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Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture
Why not just drill the bunkai with a partner and do away with the kata?

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.

3) Intent

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,

Iain

Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture

You said it more concisely than I could Iain, but i'll add my two cents:

I actually think that once one has a number of years in Karate, beyond shodan maybe, the solo form begins to become indispensable to deeper learning. I did not think this for probably my first ten years or so of training, but after doing Goju forms for 17 years now, and one Shorin form for about 30 (Naihanchin), I can honestly say that deeper study and practice -of the solo form- combined with partner work, live stuff, drilling etc.has yielded new drills, understandings of body mechanics and power, movement principles etc. Whether these things are actually "in the kata" or not is not the point, the kata does not exist independent of the practioner or transmission, and over time if you keep up the solo form while directly linking it to your combatives, body mechanics, understanding of physiologically tripping people up, etc.. it yields results, especiallly if you teach.

Truthfully, learning basic mechanics and self-defense via basic  kata applications does not take that long, if that were the only goal, or the only capability of kata, then sure, why bother with a solo form. Kata are for long term development, so there is stuff there beyond simply being a "dictionary" of application, in my experience. As I learned them, Kata are taught a long withn a holistic set of principles on how to move, how to hit, how to look, etc., every time you practice you are practicing those things, when done properly, and *if* it is directly connected to your combative application.

It is not much different from reading a novel. You can read it at age 20, and come away with a very definite concept of what is there, if you read it again at age 40,your 20 years of experience will make it a different animal. What you get out of the novel will actually be tangibly different.

If you turn kata into a collection of applications only, you run the risk of things simply becoming a "list", as people who have been in such systems might be able to attest, there are plusses and minuses to this. Two man applications can get "kata-fied" and become as bizarre a solo kata can. In that sense it's almost worse, a katafied bad technique, often also removed from the overall strategy presented by the solo form.

We could get pretty granular with this, there might be some merit to simply creating "lists" ala Koryu Jujutsu of techniques from each Kata, but speaking from personal experience, there would be downsides too, the largest of which would probably be a loss of the individualized flavor of the art, and a discouragement of long -term  kata study, whcih is something that most of the excellent Karate teachers I have known and been able to train with have clearly engaged in. 

It would depend on how it was implemented, but I think in many cases this approach would mainly impose new limitations, while improving on other areas. If you want to understand the limitations, simply look at systems that already do this, such as Koryu and Gendai Jujutsu forms; there are downsides to this approach, despite it appearing more practical at first glance.

Axel
Axel's picture

Iain Abernethy wrote:
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.

Throwing away the text book, that's it.

I'm practising Krav Maga for some time and hearing in nearly every training my "kata alarm bell" ringing (meaning there is a Krav Maga technique, and I recognize a "pure" karate kata application technique). For sure, there are other techniques I can't find in my beloved karate. So, after some month I was having a longer and longer list (as Zach mentioned!) of techniques. Impossible to remember all that brilliant stuff (for example in a not supervised training) without ... a kata.

Another example are Motobu's Kumite drills you taught us some month ago in a seminar. Not backboned with a kata as memory help it is much more difficult to remember these brilliant nasty techniques in comparison to kata application you're showing us on seminars.

Axel
Axel's picture

Both comments from you on the topic, Iain and Zach, are excellent. Thank you!

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Axel wrote:
Another example are Motobu's Kumite drills you taught us some month ago in a seminar. Not backboned with a kata as memory help it is much more difficult to remember these brilliant nasty techniques in comparison to kata application you're showing us on seminars.

We all spend far more time away from the dojo than we do in it. This means that a method to reinforce what is being practised in the dojo when we are away from it, that requires no partner and no equipment, is sure to have a big impact. That’s kata providing the supplementary solo practise.

Your observation on the Motobu drills is a good one, because I have created a kata for them exactly for that purpose :-) I call it “Seinipo” (or “Juniho” for those preferring Japanese names) which means “twelve steps” because it covers Motobu’s 12 drills (or more accurately, my take on those drills).

All the best,

Iain

Marc
Marc's picture

Thanks for the great post and the interesting comments.

Here are some more reasons why I think it would be a shame to abandon the practice of kata: 21 Things That Are Great About Kata .

All the best,

Marc

dhogsette
dhogsette's picture

I really don't have anything "new" to add here, other than to say that in teaching total beginners in a college physical education class, this model or perspective has been extremely helpful in enabling the students, who are total beginners, to understand the purpose of kata and forms in relation to partner drills. When I explain that all drills necesarily have flaws and that we engage a variity of drills and actiivities that overlap so as to correct flaws in each other, they totally get it.

I'm convinced that martial artists who start in a system become entrapped by that system, and it is difficult for many of them to move beyond those constraints to engage this issue. However, total beginners who are not encumbered by presuppositions and pre-existing views and biases have no trouble grasping these ideas.

I also have football (American football...) players on my classes, and they are totally familiar with drills and the need to train with partners w/out harming each other, and they understand the idea that all drills have flaws. They appreciate that I'm upfront with this idea, and they really appreciate training drills that overlap each other so as to address and hopefully correct flaws in other drills. They get it. I just wish more martial artists would understand this basic idea.

Anyway, all that to say simply this: explaining the function and purpose of kata in this way makes complete sense, and it is important that we share this perspective with our beginners and to retrain the martial mindset/worldview of experienced martial artists who may not yet understand this truth.

Best,

David

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

dhogsette wrote:
I'm convinced that martial artists who start in a system become entrapped by that system, and it is difficult for many of them to move beyond those constraints to engage this issue. However, total beginners who are not encumbered by presuppositions and pre-existing views and biases have no trouble grasping these ideas.

That’s a very good observation!  I too find experienced people often come to things with a whole host of baggage and preconceptions that make conversations more difficult. The fact that “kata” means different things to different people, and that people have had radically different experiences of “kata” training, is always an issue. Not so with beginners, so they get it more quickly because you don’t have to redefine terminology and disassemble preconceptions.

All the best,

Iain