Shuhari is a Japanese concept which can be taken to extremely esoteric levels, but for us, as practical martial artists we should initially view it simply as three levels of learning:
- Shu(守?) : In this beginning stage the student concentrates on how to do the task. The goal here is to learn to control your body and be a good student of form.
- Ha(破?) : At this point, the student strives to gain a deeper understanding. Not just knowing what to do but how and why it is done. They must seek and understand principles, mechanics of movement, strategy and tactics.
- Ri(離?) : Now the student isn’t relying on other purely learning from others but rather is develops their own approach formulating their own strategies and interpretations. They innovate and create their own movements and combinations, they practice and discover things fro themselves. And they adapt what they have learned from others to their own particular abilities and style. They make their expression of their art uniquely their own.
In essence: do, understand, then make it your own.
Challenging yourself to follow the Shuhari journey makes learning karate or any martial art far more interesting and much, much more rewarding. Seeking Shuhari will develop a level of mastery beyond what any instructor can teacher because seeking Shuhari challenges students to not only gain a deeper level of understanding of their art but of themselves.
The stages of Shuhari are not linear; you do not move on from one to the other, rather you add the next level to the previous. I.e. a student focusing on Ha (understanding) should still be practising Shu (form). A student developing Ri (self-expression and personalisation) should still be open minded enough to be taught Shu (form) by others and still constantly be seeking Ha (understanding).
You can’t skip a level either, a weakness in the previous level will mean the next level of the stack will have poor foundations.
Here are some key pointer to getting more from your Shuhari journey and to accelerate your learning curve.
- Follow Directions. One of the most crucial elements to adopt from the Shu stage is to become a good student, learn to follow directions and listen to your instructor.
- Attention to detail. Often in karate, small details can make a big difference to the effectiveness of a technique or stance, so develop your attention to detail.
- Adopt corrections. Work hard to adopt corrections you instructor gives you. Also when your instructor is correcting others check that you are not making the same errors.
- Have faith. Be prepared to take leaps of faith and invest time in drills and exercises that you may not know the purpose of, or that you may not find natural or easy, to begin with. With many things in karate, you will not know or understand the purpose or the benefit of certain exercises until you get a good at them. Sometimes this is because until you have a feeling for the technique, you can not appreciate its purpose. Getting a feeling for certain techniques or movements may take weeks or months or sometimes years to develop. Other times the journey itself is half the benefit, like mastering a kata, there is benefit to learning the principle of movement and the understanding the principles and practical application of kata, but debatably the biggest benefit of learning kata is the senses of self-mastery that learning kata develops. This is something you will only learn or appreciate after you have invested a lot of time in doing it.
- Enjoy the process. A good Shu student should at times focus on personal improvement; your goal is to walk away from each class just that fraction of a second faster or just that little bit more fluid in a movement or that little bit stronger, or more refined in technique.
- Ask why and how questions. Become inquisitive as to how and why we do things the way we do them. When your instructor is giving directions be brave and ask your instructor (humbly and politely) why we do things a certain way or ask how something works or how to improve your technique.
- Look for principles. The study of karate is full of principles that span many different areas of training things like body mechanics, strategy and tactics, movement, timing even training ethic. Understanding the principle behind techniques or strategies significantly increases your understanding and in turn, you will learn how to become more effective and more practical and purposeful as a martial artist.
- Think about other applications of principles. One of the great things about understanding a principle is that you can now apply that principle in other areas where it fits. For example, you learn the tactical principle behind a “punch, punch, kick” combination is to draw your opponents attention high before attacking low. This tactical principle is not just for this combination there are loads of other high low applications in self-defence and sparring. Then you can further extend this principle to other targets Ie drawing your opponent’s attention low then going high or drawing their attention left before attacking right. This principle of distraction can then be extended into self-defence, grappling and ground fighting and so on.
- Principles are not just tactical though you may learn a principle of movement or posture or using your body weight or how to improve speed and acceleration through doing one exercise then you can look at how you could apply that same principle to all the other areas of karate.
- Develop tactics and strategy. Understanding strategy and being able to apply tactical thinking is one of the biggest and most important things a martial artist can learn to improve their sparring. I have seen tactical thinkers out smart and win against much more gifted athletes countless times. With out good tactics you may find yourself hammering a square peg into a round hole.
- Study Kata Bunkai and Oyo. Without knowing the practical applications (bunkai) of the kata you are learning you may as well be practicing a dance. Going even deeper than the specific bunkai for a move is the oyo or principles in the kata. As we have already discussed if you can learn and understand the principles you can apply them to many other areas of your karate.
- Seek knowledge from different instructors. Different instructors will frequently have different perspectives, or sometimes they simply explain the same thing in different way that will click with you more. So when seeking understanding, it is wise to train in different dojos and with different instructors.
- Seek out good Ha instructors. A lot of karate instructors are good at teaching Shu. They pass on the lessons that their instructor taught them sometimes with a little or superficial explanation to the students. Many of these Shu instructors are merely be a poor facsimile of their instructor, who may have been a poor facsimile of his. But even if they are good at teaching Shu, there is a time when a good student will out grow the shallowness of Shu, and they will need to seek Ha if they are to truly progress. Good Ha instructors will frequently talk about the why I.E: purpose, application and principles. They will correct a student not just on a superficial level “You are supposed to be doing it like this” But rather they will focus on the purpose of the technique and the fundamental mechanics of the way you are moving.
- Question the assumptions. A lot of karate clubs or particular instructors develop a shu culture that discourages students from questioning their instructors. A good Ha student should ask questions all the time. But most importantly they should respectfully challenge the things that don’t make sense to them. They should even start thinking about the underlying assumptions behind how things are performed; this can be as simple as asking about the mechanics of a movement or as dramatic as questioning the merit of only using straight punches in sparring (which are the only punches allowed in most karate clubs). Also think carefully about any reasoning or explanation your instructor gives you. I have to say that for many years I passed on the same answers that my instructors had given me without truly questioning their validity. Just because something is traditional or has been passed down by someone who seems credible doesn’t mean it is always right. In order to truly understand karate fully I had take a step back from what I thought I knew and I had to ask myself of just about everything: “how true is that or is there a better alternative?”
- Teach. The best way to make sure you understand something is to teach it to someone else. Einstien is thought to have said “if you can’t explain it simply you don’t understand it well enough” Having to explain things to others forces you to think about it more. If you teach regularly, you also start to have a moral responsibility to your students to be able to explain not just what to do but how and why.
- Specialise in your strengths and disregard what doesn’t work for you. Especially when it comes to sparring and self-defence – focus on solutions, combinations and strategies that suit you. What suits you may be because of your body type, natural talents or simply it is what you like it or are good at it. Specialising in your strengths will maximise your effectiveness.
When we say disregard what doesn’t work for you that comes with two big caveats:
Firstly don’t disregard skills that leave a hole in your skill set regardless whether you are good at them or not. The classic example is someone who doesn’t like ground fighting; the fact that you don’t like it or aren’t good at it doesn’t mean you can disregard it. If you fail to learn basic ground escapes you are vulnerable in the likely event that a self-defence situation goes to the ground or if you spar someone who is good at grappling and ground game. Ignoring fundamental skills sets may mean that you can no longer even call what you learn self-defence, or at very least you are left fundamentally flawed and vulnerable.
The second caveat is that you should work hard to adopt skills before abandoning them. For example, you can’t try a technique once and then proclaim it doesn’t work for you unless it is a complete and utter mismatch for your body type. You need to be prepared to invest heavily in a skill to gain a reasonable level of competence and then if it still doesn’t work for you then disregard it. But don’t throw away that which you don’t understand the mechanics of or have not the competence level to do it well.
- Express yourself even to the point of colouring outside the lines of the classic form. Refine your movements, so they feel strong, powerful and effective for you. Find rhythms and develop flow, in both combinations and kata. Sequence together techniques in kata, and also learn to take the time to pause and breathe.
- Innovate. Develop your own style, movements, combinations, strategies and tactics.
Following Shuhari makes the journey of karate that much richer but equally as importantly consciously following these stages will greatly accelerate your growth and possibly save you from great frustration.
Shu will teach you to discipline patience and attention to detail.
Ha will give you depth of understanding and as a result, your training should become more purpose driven and in turn more effective.
Ri will hone you personally as a martial artist