A question I frequently get from non-karateka is, “Why not just drill the bunkai with a partner and do away with the kata? Surely there are better ways to record information today?” I was asked that yesterday, and I was asked it again today. Here are some brief thoughts on why solo-kata should remain an important part of the practise of the pragmatic karateka.
There are three main reasons while solo kata has a continuing role in karate and similar systems:
1) Continuity and Organisation of Information
The kata (when correctly understood) provide the syllabus of karate. Throwing away the kata would be like throwing away the text book. It is what structures our study. We learn the drill for the first few motions of the kata, then the drill for the next few motions, and then the next, and so on. The drills build on each other and the kata presents a logical and productive learning order. Get rid of the kata and we lose the central organisation of the system.
When people ask why we can’t use modern media instead, I would point out that physical motions are most effectively recorded in a physical medium.
Kata requires that you actually move through the drills being recorded (not so for a book of video). The fact kata is physical also means that you can record things you can’t see (thoughts, feelings, alignments, and all other manner of “subtleties”). Books and videos are unable to record these things as effectively: they can describe it, but you can’t experience it from the media itself.
Book and videos can be thought of as “external media” i.e. they are separate from the martial artist. Kata are “internal media” in that they are infused within the martial artists who practise them. This gives kata a big advantage. Kata move from the bodies of the experienced, to bodies of the less experienced, creating sound movement “habits” as they go.
Kata can provide physical training and mental rehearsal. Again, books and videos can’t do that. Reading and watching isn’t training.
Despite advances in technology, the human body remains the best medium to record physical actions.
2) Supplementary Solo Practise
The kata provide a way of training when we don’t have a training partner. The kata are NOT a substitute for partner work or an alternative to live practise! They do, however, have a role to play when there is no training partner. The practise of kata – with the correct mindset and visualisation – will support the partner work we are doing; which is also based on the kata. If we do away with the kata, we lose an effective form of supplementary solo practise. Other solo training methods are also important (bag work, physical conditioning, etc) but kata is a key one for us karateka due to its direct connection to partner drills; and even to the live practise / sparring that results from those partner drills.
Every single form of training is flawed. We practise hurting people all the time while doing all we can to ensure no one gets hurt. If we are not calling ambulances to the gym/dojo every session, they we are making some compromises in the name of safety. The way all martial arts get around this is to utilise a “training matrix” (https://youtu.be/ZmSz0pBnM_k, https://youtu.be/RppNJV82erk and https://iainabernethy.co.uk/content/training-matrix-elbowing-and-knee-combination). Basically, this means we use a mix of training methods – all of which have their own flaws – but which when used together will give us all the attributes we need.
Working with a partner gives us a real body to work with (obviously vital!), but the flaw is that we “pull” techniques – i.e. cranks and locks are applied slowly and with care, strikes to vulnerable areas are not driven into the target, etc – and at the back of our minds is the ever-present desire not to harm our training partner (an important and often unseen issue). This can create dangerous habits and, most importantly, a faulty mindset.
Where kata can help is that it provides a “moving visualisation” where everything is done with full intent. Visualisation has loads of scientific backing, and when you combine that with the actual movements then you have a potent support to partner work; which also helps correct the inherent flaws of that partner work.
The HUGE flaw of solo-kata is that there is no body to apply the methods on. It’s not doing partner work OR kata OR live practise OR pad-drills, etc. but instead doing all of them, in a holistic training matrix, so all the elements support each other and correct each other’s inherent flaws.
For karateka, kata done with visualisation, and an intense intent, is what we use to correct the flaw of partner work which sees the mental “safety” being ubiquitously “on”. It therefore has an important role to play.
I’m not saying kata should be mandatory for all martial artists. Other systems have differing approaches to the above issues. However, we traditional karate types have directly experienced the role of kata in karate and that is why we value it. I hope some of that comes across in the above text and people find this very brief explanation of some use.
All the best,