Muchimi, Irimi and Ray Charles Karate

Published August 24th, 2020 by Charlie Berg

During a regular training session at the Okinawa Karate Center Uchinaa Di Kan dojo in Houston, Texas, Shihan Rusty McMains asked the class if they knew who Ray Charles was. “How did Ray Charles get around a room, or fill a glass with water?” The answer was obvious; he relied largely on touch, on feeling. Getting around an unfamiliar room would require making contact with the objects around him by sliding his hands and feet along walls, floors, furniture and understanding the objects he handled. At the same time, Ray Charles relied on common placement of items like wall switches, door handles,and furniture height and lengths.

Shihan McMains further added, “When you walk into your own living room or bedroom at night, and it's completely dark, what do you instinctively do? Your hand naturally finds the light switch, and you flip the lights on. Even in unfamiliar surroundings there are things that are familiar. The same applies to you and your opponent. This is Ray Charles Karate; this is our Karate”. 

This short object lesson shared by Shihan McMains started the slow flip of a light switch in my own brain. I started asking, “How does this all fit together?” What is the connection between kata practice, basic blocking, kicking, and punching, and technique analysis? And most importantly, that nagging question of: “How does this all really work in my own life protection and self-defense training and understanding?” It began to dawn on me that there was so much more to this art form, certainly more than what is typically taught at other schools

“There are hundreds of schools available if you just want to learn kick-punch karate. Our system is based on much more.”,is a common remark by Shihan McMains during our conversations. As someone that has practiced competition-oriented “Kick-punch Karate”in the past, I can attest that not only is there a difference,but the divide is as wide and deep as the Grand Canyon, and the views are just as awe inspiring. 

Muchimi(usually written in kanaもち)is an Okinawan term commonly applied to Karateto describe a movement as being heavy and sticky. This training concept is implemented into every part of our practice, helping to reprogram how your body moves and responds in execution. “Rub, rub, rub!” permeates every lesson. This rubbing exists in both solo and partner training. In order to understand the appropriate amount of “stickiness” to apply to a movement or technique in our solo training, we need to ‘feel’ the motion through actual use against an object. Solo and partner practice are the yin/yang of training, with one unable to exist without the other.

Within our dojo, focus is placed on the various motions and application of a technique. The word ‘punch’ implies that the only intent of the technique is to lay a blow on the opponent’s body with the front of the closed fist. Conversely, the Japanese term tsuki describes the trusting action as part of the overall description of the movement, with an entire array of possible intents and applications.

When we practice chudan uke,middle block,for example,Shihan McMains stresses our arms must stay in contact with each other, ‘hand-to-elbow’, ‘elbow-to-hand’, throughout the entire movement, continually rubbing. Interchangeably, one arm represents your opponent’s arm and the other yours. This dovetails with the idea that chudan ukeis not simply a “middle block”, rather the entire technique is one, orchestrated, fluid, and instantaneous receiving and counter-attacking movement. This muchimi rubbing then extends into our partner training, keeping that continual ‘sticking’ contact. The importance of knowing how to do this when practicing solo is critical (especially in this present time). Partner training is not just to learn and practice a technique. It also helps both partners to develop a sensitivity to the opponent’s movement and reaction, a sort of ‘listening’ if you will. 

Unfortunately, we are not naturally designed to calmly respond to random attacks, whether it be an attack by a mosquito or a person. Instinctively, people respond to a punch by throwing up their arms, closing their eyes, and flinching away from the attack. This type of inherent reaction is known as Body Alarm Reaction (BAR). Reducing the effects of BAR is one of the intended goals of randori, free sparring and other live action drills. 

Another term used in traditional martial arts is irimi (入り身),is the act of entering straight into a technique, as opposed to the more indirect entrance into an attack. In basic training,irimi usually looks like a step forward, straight or at an angle but usually ending with the body facing the attacker, rather than in the direction of the step. To enter with irimi, the defender needs to move in the very moment of the attack or even initiate it. This is distinctly different from two opponents standing toe-to-toe trading blows, such as in the boxing ring. This is also not a ‘rushing’ attack, where the attacker throws his body weight on his opponent while grasping his body in an attempt to bring him to the ground, or a wrestling takedown that depends much on physical strength, and inevitably involves the risk of becoming entangled with the opponent, or sustaining injury during the takedown. 

During one memorable session with Shihan McMains, he invited me to assume sparring posture, arms held up defensively protecting the head, trading jabs. The goal was to catch the other’s punch. I could not catch or capture any of the punches he directed at me.  As I threw a punch at his head, he caught the punch and then immediately closed the distance. I can’t remember if he pulled himself in to me, or pulled me in toward him, maybe a combination of the two. I don’t remember a forceful pull. I ended up with my arm in a painful lock--all within the same second. “How can you catch fast punches?”, I asked. 

“Watch: when I punch, you try to catch the moving punch, which is next to impossible. When you punch, I extend my arm like a punch, placing my hand, the trapping hand, in the return path of your hand.When your hand returns to its starting point,I’m already there. I don’t even have to be that fast. It’s about timing.”He was demonstrating perfect irimi, being able to stick and slide (muchimi!) with his opponent, knowing instinctively where the attacker’s body is, and entering their defense before they even know what has happened.

All these are part of a list of key components of a training concept developed by Shihan McMains which he has defined as ‘Body Mapping’. Body Mapping exists to some extent in our daily lives, whether it’s brushing our teeth, scratching an itch on our nose, or swatting a mosquito off our shoulder. Unfortunately, as stated before, there is nothing natural in our daily lives that will prepare the student or teacher for success in the world of martial sciences without a deeper review and scrutiny of everything.

In combination and conclusion:When the knowledge of uke and tsuki techniques expands beyond just ‘blocking and punching’, to include hooking, rubbing, trapping, locking, and simultaneous counter-striking, when you know without looking exactly where the opponent's body is(including his vital points and joints) via Body Mapping™, and you have the ability to muchimi stick with the attacker’s movements and body, for an instantaneous and debilitating irimi entry into his defenses--you are now demonstrating the varied martial sciences that are Karate...Ray Charles would be proud.

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