‘Kata’ practice is foundational in most Karate disciplines with varying numbers of katas, names and numbers of techniques, and as much as I cannot speak to the emphasis of these katas in other karate styles, in our own Matsubayashi Shorin Ryu, kata study (18 open hand) practice is very important!
Whether training to understand a kata on your own, with training partners,as Bunkai or under the direction of your Sensei, in the end, your kata is your kata, a concrete display of all your internal understanding of so many ingredients articulated and on display in an external way!
Alternatively, to view and partake in kata with just a one dimensional view of your kata practice is to train in a state of dormancy, never really advancing in knowledge, growth and understanding. Mentally, your Budo growth will be stunted.
Let us discuss items to ponder in this treatise, for making your kata training more interesting.
Your Sensei may provide the kihon/basics, techniques, kata patterns, etc., and may well guide you up that winding mountain path, but he/she doesn’t put in the hard work — you do!
A major portion of that hard work... is Kata study and if I may, I’d like to offer some perspectives that allow us to see kata study as even more multi-dimensional, more so than meets the proverbial eye.
Firstly, let’s remind ourselves that, RESPECT is paramount in all that wedo, and our kata practice is no different.
Our katas are information passed on over many, many generations from past Masters and teachers, down the ages to us. Our kata should be practiced respectfully as homage to those that have passed these patterns and ideas on down, over time, in the Budo way.
Remembering that Karate was originally intended as ‘Self Defence’ and as self defence, our katas are hugely influenced and formatted!
Rising through the ranks, our katas rise in numbers and in complexity,integrating basic moves and implementing familiarization of technique through patterns of dance-like movement. With practice over time,repetition of these moves give us a skillset and these moves then offer subtleties that we scarcely notice and nuances that become ingrained in our subconscious mind waiting to be understood.
Things, such as a balanced body structure, whether in a static pose or dynamically displayed through motion. Our lower body moves through space setting itself up by way of feet, legs, joints and koshi (hips), into our upper body and arms/hands to deliver an appropriate response to an antagonist’s attack.
We then have our eyes guiding us with intent and spirit to target(s)defending, intercepting or offensively directed as a strike or block, etc., to engage.
Our attitude and spirit are fully on display throughout our kata practice whether with a full on ‘fighting attitude’ or maybe a ‘flowing meditative’ state of practice or any other of our attitudes in between.
Every time we perform our katas, various attitudinal inflections should beintoned in order to extract as much information from these historically passed on patterns. It’s surprising the ideas and understanding that are sure to rise to the surface of our conscious minds with this practice.
Within kata practice, our mind mentally recognizes a potential external or threatening stimulus and prepares us for a response subliminally and then our innate training kicks in gear to react in many ways in this faux threat environment. To develop a mind that just responds ‘in the moment’, is an integral asset.
The sheer physicality of our practice tends to overshadow the entire contribution that our mind offers! Our mind is the pilot that steers our body mass and it’s trained response. As much as we view our physical prowess as the one in charge, think again!
Our mind is also acutely aware of options in kata (i.e. oyo bunkai - practical use) and whether we can deal with a threat in any other way aside from a physical means (talking, feigning weakness, you get the idea). Kata opens doors consciously and unconsciously for us in many ways with practice of various techniques, we learn to employ so many moves fully adaptable to most threats we may face. (If after many years of training, the only option we can think of, is to punch someone hard and fast - well, back to the drawing board as kata offers us so many more alternatives than just a punch!)
This brings us to the meditative benefits of kata.
Think of Kata as moving meditation over the course of it’s patterned flow and travel. Meditation may take many forms and sitting in Zazen is probably the most recognizable form, but we meditate in motion also - gardening, painting, music appreciation, etc., these are all forms of moving meditation nourishing our mind.
Kata, as we immerse ourselves into this practice, takes on an important meditative quality and deepens our practice even more. Much the same as the eye of a hurricane is mostly calm, it hides the controlled fury outside,just waiting to be called upon, as the situation requires. A benefit of the meditative state within and it’s innate benefits are immeasurable.A calm mind awaiting and holding the reins of a controlled response.With this meditation skillset, you will now find the added importance of breath control within. Natural breathing such as when to inhale as to when to exhale, is an observance not be ignored or diminished, but to be sincerely investigated in all kata. To force breath or even hold onto it as we all have done, is to impede it is inherent nature to give us life and thusly, the connective life within our kata.
This breath control influences the rhythm and very important timing required to imbue a measure of control that is needed to execute goodtechnique in kata or elsewhere. Without good control of our mind and body in breathing, we react with too much fear and emotion - qualities not conducive to reacting in a successful, well trained manner. Not taking that breath as required naturally in kata, will leave a breathing deficit at the end,when we are left gasping. Compare a 30 second kata of not breathing properly and left gulping for air - versus a fight or an altercation scenario that ensues over many minutes or longer! It’s a no win!
Breath control is invaluable!
Breathe. Be cognizant of rhythm and your timing in kata and this will fundamentally be the centrepiece of your kata from which now you add the various other flavours that make your martial practice work. Proficient training and thoughtful practice in kata will maximize your reaction both mentally and physically and will help to place the odds in your favour for a successful outcome, should the need arise in a threatening situation BUT,always be aware of ALL optional means to a safe conclusion.
All of these attributes (and I’m sure many more), that make up our kata practice, should be viewed as integral in order to challenge, understand and enjoy these multi-faceted aspects of our art allowing ourselves to progress.
Your kata is yours alone. Paint it with the colourful palette of your own understanding and interpretation.