“Tai sabaki first!” I can frequently be heard in my dojo reminding my students of this. Tai sabaki means body positioning. In its basic interpretation it is often referred to simply as footwork. This is the fundamental concept. More specifically, using your footwork to position your body in a safe place, and/or a position of advantage.
Particularly as a student who is new to the art this critical concept can be easily overlooked. There is so much to learn, and in many cases, unlearn. I myself have, in the past, studied arts where the fundamental approach was to stand toe to toe with and adversary and exchange blows and blocks. This is frequently seen in movies as well, and therefore embedded in the public psyche. It is what people expect. Conversely, those of us who are instructors may often say that much of what we practice is counterintuitive. For example, the idea of just getting out of the way of a strike or kick is still, in my observation, fairly uncommon.
Many, many years ago as a young marital artist I recall an experience that now seems entertainingly ridiculous. I was training hard and giving it my all. Now, at that time we were working on what we called rising blocks. Two things influenced my experience. First, I am not a big guy, and was even less so back then. Second, I was into the character Conan the Barbarian at the time; read all those comic books I could get my hands on. So…I’m practicing these rising blocks, and in my head I’m thinking “what if that’s Conan the Barbarian clubbing down on my head?” His forearm vs my forearm…I was seeing splinters happening. I got up the nerve to ask this question of my teacher. The response was “just train harder!” OK, I will, because back then maximum exertion and physical challenge felt great –‘but I still see splinters happening,’ is what I was thinking. Of course, I didn’t dare say so.
Fast forward to a future where I fortuitously cross paths with a young Stephen K. Hayes. Same question, different answer…“oh, just get out of the way.” Three and a half decades ago when An-shu Hayes first introduced me to the concept it was completely mind blowing; revolutionary for me back then I would say. I felt like someone who had just been told that the world is actually round.
So the point in sharing that little part of my personal story is to remind you how important, and challenging, it is to remember tai sabaki first. Plant that mantra firmly in your mind. Let this remind you to do your best to pay attention to how your footwork and body positioning are keeping you safe and placing you in a position of advantage.
So, the next time you feel something is not working the way you need it to ask yourself, did I remember tai sabaki first?