Within the katas we can find many highly effective fighting techniques and principles. However, we can only access those techniques and principles if the kata is of a sufficient standard. As an analogy, if some information is written down with great care such that all the spelling, punctuation etc. is correct, then that information will be easily understood by anyone who reads it. However, if the information is poorly recorded (words spelt incorrectly etc.) then that information will be lost in whole or in part. It is the same with kata.
We need to ensure that the katas are correctly practised and taught if information is not going to be lost. It is also important that the katas are correctly ‘recited’ so that they can be fully understood. A major part of kata are the thoughts and emotions that should be honed and experienced during practice. Kata has to be correctly learnt, performed, understood, interpreted and expressed if it is to reveal its secrets.
The founders of karate created the katas in order to pass on the techniques and skills needed to protect ourselves from violent assault. Kata does bring the karateka many other benefits besides effective fighting skills. These benefits include such things as improved health, greater mental and physical control, a greater understanding of self, enhanced self-confidence, discipline etc. but these benefits, worthwhile though they may be, are not kata’s primary purpose. The primary purpose of kata is to enable us to inflict pain upon our aggressors in response to unprovoked acts of violence. Some people do not care for this view and talk of how the performance of a perfect kata can be an end in itself. A Rolls Royce that does not start up may look beautiful, but it could not be described as perfect because it cannot perform the task it was designed to do. Likewise, the katas were designed for use in combat and, therefore, I fail to see how a kata that cannot be used in combat can ever be described as ‘perfect,’ regardless of how visually pleasing it may be. Gichin Funakoshi in his book ‘Karate-Do Kyohan’ states, “Once a form has been learned, it must be practised repeatedly until it can be applied in an emergency, for knowledge of just the sequence of a form in karate is useless.” If a karateka is unable to use the kata effectively then, in my opinion, what they are practising is not fit to be called kata.
Everything that is needed to survive a violent assault should be rehearsed and refined during kata practice. This includes not only the techniques themselves but also the correct mental attitudes. All too often we see great emphasis being placed on ensuring that the limbs etc. are in the correct positions whilst none is placed on what the student should be thinking and feeling. This type of practice leads to katas that are hollow and this must be avoided at all costs. The katas should be complete mental and physical exercises that enhance the student’s fighting ability every time they are practised. For clarity, we shall discuss the physical and mental aspects of the katas separately. However, it is important to understand that both aspects are dependent upon one another and cannot be separated in practice.
Learning the Katas
Kata is something that must be learnt from a qualified and knowledgeable teacher. Although books and videos can enhance understanding and aid memory, they are no substitute for proper instruction. Your choice of instructor will be the most important decision you make with regards to your karate. Do not make it lightly or base your decision on such superficial things as the distance from your home or cost. The important thing is how good the instructor can make you, as opposed to how good they are. You require a Sensei, not a bodyguard. Visit a number of dojos and look at the standard of the students, the way they are dressed and their attitudes to one another as well as to the instructor. What qualifications does the instructor have? Are there separate classes for beginners, intermediates and advanced? Are there adequate first aid facilities? etc. The Sensei / Student relationship is a special one. If you find a Sensei with a deep understanding of karate and a genuine love of the art, and if you are prepared to study hard with dedication, openness and honesty, then you are sure to make good progress in all aspects of karate.
How you are taught the katas will be a matter for your teacher. It is common for the kata to be taught in stages. For example, the first few moves will be taught, then when the student has a reasonable grasp of them, they will be shown the next couple, and so on until the whole sequence is remembered. The techniques will then be further refined as the emphasis shifts to timing, rhythm, correct use of strength etc. As the student progresses, the corrections will become more and more finite as they strive for the unattainable goal of perfection. Once the kata is of a satisfactory standard, the student should begin to receive instruction on the applications of the movements. Understanding the applications will improve the student’s performance of the kata. As the student’s performance of the kata improves so will their ability to apply the techniques. This spiralling effect should be at the heart of kata practice. When the Sensei is happy with the student’s kata, they will then be allowed to move on to study the next one. It is far better to have a good understating of one kata than a superficial understanding of many. Do not rush when learning the katas or be in a hurry to move on to the next one. Take your time and always emphasise quality over quantity.
One of the accusations commonly directed at kata practice is that it is ‘boring’. Part of the problem is that few people understand kata and as a result the students fail to see any value in its practice. Another problem is the constant repetition that is required for competence to be achieved. I am sure that the world’s best sprinters have at some point in their career got bored running up and down the track. Top golfers probably get bored practising their putting and Olympic weight lifters get bored of lifting weights. Yet these people possess the necessary mental strength to continue to practice. Long after others became ‘bored’ and stopped practising, they can be found still working and that is why they are at the top of their field. Everyone wants to be good and yet only a few are prepared to put in the work that is required to achieve high skill levels. Get a good teacher, gain a good understanding of the katas, take on board any criticisms and practice relentlessly if you want your katas, and indeed all aspects of your karate, to be of a high standard.
The exact ways in which the katas are performed varies from style to style and even from instructor to instructor. Variations due to forgetfulness, insufficient study, poor technique, laziness etc. are obviously undesirable. However, this does not mean that all variations are unacceptable. Every one of us is different and it is impossible for everybody to perform the katas in exactly the same way. A short and stocky person’s kata will be different to a tall and thin person’s. Not better or worse, just different. That said, it is up to the individual to try to adapt themselves to the kata and not the other way around. An overweight person should lose weight, a stiff person should increase their flexibility and a weak person should increase their strength rather than use their current condition as an excuse for poor performance. Making excuses requires no effort, making progress requires plenty, and that is why most people opt for the former. We are all individuals with differing attributes so some variation is inevitable. So long as these variations do not erode the underlying principles of the kata and occur through Shuhari then they can be looked upon as acceptable, perhaps even desirable. The concept of Shuhari is best explained by splitting the word up into its component parts. ‘Shu’ means to copy the techniques and teachings of the instructor as closely as possible. Great attention should be placed on even the smallest of details so that good form is developed. ‘Ha’ refers to the freedom permitted for subtle changes that will inevitably occur due to variations in physiques combined with the student’s own experiences and understanding of karate. ‘Ri’ is when the karateka has mastered the techniques to the point were they are no longer ‘techniques’ as such, but become part of their being. The karateka will adapt and change their actions to perfectly match the circumstances. Shuhari is the vehicle for karate’s evolution and hence its survival.
Today, there is often a rivalry between various schools or styles, with each professing that their particular way of doing things is the best. Whilst there is nothing wrong in having pride in one’s particular school, I feel that when this pride leads to a derogatory attitude to other groups or styles it is harmful to karate as a whole. The idea of ‘styles’ was a distasteful concept to many of the past masters, who preferred to view all karate as one. In ‘Karate-do: my way of life’ Gichin Funakoshi (founder of Shotokan) wrote, “There is no place in contemporary karate-do for different schools… I have heard myself and my colleagues referred to as the Shotokan School, but I strongly object to this attempt at classification. My belief is that all these “schools” should be amalgamated into one so that karate-do may pursue an orderly and useful progress into man’s future.” Kenwa Mabuni (founder of Shito-Ryu) once said, “There are no styles of karate-do, just varying interpretations of its principles … People seem to place too much emphasis upon this style or that style, this teacher or that teacher, winning and losing. This has nothing to do with karate’s ultimate aim.”
When talking about kata, the following analogy may help you to understand that, regardless of style, all karateka practice essentially the same thing. Two people are to write down the same poem. One uses a computer and prints out the poem in black block capitals on brilliant white paper. The other writes it down in their normal handwriting, using a red pen on a crumpled piece of brown paper. Whilst the two poems will look very different at first glance, closer examination will reveal that the information contained is identical. It is the same with regards to the differing ways in which the various styles or schools perform the katas. Shotokan’s Tekki may look very different to Wado-Ryu’s Naihanchi but they are based upon the same concepts and contain the same information. It is far better to concentrate on understanding the common principles upon which all karate rests, rather than obsess about what are essentially superficial differences.
Technical / Physical Components
As previously explained, the ways in which the katas are performed vary from style to style. However, all karate styles adhere to a common set of principles. These principles are merely good physics and, as such, must not be deviated from if effectiveness is to be attained.
There are no superfluous movements in kata, nor should any be added. Be sure that all techniques are performed with the minimum amount of movement. For example, do not let the elbows flap when the fists are held on the hip, do not hunch the shoulders when punching, do not rock forwards and backwards when moving from stance to stance etc. Assume all stances smoothly and be sure to maintain good balance at all times. It is especially important not to bob up and down when assuming stances. It is said that when performing kata the ‘hara’ must be kept weighted down. The hara is traditionally thought to be the point from which the ‘Ki’ or ‘life force’ originates. This point is located approximately four centimetres below the navel, half way between the belly and the spinal column. It is up to the individual to decide if they subscribe to a belief in Ki. Personally, I do not. The hara does have a vital role to play in the performance of kata however, because its location is the centre of gravity for the human body. It is important to keep the hara in mind when practising the kata so that body weight is transferred efficiently. All movements should originate from the hara. This is nothing mystical but merely the sound application of the laws of physics.
When assuming a stance be sure to achieve the correct weight distribution. Although the stances vary slightly from style to style, the correct distribution of body weight is vital in order to facilitate the application of the techniques. Make sure that the feet are correctly positioned. In particular, be sure that the edges of the feet are firmly on the floor when in long stances. The stances are a vital part of the techniques and great attention must be given to them.
All techniques should be applied using the entire body. A punch that relies solely on the muscles of the arms will have a minimal effect. It is the body movement that generates the power. The limbs are simply used to transfer that power into the opponent. All parts of the body must be co-ordinated and come together at the correct moment if the blow is to be effective. This convergence of forces is referred to as ‘kime’ (focus).
Be sure that the techniques are executed with accuracy. If a punch is meant to be delivered at solar plexus height then it must be exactly that, not even so much as an inch either way. A strike to a weak point on the opponent’s body will have a far greater effect than one that hits a stronger area. Practising the katas in an exact fashion will help to enhance muscle control, improve accuracy and ensure that the techniques are as effective as possible.
The muscles should tense briefly at the end of each technique. The reason for this momentary tension is to protect the joints. For a blow to have the greatest possible effect it must hit the target at maximum speed. If the limb was to carry on moving at high speed then injuries such as hyper-extended elbows could occur. Just before the limb is fully extended the muscles contract to that the limb decelerates in as short a time as possible. Without this type of muscular contraction, the limb would have to start to slow down sooner (if damaged joints are to be avoided) and this would seriously reduce the effect of the blow. A common mistake is for the muscles to contract harder and longer than is actually required. This unnecessary muscular contraction will result in premature fatigue and can slow the delivery of the techniques. Once a technique has been executed the muscles must relax instantly so that the limb is ready to move again. It is important to remember that in kata, as in fighting, there are times to be hard and times to be soft. Using muscular strength indiscriminately is the sign of an inexperienced karateka.
Punches and kicks should be delivered with speed in order to increase their chances of success and their effect. When performing quick movements in the katas, be sure to move as quickly as possible in order to increase the speed with which you can deliver your techniques. To develop strength you would lift slightly more weight than you can comfortably manage at present. In order to develop fast techniques, you should try to move slightly quicker than you presently can. Merely plodding through the movements will do little to increase your speed.
Be sure not to rush the kata. Ensure that every movement is fully completed before moving on to the next one. Each kata has its own distinct rhythm, the pauses between some movements are long and others are short. In music it is not only important to play the right notes, they must also be played at the right time. It is the same with kata. Do not perform the kata at a steady pace but vary the tempo as appropriate.
Breathing is another important part of kata practice. Air should be exhaled as the techniques are executed. This exhalation should come from the diaphragm and not be excessively noisy as in a grunt or a snort. The breathing must be synchronised with the techniques, otherwise they will become weak and you will tire quickly.
In combat it is absolutely vital that the correct mental attitudes are adopted. It will not be the most technically competent person that wins the fight but, more often than not, it will be the one with the strongest mind.
Kiai is often thought of as merely being a shout, but this is not correct. Kiai is the convergence of all your energies at a single instant that ensures your goal is attained. True kiai is a feeling of great power, you feel so good that you cannot help but make a noise. An explosion will make a loud noise, but a loud noise is not an explosion. Likewise kiai (which is also a release of energy) is often accompanied by a loud noise, but simply shouting is not kiai. Through the constant repetition of a technique it is possible to reach a point where the technique is so good that you know that no matter how much the opponent resists, or how skilful they are, or how extreme the circumstances, the opponent will be powerless against it. Defeating an opponent with such a perfect technique will be an event of great beauty that will make the victor feel exalted. This feeling of exaltation and perfection is kiai. The resulting shout is simply a likely physical response to this feeling. Only winning through perfection will bring about kiai. A victory through any other means will bring about a feeling of relief. When practising kata it is the feeling of power and perfection that is kiai that we should attempt to develop. If you have an unshakeable belief in both yourself and your ability to apply the techniques of the kata, regardless of the circumstances, then your kata will possess kiai. A shout uttered as a result of kiai is blood curdling to those who hear it.
There is a famous tale of the karate master Matsumura defeating an opponent using only his kiai. Matsumura’s kiai so terrified his opponent that he was unable fight. A shout that is not the result of kiai will have a hollow ring to it and will often result in amusement rather than fear. The shout itself should come from the abdomen as opposed to the throat and will have a differing sound from person to person. A common mistake among beginners is to shout the word “kiai”. Today, there are set places in the katas at which to shout. This was not always the case. Originally a student was left to kiai when it was felt to be appropriate. Your instructor will tell you where in the kata they wish you to shout. Practice so that these shouts are the result of kiai and not just empty grunts.
The other side of kiai is ‘Aiki’. When an opponent is helpless against your techniques you will feel kiai. The opponent, realising the futility of his actions, will feel aiki. Aiki can be described as ‘winning without striking a blow’ or ‘dominating spirit’. Feeling aiki will cause an opponent to doubt their own skills and to resign themselves to a crushing loss. If, in combat, you can break the opponent’s spirit, so that they lose their will to fight, you are guaranteed victory. A person who possesses high skill levels and an unshakeable belief in their ability can cause aiki in their opponents with as little as a glance. In the classic text ‘The Art of War’, Sun-Tzu states, “Achieving victory in every battle is not absolute perfection, neutralising an adversary’s forces without battle is absolute perfection.” The concept of aiki can make this high ideal into a reality, as any opponents would avoid conflict due to the realisation that any attack would be futile. A high quality kata will cause aiki in those who witness it. A kata should be a beautiful yet terrifying spectacle. Pulling ‘mean’ faces and shouting loudly will not cause aiki. Only if the performer is truly in possession of strong fighting skills, and they have the necessary mental qualities to apply those skills, will aiki be the result.
The concepts of kiai and aiki should not be confused with arrogance. Kiai and aiki will occur because the karateka is, in all reality, so highly skilled as to be unbeatable in that particular situation. They will not occur through delusions of grandeur. All martial artists should aspire to be humble beings and as such it should be our aim to actually acquire such high skill levels and not to just be so arrogant that we think we have! Kiai and aiki are high ideals, but they are ones to which we must aspire. When performing the katas try to project kiai through your actions, thoughts, feelings and eyes so that your ability to dominate your opponents through the concept of aiki is enhanced.
Zanshin is another important aspect of kata. Zanshin refers to a state of enhanced awareness that should exist before, during and after a technique is executed. A person in a state of zanshin will be totally aware of their surroundings and prepared for anything. The instant the opponent decides to attack, the person with zanshin will be aware of their intentions and will act accordingly. During an exchange, a person who possesses zanshin will know exactly what needs to be done to win and afterwards they will remain alert in case of any further aggression. A person without zanshin will not know that an attack is imminent until it is too late, will have no idea what is required during the fight and, should they be lucky enough to survive, will be vulnerable to further attacks once the initial exchange is concluded.
Zanshin is a vital part of successful fighting. If you are unaware of all aspects of the situation you will have insufficient information upon which to base any decisions (subconscious or conscious). Hence, you are very likely to act inappropriately. With regards to self-defence, it is important to be in a state of awareness before, during and after the fight. Kata is all about preparing for real fights and you must, therefore, also be in a state of awareness before, during and after the kata. You would be foolish to conclude a fight and then let your awareness drop, as this will leave you vulnerable to further assaults. You would be equally foolish to rehearse something that could cause you harm during kata. You must finish the kata with your zanshin intact so that any further attacks (whether they are real or imaginary) can be appropriately dealt with. Good zanshin will enable you to avoid violent situations altogether, which should be the aim of all true martial artists. When performing the katas remain alert and do not let your thoughts wander elsewhere. Kata practice should aid the development of zanshin, which will in turn further enhance your fighting skill.
The mental quality of mushin will also be developed through correct kata practice. ‘Mushin’ means ‘no mind’ and refers to a mind that is open and that is not fixed upon any particular object or thought.
It is common for the mind to become cluttered during combat with thoughts such as “I do not want to get hurt,” “I shall try this technique next,” “I am winning,” “They are winning,” “I am in pain” etc. A mind that is cluttered with such thoughts will be unable to fully devote itself to the task at hand and as a result will seriously hamper the effectiveness of any actions. The mind must be free of any clutter so that all actions are executed with one hundred percent efficiency. When first learning a kata it is common for the student to constantly think of which move is coming next. It is also common for thoughts such as, “This is feeling weak,” “This is feeling strong,” “I am tired,” “The next sequence is difficult” etc. to enter the mind during a kata. These thoughts must be avoided so that, after many years of practice, it will be possible for the karateka to perform the kata with little or no thought. This is not to be confused with day dreaming. The mind should be wholly present to the point were the karateka is not performing the kata but is the kata! When practising the katas be sure to avoid all extraneous thoughts so that mushin may be developed and enhanced.
Courtesy and Humility
Another vitally important and often overlooked aspect of kata are the concepts behind the opening and closing bows. These bows signify that karate begins and ends with courtesy and reminds the karateka to always be polite and humble in their interactions with others. These bows should not be empty gestures, but the result of a genuine feeling of respect for the art of karate, oneself and others. A true karateka should be a person of paradox, who is not only capable of dealing with extreme violence but who is also kind, gentle and humble.
When performing a kata it is important to remember that its purpose is to prepare you for combat. Kata is not to be used to impress others. It is common to see karateka alter the kata so that kicks that were low are now performed at head height, or worse still, straight up. Your only aim when engaged in combat is to defeat the enemy. Looking good should never be a consideration. Whilst the practice of head height kicks can increase power and flexibility, you would be unwise to use them in a high-risk situation. Kata should be a rehearsal for real situations and as a result high kicks have no place within them.
Another common mistake is for stances to be far too deep. Stances are there to serve a purpose and should never be deeper than the particular style being practised dictates. Be sure to interpret the kata in a practical fashion as opposed to a theatrical one. There should be no difference between the way you approach kata and the way you approach combat. The kata must be ‘real’ to the point were the opponents actually exist in your mind. You must have no doubt that the techniques you are performing are actually inflicting pain upon your enemies. If you truly believe in the reality of your kata it will be reflected in your performance. Your kata will be ‘alive’. Learning ‘what goes where’ is a relatively simple task compared to bringing the kata to life in this fashion. Master Itsou (creator of the Pinan / Heian katas), when outlining his philosophy of karate to the Prefectural Education department wrote, “During practice you should imagine you are on the battlefield. When defending and attacking you should make your eyes glare, drop the shoulders and harden the body. Now thwart the enemy’s advance and strike! Always practice with this spirit so that, when on the real battlefield, you will naturally be prepared.” Be sure to put this advice into practice.
When practising kata we are walking in the footsteps of some of the greatest fighters that have ever lived. If we perform the katas correctly we gain the opportunity to learn from the great masters of the past and perhaps even gain a small part of their skills.