Knees, Feet, and Ground — the Critical Interface

Pivot points on the foot

The knees are some of the most critical, and also most vulnerable, joints in the human body. Protecting the knees in routine training is a primary requirement for long-term participation in martial arts. Equally important, the things a student should do to protect his or her knees can be a gateway to learning how to optimize the power and effectiveness of a wide variety of techniques, regardless of the art being practiced. Let’s start with the key principle: Keep the foot and the knee in alignment.

I had 20+ years of training and a sandan in karate, with a little judo and European fencing while in college, before I had the opportunity to begin training in kenjutsu. One of the first things I was taught was how to walk properly. My sensei illustrated how most people tend to walk, with feet splayed outwards and essentially falling forward with each step. Because the knee points forward while the foot is angled to the outside, every step places strain on the knee. Maybe just a little, but enough that the strain can produce damage over time. 

Instead, my sensei taught me to keep the leading foot tracking straight forward, in the line of travel, moved by rotation of the hips (koshi-mawari) rather than by extension of the leg. This process keeps the respective knees and feet in alignment, eliminating strain on the knees, and facilitates a state of readiness by enhancing posture and the ability to change direction very quickly and smoothly. Practicing this new way of walking became for me an all-the-time focus of attention, until the method became an integrated and unconscious matter. (In my former, full-time career, I worked in buildings with straight, central hallways that were anywhere from 300 to 600 feet in length, and I frequently spot-checked myself for proper walking technique when traversing the hallways.)

Skill in ukemi (“receiving body” — the techniques of landing safely when thrown or falling), and developing correct alignments within the body are the two most valuable, physical benefits of proper training in budo. Okabayashi Shogen, founder of the Hakuho-ryu, took the study of proper body alignment to a new level by looking deeply at the past. Okabayashi Sensei rediscovered that the bushi (warriors) were trained from the time of their first steps to walk in a very distinctive manner, with the points of the hips and shoulders always in a frame defined by a single plane, and they maintained that alignment incessantly. Persons familiar with kuzushi, the process of breaking an opponent’s posture, will immediately recognize the significance of maintaining the hips/shoulders frame — twisting that frame in the opponent is one of the critical components to inducing a state of kuzushi and weakness. And yet many modern proponents of martial arts twist their own frames when attempting to apply techniques.

Within the Hakuho-ryu, proper alignment and movement are taught through a fundamental exercise called Bushi-no-hokoho, “warrior’s method of walking.” Resting the hands on the thighs, each step glides forward as though the body is a swinging door hanging from hinges on the points of the shoulders and hips. In its basic form, the method looks robotic, but that appearance is deceiving, because the method facilitates completely coordinated transitions between standing and seated movement (shikko) and instant application of technique. Moving this way can also be hidden, such that one’s gait appears utterly normal…and yet absolutely is not.

Some modern budo “authorities” questioned Okabayashi Sensei’s insight, but beyond the immediately obvious effectiveness (and effect on technique) of the method, two further pieces of evidence influenced me. There’s an old Japanese saying, “Kata de kaze o kite aruku,” which means “To walk with shoulders cutting the wind,” i.e., determined, like a samurai. The other bit of evidence is an anecdote.

One winter, following a weekend seminar at our dojo with Okabayashi Sensei, a student made a quick trip to the local Walmart just as a snowstorm was building. On the way out of the store, the student was thinking about Bushi-no-hokoho and started to walk in that manner. He heard someone ask, “Going out to fight the storm?” The student turned to find the greeter, and elderly Japanese gentleman, smiling and giving him a knowing nod. 

So much for the critics…

The principle of maintaining the frame of the hips and shoulders blends perfectly with studying the sourcing and application of power in movement. Even taken together, however, maintenance of the frame and correct sourcing of power are for naught if the interface with the ground, the feet, are not properly employed. At Itten Dojo, we analyze the foot/ground interface in terms of three points of contact and potential pivoting, that we name as follows:

     • Point #1 — The point on the inside ball of the foot, at the base of the big toe.

     • Point #2 — The point on the outside ball of the foot, at the base of the little toe.

     • Point #3 — The heel. Note that pivoting on the heel will always keep the foot and knee aligned, but might not be optimal given the specific technique to be applied.

In any movement, whether linear or turning, which point is utilized as the interface — at any given moment — will have a significant effect on posture, efficiency of locomotion, connection to and control of the opponent, and preservation of the knees. How you determine the proper point is for you to research and discover, but I will provide one example to help get you started, utilizing one of the aiki-taiso, the fundamental, solo exercises of aiki-jujutsu: Irimi (“Entering body”).

In application, irimi usually entails a deep step forward and a subsequent turn, to end up behind and to the side (at the rear corner) of the opponent. Ueshiba Morihei, the founder of modern aikido, was known to say, “There is no tenkan (turn) without irimi.” Turning is a moment of vulnerability, and if it’s done at the wrong moment or position relative to the opponent, there can be unfortunate consequences. We use this exercise as part of the kihon (fundamentals) and conditioning we do at the start of aiki-jujutsu classes, and I always refer to it as irimi/tenkan:

1. From sankakudai, a triangle stance, slide the lead foot forward, on Point #1. Maintain the alignment of the foot as strictly straight forward, so as not to betray the fact a turn will be coming.

2. At the desired depth of step, allow the knee to continue slightly forward until it is directly above Point #1.

3. Transition body weight to Point #2 and pivot to face the opposite direction. 

This is simplest form of the exercise. In our way of practicing irimi/tenkan, we first break inertia with a slight flex of the knees to shift forward the lead foot, then more deeply slide forward the rear foot and execute the tenkan as described above. 

Whatever your primary art, maintaining the correct frame, optimally sourcing movement and power, and properly exploiting the potentials provided by controlling exactly the foot/ground interface will radically alter the effectiveness of your techniques, whether those techniques be punching and kicking, cutting, or throwing and pinning. And you’ll be preserving your knees for a lifetime of training.