A major factor determining whether you grade or not is your kata. As such, many students start to think of kata purely as a means to a new belt; a series of movements that need to be learned and mastered to some degree to achieve this belt. When students fall into this trap of thinking they forget the reason why it was developed in the first place.
Remember, in its early days, karate had no belts. And it also had no practice of kumite. Kata was there as a challenge to achieve self-mastery (both mind and body) and as a system for learning self-defense.
Kata, when practiced correctly, sprouts up like a tree. Kihon training would be considered the roots. This is where we develop basic postures and basic movement, developing our foundations for self-defense and self-mastery. The trunk would be learning the kata.
Finally the branches are the many bunkai (applications) and senjutsu (combat strategies) associated with the one trunk (the one kata).
What this all implies is that the nature of kata is that we grow to understand its movements and the many applications associated with them. Read 100 books and you will find 100 different bunkai. This does not mean that the original masters taught 100 bunkai. What it means is that many students of karate will find that the kata reveals a slightly different bunkai to them.
Most of the time, when you give thought to your kata, you’ll find the bunkai of the kata naturally reveals itself to you. Often you learn a bunkai and have a BFO (blinding Flash of the Obvious), thinking to yourself, “That is how I interpreted it also”.
The important key to remember here is that you must ‘give thought’ to your kata and keep in mind that kata has nothing to do with belts.
Keeping the analogy of kata being like a tree; also be mindful of how a tree responds to a storm. A tree stands strong in the face of a mighty storm because its roots have created a solid foundation.
In terms of kata and self-defence, when a storm comes (combat), you will stand firm because of your kihon training. Despite the emotional pressure, your stances will be low and strong, and your strikes will have good use of hips, kime and accuracy.
As you become more efficient in the kata, during combat, the bunkai that naturally reveals itself to you during training will naturally surface during combat.
By contrast, when students see kata as a series of movements to master in order to grade, they often fail to develop strong kihon; developing a good ‘shell’ or appearance to their technique – enough to impress at a grading. But neglecting to develop the finite points that can’t be seen by the naked eye, points that make a technique effective (such as muscular contraction, kime etc). They also fail to develop the branches of the tree (the many applications).
Keep in mind that the karate journey is not about belts. It is about developing your understanding of karate and yourself. Therefore, if you focus only on kata so that you may grade, you may move up a belt but you may not have not gone forward in your journey.