During the performance of kata, it can become quite easy to fall into the trap of producing specific shapes simply for the sake of aesthetics. With standardisation across styles, plus the pressure for kata to become visually eccentric and pleasing for competition or gradings, many students who follow a modern-day approach may be conditioned to aspire to form first and then wonder at a later date why the kata they follow do not directly transfer into the functionality they may require for practical application. But of course, kata was never originally developed to visually impress.
"A kata is not fixed or immoveable. Like water, it is ever changing and fits itself to the shape of the vessel containing it. However, kata are not some kind of beautiful competitive dance, but a grand martial art of self-defence, which determines life and death." - Kenwa Mabuni
During recent karate practice in our dojo, I have spent some time emphasising the requirement for function to dictate form. Specifically, the dynamic feelings associated with particular kata movements should give rise to the shape produced, rather than the other way around. If these dynamic feelings do not exist, then your performance of kata could be considered 'dead', even if on the surface it looks amazing to the eye!
Sharp techniques in air or on stage do not always translate directly to what would be considered effective techniques against an opponent in self-defence. The same is also true vice versa. Dynamics that may be considered sound in application, may look rather sloppy or unfocussed when performed during solo form, since there's nothing to hit!. Furthermore, much of this functionality fails to transfer well into both areas.
As an example, punching in thin air and punching a makiwara require different attributes. During solo performance, the delivery system may be practised to a point (i.e. the launch and trajectory components), but the strike must always be consciously de-accelerated in order to protect your elbow joints upon full extension. Of course, this becomes much less of a consideration when facing the makiwara as we should be using the target itself to 'brake' the strike in order to affect a fully committed blow. Similarly, the reaction system of a strike is never challenged when performing in thin air. Conversely, the spring-like quality of the makiwara will very quickly highlight any weakness in this area.
In short, kata have specific limitations, just as do all aspects of practice. The ideal is to combine different methods of training in order to effectively develop all the necessary attributes required for your aspired goal(s). One useful benefit of kata is that it allows us to repetitively practice specific movement patterns and replicate key dynamic components, which may then extracted and utilised WITH OTHERS for combative application. Indeed, kata is without doubt 'The Heart of Karate', but as we all know first-hand, a heart cannot allow a human being to function on its own!
“The techniques of kata have their limits and were never intended to be used against an opponent in an arena or on a battlefield.” - Choki Motobu
During our post-discussion from the dojo session last week, one of my students spoke about the difference between speed skating and figure skating, explaining that the former seeks perfection in function, whilst the later seeks perfection in form - a great analogy that's just as applicable to karate!
One aspect that may be progressively developed through the solo practice of kata is the kinetic linking of structure to enable an effective transference of energy from the floor to fist, or vice versa when absorbing force. This aspect is often actively challenged during the practice of Tai-Kitae (body forging) or Shime (testing), but the initial alignment and ability to maintain such ability through movement is gained from the kata performance.
A useful way of visualising the concept of kinetic linking within the body is to think of a length of chain...
If the chain is loose (i.e. With no alignment) then the result of a twisting movement being applied at one end will never be experienced at the other. This represents the first stages of kata training, where the practitioner may make maximum physical effort, but gains little or no effective output. Even though each chain link is attached to the next, the inherent 'slack' creates an inefficient pathway for energy transfer. The same is true for uncoordinated and/or badly sequenced kata movements.
Now, think instead about a length of chain that's been pulled taught and all the links are aligned...
When a twisting movement is applied to one end, resultant forces will certainly become more apparent at the other end as energy is transferred through the chain links in sequence. This idea is similar to achieving more effective kinetic linking during the performance of kata. At first, it may take a large circular movement to create a sufficient effect, but with more experience and more sophisticated linking, these circular movements may become much smaller indeed.
Does the output occur at the same time as the input movement? Of course not, and it is the same in karate kata. Energy should move through the body (chain) like a malleable wave, not like a single solid brick! Body dynamics in kata should be multi-dimensional, integrating circularity and spiral qualities together with extension and compression, as well as expansion and contraction. The principle used to set the framework for a dynamic wave is Sequential Delay. That is...
"each joint action is delayed slightly from the previous so that like a long line of dominoes, a wave of energy may be perpetuated through the body from floor to fist."
Personally, I believe that the feelings associated with the movements of kata are of huge significance, not only for performance of the solo form, but also for the effective application of technique. A pressing feeling will give rise to a particular application, as will a spiralling, expanding, heavy or whip-like feeling. Many kata also emphasise particular feelings and as such, reveal specific combative principles related to them. For instance, the dynamics (and thus, applications) associated with Seisan Kata are very different to those associated with Chinto Kata. Thus, our study of bunkai should take into account not only the techniques themselves, but also the specific body dynamics and inherent feelings attributed to them. This will help to paint a much deeper picture as to the combative strategies given within the solo performance.
Thanks for reading and happy training,
Chris Denwood has been studying martial arts since childhood and specialises in the practical application of karate's traditional principles for civilian self-defence, personal development, life integration and discovery.