In the days prior to assuming the position of instructor of our dojo in 1994, I was participating in one of our general classes.  At this particular class, we were in the middle of an influx of new students, mostly due to one entire family joining.  Our sensei, Mr. May, and myself were going over the specifics of the first kata when they were asked if there were any questions.

The daughter of the family group had just one………………..  Why?

I don’t remember the details of the answer she received from Mr. May, but that question, in one form or another, seems to be at the root of perpetual debate in martial arts circles.  Is kata the “end all and be all” of martial arts, is it “alright for a warmup” as stated to Daniel in Karate Kid 3, or is it nothing more than “dancing” as described by those whose idea of “real” martial arts is …….. limited?

Answers abound, and like any other aspect of martial arts, many of those answers apply only due to the attitude of the student or what is passed on by the instructor.  We in the Kokondo system have been extremely fortunate in our exposure to the concepts behind kata.  While some of the benefits are obvious, others are not.  This isn’t because we’re being short-changed by our teachers, but rather because not all of the benefits apply in the context of our training in the dojo.  Let’s list a few from both:

Kata as a learning/retention tool  This is the very first benefit we get from kata.  We learn forms with simple movements early in our training.  As we progress through the system they tend to get longer and more complex.  Well, duh!! some of you are no doubt thinking right now.  I’m stating the obvious, obviously.  But to those newcomers asking “Why?”, think of kata as the living encyclopedia (or Wikipedia for those born subsequent to the days when information was obtained from books) of our system.  Every technique you learn as a kyu (rank below black belt) appears in the kata you are learning.  Your stances, blocks, strikes and kicks are all right there sooner or later, in your kata.  You have your whole basket of techniques right there with you at all times.  And now that you have them, you need to learn just what in the world you’re doing with them, which brings us to the real, true, primary purpose of kata:

Kata as a self-defense tool  Once you get past the part of having to consciously remember to step here, block there, punch this way and turn that way, what do you do with this knowledge?  The answer is summed up in a single, glorious word…….. BUNKAI!!!!!!   Bunkai is the lifeblood of kata.  Taught properly by a competent instructor, your kata now becomes the practical application of the techniques you’ve been practicing in a virtually unlimited syllabus.  That left turn into a front stance combined with a low block, followed by the next step to front stance with a punch?  You’re blocking a kick or punch coming from your left side and then taking out the bad guy with a shot to the abdomen, right?  YES!!! ……….  well, for starters, anyway.  Nothing in our system is wasted.  No hand motion, no body shift, no transition… nothing.  Every movement has a number of very effective defense applications.

Wait… did I just say “number of very effective defense applications”?  Good observation.  That turn to the left into a block?  It’s also a throw.  It’s also a strike rather than a block.  It’s an escape from an attempted grab.  It’s a neck break.  It’s blocking a strike or kick but also dealing with an attacker attempting to grab us from behind.  It’s also……..  well you get the point.  Which leads us to some of the really nifty benefits of kata that aren’t necessarily as obvious or directly explained in your usual dojo setting.

Kata for development of insight and imagination  Every hand technique in our system has five potential uses; block, strike, escape, trap/lock and throw/takedown.  So that block to the left?  Five things at least.  The punch that follows?  Another five.  So that first series of two stances and techniques has at the bare minimum 25 potential applications.  But wait!!!  While you’re executing that low block with one hand, what is the other hand doing?  OOOoooohhhh……  That retracting hand is also doing at least five different things, as is the retracting arm on the following movement.  Egad.  The number of potential applications just jumped dramatically, didn’t it?

Now let’s expand on that just a smidgen.  When we first start learning kata, it’s done with the instructor counting out the movements.  Step to left with block is 1.  Next step with punch is 2.  Shift 180 degrees with block is 3.  Next step with punch is 4 and so on.

So 1 and 2 deal with the first bad guy, right?  Then we got to 3 and 4 to handle the next attacker.  Yeah, that’s good for starters.  But say movement 1 wasn’t a block but was instead a throw.  Now movement 2 initiates a completely different scenario.  The punch now is no longer necessarily the end of a defense sequence, it has become the beginning of a new one.  Now maybe movement 3 becomes the ending movement of that new sequence, or movement 4.  Oh, geez, movement 5 is still there, too.

Not only are the movements of kata infinite in their possible mathematical permutations, but so too are the sequence of attacks and defenses that occur.  1 and 2 do one thing, but 2 and 3 do another, but so do 1 and 2 and 3.

My point is that your possibilities are very much endless.  One of the sheer joys of truly learning to appreciate kata is spending time with a partner and just “playing” with a short sequence of movements from a kata.  See what develops.  See what is effective.  See what isn’t, why it isn’t and how it can be improved.

And the side benefit?  Training your mind to realize that nothing in kata is “just THIS!!” can translate to freeing your mind to the infinite possibilities of any other situation you may encounter in life.  Learning to let your imagination flow benefits you tremendously both inside and outside the dojo.  Take advantage of it.

Kata as (very) physical exercise  Did you ever wonder what the reason was that you move this direction and that, using a front stance here and a back stance there or otherwise considered the logic behind the movements in a kata?

Of course you have.

See, a tertiary benefit of kata is that it is a tremendous physical training tool, if you use it properly.  Moving to and fro, side to side, back and forth in those deep stances (yes, you’re supposed to keep them deep) performs a myriad number of tasks specific to your martial art.  You strengthen your muscles.  You train your joints and connective tissue to be able to accept and perform techniques your body previously hadn’t been doing.

If you’ve ever heard of H.I.I.T. (high intensity interval training), anybody that has been practicing kata for a period of time was fully aware of the concept before the personal trainer industry ever grasped it.  Busting through a series of kata with full speed and power, at the same time keeping your visualization intact and your form proper, is going to leave you gassed.  Period.

One of my favorite training tools is also most likely my least expensive.  It consists of a bunch of poker chips and a drawstring bag.  With these items, I’ve created what I call “Kata Bingo”.  Each chip in the bag has written on it the name of a kata.  When I arrive at the dojo and dress out, I will mix up the chips and then proceed to choose a number of them from the bag.  I can use any number, but 15 is my favorite.

Kata bingo chip from the magical bag

I will lay out three rows of five chips each.  The rules are simple.  You do the kata on the chip, in the order drawn.  You are not allowed to change a chip drawn, unless something precludes you doing that particular one (can’t do Sai 3 if the sai were left at home, for example).  All kata are done twice each.  The first five are done a little less than moderate pace.  The second set a little more than moderate pace.  That last bunch is done full-out.  Limiting rest time between rows and katas makes the workout that much harder.  It’s a fantastic pre-class workout.

Our kata, like anything else in Karate, or life for that matter, will give us only what we choose to put into them.  Taking the time to learn, apply, appreciate and train properly in our kata will greatly enhance our journey through the system.

So if you catch yourself thinking “why?” or if you’re asked, hopefully some of these thoughts will come in handy.

The trick is in the application.

Train well!  OSSU!