by George W. Alexander, 9th Degree Black Belt
The word Makiwara means a target or a striking device that is made specifically out of sheaved rice straw. The word tamashiwara means breaking or testing of strength by breaking various types of objects. The training methodology of the makiwara and the concept of the test of strength has long been used in Okinawa as part of karate’s curriculum.
There is however one special type of tamashiwara technique. This is called shi-ho-wari breaking in four different directions with the last board breaking before the pieces of the other broken boards hit the floor.
Difficult, yes, but not impossible, as great speed and a tremendous amount of focus is required to perform this amazing feat.
The makiwara is of utmost importance in developing one’s hands, feet and other striking areas. It will strengthen the fist and the other striking surfaces and eventually refine them. The common misconception by most students in their early years of training is that they must beat their hands on inanimate objects to develop huge calluses and knuckles.
The subject of makiwara and tamashiwara is almost a complete science in itself. Makiwara discussions among karateka invariably are a subject of controversy. Each style of karate and each individual will have a singular opinion as to the best way to utilize the makiwara. Developing with it empirically is, in the final analysis, the best.
The makiwara forces one to develop his kime (focus) to a high level. Kime is the focusing of physical and mental energy into a single point at a split second
in time followed by an immediate relaxation of muscular contractions.
It is a highly cultivated dynamic force in which the summation of joint forces
come together at a specific time. Physically the large and small muscle groups
contract exactly at the same instant.
Mentally ones mind must not deter or be distracted even for a millisecond otherwise ones total focus of body and mind cannot be used together to create the ultimate impact of the specific technique. An excellent simile is that kime is to a punch or kick as gunpowder is to a bullet. In everyday language it can be said that a person who has kime has the ability of a knockout punch. Kime is not the sole property of karateka alone as modern day boxers most certainly understand this intrinsic energy. Some people believe that certain people are born with this power, but no matter where it comes from kime is the essence of karate.
A modern practitioner and advocate of the makiwara is Sensei Mike Reeves.
Mike is the World Breaking Champion and three-time Guinness Book of Records
all-time breaking champion. He punches the makiwara over one thousand times everyday.
In addition to his strength-training regime, he swears makiwara training is the source of his tremendous breaking power. Results don’t lie. The fact is Sensei Reeves won the World Championship and broke 400 boards in one minute! Sensei Reeves says, “For every strike, for every block there is a point of impact. In karate, we prepare ourselves for this eventuality by conditioning our bodies and minds.”
The makiwara in a good karate dojo is of utmost importance in the development of kime. It must be the very best available. It must be able to withstand the strongest punches and kicks. It must be flexible enough in design to accommodate the white belt but yet strong enough to challenge the black belt. A good makiwara in a karate dojo will set an example for the beginners when they see the seniors striking the makiwara with terrific force. These students will eventually come to realize the value of the makiwara and either build one of there own or begin conscientiously using the one at the dojo. Any student who is serious about developing as a martial artist will use the makiwara daily, as it embraces the spirit of karate training.
It is important to realize that the fist along with the wrist is what is developed when striking the straw pad. The wrist and the fist will never develop properly without awareness of making the fist hard through concentration on every muscle in the hand and the sinew in the wrist.
Many karate students will waste a great deal of time if they don’t
understand that it is the mind that contracts the muscles in the hand to
form the fist. A “Fist of Iron” is the result of mentally concentrating on
the contraction of every single muscle in your hand, wrist and forearm
as well as all the supporting muscle groups from the legs on up during
your makiwara training. The phrase “ones own iron will, will win out
in the end” is one you should contemplate when training with the makiwara.
This shows the relationship between karate and Zen. So in essence, the
makiwara is used to train your mind as much as your punch or kick, so
that it becomes as hard as steel but yet as flexible and light as the straw
that makes up the makiwara pad.
It is the intensity of the concentration that develops ordinary men and women into what a real black belt is, in a real karate dojo. The main method of developing this attitude is the use of the makiwara. Your mind overcomes the pain and the desire to quit and when you overcome these obstacles you become a psychologically stronger person.
Over training in any one area is just as profitless as under training. The makiwara eventually becomes a very personal possession and when used properly develops one’s body into a powerful weapon.
There are also psychological benefits from makiwara training. You are able to unleash built up anger and frustrations and as well as your own hostilities and emotional rage. Consistent and careful training with the makiwara often leads to mental state of blissful earnestness, wherein one can literally meditate while punching the straw pad.
Some have asked why a straw pad? The Okinawan karate masters I have interviewed about the makiwara believe that straw has chemical properties in it to help heal the hand and the wounds that will invariably happen. Although there is no proof to this fact, I can attest to the fact that striking a straw makiwara is less brutal and it offers a resistance more similar to hitting a body then does a simple leather pad. Hemp rope is also
often used as a striking surface. The only problem in using a straw pad or wound
hemp rope in the dojo is the obvious problem that modern diseases that can be
transmitted through our body fluids. Therefore, unless you change the straw pad
every time a new person uses it you run the risk of transmitting disease. Hence
the leather pad has become in vogue as it can be changed very quickly. Additionally, hitting and twisting at the same time against a leather-covered makiwara
seems to produce the more ominous looking calluses on the knuckles. Alternatively,
hitting a rubber pad will not produce as much of a callous but will strengthen the
muscles and sinew associated with building hand strength and the ultimate goal
of producing a strong fist. Interestingly, Maasaki Ueki, one of Shotokan’s instructor’s
in the 1960s used to rub hand lotion on his knuckles to prevent them from callusing after
punching the makiwara.
A common misconception is that the makiwara should be stiff. Actually, it should be flexible so that force is transmitted forward when it is struck and not back into the shoulder, which could result in an injury. I can remember many a young macho black belt coming into my dojo and testing my makiwara. Afterwards they would invariably say, “My makiwara is much stiffer than this one.” I would always respond with, “Oh really! Let me see you hit it a thousand times.” The point being it is better to hit something flexible with more repetitions than hit something really hard only once or twice.
A suggested routine for beginners is to hit the makiwara about ten times a day with each hand until you can build this up to at least 50 times a day. Remember there is no hurry and this is something that can and should take a couple of years at least to develop. There is no quick easy method of developing the makiwara and itsbenefits. To overcome the boredom of training on the makiwara, you can train using a partner. Oftentimes this will stimulate you to keep going as the competitiveness in us as well as our own ego will make us keep going.
There are many feats of breaking that have become legendary like the ones of Master Mas Oyama who reportedly was able to knock out a bull with a single reverse punch. Reputedly, he did this more then once. Sensei Mike Reeves,
who was mentioned earlier, can break four hundred boards in one minute! Other karate legends have smashed hundreds of pounds of ice with a single blow. And other feats of strength that include breaking rocks, bottles, bricks, boards and concrete have all become synonymous with karate. Oh! You’re a black belt! Can you break a board? This is the usual query from those outside the art. However, what is often missed by the uninitiated is that tamashiwara training is also very useful in developing one’s confidence. When you are able to overcome inanimate objects by smashing them with a single strike something that ordinary people are unable to do you will attain a new found sense of confidence, which hopefully will carry over into your everyday life.
Another benefit of tamashiwara is that it gives the practitioner a way of testing or measuring his power and the progression of this power. He is able to see that in the beginning he could break only one board; then possibly after a year or so he is able to break two boards. After another year or so and after consistent and intense training he can possibly break three or four boards. The strength it takes to break one board is the same amount of power to break one rib so can you imagine the damage that could be created by someone who is able to break three or four boards with a single punch or kick.
It can be said that a makiwara is a tremendous method of developing the power of your karate techniques to the fullest. And that by practicing tamashiwara feats you are able to test these techniques without injuring someone. The true power of karate lies in the proper use of these age-old tools.
George W. Alexander, 9th Dan is the president of the International Shorin Ryu Karate Kobudo Federation and is the author of Okinawa Island of Karate, The Bubishi Martial Art Spirit and Warrior Jujitsu. He can be contacted at (423) 338-4972.
SIDE BAR #1 TOP 10 SAFETY TIPS WHILE TRAINING WITH THE MAKIWARA:
- Make sure that your wrist is straight.
- Make sure that you hit with the first two knuckles only.
- It is not necessary to hit it with full power in the beginning.
- Makiwara Training takes years to develop. Do not be in a hurry. Your body and mind will tell you when to go harder.
- Make sure the pad whether it be straw or leather does have some padding on it to prevent breaking the skin open.
- Make sure that the post is flexible enough to give enough of a cushion when hitting it. This will prevent a shoulder injury.
- Remember to use Dit Da Jow, Zen Gu Shui or any other medicine designed for toughing the skin.
- Do not lock your elbows out at the end of the punch.
- Do not drive the shoulder too far forward when punching.
- Lock your back leg solidly upon impact and simultaneously tense the abdominal and chest muscles. The latt and deltoid muscles must also be locked down upon impact.
Side Bar #2
TOP TEN TRAINING TIPS
1. Remember to train both left and right sides equally.
2. As a beginner it is a good idea to use a sponge on the striking surface
and graduate up to hemp rope.
3. Train a wide variety of techniques not just a punch.
4. Training with a partner is a good idea as it will motivate you both to
keep up with each other.
5. The goal is not to break the makiwara but rather to condition your hands
and body so that you technique will be stronger and more effective.
6. Train after class is over. This way it is a supplement to your training.
7. Pick a certain number of times you will hit the makiwara every time you
use it. In the beginning maybe only 25 times with each technique and
graduate up to 50 times.
8. Remember to stay focused on the makiwara mentally.
9. Each time you hit the makiwara remember to tense up and focus your body.
10. Consistency is the best way to develop your skills on the makiwara.