Friday, December 19, 2008

What is so universal about taikyoku?

The first, most basic kata in some forms of karate-do is called Taikyoku, which translates to something like "ultimate," or "universal." Interestingly, the ideogram that is pronounced Taikyoku in Japanese is pronounced Taichi in Chinese (though there are no apparent similarities between Taikyoku kata and Tai chi chuan.)
Despite the great fancy name, the kata is nothing but a bunch of front stances, down blocks, and lunge punches executed in an I-shaped embusen (performance line). Pretty basic stuff, so what is so amazing about Taikyoku? Why did Funakoshi consider it the "ultimate universal" exercise?
Another way that you can understand the term, Taikyoku, is as a philosophical term referring to the state of the universe before the split between heaven and earth - that is, everything in the universe is in there but it's mixed-up or hidden. So, in the karate exercise, you have this undifferentiated group of movements that, when form is applied to them creatively, will become the basis of all of the karate universe. So Taikyoku is, in some sense, the primeval atom that karate will spring forth from.
I think the key to understanding the idea behind Taikyokyu lies in the large motions that Funakoshi said were such good exercise for beginners. The down blocks (gedan barai) are chambered knuckle-inward near the opposite ear, stretched as far away from the ending position of the down block as possible, with the elbows crossed in front of the solar plexus and the hand of the withdrawing arm near the opposite hip, also stretched away from its' ending position. From this position, the arms have to travel through large arcs of motion that contain about half of the motions that it is possible for the human arm to make.
Therapists will recognize this down-blocking motion as PNF (Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Coordination) pattern D1 which is so useful for rehabilitation, strengthening, and co-ordinating the upper limbs. So, in other words, just by practicing this large down-blocking motion in this particular way, you can get better at coordinating about half of all arm motions in karate. Guess where the other half of the motions come in? The mid-level blocks found in Taikyoku Sandan (PNF pattern D2)! I challenge you to think of an arm technique in karate that is not made of pieces of either the down-block motion (D1) or the mid-level block motion (D2) from Taikyoku.
Cool! Maybe there is a reason to practice these first three exercises that intermediate and advanced students find so mind-numbingly boring. Taikyoku, the ultimate universal kata, makes you better at everything else in karate.


  1. Holy crap!

    That's our "Basic I form #1"!!

    I know Master C. came from a traditional taekwondo background. I wonder where they stole that from?

    Shotokan or Tang So Do!

    I'm seriously freaking here!

  2. To add: After that is Basic I form 2. Then we are (or were) taught the the 8 Taegueks.

  3. Interesting, huh? If I understand right, the term taegeuk has similar philosophical underpinnings as taichi and taikyoku.

    Also, If I understand it rightly, the TKD/TSD folks stole most everything they did from shotokan, renamed it, and developed the kicks to a greater level. The TSD folks I worked with in college used a set of forms that were obviously borrowed in whole cloth from shotokan. At some point, the TKD folks apparently got tired of doing a 'japanese' thing and designed a new set of kata. So, some tkd folks do the old shotokan forms, some do the new korean forms, some do both and some do neither.

  4. Right you are! I used to bristle when folks called Tae Kwon Do "Korean Karate".

    It really doesn't bother me anymore. From what I've read General Choi fused Shotokan with Takyon. In fact, I think the Tang So Do folks practice Shotokan katas.

    Those high kicks came from the Takyon influence.

    The "tagueks" are alleged to be more "modern". However, that's a subject of great debate in TKD circles.

    So does Shotokan have a second basic form? We have a second "I form" that's fairly similar. The main differences are high punches and rising blocks.


  5. Bob, there are three 'official' taikyoku forms. The basic form 2 that you mentioned is about the same thing as taikyoku 2. Taikyoku 3 contains some back stances and shuto blocks.

    But I don't really think that these three taikyoku kata are the magical introduction to karate. Instead, they are templates that you can put various techniques into.

    for example, some folks call Takiyoku 1 by the name taikyoku gedan (meaning lower-level), and these same folks have their own taikyoku forms that are shaped like the others but are filled up with mid-level blocks and punches (for the chudan, mid level kata) and with high blocks and face punches (for the jodan, high level kata)

    There are also folks that practice kicks in this form. It's sort of a template for practicing kihon (fundamental techniques)


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