Thursday, September 11, 2008

Kata: Doing It Right


For anyone who has been a regular reader of this site, you may know that my views on kata (forms) training are somewhat divided. Kata has some uses which I'll state, but from much of what I've seen they've survived largely due to their convenience for belt promotions, tournaments and a way to use up class time.

On a more positive note, kata training brings to light something that is referred to in Zen as "monkey mind". This is actually the normal state of consciousness exhibited by most people. Let's say you're doing your strongest kata, one you've performed countless times. At some point you'll start running through this form on auto-pilot. Now this is potentially both good and bad. Ultimately, you want techniques to unfold naturally and without hesitation. On the other hand, if you're performing your kata strictly by rote the mind will tend to wander. You're just going through the motions and the mind becomes restless. Losing one's kime (focus) is a common problem for students at any level, so the trick is to become mindful of it and get back on course. This is the task of meditation, and the kata should be regarded as a moving meditation of sorts. If you're really concentrating on your form, bare-minded awareness (mushin) follows suit.

Real kata training should be done rigorously and with sincere effort, i.e. sweating bullets and heavy breathing by the time you're finished. No lollygagging. Any half-assed attempt at running through your forms is not only a waste of time but counterproductive. I once witnessed two candidates for nidan (2nd degree black belt) fail their tests because it was felt they didn't put enough gusto into their rendition of kata. Every strike within the form should be regarded as the finisher, or as Mike Tyson used to say, "thrown with bad intentions." Is your training good enough that it will allow you to perform every kata you know back-to-back with full power and speed without losing your lunch? We all appreciate the precision, grace and aesthetics of a master kata practitioner, but realize these artistic movements were built on a solid foundation of hard work over a long period of time.

As you practice your kata, envision your imaginary opponents as real and approximately your size. Look before you change direction within the form. Some beginners have a tendency to look down while in the midst of their kata which conveys an absence of confidence. Before you begin your kata take a single deep breath. This will clear out the mind and calm the nerves, especially when you're testing or competing.

Aside from gleaning its technical aspects and applications (bunkai), kata training should be approached with a strong will and proper spirit. The way is in the training, said Musashi.

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11 Comments:

Blogger Martial Arts Mom said...

I absolutely LOVE kata. For all the reasons you stated - the meditative factor, the gusto. I have a bum ankle right now - hopefully good in a few days. Your post inspired me and made it so I want to run outside and do kata by moonlight- bad ankle or not! Thanks!!!

10:34 PM  
Blogger Lizzie said...

I've learned in my dojo, that it's better to practice on the details of the kata instead of the power of it. Technique and details come first, then speed and power come second. My first dojo was all about speed and power, but they didn't know the details in the kata. Thus, they did some things that were wrong and that didn't make sense when applying a move to a real world situation.

3:18 AM  
Blogger Michele said...

I agree that kata should be performed with maximum effort. I have seen students who are not enthusiastic about kata. It is necessary for students to first learn the pattern and bunkai slowly. However, sometimes it is hard for them to move beyond this level and make their kata come alive. Perhaps it just takes time...

12:15 PM  
Blogger John Vesia said...

Welcome to my site Martial Arts Mom.

Kata by moonlight. That sounds exotic! And that's probably the way kata was trained 100 years ago.

Watch that ankle though. I should've put a disclaimer in my post about injured parties. Following surgery on my foot years ago I took it easy when I practiced my forms or anything else. Once you're all healed up you're good to go. Thanks for stopping by.
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Lizzie:

Technique and details come first, then speed and power come second.

Couldn't agree more.
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Hi Michele.

Right, it's imperative to understand kata's technicalities - bunkai, oyo, etc. Then there's the passion, the "coming alive" aspect of kata - the performance of kata. You need both, and yet they're mutually exclusive, IMO.

5:01 PM  
Blogger Michele said...

Thank you for your thought provoking post and response.
For me, the bunkai and the technicalities are what makes my kata come alive. The kata I perform/demonstrate the best are the ones where I have a better understanding of the application. Bunkai improves my visualization, intensity and meter.

8:15 PM  
OpenID markstraining.com said...

To me kata IS karate. Kata is like the alphabet of karate, containing all the technqiues you need to defend yourself. Practising the techniques with many variations, from all angles and being able to use them naturally makes you able to bring kata alive when needed.

For this reason i agree with you that kata should be always practised with full power and strength making each technique count. (after correct technique has been obtained.)

7:46 AM  
Blogger Charles James said...

Hey, Vesia Sensei

Ewwwwww, my favorite topic...KATA!

I just have a couple of comments as to my perspective on some of your comments :-)

Kata has some uses which I'll state, but from much of what I've seen they've survived largely due to their convenience for belt promotions, tournaments and a way to use up class time.

Ahhh, this statement is regrettably true. It would seem that it has morphed into a dance of sorts that help dictate promotions when in reality there is so much more you can get and use from the kata, provided you have someone who knows, if practiced properly.

...At some point you'll start running through this form on auto-pilot. Now this is potentially both good and bad...

This, in my humble opinion, is always a bad thing. You should never run through kata on auto-pilot. If you are not using intent, visualization, etc all the time then practicing it is a waste of time or just another karate-size/exercise program so you may as well walk, run, bicycle, etc.

Ultimately, you want techniques to unfold naturally and without hesitation...

Yes, yes, yes, then the techniques can be used in combat naturally and effectively cause you don't have to stop and think. This does not mean you go on auto-pilot but with visualization and intent for each and every technique with focus before, during, and after the technique, etc it will come of its own volition when needed.

...if you're performing your kata strictly by rote the mind will tend to wander...

This is also a good indication you are not practicing properly.

...Real kata training should be done rigorously and with sincere effort, i.e. sweating bullets and heavy breathing by the time you're finished...

I disagree here. I would say that this would be "ONE" way to practice. Doing kata is not an exercise program and you can do it properly with out doing it "rigorously" like an exercise program. Regardless of what aspect I take in kata practice I can feel it and gain benefits both physically and mentally. I see to many dojo today go through poorly formed and practiced kata and kihon simply because they "think" that it should make you sweat bullets and result in fatigue and sore muscles. If you want that go to the gym and lift weights, which is another way to get exercise outside the practice of karate. Lets use other means for exercise and use kata to create what it was meant to create, a warrior...

I once witnessed two candidates for nidan (2nd degree black belt) fail their tests because it was felt they didn't put enough gusto into their rendition of kata...

I feel this is such a shame for those practitioners may have been really practicing kata as it was meant to be practiced (with out being there and knowing how they were taught would change this perspective) and missed out on a promotion tho this is not the goal of practice and testing.

Every strike within the form should be regarded as the finisher, or as Mike Tyson used to say, "thrown with bad intentions."...

You don't need to be rigorous and sweat bullets to make each technique count and be a one stop technique.

Is your training good enough that it will allow you to perform every kata you know back-to-back with full power and speed without losing your lunch?...

Although this is a nice way to really get shugyo in some practice this is not the way I would recommend always doing kata. It is a small, very small, portion of kata practice.

...As you practice your kata, envision your imaginary opponents as real and approximately your size. Look before you change direction within the form...

Really good point here and should be done each and every kata. I would add that from time to time you vary the size of the opponent and adjust the kata technique slightly to compensate for additional benefit in training in kata.

...Before you begin your kata take a single deep breath...

In this I would say that combat breathing prior to every kata as well as kumite helps you train and overcome the effects of fear and stress...three deep slow rhythmic breathes then go into it.

This will clear out the mind and calm the nerves, especially when you're testing or competing...

See above combat breathing recommendations.

Aside from gleaning its technical aspects and applications (bunkai), kata training should be approached with a strong will and proper spirit. The way is in the training, said Musashi.

Agreed, yes, yes, and yes again...

Sorry to take such a strong point of view for your first post in a long time. We missed them, at least I have. :-)

1:54 PM  
Blogger Blackbeltmama said...

I agree with much of what you say, but I do think there's a place for slowed down kata (and not just because that's how I'll have to do it for a while). I've seen many people run through kata full speed and with full power, but they take short-cuts because of this. They miss crucial movements because they're too busy moving onto the next movement to get the previous one right. Before I got hurt, I liked to run thorugh it slowly to watch my movements, double-check the height of my punches, etc. I think kata, fast or slow, can be a useful training method.

Great post as usual. I'm glad you're back to blogging again!

9:34 PM  
Blogger John Vesia said...

Marks:

Practising the techniques with many variations, from all angles and being able to use them naturally makes you able to bring kata alive when needed.

I like to run certain drills with kata - opposite side, varying speeds, starting in the middle, facing different directions, etc. It keeps things fresh without making them robotic.
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Charles:

"...Real kata training should be done rigorously and with sincere effort, i.e. sweating bullets and heavy breathing by the time you're finished..."

I disagree here. I would say that this would be "ONE" way to practice.


I've gotten a fair share of friendly fire for that one, and justifiably so. Right you are. This is what happens when you take off too much time from writing!

"I once witnessed two candidates for nidan (2nd degree black belt) fail their tests because it was felt they didn't put enough gusto into their rendition of kata..."

I feel this is such a shame for those practitioners may have been really practicing kata as it was meant to be practiced (with out being there and knowing how they were taught would change this perspective) and missed out on a promotion tho this is not the goal of practice and testing.


I saw their kata and it looked fine to me, but my sensei felt they both ran out of some steam towards the end. They did pass the sparring portion of the test which was pretty rough and done the following day. They both ended up re-testing for kata about three months later and passed. Unfortunately I didn't get to see it.

Sorry to take such a strong point of view for your first post in a long time. We missed them, at least I have.

Your points are well taken and appreciated as always. Thanks for your input sir.
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BBM:

They miss crucial movements because they're too busy moving onto the next movement to get the previous one right.

Yes, that is common.

Before I got hurt, I liked to run through it slowly to watch my movements, double-check the height of my punches, etc. I think kata, fast or slow, can be a useful training method.

The height or depth of stances is another big one. Especially towards the end of a kata, I see people's stances become a bit shallow.

Great post as usual. I'm glad you're back to blogging again!

Thank you very much, BBM. It's great to be back!

12:53 AM  
Blogger Mathieu said...

Hello!
was the summer good?

Strongly opiniated comeback, hope to read another one soon.

mat

7:19 PM  
Blogger John Vesia said...

Hey Mat.

Yes I had a good summer, thanks. Hopefully I'll have more time for writing in the fall. Good to hear from you.

10:03 AM  

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