Reflections on Hojo Undo training
by Juan Luis Cadenas de Llano Bajo (2015)


If we stick to the definition of the term "hojo undo" we find that its literal meaning is "supplementary training". Using any basic dictionary we can find out that the definition of "supplement" is "something added to something else in order to make it complete or perfect". We need to understand what it is we have to "supplement". As karatekas, the answer seems obvious; we need to improve our Karate. Thus, it is important to set this starting point in order to not mistake the training with traditional weights done in Karate with developing big muscles, power or a physically fit condition. All these will be achieved anyway, as a side effect, but the purpose of hojo undo, as it was expounded by Miyagi Sensei, is to improve the performance of kata so it does not become a mere dance.

Later on we will take a look at the relationship between hojo undo and the most important aspects of Goju-Ryu, and we'll see that it is something different from a system for fitness. This is crystan clear when one goes over the writings of the founder of the style or learns from a sensei, but it becomes a claim in a world where there are tens of thousands of Goju-Ryu practitioners but it's not common knowledge according to the many videos and articles which are found online.


Since hojo undo is a generic term and it is necessary to adjust to a frame, in this article we look at its relationship with Goju-Ryu Karate. We will split the hojo undo tools into two groups:

  • Traditional

  • Non-traditional


These are the legacy left by Miyagi Chojun Sensei; the tools and exercises that we know were found in his dojo and were used and learnt by his students. There are historical tools and exercises from China or other traditions we assume Miyagi Sensei knew but for which there is no record that he trained or taught; We do not consider them traditional. We do consider the kongoken a traditional tool that Miyagi Sensei brought from Hawaii. He had seen it being used by the local fighters there and saw the potential it could have as a training tool in his own system. Although there are some tools that were used at the time, at least in the Kenkyu dojo, they do not seem to have remained in the practice of Goju-Ryu. The most significant example is the kakiya.

Traditional tools are:

  • Chi-ishi

  • Kongoken

  • Nigiri-gami

  • Ishi-sashi

  • Sashi-ishi

  • Makiage-gu

  • Kakiya

  • Tan

  • Machiwara

  • Sashi

  • Taketaba

  • Tetsu-geta

Training with nigiri-gami
Shinsokan Dojo


Non-traditional tools and exercises are those that have not been handed down directly by Miyagi Sensei, even though they may come from other traditions of Okinawa. Perhaps the most comprehensive description of exercises from the Chinese tradition is found in the book of 72 SHAOLIN ARTS, and today we have Internet where we can search for interesting exercises and tools from other cultures such as the Hindu. It is important to consider that if our goal is to improve our general fitness for the sake of being strong and healthy, our training routine and schedule will be better off in the hands of a trainer than employing traditional tools. If our goal is to have our Karate "supplemented" by hojo undo, it will be essential to find elements which link such exercises to the art we practice. So if you like runnig, it would be good to train with a changeing pace rather than a constant one, as that would be far more similar to a kata or a real fight. If we do pull-ups, for example, we can imagine we throw an opponent or perform uchi uke in order to consciously improve our feelings for our Karate. A piece of equipment that I found interesting outside of the Okinawan tradition is the Bulgarian bag; as I make it spin around my body and over my head in sanchin-dachi, it recreates the feeling of compromised balanced I have when practicing kakie with someone more advanced. And when I throw it down in shiko-dachi it simulates very well the feeling of, for example, the juji-uke found in Sanseru; and there are more similarities. A non-traditional and also a very inexpensive tool is the inner tube. With it you can recreate different kata techniques, and, as with pulleys work, recreate feelings we have when we do shime in Sanchin kata.

Something that I think is important to note is that the traditional/non-traditional classification does not imply "better" or "worse". If it was so rigid then the kun "... train with creativity" would be meaningless. Moreover, we could make a further distinction between traditional and non-traditional exercises within other traditional tools to consider. Would a non-traditional exercise with a traditional piece of equipment be better than an exercise performed with a non-traditional tool? The difference, as we have seen, is whether there is a reason to do an exercise beyond the movement itself, for the sake of being fit, or it connects directly with Goju Ryu.

Things to consider

a) Direct relationship with the movements of the kata:

This aspect is very important in hojo undo because, when we feel that something is wrong in some part of a kata, we have the option (perhaps the obligation!) to reinforce it looking for a tool and an exercise to replicate the physical feeling, and then take it to our kata. There are movements that are easy to replicate with tools, such as the initial tsuki in Seisan or Sanseru with ishi sashi, and this would be a possibility but this technique would work from an angle, which for obvious or easy it seems a marriage of technical and hojo undo we be critical of what we do and explore all possibilities. Another option could be to strengthen tsuki using inner tubes. Another technique, for example, would be the morote nukite found in the breathing kata and Seisan. A traditional exercise would simulate this technique with the tan. However, since this technique would be an "armor", we must protect from all angles, as just work it on one angle will leave us in clear weakness; Therefore we need to find exercises that strengthen this morote nukite up and forward and back, for a full feeling. Undoubtedly, we will find movements that will require imagination to work on them with tools. Every technique has a component, elements or principles, and each group together a number of techniques, and therefore, although the relationship of hojo undo with a technique from a kata is very important, it is just the first step towards a holistic work.

b) Relationship with breathing:

Breathing is one of the fundamental aspects, not just of Goju-Ryu, but of life itself: there is no life without breath. With regard to Goju-Ryu, his tanren kata Sanchin and Tensho make breathing its main axis; the principles studied in these kata are then taken to combat kata application. The purpose of breathing should be to strengthen and make the movement being performed more effective. The absence of oxygen is not recommended in general, let alone training hojo undo. There may be theories or works requiring this absence with physical purposes (invulnerability in some schools of Qigong or Uechi-Ryu) or psychic/mystical purposes (realization in some schools of Yoga), but there should always be a qualified teacher overseeing any of these practices. Similarly, hyperventilation may lead to undesirable effects on our body.

Although Sanchin teaches us that breathing in is contraction and breathing out is expansion, there is an interesting lesson to learn from inhalation, specifically the start of this (not forgetting that somehow, when we inhale, we expand the body or certain organs "inside") and gives a moment of explosion which makes the start of the movement easier and not relying solely on the strength of the muscles. I am far from being able to lecture on breathing and I am in a testing stage, but the work of breathing in hojo undo helped me find links to other aspects of Goju-Ryu, such as kakie. In the exercise with ishi sashi describing a circular path over your head and down to your chest, then going back following the same path but reverse motion, it is important that the starting of the ishi sashi does not depend only on pulling with the muscles but it relies upon breathing, in particular inhalation. This will give a extra "boost" devoid of muscle strength that I've found useful when I have been surpassed in kakie, with a heavy hand on my chest, and I've been able to get over this using this principle.

Training with ishi-sashi
Shinsokan Dojo
c) Open and close and the importance of relaxation:

The name Goju (yin/yang) implies a latent depth in the study of the art. All actions have their yin and yang; all the movements of hojo undo also have their soft side and hard side, being very difficult to feel soft in some exercises that deal with weight and in which we struggle and tend to use more force than we really need. Through hojo undo exercises our body must learn which are the opening/inhalation/yin moments and which the closing/exhalation/yang ones, and how to handle them as well at their maximum, minimum and intermediate points.

The problem with the hard aspect is that it provides a false sense of security and this makes us overuse this aspect, also in hojo undo. Taking as an example the exercise of lifting the kongoken above the head as we drop down into shiko-dachi, we can set the maximum yin just before raising, with straight knees and elbows bent in a "comfortable" position. The question is; what is the correct and necessary amount of energy I need for this position? Not much, for sure, but if we apply a little less then the kongoken will fall to the ground. Putting less than necessary in kakie leads us to see ourselves overwhelmed without effort by the opponent. In the yang phase of the exercise the question remains how much energy I need to push and move the tool? Which muscles make this possible? It's good to know the body and it is an interesting exercise to experiment and tighten or relax some muscles to see the result this has both upon us and the tool (sometimes this results in hitting ourselves!). In this case we certainly need more muscles and energy in action when simply standing still, but probably less than what you invested when learning how to use the tool; at least if we use it correctly we learn to be aware of what our surplus is and feel the connections that make the exercise possible with the right amount of energy it requires. An overuse of muscles and energy will lead to a significant waste of energy and strength as well as a dispersion of it. This will involve early fatigue, and a rigidity that an adversary will use in kakie to unbalance us easily.

In time, if we pay attention we will realise that through relaxation and an efficient use of the limbs, these are connected to the center of the body, while also feel that breathing plays a very important role, as if it was an extra power generator. The ultimate goal is to learn how to use the body more efficiently, as a unit, where arms and legs are an extension of the center.

It seems that in the description of motion I have omitted one, the latter, which could be classified as maximum yang. It's been on purpose as it links to the next point.

d) Intent:

There is a style of Chinese martial arts called "Boxing of intention" or Yi Chuan. Its most characteristic exercise is the position of "hugging the tree", although there are more, for extended periods of time. Visualization work is essential in this school, which has not been shy about putting his "martial" skills to the test in different contexts of combat. One of the main elements of static practice is breaking the physical and (more importantly) the psychological barriers through stillness.

Once you can work hojo undo in an efficient way with the tools, you can start working on a visualising element consisting of "going beyond". This is possible and necessary throughout the whole chosen exercise, but it becomes more interesting towards the end. Go further, beyond the end of the technique, as if we wanted to go beyond what is physically possible. In addition to this, and relating to the previous point, at the moment of maximum expansion (maximum yang) one will stay still (it is important to keep breathing) but with the intention to follow the movement in this stillness. With this, and after the experience of maintaining your posture to the point of shaking in the body and reaching almost your limit, the union of your limbs to the center is reinforced and the excess of tension in unnecessary parts of the body becomes apparent; A feeling relaxation is then felt which in turn implies some fatigue which makes tools almost fall to the ground as you can no longer hold them.

Training with chi-ishi
Uraniwa Dojo
e) Psychological aspects:

One of the lessons I've received from my teacher is "do not compare, and do not compete." It is always good, however, to have a mirror to look at, someone who brings about healthy inspiration and proves we are all human and that effort can get everything (if not everything, keep in mind that without effort, nothing's possible). However, when it comes to hojo undo tools this teaching is a clear fact: you cannot compete with them. So use them, learn from them, but occasionally challenge them to see who gets tired before, even if you have to lose. Through this type of challenge one forges their mind to push harder and not become comfortable with what they have. It is important to consider challenges with tools, and maybe it's a good thing to fail and not achieve what you intended. This will contribute to the attributes of the individual, and if it becomes serious and constructive criticism, it can make you grow and better understand human nature, but if you fall into defeatism or negative thinking it will become psychological destruction. If you always succeed in your challenges... try something harder.

Something we need to address relating to hojo undo is fear. At first this is usually fear to external causes (sore knuckles on the makiwara, hands hitting the stones...) but eventually the mind plays tricks and as challenges approach one is even reluctant to enter dojo... Because of fear. On other occasions when you are in the middle of a battle with the tools, fatigue makes your mind take you to places of yourself that you do not like, and that's when you decide what to do with yourself.

Besides this aspect of forging the self, there is a dimension relating to creativity and intelligence that hojo undo will also test. Traditional teaching does not give many answers in a direct or obvious way, not very often does it provide detailed explanations either. Similarly, given the traditional teaching tools and a series of exercises so that one can work, experiment and draw conclusions, and questions. Certainly the guidance of a teacher is essential to get to understand: a few tools and a handful of exercises taken from YouTube guarantee nothing.

Final thoughts

This small article is not intended to be a catalog of exercises or tools, not even a study of how to perform the movements and how these relate to the kata or other aspects of Karate. For exercises with the tools we have the book on hojo undo by Michael Clarke Sensei or an eBook written by Garry Lever Sensei, plus tons of videos on YouTube, where we can find very interesting ideas, but also sheer nonsense. As for the effective use of tools, well, it will surely have an impact on the quality of my Karate, and don't think it would be interesting to write about it, besides, it is an ongoing process. I have expounded my current relationship with hojo undo, where I find myself at the moment regarding this aspect of Karate training which is becoming more and more fashionable, but remains as unknown as it was when the tools were completely unknown in the West nevertheless.

I do see relevant to point out that hojo undo, like all aspects, is a tool for a purpose, and that is to improve our Karate. It is very easy to confuse a means to an end, a tree which does not let us see the forest, and cling to exercises, weights, that can become distractions to our ego. Let's get the best from the hojo undo tools using them for what they were designed, improving our Karate, improving ourselves.

Juan Luis Cadenas de Llano Bajo

“No matter how you may excel in the art of Karate, and in your scholastic endeavors,
nothing is more important than your behavior and your humanity as observed in daily life.”