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Above: Sensei Gary Herwig

Extreme Limit Essay

The concept of “Extreme Limit” is one to which The Phoenix Way devotes very little time.  As a term unto itself, it is said to pertain to the spirit of technique, like a sixth sense.  In the section of the kata introduction that refers to the Taikyoku kata system, “tai” and kyoku” are defined as “’big’ or ‘great’” and “extreme,” respectively.  “Together they imply seeing the big picture, rather than focusing on the individual parts.” (The Phoenix Way, page 27)

Once upon a time, when I was right around the level of Gokyu – i.e., green belt – I was quite proud of the fact that I had good form, among the best in the Association or so I was told.  I thought that I had all the underbelt kata pretty well mastered and as such had no need to further develop and/or practice them.

In May, 1990, I visited Mount Saint Mary’s University to train with one of my original instructors, Sempai Pat Thomas.  He asked me to perform Taikyoku Sono Ichi.  I figured that it would be a simple run-through of an old and unforgettable kata; I was wrong.  Sempai Pat commented that I performed the kata in much the same fashion as I performed higher-level kata such as Pinan Sono Yon, Gekisai-Dai, and Yansu, thus demonstrating my failure to develop it as adequately as I should have.  In essence, I merely “went through the motions,” so to speak, with no realization of the fact that I did not perform the kata as a unified whole.  Clearly, I failed to see the “big picture.”

Admittedly, upon first reflection regarding the concept of Extreme Limit, my mind quickly turned to contemplations regarding rank, sparring time, and kick height.  After further thought, however – thought that in large part was inspired by Sempai Pat’s comments – I came to realize that Extreme Limit is not simply a reference to some sort of extreme physical limit or barrier.  Rather, Extreme Limit is the sense of technique whereby a practitioner of karate-do becomes fully aware of himself and his surroundings and abilities.  It truly is a sixth sense inspired by strong, fluid technique coupled with an understanding of precisely what is to be accomplished.  In kata, this limit involves knowledge not only of the movements and the order in which they are to be performed, but of their meaning, effect, and purpose in the kata’s scenario – bunkai.  Perhaps most important, however, a realization of the importance of performing kata in the first place is indispensable to the maturation of the serious practitioner of karate-do.

The concept of Extreme Limit manifests itself in alternative ways when other aspects of karate-do are seriously practiced and explored.  For instance, consider the activity of kumite.  Not only is strong, fluid technique essential if the participant is to be successful, but the ability to assess and analyze the strengths as well as weaknesses both of himself and his opponent is vital if he is to grow and evolve.  Indeed, the realization and practice of this Extreme Limit is one of the things that separates higher-ranking Mudansha from lower, and ultimately Yudansha from Mudansha.

Thus far, my discussion has focused upon the physical endeavors associated with karate-do, but the concept of Extreme Limit has an even greater significance for the mental and spiritual components of the human person.  Mentally, “seeing the big picture” entails that we appreciate the value of [and take the steps necessary to develop] a strong intellect.  Spiritually, Extreme Limit requires that we look beyond ourselves in recognizing that we are part of a greater whole,,,that every living being has value and importance.  It indeed is true that the proper exercise of the body, mind, and spirit in conjunction with one another mediated by an awareness of the concept of Extreme Limit serves to develop one’s character – the ultimate goal of all true karate-do.

Admittedly, now nearly 20 years later, my conception of Extreme Limit can be seriously lacking at times.  When done without proper attention and reflection, I sometimes perform kata in a very perfunctory, unsophisticated manner.  Moreover, my sparring occasionally will degrade to a very elementary, “slap-n-smack” level.  Nonetheless, although I likely never will achieve mastery relative to the concept of Extreme Limit, I will continue to strive for it.  After all, in karate-do as in life, mastery is the goal that gives meaning to the journey.


Sensei Gary S. Herwig, Sandan

Originally written, July, 1990

Revised, July, 2009


Hombu note: Sensei Herwig is a practicing attorney and has trained for over two decades as a member of the Phoenix Karate-do Association Kyokushinkai. He resides in Maryland USA

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