Different martial arts can be identified by their signature, a particular characteristic that makes them stand out. Aikido has it's graceful circular movements, tai chi has the slow form, the Thai boxers have their shin kicks and escrima has fast hands which can be used with a stick or without.
What about karate? Is it gyakuzuki? Mawashi geri? Saying ooossssahhh?! To understand the signature of karate we have to take a look at the training methods and ideas within kata. What is kata teaching us about?
The hand movements are relatively easy compared to some martial arts so it can't really be that. By far the most important area of our training is the stance. We use an interesting variety of stances in our kata but we don't often look at the fine detail. They are seen as just a way of standing and that it is more important to generate upper body power.
As with many things in martial arts you need to look at things in reverse. You can't gain upper body power without having a firm foundation and rooting, which is developed through stance training.
Stances are everything in kata. Look beyond the fixed postures as you would see them in a kata book. The real business of stance training is in the transitions, the movements between postures. Here you learn about moving through angles, turning, rooting, redirecting and controlling your centre.
Power is derived from good balance and stability, posture and body mechanics. Stances allow us to adopt certain positions where we can develop waist power through stretching and twisting, expanding aond compressing various muscle groups. The spine is held straight, the body weight sinks through the legs and down into the floor.
Take your body weight through the muscles not the joints - one of the biggest problems in karate is overworking the knee joints. Knees are not load bearing so avoid bending them too much. Take the strain off your knees by correct alignment of the hips, base of the spine and soften your ankles.
Awareness is concentrated in the hara (or Dantien) just below the navel and everything moves from there.
Stances have practical uses too. They can represent low line kicks, sweeps, leg traps, locks and even receiving movements. The direction of movement and weight distribution help us develop power and also hint at the movements required to execute throws and other grappling techniques. Included here are grip releases escapes and turns.
Kata gives us these skills in a solo training method so we can train without worrying about opponents or partners getting in the way. Once we have attained some level of skill in movement, mechanics, balance and weighting we can practice with another person. This is why a fully integrated kata-based training method is the best way to progress in karate.
If anyone asks what karate is all about forget your spinning back roundhouse (anyway that's taekwondo) and show them a kata of choice.