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Kata In Karate

Kata (in the context of Karate) can be loosely defined as pre-determined sequences of movements and techniques practiced alone or with a partner. They are commonly believed to simulate combat situations though beliefs of how and how well they simulate these situations vary from person to person.

Kata are widely considered an inherent part of karate training - to be complete as a karateka, you need to practice basics, kata and sparring (for those of you that read, 'The Triangle Hypothesis' - this is in similar fashion).

Most Karate styles incorporate kata as a fundamental aspect of their syllabus though different styles choose to adopt and teach different kata that tend to reflect the respective karate style (thus sometimes, kata is described as a style's "blueprint").

For example, while Shotokan kata are originally known to have derived from some older Shorin Ryu technique sets, the evolution of the style (in particular, the influence of the 1950s karate competition scene) has seen the kata place great value on aesthetic form - an indicator of this is that bunkai ("analysis") must be extracted and to an extent, moulded from the kata (which has lead to some questionable applications!). Ashihara kata, in stark contrast, appear to lack any aesthetic formality as each technique is akin to a stripped down application. Goju Ryu (in my limited experience of the style) provides a middle ground in which the traditional basic karate techniques are formatted in kata rooted in self defence applications - these kata appear to use more close quarter applications than those of the Shotokan and Ashihara styles (though, I suspect Hideyuki Ashihara's uncompleted 'Goshin no Kata' set (Self Defence Kata) intended to focus on close range encounters and techniques).

Kata are often discredited (especially in online forums!) due to misunderstandings - some of these perpetuated by poorly informed karateka. Recently, I read an article written by a Karate-sensei in a fairly well-known martial arts magazine which stated that kata should almost be considered a "dance" to help drill balance and basic techniques; and that kata would never really help in a realistic self-defence situation... funnily enough, this was this particular sensei's argument of why kata IS beneficial! I should point out that this same individual wrote that the main aims of traditional karate were life lessons/morality and good health - that self defence is not really a focus in the art! (The gentleman is of course, entitled to his opinion but I disagree - in my opinion, while personal development and fitness are an integrated part of the art, I feel that 'self defence' is the most central aspect of karate.)

While I agree wholeheartedly that kata on their own will probably not teach anyone how to defend themselves; I strongly believe that kata in appropriate conjunction with basics and sparring will serve only to enhance the practitioner. Basics teach you the techniques; Sparring allows you to apply your techniques; Kata present to you a 'roadmap' of how the techniques can be applied - 'premeditated shadow-boxing' if you will. 

Can you learn to defend yourself without learning kata? Absolutely. Many arts do not utilise kata, but almost all arts encourage the practitioner to repeatedly practice pre-defined combinations/sequences or some form of shadow-boxing.


The benefits of practicing kata can be considered three-tiered, depending upon one's experience with the art:

Beginners: Practicing kata is developing 'muscle memory' (this is why many kata require you to perform every technique from both sides) and learning to sequence basic techniques into combinations with the proper footwork.

Intermediates: Above + an introduction to 'fighting karate' - Bunkai within the kata introduces intermediates to more advanced karate principles and techniques such as throws and grapples.

Advanced: Provides samples of how karate can be effectively used in real situations; Allows karateka the opportunity to search for bunkai/application so as to deepen their own knowledge of karate techniques and combinations - this is the point where karate becomes a completely individual and unique art. It can be dynamic or rigid, a soft style or a hard style, dependent on the strengths and preferences of the karateka.

Suggested Exercises

Beginners: Practice your kata - it builds discipline (this is common sense, but sometimes common sense isn't very common!). Practice it at different speeds. Try it as fast as you can (but don't sacrifice technique or stance). Slow it down; tense your entire body with every technique you perform. And just for fun (not on a regular basis!), see what happens when you change your footwork - overstep, shorten steps etc ...learn why footwork is so stressed.

Intermediates: By now you should realise that kata is not just a sequence of moves and shouts. It is a physical textbook; with every technique, you are turning a page. The problem is that not enough people know how to read this physical textbook and instead treat it as a picture book –the vast amounts of knowledge in kata then become lost.

Bear in mind, all of this can be learnt without studying kata. There are always alternatives. Kata is just the chosen route of most karate systems as it acts as a pre-prepared manual for attack and defence based on the traditional karate systems - it is a memoir of sorts; charting the preferences of many of the early karate masters. This doesn't necessarily mean that every technique in kata will be perfect for you, but it is a great place to get started. Start treating kata as a reference, not a demonstration. (Zen-like analogies end here, promise.) 

Practice your kata but with a twist. Start from Kamae (fighting stance). Perform every technique as you feel the application to it works. E.g. Age uki ('rising block' as shown in the illustration) might be a hair grab (using the straight preparation arm) followed by an elbow/forearm bash from the inside line (blocking arm). 

If you feel stuck for variety, consider the following concept: 'Every time two parts of your body meet during the kata, there is strong potential for a grapple, sweep, or throw.' This exercise can even be done with a partner however, be sure not to stray away from the basic movements of the kata - form dictates function.

Advanced: ....you should be giving me tips and exercises.

At an advanced level, one can look at further studying kata in their historical contexts - perhaps the kata may have been designed to provide defence against armed assailants?; dissect why it is put together the way it is (and I don't mean in just a 'yay! let's prove the old masters right sort of way...look at it critically, use some logical judgement); examine popular examples of bunkai and see for yourself how they feel - after all, some interpretations may be.... 'poorly suited'. And finally, extract your own 'oyo bunkai' from the kata - and I really mean your own - not just something you think looks good/correct, but something you feel complements your individual style of karate - the technique's function dictates your form.

Socrates phrased it nicely: "To find yourself, think for yourself."


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