Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Keep Calm and Kata On

kanji for "kata"
"You could never do that in a fight!"

"Its an antiquated teaching practice!"

"Time would be better spent learning techniques!"

I've hear all of these things about kata and, they usually come from people that don't do kata as part of the martial art.

    For those who don't know, kata is the Japanese word for "shape" or "form."  In martial arts, it is prearranged set of movements designed to teach techniques, principles, and acclimatize your body to the movements necessary for your martial art.  When the general public thinks of someone practicing karate, they probably think of someone performing a solo kata.  My particular style of aikido, Chendokan Aikido, doesn't have a lot of that type of kata, and in fact, I don't know how you could teach aikido with kata like that.  Half of the idea of aikido is to feel the motion from your partner and react to that.  We do have weapon kata for jo (short staff), tanto (knife),  and ken (sword).  What aikido does have, and many martial arts if you look, is two person kata.  We practice specific movements, from specific attacks in a formalized pattern.  Sounds like a kata to me, and I think that many martial arts have this type of kata.  In fact, in our system, this type of two man kata, is much more prevalent than the solo kata, but they are kata none the less.
    Kata can have many benefits...if it is done mindfully.  If you are going through the motions, then yes it is pointless, and you might as well be dancing. In fact, anything you do without intent behind it, really is pointless.  Here are a couple of things to keep in mind as you perform your kata.
Motobu Chooki performing kata


    On the jujutsu side of our art, we do have kata, so I asked my instructor what he thought the point of kata was.  He answered, "It's was a way to practice martial arts by yourself."  I've always liked that answer.  Kata should allows you to run through the ideas, movements, and theorem of your art.  It can be a way to practice your art when you're away from the dojo.  When you're on vacation, or snowshoeing in the mountains (see, or whatever, you can do your martial arts.

Fluidity of Movement

    One of the major benefits that I've found in kata is control of my own body.  I picked up a saying from my friend Chris who picked it up in the US Air Force.  He says "Slow is smooth.  Smooth is Fast."  I tend to agree with that statement.  By working on fluidity, you relax antagonistic muscles, and over time, learn to be faster. 


 Power Generation

    Notice I don't call it Strength Generation.  Strength and Power can be different things.  I've found that in aikido, many of the most powerful throws I've ever been able to do, require the least amount of strength.  Kata allows for experimentation of how to generate power.  Two man kata is much more useful for this, but solo kata can accomplish this as well.
    As part of the idea of power generation is the idea of breath control.  Many kata have certain ways to breath during specific motions.  Aikido teaches to breath out on throws, and breath in while receiving the attack.  This creates a whole body motion of the throw.  Karate, or other hard style systems have similar breathing rules.  The whole breathing regulation thing is also a side handed trick to learn a way to keep calm in a stressful situation.

Discovery of Bunkai

  Bunkai is the martial meaning behind the kata.  In the same kata, the same movements can be interpreted several different ways.  The mystery of discovering the bunkai one of the "fun" aspects of martial arts.  I think it signifies a certain level of internalization, of understanding, when you can explain the bunkai in a logical, rational, realistic self-defense manner.

Doctrine, Strategy, and Technique

Iain Abernathy in a two man kata
    If a kata is legitimately useful, it should embody the doctrine of your martial art system.  (See our podcast Episode IX for the definitions)  It should do this by exemplifying the various strategies of your art, i.e. the stances and movements that allow you to use the different techniques.  It can often do this through the different techniques presented in the kata.  But you job at the performer, is to work backwards from the level of technique to the level of doctrine. 


    Kata can be as valuable a tool as you want it to be.  It depends on your mindfulness and attention to details.  If you are serious about your martial art, you should be able to visualize the techniques and the resistance as you perform the kata.  It can also be a form of relaxation exercise.  Kata should be more than just physical techniques.  Breath control, stance work, fluidity of movement, and power generation should be in every kata.  However, it should not be a substitute for live training.  It  should be a part of your overall training.  So "Keep Calm and Kata On"


  1. Nice post Sensei, I would also mention that our kata in Atemi-Ryu is also the performance of a multiple attack scenerio. I don't know how many arts actually have that type of multiple attack scenarios in their kata but that was something that really hit home for me when I came into this system. I could see even though I was practicing by myself the opponents movements and mine as well while I performed the kata. The movements and techniques became more real for me even when I practiced alone.

    1. Thank you for your kind words. The kata for our system do create a particular, internal visual image of the attackers. I don't know if other systems have this effect or not, I haven't practiced kata in other systems.