What is your next move? Consult your reflexes

Soshu Shigeru Oyama said to me after my first full contact competition, “beginner fights like baby; all grabbing. He can’t help it.” How right he was.

A baby’s first movements are primitive reflexes that can also be recognized as foundational movements that support good fighting postures and skills. Some of these reflexes and their karate counterparts are:

Physiological flexion: fetal position.

Fighting stance (Kumite no tachi)

Moro reflex or startle response: limbs scattering wide accompanied by a gasp immediately followed by limbs gathering toward the midline –

attack/defend with kiai followed by a return to fighting stance.

Sucking reflex: chin tucked in and down

Good head position in fighting stance.

Palmar grasp reflex: when the palm of infant’s hand is stroked from the ulnar side, the fingers will close, beginning with the smallest finger to grasp the object.


Babkin: two fists coming to midline on either side of the mouth

Hands-up fighting stance (kumite no tachi)

Babinski: when the lateral edge of the foot is stroked from heel to small toe and then across the ball of the foot to the base of the big toe the four small toes flex and the big toe extends.

the side kick foot, ( yoko geri – sokuto)

Toe extension reflex: when the dorsal side of the foot is stroked the toes extend and abduct and the foot everts.

Front snap-kick foot (mae geri – chusoku)

Flexor withdrawal: Stimulation to the palm or dorsum of an extended limb will result in a compete and simultaneous flexion of that limb toward the center of the body.

Chambering punches and kicks, shin block, (hikite, hikiashi, sune uke)

Extensor thrust: Stimulation to the palm or dorsum of a flexed limb will result in a complete and simultaneous extension of limbs away from the center of the body.

Straight thrusts and strikes (tskuki, uchi) punches and kicks (mae geri, ushiro geri).

Hand to mouth reflex: Stimulated by neck flexion and rotation to one side and leading to flexion of the arm (and leg) on that same facing side.

Chambering hand (hikite) in lead punch and/or reverse punch from hands up fighting stance.

Asymetrical Tonic Neck Reflex (ATNR): Stimulated by neck extension and rotation leading to an increase in extensor tone of the arm (and leg) on that same facing side.

Lead and reverse punch. (tsuki)

Crossed Extension: When one arm extends the opposite arm flexes (same with legs).

Overall coordination in the simultaneous strike and pull back with opposing limbs cycle. eg. migi gyaku tsuki + hidari hikite

Abdominal, gallant: When the side of the torso is stroked, lateral flexion away from the stimulation occurs.

Spinal support of shin block (sune uke)  or middle (chudan uke)

In karate – as in life – reflexes are our most basic natural responses, taking us away from danger and towards our desires. They are our first nervous system reactions to stimulus and are rooted in the spine, lower, and mid brain and, as such, are beyond our conscious control much like our first fights.

If you notice your students repeatedly flinching, ducking, and overreaching when confronted with offensive techniques, you will appreciate the power of their reflexive reactions. Reflexes, at their worst, are uncontrollable and render a fighter even more vulnerable. At their best, they are quick and effortless; stimulating a fighter to a sharper focus.  Reflexes are quick because they react underneath consciousness and are not inhibited by thought. They are effortless because, as nervous system responses, they travel the muscular-skeletal path of least resistance. They are the hardwiring with which one is born and provide a roadmap for basic neurological patterning, the building blocks of all of volitional movement. So here is the challenge:

How does a fighter learn to overcome the unconsciousness of the reaction and still maintain the effortlessness, lightning speed, and intelligence of the response?

One of the ways is to identify which reflexive reactions are active and in what circumstances. With insight into this process a fighter can mold reflexive reactions into successful techniques by utilizing what is already present and then reshaping it to fit the situation. In addition, recognizing and understanding reflexive reactions in an opponent gives a fighter a strategic information advantage. As students advance in their training, they can seek those responses, which are outside of their reflexive preferences, giving more and more options for negotiation in a fight.

Fighter Example #1: “I find it hard to take a low kick (gedan mawashi geri)  I always flinch my leg back (flexor withdrawal).”

A flinch back can be turned into a full-blown getaway. Pull the leg all the way back and out of the way (fumiashi) and immediately follow up with your favorite attack combination.

Fighter Example #2: “I am a fighter who has a hard time staying in a fighting stance when attacked. My arms tend to fling out from my body; I push my chest out, stand squarely and openly in front of my opponent with my chin out. This is often accompanied by a gasp and a quick jump backward”.

This is related to the startle or moro reflex, which is a two-part reflex. The first part stops you and tells you to pay attention as all six limbs extend into space in a kind of reverse chambering. If  allowed to resolve,  all six limbs will flex back toward midline for safety. (I suspect that people who hyperventilate are overusing the first half of this reflex).

This is a highly mobilizing reflex. The fighter with this response has great potential for counter attack, mi kiri, and whole body committment to technique. Rotating the reflex 45 degrees allows the fighter to evade the technique altogether. At the same time, an extended arm can turn into a lead-punch counter attack. That quick inhale is preparation for a kiai, and that jump backward can fuel a tobi mae geri or tobi mawashi geri. Regardless of the attack technique, follow it up with a nice deep hands u, elbows flexed and close, fists tight, knees bent,chin tucked ,fighting stance.

Fighter Example #3:” I am a fighter who sees a kick or punch coming, but I can’t move out of the way. I just stand there.”

This might have to do with the flight, fight of freeze response which is very evident in the beginner fighter, but often carries on in more advanced fighters when confronted with certain techniques or new opponents. The freeze response tends to lower the center of gravity and bring the whole body into flexion, like a standing fetal position. This is the stable fighter; the grounded fighter who can ulimately generate power through whole body connectedness and relationship to gravity. Following this pathway the fighter can increase flexion to cover up. He/she can use the body as a bumper to receive impact intelligently The momentary freeze can work in the fighters’ favor ,to observe the openings created by an opponents’ attack and give time to gauge the best response.

Mastering reflexive reactions is one way that we can measure progress in fighting situations. It is part of the discipline that comes from consistent, diligent, intelligent martial arts training. Paying attention to reflexes is a way to listen to our internal workings. If we try to suppress these reactions, we will be frustrated timw and time again. If instead, we cooperate with them – even welcome them–we are on the road to being better students, fighters, and teachers, and to appreciating how much we can do already.

The Thinking Body – Mabel Todd

Sensing, Feeling and Action – Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen

Comments are closed.