Kata: Gaining A Deeper Understanding
Before we go into the development of kata, first take your mind back to the early martial artists who trained before the introduction of belt gradings, karate uniforms, tournaments etc. It’s important to understand that before kata, there was a master’s favoured combat (self-defence) techniques and strategies. Students would learn these techniques and strategies and regularly practising with a partner (either a fellow student or directly with their master).
Considering karate involved attacking the most vulnerable areas of the human body (such as the eyes, temples, throat, nose, groin etc), practice could never be done with full force or commitment. This is where kata came in to play. Kata was constructed by combining sequences of moves that involved a number of a master’s favourite self-defence techniques and strategies. These could be practised by an individual without a partner. By practising solo, a student could:
a) Although partner-training taught a student distance and timing, much thought had to be placed on controlling techniques (therefore avoiding severely injuring their partner). Kata allowed a student to put full force into a technique without fear of severely injuring their partner.
b) As an addition to the previous point, the focus of control during partner work meant a student was unable to focus purely on perfecting their technique, stances, weight distribution, breathing etc. Solo practise by comparison (kata) permitted the student to be purely focused on him or her self.
c) Most karate students in Okinawa were sons of nobles and had time on their hands – time to spend developing their karate. By compiling a number of self-defence techniques and strategies into a collective form (kata), a student could practice these on their own, at any time of their choosing. Liken it to a modern day tennis player who might be standing around at home – no racket in hand, no court and no partner – yet still enthusiastically practices their backhand down the line shot.
But this is merely the first part of the development of kata.
Masters sought to ensure that both onlookers and beginner students were unable to decipher the intricate (and somewhat lethal) details of the self-defence techniques and strategies. For this reason they made a number of techniques (especially those involving grappling, seizing or attacking vital points) somewhat abstract. Therefore, being a beginner yourself, or any onlooker to a karate kata may be baffled to see the practical self-defence applications behind the techniques. Once a student had shown their master they would not misuse their karate and had developed an instinctive competence when performing the kata, the master would start to unearth the hidden self-defence techniques (bunkai) and strategies (senjutsu).
Finally, karate’s ideology extended beyond health and self-defence. It sought to perfect a student’s character, and one way to achieve this was to train with an attitude of perfection. A student not only wanted to grasp the concepts and practises of a kata, they wanted to perfect every technique within the kata. Stances and hand techniques were formalised, making them even more abstract from the original self-defence technique. Once again it was a student’s goal to develop an instinctive competence for each movement while perfecting their technique. Later, they could learn to peel back the many layers, getting to the core of the kata.
If all of this seems a little overwhelming, allow us to illustrate our point by using an example of the First kata. Let’s use the technique on the second count of First kata. On the surface, we see a student step forward in a ‘formal’ Long Forward Stance (zenkutsu dachi) and execute a stomach level lunge punch to the solar plexus of an opponent. If one were to find themselves in a self-defence situation, they would not be expected to perform this technique exactly as they practise it in the kata. Despite this, we still practice the technique in the kata with diligence and a commitment to perfection so that we can perform it fluently, explosively and accurately.
Now considering the ultimate goal of karate is to:
a) Learn to use our bodies.
b) Understand combat principles.
Once we have developed an instinctive competence for the technique, we can start to look deeper. For example:
- The technique is teaching us to close distance between ourselves and an attacker quickly.
- The technique is teaching us to move from one stable stance to another.
- The technique is teaching us to keep a low centre of gravity while moving.
- The technique is teaching us to execute an accurate, well-timed technique.
- The technique is teaching us to generate power by incorporating our entire body weight into our strikes.
These are important principles for self-defence – irrespective of the technique they are attached to. By understanding this, a karate student can take this technique from First kata and alter it to suit a situation. For example, the target area could be changed from the solar plexus to the nose, throat or groin etc. The strike could be changed from a punch to an elbow strike, a palm strike etc. So long as the self-defence strategies (senjutsu) behind the technique were adhered to (eg move explosively, keeping the centre of gravity low etc) the application (bunkai) could be altered to suit the situation.
So remember, your first goal is to learn the kata and master the techniques within it. Develop each technique so that you can instinctively perform it with absolute competence. Once you have this instinctive ability, your mind is free to start focusing on the deeper layers of the kata (such as the many hidden self-defence applications (bunkai) and the self-defence strategies or principles (senjutsu) behind them.