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Martial Arts: Martial Arts Teaching and Learning

Three-Dimensional Mittsu-Tomoe: A Koshi Visualization Tool

By George Donahue

For the student of any internal art, or for the student of an external art who wants to get deeper into the training, one of the easiest and most gratifying training tools to make is a three-dimensional mittsu-tomoe. Like the yin-yang symbol from which it springs, the mittsu-tomoe consists of comma shapes within a circle. The yin-yang symbol is Taoist and represents hard / soft, male / female, dark / light, good / evil—and all the other complementary opposites in the universe. Each of the two complements contains within its heart the essence of the other, the black within the white, the white within the black. The mittsu-tomoe comprises not only yin and yang but also wu (mu in Japanese), which is the void, or that which is both yin and yang, or that which is neither yin nor yang, or that which is simultaneously both and neither yin and/nor yang. So there are three comma shapes within the circle.

The classic mittsu-tomoe image resembles three black comma shapes or spirals arranged on a white background so that their outer edges comprise a circle. The symbol was a component of the mon (family crest) of many samurai families or clans. The version pictured above served as the symbol and royal flag of the Ry?ky? kingdom, of which Okinawa was the main island, before the kingdom was incorporated into Japan.

The philosophy can get pretty convoluted, but for our purposes it doesn’t matter. The expression is very simple. We want to use the three-dimensional mittsu-tomoe as a training tool to help us learn, primarily, how to internalize movement from and within the center of our body (the koshi, or yao), how to spin energy off from the center into our techniques, how to capture our opponent’s energy and feed it into our body core for our own use, and how to change direction faster and with greater ease. These are all essential skills that involve using the koshi, or yao, optimally. It will also teach us some other principles of energy and movement, but that comes after the primary lessons and we won’t deal with that here.

Playing with our mittsu-tomoe tool won’t teach us directly how to do any of this, but it will give us strong hints—it will lead us in the right direction at the same time it helps us to make our technique stronger.

Here’s how we make it. First, we need materials:

  • three small balloons, the smallest you can get, each of a distinct and bright color

  • one medium to large clear balloon, with the thickest rubber you can get—the sort that is usually filled with helium works well

  • some warm (at least room temperature and maybe a little higher) vegetable, mineral, or other oil

  • some warm water, the warmer the better, but not quite hot

  • two funnels with necks the diameter of the two balloons (you can get a set of nesting funnels for a dollar at a discount store; if you are sure handed, you can get by without the funnels)

Take the larger funnel and insert it into the neck of larger balloon. If it slips, you can secure it with a rubber band or twist tie. Insert one of the small balloons through the large funnel neck and partway into the large balloon so that the body of the smaller is within the body of the larger and the neck of the smaller is within the neck of the larger. If it won’t go through, you can lubricate it with a little of the oil. Insert the smaller funnel into the smaller balloon and then pour in warm water until the balloon is plump. Then remove the small funnel and tie off the small balloon and let it drop into the larger balloon. Do the same with the other two small balloons, filling them to the same size as the first. Then, pour the oil into the large balloon until it’s filled enough to let the smaller balloons move with ease within the larger balloon. Don’t put in any more oil than you need, though, as too much oil will stifle the action as much as too little. Remove the large funnel and tie off the balloon. You’ll have a oil balloon—maybe with a few water bubbles within it—as well as the water balloons. As a variant, you can also fill the smaller balloons with oil, and they will then have slightly different properties. Another variant is to partially fill each or some of the balloons with air, as well as liquid. However, you should first use water, with no air, because the difference between the specific gravities of the oil and water will make for more movement with less pressure applied, and the air is a wild card at this stage. Be aware that if the temperatures of the water and oil are too close, the device won’t work as well. You could use just air in the three smaller balloons, but that wouldn’t simulate the body as well.

That’s it. Our assembly is done. Now, we use it.

At first, we can hold it like a basketball and feel and see how it reacts when we apply more or less even pressure. Then apply uneven pressure, in all the ways you can think of. Then apply rhythmic pressure, even and uneven, then arrhythmic pressure, even and uneven. Notice that the longer you hold it the closer it will be to your body temperature and that it will react slightly differently at that point. Think of how the various degrees of pressure you apply to the balloons and the various directions from which you press correspond to what the muscles of your abdominal wall, upper thighs, buttocks, and lats can do to and with your koshi.

When you’ve seen what the variations in the amplitude and angle of the pressure will do and become thoroughly familiar with the movement, then it’s time to really manipulate the tool. Now try to make the smaller balloons spin consistently around the center of the large balloon; try to change the direction of the spin; try to change the speed of the spin; and try to stop the spin totally and quickly. You may not be able to do it consistently, but that is your aim. If you can’t get it to do anything, you can also add a little sloshing motion, which replicates the motion your body would generate with hips, rotation, and compression. If you still can’t get it to do anything, warm the whole thing up—warmer liquids will be more active. This motion doesn’t really replicate an actual physical motion of your koshi, but it replicates the feeling you can get and maintain as you move without seeming, to those watching you, to move at all.

Once you’ve played with the mittsu-tomoe enough, you can pop the large balloon and recycle the oil (maybe fry some calamari with it) and pop the small balloons. If you’ve played with enough imagination and curiosity, then you’ll never need the actual balloons again. From this point, you’ll visualize the four balloons within your abdomen, at the center point, in the region called the hara or tanden.

Mitsu-Tomoe from George Donahue on Vimeo.

Now the fun and real learning begins. Now you will try to manipulate the interior of your torso to replicate the movement you were able to created with the balloons. When you’ve gotten reasonably adept at this you will try to manipulate your koshi and then use the energy generated from doing so to fuel your movement: your steps, your pins, throws, kicks, punches, blocks, and so forth. You can also visualize your breath, within and in transit to and from your lungs in the same way. That leads to some interesting observations as well.

This setup works better in summer than winter, and for some reason doesn’t work at all if the water is frozen—just as your koshi doesn’t work if you keep your torso frozen in the manner of a soldier on parade.

One of the first and easiest lessons you can learn from the mittsu-tomoe tool—even before you come to grips with the idea of koshi—is how to use an attacker’s thrust to power your nearly simultaneous counter. Let’s say that the attacker fires a punch at your sternum. You shift your center of gravity slightly so that the punch will land on your shoulder. You resist, as the surface of the large balloon resists, momentarily, then let go of the resistance. The punch’s force will propel your opposite shoulder back at the attacker. The momentary resistance will make it stutter, then pop forward, sort of like the lever of a mouse trap, which releases only at the point when the pressure is adequate to overcome its restraint. Then—snap!

Hard to explain, easy to do. Try it!

Copyright © 2011 by George Donahue & All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2010 George Donahue &

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About The Author:

George Donahue has been on the board of since its inception. He is a freelance writer and editor, providing literary and consulting services to writers, literary agents, and publishers, as well to advertising agencies. He has worked in publishing for more than three decades, beginning as a journal and legal editor. Among his positions have been editorial stints at Random House; Tuttle Publishing, where he was the executive editor, martial arts editor, and Asian Studies editor; and Lyons Press, where he was the senior acquisitions editor and where he established a martial arts publishing program. He is a 6th dan student of karate and kobujutsu—as well as Yamane Ryu Bojutsu—of Shinzato Katsuhiko in Okinawa Karatedo Shorin Ryu Kishaba Juku. He was also a student of Kishaba Chokei and Nakamura Seigi until their deaths. He teaches Kishaba Juku in New York and Connecticut, as well as traveling to provide seminars and special training in karate, weapons, and self-defense. His early training was in judo and jujutsu, primarily with Ando Shunnosuke in Tokyo. He also studied kyujutsu (archery), sojutsu (spear), and kenjutsu (swordsmanship) in Japan as a youth. Following his move to the US, he continued to practice judo and jujutsu, as well as marksmanship with bow and gun, and began the study of Matsubayashi Ryu karate in his late teens. Subsequently, he has studied aikido and taiji and cross trained in ying jow pai kung fu.

To find more articles of interest, search on one of these keywords:

koshi, yao, koshi exercises, mittsu-tomoe, koshi power, karate power, karate, body center, power in the martial arts, hips in the martial arts, waist in the martial arts

Read more articles by George Donahue

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