Practical and technical advice for training in Kata.

Tim Shaw

This Article is an extension from a series of notes that I produced for a talk and presentation I gave to my club members on how to get the best out of Kata training in preparation for a grading.

It was also my hope to put issues like gradings, syllabus and related matters into context to enable students to maximize their potential.

LEARNING KATA IS NOT ABOUT PASSING GRADINGS.
The package that makes up the learning, practising and assimilating of a particular kata involves a lot more than just bringing it up to scratch to jump through the particular hoop that is a grading.

GRADING IS AN INDICATION/ACKNOWLEDGEMENT OF STANDARD (WHILE RESPONDING TO PRESSURE.)
An important part of grading is that it is a test of mettle, as well as attainment gained by sustained, directed practice. Wado Ryu karate as a Budo form requires us to absorb lessons learned in the Dojo and apply them to our everyday lives. This is not always easy.

KATAS ARE DESIGNED TO BE LEARNED IN A PARTICULAR ORDER. EACH ONE DEVELOPING SKILLS THAT ENABLE YOU TO MOVE ON TO THE NEXT.
The importance of the first katas cannot be overemphasized. Katas like Pinan Nidan and Pinan Shodan put in place the fundamentals of stance and change of direction.

SINCE ANCIENT TIMES KATA/FORMS HAVE BEEN THE ACCEPTED, TRIED AND TESTED WAY TO TRAIN PEOPLE TO FIGHT.
Anecdotal and documentary evidence suggest that Kata training has always been central to the training of fighters. Emphasis, "central to", not "exclusive". Kata on it's own will not do the job. Although it is the backbone, the common denominator in the majority of Asian fighting systems, armed and unarmed. But it works in conjunction, and complementary to, the other aspects of training, e.g. Kumite the pairs drills.

If kata had not worked then it would simply have been discarded by those early pragmatic ancient masters as being a complete waste of time, as any weakness in the system would have had fatal consequences (natural selection).

How kata fulfilled the need inside any particular fighting system is not as simple as it looks. Firstly the kata tended to be the "manual", the textbook from which to study. It contained the canon, the lore, the distinctive characteristics of the school/style/Ryu. Also hidden and coded within the text were the secret techniques of the school. If an enemy or a rival were to discover theses secrets the results could be fatal. Up until very recently traditional masters still conducted training sessions away from prying eyes, often at the dead of night.

The mistake we make when hearing these facts is to judge them outside of their own timeframe, to place them into the more familiar modern context. To assume that serious students of the martial arts in ancient times did two or three evening a week and just got on with their lives outside of that time is frankly naive. In many cases to be trained by a master was tantamount to selling your soul to the master. Many gave up everything to become a kind of live-in house slave. A number of famous masters were virtually illiterate, as learning to read and write had no part in their world. Training was a full time thing.

Ohtsuka Sensei, the founder of Wado Ryu karate, had his own ideas about kata and used the kata as a vehicle for his own distinctive principles and methods. This is where we see a divergence from the methodology of the Okinawan kata. He went beyond the defence-attack approach and infused complex, but practical, body manoeuvres and principles into Wado Ryu kata.

KATA ONLY FULFILLS ITS PURPOSE WHEN THE FOLLOWING COMPONENTS ARE IN PLACE:

ATTITUDE.
I think that it is too easy to misunderstand exactly what "practice" is when applied to kata. When you start to learn a particular skill it is logical to begin slowly and carefully and work your way towards performance pitch. For many Karate students the slow careful approach can become a kind of excuse, it should be studiously adhered to at the beginning, but gradually other elements need to be emphasized. Performance at speed should be practiced as soon as is reasonably possible and more importantly techniques should be executed with mindful intent.

Also, the issue of attitude should be a continuous one. Wado Ryu karate should not be like your Gi, a suit of clothes you put on when it's time to practice. At the end of training you take the Gi off and continue your life as if nothing has happened. Your attitude and intent is reflected in how you conduct your self in the Dojo (and in real life). Your bow at the beginning and end of each class is symbolic of this, it's not just a Capital letter and then a full stop at the end of a sentence, it's a declaration!

So, do you enter the Dojo and expect the Sensei to lead you by the nose? Or do you come in with the approach that you are there to train and to practice and to take responsibility for your own training?

The Sensei supplies you with guidance, shows you the signs along the way, you must take on board for yourself what it means to learn, to absorb technique, do not just compare it to some other skill you've previously learned, like learning to type, or learning to drive, it runs much, much deeper than that.

REALISM.
Similar to the above, but as one Sensei said, "If you cannot interpret and perform the individual moves in the kata in fighting, then you don't know the kata!"
It's not a dance, but neither is a choreographed fight. Although you can string some moves together and perform them in series, this is not the general way of reading the parts that make up the whole. Always keep the fighting interpretation in your mind when you practice.

UNDERSTANDING, ENQUIRY, STUDY, SELF DISCOVERY.
The practice and study of kata can be likened to the study of an ancient text. An example being the "Tao Te Ching" by Lao Tzu, written in China 4th century B.C.E. To study it correctly you would have to learn it in it's original. It can be admired for its structure, its poetry and beauty, as kata can be enjoyed for its, grace, power, celerity, etc.
Then it can be taken to the next level. What do the words/moves mean?
On the surface the meanings look fairly straightforward; sentence and logical flow of words echo punch, block, kick.

However, anomalies appear, initially overlooked, but after a while the enquiring mind tries its best to unravel and explain the problems.

With kata however the understanding goes beyond an exercise of the intellect. As with the Taoism of Lao Tzu, the body must be involved. To not involve the body and to over intellectualise is a fatal error, there are a many so-called Martial Artists out there who talk and don't do. There are also many who try to read things into kata that is not there.

The kata and it's component parts must be internalised, understood and explored with mind and body.

With all of this self-exploration will occur as a natural by-product. A real Dojo is a perfect hothouse for self-discovery. After all, there is nowhere to hide in the Dojo.

It is often the case that the Dojo is the place where you discover the most about yourself as a human being - good and bad.

MAKE THE KATA YOURS.
Kata should not look like it's imposed on you, you must make it yours. One Japanese Sensei in criticising a student's performance of Naihanchi kata said, " The kata is not yours. It looks as if you borrowed it for the day from a friend!"

Each person's rendition of a single kata will be different. Ohtsuka Sensei interpreted kata in a very different way to the ways of other styles of karate. He even used a different Japanese character to write "kata". To other styles kata is a fixed form, fixed, no matter who does it, its style and interpretation never to be altered, rather like a mold, each one churned out exactly the same. The character that Ohtsuka Sensei used was used to describe something that although fixed in itself, it was free to move allowing permutations but without moving into something completely different.

REPETITION, WITH MEANING, NOT EMPTY.
The vital ingredient is repetition. This is always the major problem. How many actual full-blooded repetitions do you get time to do in a particular class? Six to eight if you're very lucky and the Sensei is working that particular theme. But try fifteen to twenty repetitions end to end and see what kind of feedback you're getting from your body. Only from that number plus can you really reap the benefit from regular practice.

However the repetitions must be "mindful" not "mindless", otherwise all of that effort will have a very small payback. You might work up a sweat, but you will not be programming in instinctive reactions, or building into your system well grounded fighting techniques.

REVISION, CHECKING.
Your kata must be regularly checked; it is far too easy to allow bad habits to sneak in, at all stages of development.

There are a number of ways you can gain valuable feedback on your kata.

· Ask your Sensei to check the whole of your kata, or just specific parts.
· Ask a fellow student to look over you kata and give you constructive feedback.
· Make use of a mirror.
· A video camera can be very useful.
· Constantly run your techniques through a mental checklist.

Once revised and checked, then modify and adjust.

TWO STRATEGIES FOR LEARNING A NEW KATA.

1. Try to learn the complete sequence, then polish and add technical accuracy.

The disadvantages of this method are that it is possible, in your rush to put the moves together, that bad habits can set in early and extra time will have to be spent undoing the errors. On the positive side; you develop very quickly an appreciation of the Kata as a whole, thus enabling you to understand the overall character, emphasis and feel of the Kata.

2. Learn the Kata in short sections. Work on each section ensuring that it is correct, then move on to the next section.

The disadvantages are that the method is slower and, if the Sensei is teaching in this manner, you may find that if you miss a class, you miss out on a particular section or a particular piece of information relevant to the correct performance. The advantages are that you will learn the technique more correctly and will be able to focus on the meanings behind the moves.

Illustration from the ancient text, "the Bubishi" showing a Chinese monk/warrior practicing Kata/Forms.