The Truth about Kata. And why You Should Practice it.
What is Kata exactly to the modern day Karate practitioner? Sometimes these seemingly obscure solo movement sets in Kata practice appear perplexing to beginners or even experienced practitioners. Many question the value even more now, in this modern era of high speed internet and video instruction.
I have heard reasons of why Kata is “outdated” mostly from those who say “well look at the moves. That’s not how you actually move in a fight”. Conversely I hear “nobody moves that way anymore…”, or “it doesn’t make sense to me at all…..why should I practice it??” While not an unreasonable question, this kind of query has been posed to me by even seasoned practitioners. In truth, there is a lot more than meets the eye to the Kata. So please read on below to discover what value this ancient practice holds in store for us.
So what is Kata exactly?
In simple terms, Kata are a collected series of principled fighting techniques, stored as a database of movement sets. Similar to how the alphabet’s consonants and vowels are elemental to the English language, so are the moves in Kata indispensable to Karate. Following the example of the alphabet, the movement sets from the Kata can be changed to adapt to any situation. This is commonly done during two person fighting applications, known as Oyo Bunkai. There is more to the Kata than this however. It is also a bibliography that allows a Karate practitioner to efficiently transfer knowledge from one to another in an orderly fashion.
What is more, it is a modular system, with short movement sets offering strikes, joint locks, throws, takedowns, and even integrated weapons techniques. Each set are general moves with at least 3 applications each. They are constructed this way in order to condense the raw material in an effective manner. The breakdown of the four principles below will help you get a better grasp of how the Kata platform is organized:
- Body Dynamics & Hikite: Body Dynamics, or Motions of Opposite is the trademark movement seen in classical Karate. Typically it’s seen during solo practice, where a guarding hand is chambered back at waist or hip level. This is called Hikite, or Pulling back hand. The Hikite hand is commonly used to grab an opponent’s arm for control and leverage against a limb combined with a strike or punch. Hikite can be used to clear an opponent’s arm out of the way so you can hit, and it can also be used for joint locks and throws.
- Frames: The two arm Frames postures of Karate are normally shown in between strikes during Kata in various forms. These are mostly used in close range applications for covering against strikes, throwing your opponent, or using them as standing choking/submission techniques.
- Structure: Structure refers to making proper skeletal alignments in order to get the most out of each move you do, while using your muscles efficiently. This is always done with the spine held straight, proper stances and footwork. Arms and elbows are held in varied angles and proximities from your center and torso. This is done so you can maximize your force to absorb and project power properly.
- Stances & Footwork: Karate’s stances and footwork are an interlinked 2 halves of one whole. Stance, or properly translated to “shifting leg stance” doesn’t imply that you are fixed in space. Rather, you are moving constantly, shifting your leg weightings front to back, or to a neutral position. Each of these stances translate into rapid and stable movements, that promote fight-winning evasions and angles. This enables you to maximize your force, while minimizing your opponents’ strength.
Piecing it all Together
Once you realize the sequences and underlying principles of each movement, you can see how they can be assembled in any order to deal with a particular application. You can then begin employing Karate’s powerful Punches, Kicks and Throws into a live and functional fighting form. Here is a breakdown example of how it all works:
Let’s start with the infamous Oi-Tsuki: Karate’s Lunge Punch that shows up many times in the Pinan Series Kata. The exponent steps fully forward with a long range punch, while pulling their opposite hand back into the chambered position on the hip (Hikite). Many might think “wow, he’s wide open to a counter”, others might think “it’s a strong punch, but impractical”, or “who actually punches like that??”. While they might be right in a sense, the movement represents much more than just a simple punch without a guarding hand.
At Medium Range:
If it is used as a punch in combat application at medium range, the Hikite hand is held near the centerline of the body or the head to cover against any possible counter attack. If you do intercept your opponent’s hand or arm for example, you can either block it, parring it away, or seize it to arrest their movements.
At Close Range:
If the Lunge Punch posture is used at close range, it can be converted into a classic sweeping/takedown technique with three points of contact. First as you move in, block and seize your opponent’s arm with your Hikite Hand. Moving forward, with your foot sweeping around their lead leg, meanwhile punching/palm striking their chin. Once you have fully stepped forward, turn your body, throwing them over your leg and hip while employing the push/pull pressure of body dynamics to take your opponent to the ground.
Using a Weapon:
Here is an example of using the same posture with Sai. While the opponent strikes with a Bo, you parry and momentarily catch the Bo in the guard of the Sai. Stepping forward, you move into range to strike. This perhaps the most overlooked feature of the way the entire form of Karate is structured. I encourage all to incorporate classic weapons into their training at some point.
What we see here in the following examples above, is the underlying frame of the basic Oi-Tsuki movement can be used in a wide variety of applications. Regardless of how you adjust the outer application, the basic principled movements remain the same: you employ Body Dynamics, you use the Front Stance Footwork (Zenkutsu-Dachi). You apply Structure to absorb and project power while using your core, and a Frame with three points of contact during grappling scenarios.
Viewed from that particular lens, it will enable you to see all different kinds of answers to fighting applications from the moves in the Kata. It will also empower you to decode other Kata, and build your knowledge from there. Once you have a handful of applications (Oyo Bunkai) in mind, be sure to test them with different people. It will help you flush out any weak points, and keep adjusting your Bunkai as needed. Not all techniques will work for each person, or work on different body types, so remember to remain philosophically flexible.
Why do Kata in order to transfer the information contained in Karate instead of viewing drawings, books, or video? For one, we already know that visualizing something has great benefits, so taking the extra steps to put it into physical action is even better. It is important to remember that Karate is an alive art form. We learn by watching one another through body language, so working together through motion is a highly effective method of communication that shouldn’t be overlooked. Seeing someone else do the same Kata as you in a different manner, because of their build, or particular mindset is an invaluable training tool.
The constant repetition builds power, subconscious confidence, muscle memory, refines motor skills, conditions and strengthens the body while adhering to the principled actions you use in combat. This ensures that when you actually engage in application, you have solid foundation of quality movement sets you can rely and build upon.
Case in point, I have trained Karate practitioners from different schools that only did Kata. They never trained application based Karate. Yet, they were a breeze to teach, because they had all the movement sets from the Kata well ingrained. They just needed to be shown what the moves were for.
Allow the mystery to unfold, and the secrets of the Kata to be discovered through practice and exploration. Sometimes this can take years. There are many layers to this process. As your understanding increases, so do the depths of the Kata. As you develop, the Kata becomes a teacher to you itself. This is the essence of the Spirit of Karate.
Perhaps the most important and overlooked component of the Kata is that it is a moving meditation. “You should have a Buddha Face while doing the Kata” Sensei used to say to me. “Your mind should be at ease, collected, and absolutely focused”. A calm, peaceful mind will avoid trouble, will not toil with their peers, nor steal, nor engage in any unjust acts. It will imbue you with steady resolve and openness, fortifying you with strength, bringing the gift of forgiveness to your heart only The Way of the Warrior can offer.
Published: October 26, 2023