"Yoi" & The First Preparatory Moves Of Kata
By Christopher Caile
Recently at the end of a particularly hard class
workout, a visiting student from England approached
me and asked about the meaning of the first preparatory
move in kata. The
move is signaled by the 'yoi' (the command often used
in Japanese karate to signal getting ready to do a
kata) and can be quite subtle or large depending on
the style and system.
I had heard the same question many times before.
It is a difficult question since kata don't come with
instructions, and there are different interpretations,
especially between the Chinese systems, Okinawan and
even Japanese kata, styles and systems. Also kata
are what you make of them, and an awareness of what
you are practicing is important.
There is also some evidence that in Okinawa, the
birthplace of karate, that kata before the modern
era often did not begin with a preparatory "yoi"
move or with the same standard ready posture. Teachers
such as Chojun Miyagai (founder of Goju Ryu) are said
to have standardized kata beginnings with these additions.
Thus, at the very least these movements identify,
mark or symbolize the system or style within which
the kata are practiced. But I think there is much
In Goju ryu and some other styles of karate, the
hands meet in the middle, one hand over the other.
The heels of the feet are together with the toes pointing
outward (musubi dachi). In Goju Ryu kata there is
more emphasis on the mental aspect of preparation.
A command "mokuso" is used to signal students
to close their eyes and calm their mind without thoughts
before the "yoi" is voiced. In other styles,
an open palm of one hand covers the fist of the other.
In Shotokan and in some katas of Seido, Kyokushin,
Oyama karate and others the arms are often held apart,
down and in front and (parallel) outside of the legs
which are in a natural stance, the toes slightly flared
(fudo dachi). It is here that the mind is focused
and controlled (although there is no "mokuso"
command, as voiced in Goju Ryu, expressly voiced for
that purpose). When the command "yoi" is
heard (or, when the kata is done alone, when a silent
beginning is internally voiced) the arms move in some
characteristic action -- as small as a drawback to
the sides of the legs or as large as bringing the
arms up, both hands starting at opposite ears, followed
with a lowering of them to the sides.
Although more pronounced in some systems, the preparatory
movement includes a forced out breath (ibuki breathing),
the hips tucked forward under the body trunk along
with body tensing followed by relaxation (still slightly
tensed ready to go into action) as well as foot/leg
rotation outward under tension (having first been
turned in). All this may be subtle or very overt,
but nevertheless evident in most karate. In the few
Chinese styles I have studied the initial move seems
much more perfunctory, and is given less emphasis
than in karate, especially Japanese karate.
So what is happening? First we should realize that
kata is a lot more than just technique. Kata are performed
on other levels too, including the strategic, psychological,
spiritual and physical (body). Here, I think, what
we are seeing is these other levels, and a lot is
going on at once -- things most people never pay attention
Imagine this scenario. You are walking alone down
a street, path or sidewalk. It's night and it's deserted.
Suddenly you are aware of several men approaching.
They are young, with black jackets and one has a headband.
They look drunk. Your mental alarm goes off and you
feel the hair on the back of your neck stand up. You
ask yourself, should I run, or is it really something
innocent? Maybe I am mistaken. But then they are around
you, pushing your chest, one man demanding that you
hand over your wallet. You feel sick, cold sweat on
your forehead. Fear is now tangible. The mind shouts,
'do something,' but you feel frozen, as your heart
pounds, your breath racing. Even your vision seems
to narrow, as if looking down some tunnel. This is
not the dojo, this is not some self-defense practice
-- you know your life is in danger. This is real,
and fear and anxiety take control -- paralyzing your
mind and forcing physiological reactions that limit
your ability to respond.
In some karate styles or schools, during class practice
of kata, students begin with a 'rei," or bow
to the teacher. This precedes the "yoi"
called out by the instructor to signal to each student
to get ready to engage in the kata's particular portrayal
of a combat situation. The actual kata begins with
the order to start (hajime), or with a count signaling
students to perform the first move of a kata. While
the yoi is not vocalized when kata is practiced alone
or demonstrated outside a group class, the preparation
is very much as real -- you are getting ready to perform
kata, kata which is combat codified within sequences
of movement. So, "yoi" can be best understood
as the signal to begin self-preparation for combat
-- preparation to face not only opponents but also
the self -- the mental and psychological barriers
noted above. And there is an element of strategy too.
At the end of the preparatory movement, you are softly
tense, like a calm tiger ready to move explosively
if necessary, but still not taking the offensive.
This is the THE REAL BEGINNING OF KATA.
Let's look at what happens in the first preparatory
move. You take a deep in breath and forcefully exhale
(ibuki breathing). This can be pronounced or subtle.
This takes care of the natural body reaction to intense
stress -- hyperventilation. Your arms (and it doesn't
matter the exact movement patterns) move to tighten
and then slightly relax. So do your legs and torso.
You have taken control of your body. Your eyes and
mind focus on everything and nothing, repeating in
microcosm the years of quiet meditation that allowed
you to abstract the self from all emotions and thoughts
-- but this time to relax the mind and maximize total
awareness (zanshin), settling the self in the lower
abdomen that is pressed forward (proper posture) to
align the body and its energy pathways -- a center
also recognized for its sixth sense or intuition.
You are ready to move into action instantly or continue
to be alert and ready after action. Others will recognize
this position as the same one necessary to align the
hips with the spine so as to provide efficient power
(see the article, "A Simple Lesson in Body Mechanics").
There is an old samurai saying, "When the battle
is over, tighten your chin strap" (of your helmet).
Police officers have observed, for example, that immediately
following an arrest, when an officer feels that danger
is over, is actually the most dangerous time: the
inclination to relax occurs at the same time the prisoner
may be desperately searching for an opportunity to
This mental state can have profound effects. Have
you ever been in an auto accident, and in the last
second or fraction of a second seem to experience
the world in slow motion as the accident played out
across your mind? This is a Zen moment of total awareness,
but unfortunately one imposed upon your mind by the
intensity of the situation. Think, if you could control
this feeling and see a confrontation unfold slowly
while maintaining a mental state within which you
could freely act without psychological reactions clawing
against your every move. That is what Zen type meditation
can give you. It is also something which can be practiced
through kata. Kata can be viewed as planning for and
execution of practiced reactions to stressful contingencies.
The effectiveness of this preparation, however, can
vary tremendously. If we just perform the "yoi"
preparatory move, even thousands of times, in a normal
mental state, little will be achieved. But if you
self-prime your mental engine with fear, your "yoi"
move, both physical and psychological, will have an
actual state of high anxiety to play off against.
How is this done? You might dredge up moments of intense
fear experienced in the past, or try to create a vivid
image to do the same. Then after much practice your
preparatory move creates a psychological reaction
-- the preparatory move being associated with control
of mind, body and breath in the face of anxiety or
fear. You create a conditioned response. Anytime anxiety
strikes you can easily counter it, even at home or
at the office -- your preparatory move in kata, even
if performed in a very subtle manner, will still elicit
those responses that the body had been programmed
Accompanying this total awareness is spirit -- spirit
that fills your every movement and position, that
emanates from your eyes and stance. My teacher Kaicho
Tadashi Nakamura often demonstrates the importance
of spirit in kata. He notes that when you begin a
kata you should evidence a powerful assertiveness,
a confident, controlled movement and focused eyes
that emit a powerful spirit and will embedded within
your movement and stance (kamae). These same attributes
were reflected by the feared and legendary Japanese
swordsman Miayamato Musahi who said: "When I
stand with my sword against a foe, I become utterly
unconscious of the enemy before me or even of myself,
in truth filled with the spirit of subjugating even
earth and heaven."
There are many stories from old Japan that tell of
one Samurai recognizing the mastery of another just
by the other's stance, the way he sits or rides a
horse. Thus, just the way you stand at the beginning
of the kata can reflect your assurance, spirit and
quality of your technical mastery.
Many years ago Richard Kim (a much respected karate
historian, author and teacher) made this point to
me. During one discussion, Richard held his two hands
apart, pointing the index fingers of each hand. He
said that rarely in karate do we ever experience the
reality of life and death combat, something the Samurai
of Japan once faced. "The one place their spirit
can reach out to touch ours," he said as he touched
the finger tips of his hands together, "is within
kata." He noted that within kata we can experience
and live the same danger, the same fear and threat
of death that Samurai learned to deal with. And that
should be the highest goal in kata too -- to reach
out and touch the true Samurai spirit from across
Following the initial preparatory move the feet are
parallel or slightly flared outward (depending on
kata and style) and the hands are at the sides --
a natural stance. This neutral position, without commitment,
contains both defense and strategy. It represents
the common position many people find themselves in
when suddenly attacked. To the defender's advantage
is the stance (parallel or fudo dachi), which allows
quick movement in all directions. To his disadvantage
are the arms --down at his sides. The actual first
move of kata beyond the preparatory movement, many
argue, starts with a natural startle reflex movement
of raising the arms for protection. Some argue that
these movements can be interpreted as the beginning
of various blocks or arm movements which, when completed,
are seen as the first actual moves in the kata, such
as the down or inside one arm block or two arm blocks.
But if an attack isn't in progress or immediate the
neutral stance also contains, etiquette, strategy
as well as a psychological element. Gogen (The Cat)
Yamaguchi (Japanese Goju Ryu) in his book, "Goju
ryu Karate-do Kyohan," suggests that while the
crossed hands in front protect the groin from sudden
attack, that: at the same time "you show the
opponent that you will not attack suddenly. This was
the etiquette of the samurai. The samurai would take
off a Katana (long sword) from their waist and change
it to the right hand showing that their would not
be a cowardly act such as slashing the opponent without
The neutral stance is also defensive since potential
threat has not been reacted to by taking a fighting
stance. There is an old Okinawan saying, "we
need two hands to clap" (it takes two to quarrel).
At this point any outward physical attack will automatically
trigger the physical confrontation before the psychological
cards have been fully played. But if an attack has
not begun, there remains a physiological card which
might avoid conflict altogether.
Appearing not to react, rather than assuming a defensive
stance or showing fear or intimidation, can be very
disconcerting to a potential aggressor. Remember,
aggressors are fearful too. They depend on your fear
and your intimidation. So, a lone aggressor, or several,
try to intimidate you to see how you react. If you
don't react on the surface, this is unnerving. Intimidation
and outright fear was expected, at least some nervous
expression, some act of mental reaction that would
signify defeat, or at least some vain and weak attempt
at defense. Instead you are standing there unafraid,
almost detached but exuding a confidence and spirit.
"Something is wrong," the attacker (or attackers)
says to himself. "He's not reacting. He is not
afraid. What does he know?" If you are able to
do this before an attacker has physically started
an assault, you have put him or them on the mental
defensive. This can be very powerful.
There is an old Japanese story of the Tea Master
and the Ruffian that makes this point. The Lord of
Toas Province in Japan, Lord Yamanouchi, was going
to Edo (now Tokyo) on an official trip and insisted
that his tea master accompany him. The tea master
was reluctant. He was not a sophisticated city person
and not a samurai. He was afraid of Edo and the dangers
he might face, but he was unable to refuse his master's
request. His master, however,in a conscious attempt
to boaster the tea master's confidence, attired him
in Samurai clothing with the customary two swords.
The Lord thought that among the other samurai on the
trip, the tea master would become invisible.
One day after arriving in Edo the tea master decided
to take a walk. The very danger he feared most then
confronted him. A ronin, a masterless samurai, approached
him, insisting that it would be an honor to try out
his skills in swordsmanship against a samurai of the
Tosa province. In reality all the ronin really wanted
was the tea master's money which he could get if he
The shock of this confrontation at first immobilized
the tea master. He couldn't even speak. Finally gaining
a little composure, the tea master explained that
he was not really a samurai, and didn't want a confrontation
-- that he was only a master of tea dressed this way
by his master. But the ronin pressed harder. He demanded
a test of skills. He said it would be an insult to
the province of Tosa if its honor wasn't defended.
The tea master didn't know what to do. After thinking
it over for a while he saw no way out of the situation.
He became resigned to dying. But then he remembered
he had earlier passed a school of swordsmanship. The
tea master said to the ronin, "If you insist,
we will test our skills, but first I must finish an
errand for my master and will return later when the
errand is completed." The ronin, now pumped up
with confidence, readily agreed.
The tea master made his way back to the school of
swordsmanship. Luckily, the master was in and would
see him. The tea master explained his situation and
asked the sword master how he might behave correctly,
to die like a samurai, so as to behold his province's
honor. The swordmaster was surprised. He answered
that most come to learn how to hold and use a sword,whereas
he had come instead to learn how to die. "Serve
me a cup of tea," said the sword teacher, "while
I will think the situation over."
The tea master cleared his mind. He knew this might
be the last cup of tea he might ever serve. He began
his preparation, a practice ritual performed as if
nothing else existed, each movement being a total
concentration on the moment, on the action. Impressed
with this performance, the sword master said, "that's
"Tomorrow," said the swordmaster, "when
you face the ronin, use this same state of mind. Think
of serving tea to a guest. Apologize for the delay.
And when you take off your outer garment, fold it
and place your fan upon it with the same calm assurances
and grace that you use in preparation of tea. Continue
this focus as you rise and put on your head band.
Draw your sword slowly, raise it above your head and
hold it there, like this," he said, "and
close your eyes. When you hear a yell, strike down.
It will probably end in mutual slaying."
After thanking the sword teacher the tea master returned
to meet the ronin, resigned to his fate. Following
his advice, the tea master apologized for the delay
and began to prepare himself ceremoniously -- carefully
taking off his outer garment, folding it, and then
placing his fan on top.
The ronin was startled. This fearful figure, who
once said he was but a lowly tea master, had changed.
Now before him was total concentration, poise and
confidence -- someone fearless and controlled. The
tea master finally faced his foe and raised his sword
as he had been shown. He closed eyes awaiting the
shout that would seal his fate. But nothing happened.
Seconds later when he finally opened his eyes, there
was no ronin to be seen, only a small figure is the
distance quickly receding away.
Us Know Your Comments & Opinions On This Article
About the Author:
Christopher Caile, the founder and Editor-in-Chief
of FightingArts.com, is a historian, writer and researcher
on the martial arts and Japanese culture. A martial
artist for over 40 years he holds a 6th degree black
belt in karate and is experienced in judo, aikido,
daito-ryu, itto-ryu, boxing, and several Chinese arts.
He is also a teacher of qi gong.
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