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  • D. Branchaud

Do you walk the walk?

Updated: Feb 4, 2023

Here I go again, talking about footwork.

Good footwork is essential in any standup martial art. It is how we control distance, timing, and our center of gravity. In the art of Palace Hand it is also one way to control the speed and force of our technique. How we walk can also contribute to our being deceptive. Because it is based upon use of the sword, much of our footwork is similar to that found in kendo or kenjutsu (Japanese sword arts). To those not familiar with traditional sword arts, it can seem very strange and appears to contradict a great deal of what one is taught in other martial arts.

It is easy to fail to appreciate the importance and nuances of good footwork. After all, there are so many other things to pay attention to. And Palace Hand footwork is designed to deceptively look like nothing special so its’ details can easily be under appreciated. There is a tendency to think that we have it figured out when, in reality, our feet and legs could use more discipline. Keep in mind that when you watch an experienced person move fluidly from one technique or attacker to another, or when a strike has more power than it seems it should, or when a technique or strike comes seemingly out of nowhere, it is the footwork that is facilitating this. Great footwork leads to greater effectiveness.

Of course we know how to walk since we have been doing so all of our lives, but consider how we learned to use our body as a toddler. We learned to walk through experimentation, experience, and copying. Unless we have some glaring problem, that is typically the end of our instruction. We go through life knowing how to walk and needing no further instruction. I certainly followed that path. But, when I was 15, I went to Montana where I was introduced to a wandering mountain man who walked everywhere. His method was so fast I frequently had to run (uphill) in order to keep him in sight. And he could maintain this pace all day long while carrying a backpack on rugged mountain trails! It was all about his stride, posture, leg strength, and use of momentum. I couldn’t do it. Two years later though, I found myself in recruit training at Parris Island where I learned how to do the very same walk (called ‘route step march’ in the Marines). I also learned how to ‘walk’ with extreme precision in the form of marching. Much later, I was taught a different way to walk in the Pioneer Vally Zendo. This type of walking was excruciatingly slow and specific (called kinhin). Not long after that I was taught another way of walking, the most efficient I have yet to learn, called ‘namba walk’ and also a variation called ‘aruka Zen’ (walking Zen) while studying Palace Hand on Okinawa. It is safe to say that I have had hundreds of hours of walking instruction under expert teachers, even though I thought I knew how to walk.

I point this out simply to illustrate that the way we habitually do things often is just one way of doing things, and that there are often other, more effective, ways of doing things when there is another purpose for that thing. Our ordinary ways are often rudimentary. They may get us where we need to be but they may not be the most efficient or effective way to for all situations.

If you want to be really good at Palace Hand, practice your walking techniques everywhere you can. In Okinawa Takamiyagi Sensei would stop (virtually anywhere) to point out a man here, a woman over there, a child walking to school, with good walking technique or poor walking technique. He really wanted us to have a sense of correct form. He also would bring us to Naha, the busy capitol, and instruct us in ways to walk through the crowds on the busy sidewalks. We were to slip through smoothly, looking like we weren’t doing anything special and attracting no attention. In fact, we were walking in the very same way that we would use during a counterattack. He would do the same with some of our students during visits to Rhode Island using Newport sidewalks as a practice place. During my trips to Okinawa hundreds of hours were invested in practicing walking techniques.

Okinawa, Heiwa Dori,
Heiwa Dori in Naha, Okinawa, A Great Place To Walk!

A few years ago a person came to our dojo to observe class. He had considerable experience in multiple styles, he was proud point out. At the end of class he expressed his dissatisfaction with our practice. He complained that we had no stances and no footwork. What a great compliment! He sat in clear view of us for over an hour, watching every move we made with his trained eyes. The fact that he couldn’t see how our footwork was working only served to further my own appreciation for Palace Hand. Many people, familiar with more widely available martial arts, none of which employ our way of moving or standing, fail to comprehend precisely how we are doing what we are doing. This ‘appearing to be unprepared while being prepared’ is a concept that Takamiyagi Sensei constantly stresses.

Walking Practice With Takamiyagi Sensei During a Visit to Rhode Island

Good walking technique; - facilitates effective irimi (simultaneous defense and offense). - provides efficient transfer of energy into strikes and other techniques. - allows you to avoid escalating a situation by not taking a ‘fighting stance’

- conserves energy - sets up your counterattack

- makes you faster

- masks your intentions

Think deeply about this topic. Remember that an important tactic of Palace Hand is 'only have one foot on the ground at a time until there is no longer a threat'. Movement is critical! Work on being able to control your legs so your knees bend only when you want them to, study the use of the heel-to-toe movement to enhance your speed, fluidity, power and stealth. Practice standing high on the balls of your feet. Understand when you should land on your heel or when you should land on the ball of the foot. Move so you make no sound. Develop awareness of where your center is and how your posture affects your movement.

Walk with purpose but don’t let anyone know!

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