Article by Emanuel Giordano sensei

With the term floating positions, in martial arts, we mean the set of positions in which one of the two feet does not rest completely on the ground. It is often said that this foot is not anchored to the ground but, as we will see later, this is not the case. Usually, in these positions, the body weight is not equally distributed between the lower limbs but, on the contrary, tends to be more concentrated on the leg corresponding to the foot that has full contact with the ground. In Japanese, these positions are referred to as ukiashi-dachi.

This term was mentioned by the famous swordsman Miyamoto Musashi (1584–1645) according to whom, it is said, these positions are to be avoided. The question was dealt with in the famous Book of the Five Rings, and it is often not questioned why Musashi advised against these positions. Normally the equation is taken for granted: floating positions = position to be avoided, simply by virtue of the fact that it was said by someone famous. But if we read the Book of the Five Rings, we discover that Musashi did not advise against floating positions, but rather advised against ADVANCING by jumping, adopting a floating position, or keeping the hips lowered (when attacking or defending with the sword), this because they were three methods of advancement unrelated to the principle of "feet Yin and Yang", or the principle of advancing with both feet alternating, and never with only one foot. This principle is the basis of the foot movement of the Musashi school of fencing, the Niten Ichi Ryu. We can therefore say that in reality, Musashi, like anyone, advised against using a principle different from that of his own style. Not to mention, among other things, that Kenjutsu and Karate have some points in common, but they are two completely different martial arts, starting with the fact that in Kenjutsu you are armed, in Karate you are not.

Choshin Chibana sensei in a "floating" Kosa-dachi 

Coming to the world of Karate, one cannot fail to mention the famous Motobu Choki. We know from several sources, including his son, that Motobu Choki did not appreciate ukiashi-dachi. For example, he did not agree with the fact that the hips were "pushed back" during the attack (in the ukiashi-dachi the hips are set back from the front foot.), preferring more natural positions, such as kihon-dachi/shizentai-dachi. However, the sentence that contributed most to making us understand Motobu Choki's opinion is the following: 
"In my Karate, there are no stances such as the Nekoashi (cat stance), Zenkutsu, or Kokutsu, etc. The so-called cat stance are one example of the floating feet, which is most disliked inside martial arts. This because if your body get hit then immediately you’re blown away as you lost your balance. Zenkutsu and Kokutsu, are also inferior stances, hindering the free movement work of the legs. In My Karate the same stance work used in both kata and kumite, and is like the stance of Naifanchi. This stance with the knees being gently bent can move freely. During defence or offence the knees are tightened and the hip is dropped. Weight is not applied to either the front or the back foot, instead the weight is put more evenly on both feet."

In fact, Motobu Choki never wrote anything like this. This sentence was written by Nakata Mizuhiko, a Japanese (non-Okinawan) karateka, and published in 1978 in the book Motobu Choki Sensei Goroku (Talking about Motobu Choki Sensei). Nakata was a student of Konishi Yasuhiro, and also attended the Motobu Choki dojo as a guest. According to Nakata, the aforementioned sentence (and others present in the book) should be attributed to Motobu Choki sensei. Honestly I would not take such a source literally, but since it reflects what we know about Motobu Choki's Karate, its general sense could correspond to the thought of the famous master. Although the opinion of Motobu Choki sensei (teacher present, among other things, in the lineage of our school) is useful, even in this case it should be taken more as a personal opinion, and not as a certain reality. In fact, it should be noted that the principle of the floating foot is found in various martial arts, including Motobu Udundi, an Okinawan martial art practiced by the Motobu family, but transmitted only to the first-born males (which is why Motobu Choki did not study it). Interestingly, Motobu Choki was defeated over and over again by his older brother, Motobu Choyu, who had been trained in Motobu Udundi.

Some ukiashi-dachi in use in Okinawa's Shorin-ryu. Note that the position in the central photo: 1) is properly called Ukiashi-dachi. 2) it is sometimes also called Nekoashi-dachi, although it differs from the position of the same name used in Goju-ryu.

As you can see from the first photo above, this principle is widespread in many martial arts, and therefore is not exclusive to Karate. Usually the reasons that push to use a floating position are always the same, regardless of the art practiced. Recently a student of mine wrote an article concerning the similarities between typical Okinawan dance and Karate Shorin-ryu (available here). In that article, some of the reasons why floating postures are used, particularly the various kosa-dachi with a raised heel, are explained. I would now like to list some advantages offered by this position, or rather, by this principle. In fact, in Traditional Okinawan Karate, and in particular in Shorin-ryu, more than techniques and positions (superficial training), we must talk about principles (deep training).

In the first photo Yoshitaka Funakoshi in kokutsu-dachi (already different from that of his father), in the second Katsuya Miyahira in ukiashi-dachi

Obviously, I will now examine the Shorin-ryu ukiashi-dachi, but many of the points I am going to describe can also be easily found in the other floating positions used in martial arts. First of all, a basic description of the Ukiashi-dachi position is needed (third photo, central image):

  • The body weight is distributed 70% on the rear leg.
  • The knees are slightly bent in a natural way, and not "forced" as in the Nekoashi-dachi of Goju-ryu.
  • The back foot is rooted as in Naihanchi-dachi.
  • The front foot is also rooted, albeit in a different way.
  • The stance is longer than the Nekoashi-dachi of the Goju-ryu, but shorter than the Kokutsu-dachi Shotokan (I am referring to today's Kokutsu-dachi, as the stance that G. Funakoshi used was much shorter and similar to the Ukiashi- dachi Shorin-ryu. See photo below)
  • The heel of the front foot is raised 1 or 2 cm off the ground, no more.
  • The hips are free to move, and are "open" at an angle of approximately 45°, taking as reference to the angle formed by the position of the feet (hanmi).
  • The heels are not aligned (in the Shidokan school, while in the Kyudokan school they are aligned).

On the left Gichin Funakoshi sensei, on the right my teacher, Maeshiro Morinobu sensei (Shidokan Shorin-ryu)

This position offers some interesting advantages for real combat, let's see some of them. First of all, exactly as in Muay Thai, the natural and backward position allows you to make the best use of the front leg. In fact, it can be used to kick head-on without first having to change the center of gravity; it can be used quickly to defend against an attack below the belt, or directed to the legs or groin (eg some of the many applications of namigaeshi); it can be used to sweep or trap the opponent's legs; and can be used to capture the opponent's advanced foot, also while pressing a pressure point (Chibu nigakiree). In addition, it significantly reduces the effects of any sweeps (ashi-barai) made by the opponent; makes it less vulnerable to those who prefer to exploit the opponent's momentum to their advantage, to be able to throw him, or to submit him; allows you to vary the distance from the opponent, while not moving your feet.

In general, all the floating positions used in the Shorin-ryu allow rapid movements (tai-sabaki), and are designed for a sudden and decisive fight, not static. Some kata, such as Itosu no Passai, allow you to train these quick and powerful movements, making the practitioner strive to find the necessary grounding, as well as the correct joint / muscle alignment (structure), even in difficult conditions, such as when using the floating positions, which, at the same time, allow very fast variations in the distribution of body weight from one leg to the other.

For more information you can read:

  • "Shorin-ryu Karate: kata 2" (here)
  • "Shorin-ryu Karate: kata" (here)
  • "Shorin-ryu Karate: The legacy of the bodyguards of the king of Okinawa" (here)
  • "The legend of the masters of Okinawan Karate: Biographies, curiosities and mysteries"  (here)