"Yoi" & The First Preparatory Moves Of Kata
By Christopher Caile
Recently at the end of a particularly hard class workout, a visiting
student from England approached me and asked about the meaning of the
first preparatory move in kata. The
move is signaled by the 'yoi' (the command often used in Japanese karate
to signal getting ready to do a kata) and can be quite subtle or large
depending on the style and system.
I had heard the same question many times before. It is a difficult
question since kata don't come with instructions, and there are different
interpretations, especially between the Chinese systems, Okinawan and
even Japanese kata, styles and systems. Also kata are what you make
of them, and an awareness of what you are practicing is important.
There is also some evidence that in Okinawa, the birthplace of karate,
that kata before the modern era often did not begin with a preparatory
"yoi" move or with the same standard ready posture. Teachers
such as Chojun Miyagai (founder of Goju Ryu) are said to have standardized
kata beginnings with these additions. Thus, at the very least these
movements identify, mark or symbolize the system or style within which
the kata are practiced. But I think there is much more.
In Goju ryu and some other styles of karate, the hands meet in the
middle, one hand over the other. The heels of the feet are together
with the toes pointing outward (musubi dachi). In Goju Ryu kata there
is more emphasis on the mental aspect of preparation. A command "mokuso"
is used to signal students to close their eyes and calm their mind without
thoughts before the "yoi" is voiced. In other styles, an open
palm of one hand covers the fist of the other. In Shotokan and in some
katas of Seido, Kyokushin, Oyama karate and others the arms are often
held apart, down and in front and (parallel) outside of the legs which
are in a natural stance, the toes slightly flared (fudo dachi). It is
here that the mind is focused and controlled (although there is no "mokuso"
command, as voiced in Goju Ryu, expressly voiced for that purpose).
When the command "yoi" is heard (or, when the kata is done
alone, when a silent beginning is internally voiced) the arms move in
some characteristic action -- as small as a drawback to the sides of
the legs or as large as bringing the arms up, both hands starting at
opposite ears, followed with a lowering of them to the sides.
Although more pronounced in some systems, the preparatory movement
includes a forced out breath (ibuki breathing), the hips tucked forward
under the body trunk along with body tensing followed by relaxation
(still slightly tensed ready to go into action) as well as foot/leg
rotation outward under tension (having first been turned in). All this
may be subtle or very overt, but nevertheless evident in most karate.
In the few Chinese styles I have studied the initial move seems much
more perfunctory, and is given less emphasis than in karate, especially
So what is happening? First we should realize that kata is a lot more
than just technique. Kata are performed on other levels too, including
the strategic, psychological, spiritual and physical (body). Here, I
think, what we are seeing is these other levels, and a lot is going
on at once -- things most people never pay attention to.
Imagine this scenario. You are walking alone down a street, path or
sidewalk. It's night and it's deserted. Suddenly you are aware of several
men approaching. They are young, with black jackets and one has a headband.
They look drunk. Your mental alarm goes off and you feel the hair on
the back of your neck stand up. You ask yourself, should I run, or is
it really something innocent? Maybe I am mistaken. But then they are
around you, pushing your chest, one man demanding that you hand over
your wallet. You feel sick, cold sweat on your forehead. Fear is now
tangible. The mind shouts, 'do something,' but you feel frozen, as your
heart pounds, your breath racing. Even your vision seems to narrow,
as if looking down some tunnel. This is not the dojo, this is not some
self-defense practice -- you know your life is in danger. This is real,
and fear and anxiety take control -- paralyzing your mind and forcing
physiological reactions that limit your ability to respond.
In some karate styles or schools, during class practice of kata, students
begin with a 'rei," or bow to the teacher. This precedes the "yoi"
called out by the instructor to signal to each student to get ready
to engage in the kata's particular portrayal of a combat situation.
The actual kata begins with the order to start (hajime), or with a count
signaling students to perform the first move of a kata. While the yoi
is not vocalized when kata is practiced alone or demonstrated outside
a group class, the preparation is very much as real -- you are getting
ready to perform kata, kata which is combat codified within sequences
of movement. So, "yoi" can be best understood as the signal
to begin self-preparation for combat -- preparation to face not only
opponents but also the self -- the mental and psychological barriers
noted above. And there is an element of strategy too. At the end of
the preparatory movement, you are softly tense, like a calm tiger ready
to move explosively if necessary, but still not taking the offensive.
This is the THE REAL BEGINNING OF KATA.
Let's look at what happens in the first preparatory move. You take
a deep in breath and forcefully exhale (ibuki breathing). This can be
pronounced or subtle. This takes care of the natural body reaction to
intense stress -- hyperventilation. Your arms (and it doesn't matter
the exact movement patterns) move to tighten and then slightly relax.
So do your legs and torso. You have taken control of your body. Your
eyes and mind focus on everything and nothing, repeating in microcosm
the years of quiet meditation that allowed you to abstract the self
from all emotions and thoughts -- but this time to relax the mind and
maximize total awareness (zanshin), settling the self in the lower abdomen
that is pressed forward (proper posture) to align the body and its energy
pathways -- a center also recognized for its sixth sense or intuition.
You are ready to move into action instantly or continue to be alert
and ready after action. Others will recognize this position as the same
one necessary to align the hips with the spine so as to provide efficient
power (see the article, "A Simple Lesson in Body Mechanics").
There is an old samurai saying, "When the battle is over, tighten
your chin strap" (of your helmet). Police officers have observed,
for example, that immediately following an arrest, when an officer feels
that danger is over, is actually the most dangerous time: the inclination
to relax occurs at the same time the prisoner may be desperately searching
for an opportunity to escape.
This mental state can have profound effects. Have you ever been in
an auto accident, and in the last second or fraction of a second seem
to experience the world in slow motion as the accident played out across
your mind? This is a Zen moment of total awareness, but unfortunately
one imposed upon your mind by the intensity of the situation. Think,
if you could control this feeling and see a confrontation unfold slowly
while maintaining a mental state within which you could freely act without
psychological reactions clawing against your every move. That is what
Zen type meditation can give you. It is also something which can be
practiced through kata. Kata can be viewed as planning for and execution
of practiced reactions to stressful contingencies.
The effectiveness of this preparation, however, can vary tremendously.
If we just perform the "yoi" preparatory move, even thousands
of times, in a normal mental state, little will be achieved. But if
you self-prime your mental engine with fear, your "yoi" move,
both physical and psychological, will have an actual state of high anxiety
to play off against. How is this done? You might dredge up moments of
intense fear experienced in the past, or try to create a vivid image
to do the same. Then after much practice your preparatory move creates
a psychological reaction -- the preparatory move being associated with
control of mind, body and breath in the face of anxiety or fear. You
create a conditioned response. Anytime anxiety strikes you can easily
counter it, even at home or at the office -- your preparatory move in
kata, even if performed in a very subtle manner, will still elicit those
responses that the body had been programmed to follow.
Accompanying this total awareness is spirit -- spirit that fills your
every movement and position, that emanates from your eyes and stance.
My teacher Kaicho Tadashi Nakamura often demonstrates the importance
of spirit in kata. He notes that when you begin a kata you should evidence
a powerful assertiveness, a confident, controlled movement and focused
eyes that emit a powerful spirit and will embedded within your movement
and stance (kamae). These same attributes were reflected by the feared
and legendary Japanese swordsman Miayamato Musahi who said: "When
I stand with my sword against a foe, I become utterly unconscious of
the enemy before me or even of myself, in truth filled with the spirit
of subjugating even earth and heaven."
There are many stories from old Japan that tell of one Samurai recognizing
the mastery of another just by the other's stance, the way he sits or
rides a horse. Thus, just the way you stand at the beginning of the
kata can reflect your assurance, spirit and quality of your technical
Many years ago Richard Kim (a much respected karate historian, author
and teacher) made this point to me. During one discussion, Richard held
his two hands apart, pointing the index fingers of each hand. He said
that rarely in karate do we ever experience the reality of life and
death combat, something the Samurai of Japan once faced. "The one
place their spirit can reach out to touch ours," he said as he
touched the finger tips of his hands together, "is within kata."
He noted that within kata we can experience and live the same danger,
the same fear and threat of death that Samurai learned to deal with.
And that should be the highest goal in kata too -- to reach out and
touch the true Samurai spirit from across the centuries.
Following the initial preparatory move the feet are parallel or slightly
flared outward (depending on kata and style) and the hands are at the
sides -- a natural stance. This neutral position, without commitment,
contains both defense and strategy. It represents the common position
many people find themselves in when suddenly attacked. To the defender's
advantage is the stance (parallel or fudo dachi), which allows quick
movement in all directions. To his disadvantage are the arms --down
at his sides. The actual first move of kata beyond the preparatory movement,
many argue, starts with a natural startle reflex movement of raising
the arms for protection. Some argue that these movements can be interpreted
as the beginning of various blocks or arm movements which, when completed,
are seen as the first actual moves in the kata, such as the down or
inside one arm block or two arm blocks.
But if an attack isn't in progress or immediate the neutral stance
also contains, etiquette, strategy as well as a psychological element.
Gogen (The Cat) Yamaguchi (Japanese Goju Ryu) in his book, "Goju
ryu Karate-do Kyohan," suggests that while the crossed hands in
front protect the groin from sudden attack, that: at the same time "you
show the opponent that you will not attack suddenly. This was the etiquette
of the samurai. The samurai would take off a Katana (long sword) from
their waist and change it to the right hand showing that their would
not be a cowardly act such as slashing the opponent without notice."
The neutral stance is also defensive since potential threat has not
been reacted to by taking a fighting stance. There is an old Okinawan
saying, "we need two hands to clap" (it takes two to quarrel).
At this point any outward physical attack will automatically trigger
the physical confrontation before the psychological cards have been
fully played. But if an attack has not begun, there remains a physiological
card which might avoid conflict altogether.
Appearing not to react, rather than assuming a defensive stance or
showing fear or intimidation, can be very disconcerting to a potential
aggressor. Remember, aggressors are fearful too. They depend on your
fear and your intimidation. So, a lone aggressor, or several, try to
intimidate you to see how you react. If you don't react on the surface,
this is unnerving. Intimidation and outright fear was expected, at least
some nervous expression, some act of mental reaction that would signify
defeat, or at least some vain and weak attempt at defense. Instead you
are standing there unafraid, almost detached but exuding a confidence
and spirit. "Something is wrong," the attacker (or attackers)
says to himself. "He's not reacting. He is not afraid. What does
he know?" If you are able to do this before an attacker has physically
started an assault, you have put him or them on the mental defensive.
This can be very powerful.
There is an old Japanese story of the Tea Master and the Ruffian that
makes this point. The Lord of Toas Province in Japan, Lord Yamanouchi,
was going to Edo (now Tokyo) on an official trip and insisted that his
tea master accompany him. The tea master was reluctant. He was not a
sophisticated city person and not a samurai. He was afraid of Edo and
the dangers he might face, but he was unable to refuse his master's
request. His master, however,in a conscious attempt to boaster the tea
master's confidence, attired him in Samurai clothing with the customary
two swords. The Lord thought that among the other samurai on the trip,
the tea master would become invisible.
One day after arriving in Edo the tea master decided to take a walk.
The very danger he feared most then confronted him. A ronin, a masterless
samurai, approached him, insisting that it would be an honor to try
out his skills in swordsmanship against a samurai of the Tosa province.
In reality all the ronin really wanted was the tea master's money which
he could get if he killed him.
The shock of this confrontation at first immobilized the tea master.
He couldn't even speak. Finally gaining a little composure, the tea
master explained that he was not really a samurai, and didn't want a
confrontation -- that he was only a master of tea dressed this way by
his master. But the ronin pressed harder. He demanded a test of skills.
He said it would be an insult to the province of Tosa if its honor wasn't
The tea master didn't know what to do. After thinking it over for a
while he saw no way out of the situation. He became resigned to dying.
But then he remembered he had earlier passed a school of swordsmanship.
The tea master said to the ronin, "If you insist, we will test
our skills, but first I must finish an errand for my master and will
return later when the errand is completed." The ronin, now pumped
up with confidence, readily agreed.
The tea master made his way back to the school of swordsmanship. Luckily,
the master was in and would see him. The tea master explained his situation
and asked the sword master how he might behave correctly, to die like
a samurai, so as to behold his province's honor. The swordmaster was
surprised. He answered that most come to learn how to hold and use a
sword,whereas he had come instead to learn how to die. "Serve me
a cup of tea," said the sword teacher, "while I will think
the situation over."
The tea master cleared his mind. He knew this might be the last cup
of tea he might ever serve. He began his preparation, a practice ritual
performed as if nothing else existed, each movement being a total concentration
on the moment, on the action. Impressed with this performance, the sword
master said, "that's it."
"Tomorrow," said the swordmaster, "when you face the
ronin, use this same state of mind. Think of serving tea to a guest.
Apologize for the delay. And when you take off your outer garment, fold
it and place your fan upon it with the same calm assurances and grace
that you use in preparation of tea. Continue this focus as you rise
and put on your head band. Draw your sword slowly, raise it above your
head and hold it there, like this," he said, "and close your
eyes. When you hear a yell, strike down. It will probably end in mutual
After thanking the sword teacher the tea master returned to meet the
ronin, resigned to his fate. Following his advice, the tea master apologized
for the delay and began to prepare himself ceremoniously -- carefully
taking off his outer garment, folding it, and then placing his fan on
The ronin was startled. This fearful figure, who once said he was but
a lowly tea master, had changed. Now before him was total concentration,
poise and confidence -- someone fearless and controlled. The tea master
finally faced his foe and raised his sword as he had been shown. He
closed eyes awaiting the shout that would seal his fate. But nothing
happened. Seconds later when he finally opened his eyes, there was no
ronin to be seen, only a small figure is the distance quickly receding
About the Author:
Christopher Caile, the founder and Editor-in-Chief of FightingArts.com,
is a historian, writer and researcher on the martial arts and Japanese
culture. A martial artist for over 40 years he holds a 6th degree black
belt in karate and is experienced in judo, aikido, daito-ryu, itto-ryu,
boxing, and several Chinese arts. He is also a teacher of qi gong.