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Three Ways to Make Kata Work

In the contemporary world of martial arts, kata practise is often criticised for its lack of realism. As a practitioner of kata for most of my life, you may expect me to disagree with such criticisms. However, in the vast majority of cases I’d wholeheartedly agree that kata isn’t at all realistic! This is not a problem with kata itself; it’s more to do with the prevailing way in which kata is practised.

When most people think of kata training, they tend to think of people in white suits performing movements which, on the surface at least, seem to have little connection to a live situation. It would also be fair to say that the majority of those who practise kata are generally more concerned with the ‘appearance’ of their kata as opposed to its actual function. Whilst there are numerous levels and aspects to kata, the majority of practitioners concentrate upon the solo performance in the mistaken belief that this is the totality of kata training. As a consequence, most people who practise kata, and those who criticise it, fail to appreciate that there is much more to kata than the solo performance.

If we fail to move beyond the solo performance and fail to engage in the whole of kata training, the criticisms directed at kata are inescapably valid. From a combative perspective, ‘kata training’ is of no value if all we do is practise the external form of a kata.

In this article we will look at the three key things that we need to do to make kata training worthwhile, functional and relevant to actual combat. However, before we go on to discuss these three ‘forgotten’ parts of kata, we need to understand what kata actually is.

To put it simply, kata can be described as ‘a way to record and summarise the key combative techniques and principles of a fighting style so that they can be preserved and passed onto future generations.’ Initially it might be a little hard to grasp, but it should be clearly understood that each and every kata is a summary of an entire fighting system! Obviously it would be impossible to record every technique from a fighting system within a single kata. However, it is possible to record techniques that demonstrate the key combative principles of that system.

Techniques are limited to specific situations. Principles, however, can be applied in many different situations. If you want to be a versatile fighter, it’s not techniques that you need, but a thorough understanding of fighting principles. The creators of the katas understood this, so they designed their katas to include techniques that best demonstrated the key fighting principles upon which their system was based.

The concept of principles over techniques can be a difficult one to grasp. An analogy that may help is to think of a fighting system as being like an oak tree. An oak tree is vast, both in terms of its size and years lived, but everything about that tree, and everything required to reproduce it, is found in a single acorn. A fighting system produces a kata in the same way that an oak tree produces acorns. Both the acorn and the kata are not as vast as the thing that created them, but they record them perfectly. For an acorn to become an oak tree it must be correctly planted and nurtured. For a kata to become a fighting system it must be correctly studied and practised. It is here that we find one of modern karate’s biggest failings, in that the katas are rarely studied sufficiently. To return to my analogy, we have the seeds but we don’t plant them!

Now we’ve established that kata is a record of the key principles of a fighting system, how do we extract and ‘reassemble’ the fighting system that gave birth to the kata? There are three key elements to making kata work in this way.

1 – Study the Bunkai (application of the kata movements)

The first thing we need to do to make kata work is to study the applications of the kata movements. Ideally, the applications of the movements should be taught to you by your instructor. However, many karate instructors don’t actually teach bunkai. In the absence of a knowledgeable instructor, you can advance your understanding of kata applications through studying the large amount of material that is now available on this subject.

There is a tendency to present kata applications as something ‘secret’ or ‘hidden’. This can lead to students viewing kata applications as something that is the sole reserve of those who possess this ‘hidden knowledge’. Nothing could be further from the truth! Everyone can understand the meaning of kata movements if they understand a few basic concepts and have a little patience. Whilst the books and DVDs produced by people like myself can help ‘kick-start’ your understanding of kata, once you’ve got a basic grasp of the ‘language of kata’ there is absolutely nothing to stop you ‘unlocking’ the ‘secrets’ of kata for yourself. It’s not the purpose of this article to discuss how to analyse kata. However if you visit my website (www.iainabernethy.com) you can download a free e-book called “An Introduction to Applied Karate”, which contains all the information you need to get started.

The situation is certainly a lot better than it used to be, with a growing number of karateka now including bunkai study in their training. Nevertheless, bunkai study alone is still not enough if we want kata to work for us in live situations. Remember that the techniques of the kata are there to record combative principles. Therefore, the second thing we must do in order to get kata to work is study the principles!

2 – Study the principles and learn to vary the kata techniques.

Hironori Otsuka (founder of Wado-Ryu karate) once wrote; “It is obvious that these kata must be trained and practised sufficiently, but one must not be ‘stuck’ in them. One must withdraw from the kata to produce forms with no limits or else it becomes useless. It is important to alter the form of the trained kata without hesitation to produce countless other forms of training. Essentially, it is a habit – created over long periods of training. Because it is a habit, it comes to life with no hesitation – by the subconscious mind.” (‘Wado-Ryu Karate’ page 19-20).

What Otsuka is telling us is that we need to ensure that we don’t become fixated on the techniques of the kata. We need to move beyond them and learn the principles which form the basis of those techniques. Once we understand these principles, we can adapt the movements of the kata to suit the exact situation we face. We shouldn’t rigidly stick to the ‘example’ that the kata gives us. We should study the principles demonstrated by the kata technique so that we become adaptable and versatile fighters. Remember that kata is not fundamentally a record of techniques; it is more a record of principles.

As an analogy, think of a kata as being like a block of ice. At low temperatures, the shape of the block of ice is constant. However, if heat is added, the ice will turn into water and its shape will adapt to fit its circumstances. Likewise, the solo kata is also constant, but in the heat of combat it will also adapt to its circumstances. The block of ice and the free flowing water may look very different, but they are essentially identical (the same molecules of hydrogen and oxygen). In the same way, the solo kata may look a little different to the ever-changing action of a live fight, but they are also essentially identical (the same fighting principles).

Techniques are for use in specific circumstances. Principles, however, are universal. No two fights are ever the same and if you only understand technique, you are dependant upon the fight presenting you with the specific circumstance in which you can apply your technique. Conversely, if you understand the principles, you do not need specific circumstances and hence you will be able to dominate and dictate the fight.

First we learn the actual kata. We should then study the application of the movements demonstrated by that kata. Having grasped the ‘example’ given by the kata, we should then analyse the fighting principles demonstrated by that example. From studying and experimenting with the principles, we develop the ability to adapt and vary the kata’s techniques and we learn how to fight in accordance with the underlying principles. However, this is still not enough to make kata work.

3 – Gain live experience of applying the kata’s techniques and principles.

The third thing we need to do to ensure that kata will work is engage in what I’ve termed as ‘kata-based sparring’. If we are going to be able to use the kata’s techniques and principles in live situations, we need to practise those techniques and principles against non-compliant opponents, because that is what we’ll be facing in live situations!

The majority of karateka include sparring in their training, but the most common type of sparring is based upon the requirements of modern competition and not the techniques and principles of the kata. The katas include throws, takedowns, locks, chokes, strangles, ground-work, elbows, knees etc. However, all of these are absent from most of modern karate sparring.

There are obvious safety issues surrounding kata-based sparring, especially the more ‘all-in’ variety. I have bled, broken bones and dislocated joints through my own kata-based sparring (and that was on a good day!). Therefore, I fully appreciate that the heavy contact and ‘all-in’ version is not for everyone. Nevertheless, there are many differing ways to structure kata-based training so that it is safe, beneficial and relevant. Indeed, there are number of kata-based sparring drills that even the children in my classes engage in.

These ‘low level’ kata-based sparring drills are greatly enjoyed by most students as they bring the kata to life and help to develop meaningful skill. It’s not the purpose of this article to discuss how to structure or organise your kata-based sparring. However, you can find out more about the various types of kata-based sparring in the free e-book I mentioned earlier. For a more thorough explanation of kata-based-sparring, you should check out the DVD of the same name which is available from www.summersdale.com

Pinan Drill 1
Push partner’s arm to the side and rake fingers across eyes (application of preparation for knife-hand block)

Pinan Drill 2
Trap partner’s arm, pull and deliver strike to the base of the opponent’s skull (completion of “knife-hand block” from Pinan Shodan / Heian Nidan)

Pinan Drill 3
Shift body forwards and deliver elbow strike to partner’s jaw (use of elbow from Pinan / Heian Godan).

Pinan Drill 4
Feed arm around partner’s head and secure a headlock (application of “hands on hip” position from mid-point in Pinan / Heian Sandan).

Pinan Drill 5
Execute “cross-buttocks throw” (application of “forearm-block” from Pinan / Heian Sandan).

Pinan Drill 6
Instead of releasing grip (as instructed by the kata) and letting partner fall, vary the movement by keeping hold and rolling into scarf-hold.

Pinan Drill 7
Tie off partner’s arm using legs and use free hand to strike.

It is vital that we gain live experience of applying the fighting techniques and principles recorded by the katas. Without such experience, all the knowledge we can gain from kata study will be ‘theoretical’. And we shouldn’t expect that this theoretical knowledge to miraculously make the leap to ‘practical knowledge’ when we need it! Kata-based sparring will ensure that you can put the theory into practice and it will give you first hand experience of some of the sensations associated with actual combat.

It’s amazing how many karateka have never practiced fighting from a clinch, never practised close-range strikes or have never practised throws etc. And yet all of these methods are recorded in the katas that we practise almost every training session. I think it’s a great irony and shame that the element of karate most frequently criticised for its lack of practicality (kata) is the very thing that can ensure the art is a functional system provided that it is approached in the right way.

To summarise, there are a number of stages and aspects to kata practise, of which the solo form is just one. From a combative view point, simply repeating the solo kata is of little value. To make kata work there are three other things we need to do. Firstly, we need to study the applications (bunkai) of the kata, then we need to understand the principles that the kata techniques represent, and finally we must practise applying those techniques and principles in live kata-based sparring.

When we approach kata in this way, it becomes the very core (some would say ‘soul’) of a live, functional and adaptable system. Isn’t that what kata is supposed to be?

Article by: Iain Abernethy is the author of a number of books and DVDs on applied karate / kata-bunkai. Iain’s books and DVDs are available online from www.summersdale.com. He is a coach for the British Combat Association and is ranked 5th Dan by both the British Combat Association and Karate England. Iain can be contacted via iain@iainabernethy.com.
Cover of Iain's DVD

Article date: July 2006.



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