When I look back over the past 26 years of doing martial arts, I notice the wave of trends that have occurred. It isn’t just what is popular but it is an evolution of generations. With hundreds of years of traditions and methods changing so rapidly I often wonder what the founders would say if they got to see the martial arts of 2016. That is for another day.
I can say this: within my time doing martial arts I have seen many changes, some rather shocking, others almost cultural. From the age of four until 12 I trained in a very traditional Shotokan dojo in New Jersey in the late 80s and early 90s. The gi’s were white, the floors were wooden, and our training was steeped in tradition centered around kihon, kata, and kumite. These were the basis and the substance of our training. Intermittently we were lectured on certain philosophies and principles as well.
Many martial artists during this time had the same experience as I had. I eventually made more and more friends in school who trained in other martial arts such as American Karate, TKD and other things. Major motion pictures began a wide spread change of things. I began to notice that kata seemed like something that not many other schools did and often enough they were a much more action packed kata as opposed to the Heian katas that I was learning. Karate outside of my dojo was much more radical. As time went on fancy colorful gi’s and even musical kata came about. It was confusing to me; I felt like the karate I was learning was something very different from what karate should be. I wanted a fancy gi, I wanted to hit a punching bag and not a makiwara. I wanted the new age karate experience.
These other schools emphasized kumite and kihon. I felt strange doing kata and felt like it was of nothing but a show and a dance. Other schools used them as competition piece with little more than it being a show. It wasn’t until a profound moment in my childhood that taught me the value of kata.
It was my first fight.
At the time I was in the third grade; I was a green belt and Heian Yondan was the focal point in my training. I remember it was fast and I remember my mind racing with a million thoughts but my body took over. I did what I was trained to do. I defended myself using portions of the kata. It wasn’t until years later that I learned about bunkai and the practical reminder of techniques other than a set standard of motion. Nonetheless, as an 8-year-old boy I knew the essence of karate was more kata than anything else. It was something that you can practice whenever you wanted. To this day I tell my students that you should always keep a kata in your back pocket; you never know when it will come in handy.
Many times I hear people say kata is good for tournaments but really has no value in a fight, meaning that it has no value to students unless it is for competition. I am slowly starting to believe that kata is now part of some martial arts counter-culture. With this I would like to look at Taikyoku Shodan. For those of us who know it, we know that it is a very simple kata that emphasizes a block and a punch from the front stance. In my opinion, it is the best kata to learn from because it is the embodiment of the spirit of karate. You block and then you step and punch. The kata also teaches us to defend against the attack and then stop the attacker. We can take that concept of this much further in order to gain a deeper understanding. Funakoshi’s Niju Kun (20 instructions) says that ‘There is no first strike in Karate.’ We look at kata as the physical reminder of technique and action as well as the philosophical reminder of why we train and the traditions in which karate has been steeped in. While kata may not be the popular trend in martial arts it is deeply rooted.
When it comes to kata we also have bunkai. For those that aren’t fully familiar with bunkai, it is the application of the techniques in the kata. I have watched many videos where they show a very simplified bunkai, something for exactly or simply what it should be (as I have been taught and love to convey that bunkai is a reminder). What looks like a strike can become grab. Changes in stances can be part of takedowns. We have many other examples to look at, the more abstract and senseless a technique may seem I encourage you to try it on for size, feel it out and see what you can do with it.
Kata (in essence) is the reminder of all that we do as martial artists. It can be seen in many martial arts if you chose to look. It is your best sparring partner and the most portable training tool that you have. When you practice kata, change the speed of it. Practice slowly, feel the movements and breath calmly. Take the time to study yourself when you do kata and ask yourself, “how does this kata fit my body? Then, practice at speed and with strength. Let the mechanics of karate flow through the kata. Most importantly, use kata to better yourself as a martial artist and as a person. Let it be your inner and outer peace and let it be something that you can also take to a fight and let it be your guide.