An essay written by Sensei Donald Cheong, in preparation for his sandan grading (November 2015).
Although often taken for granted, our eyes guide us throughout our lives. From when we wake up in the morning, to the moment we fall asleep, we look, we see, and we do. The importance of our eyes and the sense of sight extends to karate, and the karateka (karate student) must train them well. Visual focus is the foundation of posture and balance. It provides a frame of reference and is critical to both focus and general alertness. The karateka must never forget their eyes in training, in particular kihon (basics), ido geiko (moving through in stance), kata (formalised pattern or form) and kumite (sparring).
When one begins training in karate, they begin with basic training, known as ‘kihon’. The white belt is instructed on posture and balance as a foundation of their training. While developing posture and balance, the karateka must focus their eyes correctly. In kihon, the karateka must look ahead at eye level, and not down at the ground. Looking ahead ensures the body is upright, chin held high and back straight. This helps open the chest for breathing, allows for proper tensing of the core and ensures that energy is flowing freely from the ‘hara’ (reservoir of energy located below the navel). If the karateka is to look at the ground, their posture and balance will be poor, their breathing hindered and internal energy flow restricted. The eyes must therefore be trained well in kihon.
Some more advanced kihon involve circular techniques, such as ‘mawashi geri’ (roundhouse kicks) and ‘ushiro mawashi geri’ (reverse roundhouse kicks). With the added movement in these techniques, positioning of the eyes is even more crucial in maintaining posture and balance. The eyes must look forward at all times. With spinning kicks, the eyes lead the execution. The head turns first to enable the eyes to lock on to the imaginary opponent in front of them, which establishes a frame of reference for the body and leg to follow for the remainder of the kick. Without this focus (‘kime’), the technique will lack balance, and without this kime, the body has no frame of reference from which to execute techniques. The mastery of advanced karate techniques is difficult to achieve without training of the eyes.
2. Ido geiko
The next stage of karate training involves moving through in different stances and executing various techniques, otherwise known as ‘ido geiko’. The eyes again play a vital role. Ido geiko involves moving up and down the dojo, always with a turn or ‘mawatte’ at each end. The head and eyes must lead the turn for balance and in particular, for the karateka to see the imaginary opponent behind them before turning. More advanced ido geiko training involves moving in ‘kaiten’ and ‘sagari’ (‘turning around’ and ‘turning retreat’). It is critical, as with the mawashi techniques, that the eyes lead the turn and lock onto the front position before the remainder of the turning around or turning retreat is executed. The eyes must therefore be trained well in ido geiko.
In karate, one of the key training foundations is ‘kata’. Kata combines posture, balance and technique in a formal pre-arranged pattern. As the eyes improve proficiency in these three aspects, as discussed above, kata also requires correct visual focus. Karateka are always taught to ‘look first’ when they begin their kata. While this teaching is usually explained by the importance of seeing one’s opponent, ‘looking first’ is also critical in ensuring the eyes are focused on a position, establishing a frame of reference and enabling the rest of the body to follow, so the technique is executed with balance. This is even more important with kata performed in ‘ura’ (spinning around). Leading the kata with the eyes also creates intention in the movements, making the direction of the movements clear and forecasted. The eyes must be trained well in kata.
One of the physical ultimates of karate is ‘jiyu kumite’ (free sparring). The eyes are critical in kumite to ensure the whole of the opponent is visualised. There is some debate about exactly where the eyes should look, however focusing on the region between the chest and the opponent’s eyes is generally accepted. Focusing on this area allows the karateka to see, in their peripheral vision, the whole of the opponent. This general alertness or remaining spirit is known as ‘zanshin’. The correct visual focus and zanshin allows for instantaneous detection of any body movement by the opponent, whether it is the initial stages of a kick, a punch or a flinch that may signal the initiation of a technique. Conversely, focusing the eyes on an opponent’s hands or legs will result in a failure to detect movement in other parts of their body, therefore creating blind spots. Correct visualisation with the eyes is critical in kumite and must be trained well.
Applications of visual focus beyond karate
The importance of correct visual focus extends beyond karate, into many other disciplines and sports.
When a beginner is taught to ski, snowboard or wakeboard, they are instructed not to look down at their skis or snowboard, and instead to look up at where they wish to go. Similar to karate, the rationale behind this is to ensure correct posture. In skiing, without the correct posture, weight distribution on the skis will be wrong and will impede control of the skis. In wakeboarding, focusing the eyes on the wakeboard will result in a downward looking posture, which will result in a nose-dive crash.
Another reason why in skiing (and many other high-speed sports) one is taught to focus on where they wish to go, is that the body will naturally orientate towards their point of visual focus. Conversely, if an obstacle is to be avoided, visual focus should not be on the obstacle, otherwise the body will naturally orientate towards the obstacle and will result in a collision. Similarly in mountain biking, when a rider must traverse a gully by crossing a narrow bridge, the rider must not focus on the gully below the bridge, otherwise they will inevitably end up in the gully.
In horse riding, balance and neutral body position is crucial. Horses are trained to respond to the slightest change in the rider’s posture. Slightly leaning forward or back is interpreted by the horse as a command to speed up or slow down. Maintaining a neutral body position is therefore important to avoid an unintentional command. A novice horse rider will be taught to look up in the distance at where they wish to go, which maintains the correct body position. They will also constantly be reminded not to look down at their hands holding the reins or at the horse’s head, as these will cause a forward leaning posture, sending an undesired command to the horse. Correct visual technique is vital in all of these pursuits.
Mokuso – absence of visual focus
Another important part of karate is ‘mokuso’ or meditation, at the beginning and end of training. During mokuso, the karateka closes their eyes and focuses on the training they are about to embark upon or reflects on the training they have just undertaken. In the context of this essay on the importance of correct visual focus, closing of the eyes may seem contradictory. This is not the case. Mokuso does not involve looking outwards, but instead is a practice of looking inwards, and translated literally, means ‘looking into the heart’. This practice of introspection is aided by blocking out all distractions and therefore warrants closing the eyes. This is the only instance in karate when visual focus is not necessary, and the closing of the eyes is required.
Correct visual focus must be trained well in karate. It ensures good posture and balance, assists with breathing and energy flow, provides a frame of reference, guides movements, and provides perceptive vision when sparring. Proficiency in many other sports also requires correct visual focus. When problems arise in training, you (the karateka) should consider and analyse your position and technique, but most importantly, you should think about your eyes. Are your eyes focussing in the right direction? Are you leading your body with your eyes? Are you allowing your eyes to see the whole picture?
A widely read and respected book on personal improvement, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, written by Stephen Covey, pronounces the importance of envisioning what you want to achieve in the future, so that you know clearly now what to make a reality. It is known as the 2nd habit: ‘begin with the end in mind’. This is important in all aspects of life. In karate, one must ‘begin with the end in sight’. If you see, your body will follow.
Sensei Donald Cheong (3rd Dan Kyokushin)