Wood.. Like Wood..!


Jon Braeley with karate master Tatsuo Suzuki

Wood … Really?

“Wood.. Like Wood..!” These were the words I heard from Wado-ryu karate master Tatsuo Suzuki as he pressed his fingers into my arm. This was during a weekend seminar with the British based Suzuki sensei, who was an early student of Hironori Ōtsuka, the founder of Wado Ryu karate. The seminar was some thirty years ago and at this time I was approaching my 3rd dan belt grade in Shotokan karate and happy with how my training was going.

It may seem strange for a student of Shotokan karate to attend classes by Tatsuo Suzuki, a Wado ryu karate instructor, but for me it was normal. I would always be drawn to the teacher rather than the style, and Suzuki sensei was one of the very best in Europe.

When he said my arms were made of wood, I knew he was not paying me a compliment and that he was telling me not to be tense. I had been taking classes with Tatsuo Suzuki sensei in England since I was 25 years old, so I was not entirely oblivous to the Wado-ryu style which is a softer style than Shotokan. So I was a little irritated by the remark. In fact, a few years prior to this encounter with my old instructor,  I started to use less power in my karate and focus on being more relaxed, which is not as simple as it sounds for one who had been taught to build power by using large dynamic technique – a trademark of the Shotokan style.


Jon Braeley (right) at the class of Tatsuo Suzuki sensei

The Elusive Skill

Around the same time as my “wood… like wood!” incident, I made my first documentary movie, “The Pose Method of Running” with an Olympic running coach who had defected from Russia to the U.S. The coach, Nicholas Romanov, showed how runners perform better when relaxed. I was in a perfect storm that was telling me something… to relax!

In my early twenties I started practicing tai chi chuan just after gaining my black belt. so I was familiar with how to relax in tai chi using breathing methods and standing meditation adopted from qigong. At the age of 22, I started to train with David Barrow, one of the U.K’s top masters of Wu style tai chi. Of course it was easier to relax when you are moving slowly and gently. Nevertheless, tai chi did have an effect on my karate but not as much as I realized, especially when I trained with Tatsuo Suzuki sensei who made it look effortless.

But how could I be even more relaxed in my karate? It was so elusive.

Don’t Think… Don’t Try!

On one of my trips to Japan, about fours years after the “wood… like wood” incident, I found myself in the Shiseikan Budojo, in the beautiful grounds of Meiji Shrine, Tokyo. This dojo is home to traditional martial arts of Kyudo (archery), Judo, Kendo and Aikido. In the reception, they have a small bookstore, actually just one display case and a few shelves. The books are all in Japanese, but one small book caught my attention on budo that had English translation in the rear pages (front pages in Japan) and I began to read.

The preface, written by Inaba Minoru, the Shihan of Bujutsu of Shiseikan, told the story of an 87 year old master of Daito Ryu Aiki Bujutsu sensei who could defeat opponents of a much greater size and strength with little effort. When asked how one does this, he replied “remove strength from the shoulders.” That is the full explanation!

As I skipped throught the pages, it became clear they were talking about only using the hips and legs for physical power and relying on training the Hara (tanden) or lower belly to develop Kiryoku or power of the mind. The mind and body connection – to relax the shoulders and at the point of releasing physical power, tightening the anal sphincter muscles (we call this Kime in karate). Of course this is a simplification so I do not write endlessly in this post.


On one page I noticed a photo of a baby and the text talks about how we are born with correct breathing and posture – the path to correct mind and body in martial arts. I understood this to mean being relaxed cannot be taught like a technique. To relax and not be tense or be under stress cannot happen on command. In fact, the worst advice you can give to a student is to tell them to try and relax, because by trying they will often stiffen or tense up.

In the ‘Book of Five Rings’ by the famous swordmaster Miyamoto Musashi, he gives us the answer to how he successfully defeated over sixty opponents – and not by technique alone. He had mastered the way of dying. He had removed the fear of dying and by doing so his mind became Fudoshin – the absense of loose thoughts, and the absense of tension and stiffness from his body. In other words, Musashi had let go.

Today, I never think about trying to relax but just do. I take care to train myself to relax but it’s not the same as trying to relax… I have removed the strength from my shoulders. You should practice correct breathing, inhale through the nose for 4 seconds and exhale very slowly through the mouth. Try not to gulp in air when you are exerting yourself, instead pace your breathing by extending the exhale. A combination of techniques can extend over a single breath with practice. When combining techniques do not stop between them but make sure they flow as one. Any hesitation will create tension. In karate we say 1+1 is 1 and 1+1+1 is still 1. Keep your knees slightly bent at all times and drop your weight – maintain even pressure on your feet. Check your posture and keep the hips and legs inline with your center of gravity. Good balance is key to being relaxed.

Remember – it is your mind that is the problem, so don’t think and don’t try. Like Musashi… let go. As far as the “wood.. like wood” incident… the comment no longer irritates me. It makes me smile.