and Karate Cross-Training

by on May 20, 2010

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.

For those of us on the not-quite-so-athletic side of the evolutionary fence, balance is going to be something that poses a problem. Sometimes karate practice alone will not be enough to improve your balance and harden your core, this is where yoga comes in… at least for me, and I hope you can find a channel into this practice as well.

Yoga has a whole barage of poses which help with balance which includes several standing postures. Among the standing postures are two of my favourites: the tree pose and the “Lord of the Dance” (LotD) pose. These poses initially take practice just to hold without falling over, and even then you topple on the best of days. Practiced regularly, though, you can begin to concentrate on your mid-section and center of gravity.

After studying yoga and karate for a while, ways to cross train between these two become clear. Let’s look at the standing poses I mentioned and a karate stance that often “poses” some problems for karateka (pun completely intended).

Sagi-Ashi Dachi and Tree-Pose 

The red lines, formed between the midpoint of a side to that side's opposing angle, all intersect at the geometric center of the triangle.

If you’re having difficulty moving into sagi-ashi dachi, or heron-foot stance, practice the tree pose as well as LotD pose. While not the easiest poses in the yoga curriculum, these poses fire many of the same muscles as sagi-ashi dachi and build core strength. What’s more, you begin to discover your center of gravity, the point referred to by karate instructors as the seika tanden (or center point). This point is a little different for everyone, but its approximately located about 3-5 cm below your naval. This varies based on your weight, height, and proportions. In simplist form, it is the geometric center of your body, just as the red lines in the picture shown intersect at the geometric center of the triangle. If this triangle were placed on the head of a pin at precisely the point where the red lines intersect, it would not fall in any direction—this is the triangle’s seika tanden.

Tree pose requires that your foot, seika tanden, spine, head and clasped hands all line up vertically. If they do not, you wobble to one side or the other. When you do this enough, you’ll learn to move your mind’s eye to your center point rather than your shoulders and hands. This is going to translate into what you do for sagi-ashi dachi.

When standing in the sagi-ashi stance, the arms are typically positioned into a lower level block on one side and a upper level block on the other. The arms balance out and return your center of gravity back to somewhere around your spine, but the problem many students face is that their minds are on their arms and balancing their upper body. Tree pose helps here by factoring out the arm components and focusing more intently on your body center. As you get better at it, you can lower your arms, open your arms, close your eyes, and perhaps put your arms in the same orientation that they would be in in sagi-ashi dachi.

A second difficulty with sagi-ashi dachi is when you move from another stance into this one. For example, from kokutsu dachi to sagi-ashi dachi with the back leg. Here, you are moving your front foot toward the back foot with about 90% of your weight on you back leg. That back leg has to be strong and stable while much of your body weight is shifting onto it. When there’s momentum in any direction while you stand on one leg, balance comes into the equation in a big way. Tree pose doesn’t deal with flowing movement into it but it helps you gain some insight into your body’s center, which will come to mind (perhaps subconsciously) when you are doing sagi-ashi dachi.

Of course there are other aspects to a good sagi-ashi dachi. Bending your knee in this stance isn’t easy either. Tree pose helps this by reducing stress on the knee while still firing the muscles in the leg and hips, primarily the quadriceps, ankle muscles, psoas, and hip adductors.

Focus is necessary here too. I don’t mean focus like kime, which you may or may not subscribe to, but focus on the seika tanden.  Try out the tree pose and vary your focus to different parts of your body. Just the act of changing your focus is going to throw your balance off a little, let alone having it focus on a point that isn’t on your body’s center line.

Tips for a Better Tree Pose

Wrapping this up, here are a few things to think about when doing the tree pose:

  • Twist your bent knee outwards: keeping your hips squared to the center, flex the hip to move the bent knee out as if your whole body were between two panes of glass. But never, ever, sacrifice the alignment of your foot-to-spine center line. Don’t force the knee out, but just encourage it out.
  • Let the ankle and abdominals do the work: relax your knee and let your ankle and abs do the work of balancing and compensating when your begin to wobble. This isn’t easy and your body will want to use your knee to balance, but consciously try to avoid it. But don’t pull a muscle doing it; it will come with time.
  • Picture your head and clasped hands being pulled to the ceiling or the sky: as if you are a puppet suspended on a string.

I’ve been practicing these two together for a couple months now and have noticed much more rapid improvement than before I began practicing yoga, and tree pose in particular.

What insights can you share about yoga and karate, or any martial art, together?

3 Comments
  1. Carolyne permalink

    Hi! I was really interested to hear about your thoughts on yoga and karate….especially since I’d love to do more yoga and I recently started karate again after 20 years! I was searching the web for information on stretching and flexibility and karate and it really made me happy to learn that you’ve found yoga and karate to be quite compatible! Have you any experience with yogalates? I might try that with Karate, especially since yogalates focuses a lot on core strength and it would seem to me to fit in with Karate quite well.
    What belt are you now, and how long have you been doing Karate?
    Carolyne (in Rome, Italy)

  2. I’ve read a bit about yogalates, but I haven’t tried it. But my observations tell me that its just a gimmick, a way to make money by taking advantage of two popular exercise regimes.

    In reality, yoga, done properly, has as much core strength training anyone would need. Your core muscles don’t need extended periods of flexion to build strength, it needs time to firm and harden gradually. I’ve been training in karate for 6 years and I’m currently a nidan (2nd degree black belt) and I’ve been practicing yoga for a little less than 2 years. That doesn’t make me a professional, but these are my observations.

    There certainly are a lot of commonalities between karate and yoga. If you have more thoughts, please share them with our readers. I’m hoping to write more articles on the topic in the near future.

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