The Ins and Outs of Kata and Reality

This Article of the 2nd Part of Adam Cathrall's Series on Kata and Self-Defense.  Check out part 1 here.  

Many of us will train in martial arts our entire life and be fortunate enough to never have to use it. Others may not be so lucky. There is no photo finish, gold medal or hero technique. It is generally an intense, disorienting experiences that generally never goes down like we expect it to. The factors such as how you are attacked, level of intoxication and even how well or if the other person is trained. Take a moment to list out the variables that you may run into and then really take some time to think about how truly prepared you are.

In the previous article I had discussed keeping a kata in your back pocket. What I meant is that it is not just a portable way to practice, but it is also the bunkai that you feel you can best go to to defend yourself. It could be a simple bunkai series or something more complex but it should be the effect for you. I really like to try katas on. For example, Kanku Dai is a really great kata but doesn’t really fit me very well. The techniques of Empi, Tekki, and Bassai are a much better fit for me. It isn’t that I feel that I am better at the other katas (in comparison to Kanku Dai), it is that the techniques within the kata don’t really mesh with the way I move. I suggest that you take the time to run through that katas you know and develop the bunkai from it. If you have experience in other martial arts, find them in the kata. Bunkai isn’t just limited to karate. While it is rooted in karate, if you search the kata deep enough, you can see the Jiu Jitsu, the Aikido, and even the Kobudo. Don’t limit this to any style. Keep in mind the other dynamics and experiment. I once heard an expression that when you are all out if ideas, just humor your imagination.

Let’s go ahead and take a look at how we can nurture and develop this. In the dojo talk to your sensei and the senior students and see what they say and can help with. Before and after class, grab someone who has a minute to help you try on a technique. Training time isn’t limited to class time. I like to get on Youtube and look at all sorts of martial arts. What I am really saying here is study, learn and develop. Those are the ins of kata and reality. Here are the outs; don’t ever accept one single answer on what bunkai or the meaning of a kata actually is. Block and punch is more than just block punch. If you dig deep enough, you will see. Looking at what you are doing as an absolute will take you out of the fight rather quickly. When practicing, keep in mind it’s not just the technique; it’s the rhythm and timing as well. To neglect a piece of the kata, you not only are messing up the kata but are most likely be missing out on a technique. Let me clarify; while a technique is a technique, timing is what makes it effective. Timing and rhythm are what make us martial artists as opposed to wild brawlers.

What does all of this have to do with reality? Let’s put it all together. We learn kata in class and then we take them home and study them. Since we are good karateka we go the extra mile and study them in depth. First is because it is fun and secondly, I never had the chance to cram for the real thing. I have worked security all over the world and have military experience. Unfortunately, this means that I have my fair share of fights. I have learned that decisive and deliberate movements and actions will always beat random attacks and careless defenses. By now, you are probably saying well yeah we know this already but what is your point? As I always say, the kata is a reminder of a technique, not an absolute. It adds fluidity to what you need to do, whether it be a strike or a takedown. If you can move your techniques with rhythm and what timing you can attempt to gain in a fight that may last a matter of seconds you will be much better off.

Kihon and kumite are very important, but kata is the bridge of both. Kihon develops your techniques to utter perfection as long as we practice the technique 1000 times. We can spar and realize what it takes to be in a fight and most importantly what it means to have poise and dignity. Don’t ever forget this! No matter how brutal a fight or assault may be win or lose, you must be dignified. Funakoshi has stated “Karate-do begins with courtesy and ends with rei.” Even if you do not see it coming or have to take the first punch, always be courteous and respectful. It shows those who may be a potential enemy that you are unprepared for the next attack or have inflated your ego and will be a much more prideful fall. An old samurai proverb says when the battle has ended, tighten your helmet straps. Before rei we have yoi; despite the thrill of successfully defending yourself or the tragedy of not you must be ready to be attacked again. If attacks were as simple as attack defend we wouldn’t have kata.

We also have zanshin involved with all of our karate basics. The spectrum of zanshin is vast. It can range from a state of maintaining awareness to even our kamae or posture. My interpretation of Zanshin is the point where your body becomes potential energy, the moment where your awareness and prepared body wait for the next action. Your mind should take on the task of preparing for the follow through attack aka the finisher as well as be prepared for 360 degree defense. You never know what is going to happen next but take a moment and be ready for it. Then you should return to yoi or a modified version of it. All of this is important and I am not attempting to tell someone what to do when they have to fight. I am simply trying to show how important kata is in a real fight. Even though they are two different things, they have many things in common. Now, back to yoi…during your yoi time it should be where you relax your body but keep your mind alert. Assess not only other threats but your injuries and the injuries of people around you. Maybe it is wise to call the police as well.

In the spirit of martial arts we practice, learn and develop ourselves. We also teach and inspire others. It doesn’t take a black belt to do this either. Sometimes the children that train can often inspire great things. Kata and the study of martial arts can be a very rewarding thing but can also save your life. When it comes down to applying these practices we should always remember that it is a reminder and not an absolute. One lesson I have learned the hard way is that everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face. This is why the basics are important because they are something that we know and we can do.             

Adam Cathrall started training in Shotokan at the age of 4. He has also training in many other forms of martial arts such as Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Boxing, and Iaido.

Adam Cathrall started training in Shotokan at the age of 4. He has also training in many other forms of martial arts such as Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Boxing, and Iaido.