Transcendence of Kata
Within agrarian and pre-industrialized societies, metaphor and symbolic representation played key roles in how a person identified with world and self. An object’s worth, especially if related to spiritual or personal realms, was judged not in a literal sense, as is often the case today, but by the depth of knowledge, or inspiration, that could be plumbed from said object or ritual. Therefore, a complex ritual like kata would have been analyzed with a creative rule of measure indigenous to the Okinawan culture.
The traditional method for analyzing and interpreting a kata began with its initial presentation to the student, which was often done in solo fashion, and then followed by the practice of pre-arranged kumite using kata techniques. However, as the student grew in his or her karate and progressed through the apprentice ranks, the kata would take on symbolic qualities that transformed it into a medium for both internal and external forms of practice, as well as giving countless variations to its techniques. This, in turn, made the kata come to life and change as the karate-ka’s skills and insights grew. Moreover, as the practitioners achieved mastery of their art, they would transcend the kata as its techniques, strategies and rhythms came to be natural movements their body had internalized through countless hours of training.
The process which leads to the transcendence of kata is related to the stages of Shu, Ha and Ri. Shu is the stage where the kata is first taught and performed in an exact manner, more often than not in solo fashion to ensure the student perfects proper body mechanics, stances, breathing, timing and technique. It is only after progress has been made in these areas that the student is allowed to practice the kata’s technique with a partner. Ha is the stage during which the karate-ka, who usually at this point has spent numerous years training, begins to personalize the kata to suit their individual needs. This includes modifying bunkai during two-person practice as well as even changing the kata itself. This can and often does lead to new variations of an old kata as seen throughout karate. Ri is the point beyond standardization, and even in some instances ritual itself, for it is at this stage that the kata has become part of the karate-ka. Its techniques are executed naturally and without thought as are the breathing, timing, body mechanics and rhythms found within the kata.
Transcendence of kata can only be achieved through many years of devoted practice. However, this process can also be accentuated by social customs, as well as training aids, that impart physical and creative skills in the practitioner which he or she then applies to the practice of kata.
The impact of social customs on a fighting art is commonplace, and Okinawa is no exception to this rule. In fact, its social morals and customs are what give karate its strongest characteristics. Consequently, the influence of Okinawan folkdance both directly and indirectly helped instill kata with a depth of practice uncommon in many of today’s dojos.
From a creative standpoint, dance allowed the karate-ka to set aside rigid guidelines and view kata with an open mindset, thereby recognizing similar principles of movement and how they complemented one another. On a physical plane, dance would have exposed the karate-ka to new rhythms, lighter, more agile movements and different breathing patterns that would aid in identifying transitional points found between techniques which are crucial for rapid change of direction during combat. This effect, when combined with kata practice, increased the karate-ka’s skill levels, enhancing muscular memory by different movements and exercises, which, in time, carried the karate-ka beyond the boundaries of kata. Dance, however, wasn’t the only medium that added to the richness of kata or helped the practitioner transcend the ritual’s boundaries. Other practices also contributed to this process and continue to do so today.
Kihon’s Relation to Kata
From birth our bodies are imbued with natural movements that we perform without thought but in which we develop proficiency as they are executed over a period of time. Some of these are walking, grabbing, chopping and thrusting. In Hoplological, parlance such movements are categorized as either primary or secondary patterns. Primary ones are those natural movements we are born with while secondary are those actions we learn. Often is the case that our primary movements serve as a foundation for the secondary ones we learn. Catching a baseball would be a good example of this, for it is the primary movement of ‘grabbing” which enables the outfielder to catch a high fly ball. However, along with the grabbing movement, running and correct hand placement are also needed to make the catch. Moreover, these secondary movements, when combined with the primary movement of grabbing, are what enable the player to catch the high fly ball.
In karate, when our natural movements are refined into a technique, then a neuromuscular response is formed through constant practice, allowing the karate-ka to execute his or her technique under a host of different circumstances. Kihon, or basic technique practice, allows the karate-ka to refine primary movements into techniques at one of the most basic levels known. And, since kata is comprised of a grouping of individual techniques, then solo practice helps reinforce those lessons imparted by the kata. Similarly, the practice of techniques not found in a kata, still refines motor skill development, timing and stamina.
Solo Practice of Kata
Solo kata practice is, perhaps, the most preferred method in karate today and certainly the most recognized. This method enables the karate-ka to practice independently of a training partner while at the same time developing neuromuscular skills.
Thorough solo practice, the karate-ka begins developing proper body mechanics, breathing, form and proper technique. When first presented, the kata should be taught at slow speed to allow the beginner to memorize its sequential actions. Only later should the tempo be increased. These initial stages of learning occur when the neuromuscular responses, organic to a particular kata, are first revealed. Therefore practicing too fast at an early stage leads to improper development. In contrast, slow practice of kata can be used by advanced karate-ka to learn relaxation and enhance proper breathing. At medium speeds of practice, pains should be taken to visualize one’s opponents, their reactions and variations of kata bunkai.
Solo kata practice done fast should be attempted only after proficiency has been gained at slow and medium speeds. Practicing kata full speed is an anaerobic explosion designed to push the karate-ka to the very limit as he or she attempts to mold both mind and body into one functioning unit, attaining a Zen state of consciousness. Despite sounding mystical, these effects are garnered from an intense focus during which the karate-ka’s mind and body are completely devoted to the execution of kata. As such the fighter is no different from the ballet dancer, or baseball pitcher who, completely devoted to their craft, performs flawlessly while being oblivious to the crowd’s applause.
Despite its merits, one fallacy of solo practice is that the karate-ka develops a tendency to “run through’ the kata without proper focus, breathing or technique. This is a common occurrence among those competing in tournaments, where speed and flamboyancy often take precedence over movements, which, although slower, have more precision. In such instances as these, it should be kept in mind that traditional kata practice is not intended to be a foot race. Skill can only be developed through precise, well executed movements.
Two Person Drills
Kata practice via two-person drills entails the isolation of a specific technique found in a kata, which is then practiced by two people seeking greater knowledge about its numerous applications. This method of practice is not a competition but a mutual learning experience where one person agrees to play the role of attacker and the other defender. During two person practice, it is vital that both karate-ka maintain a high vigilance and that both the attack and defense be executed in a spirited manner. Although addressing kata practice in Judo, Donn Draeger in his long standing classic, Judo Training Methods, wrote about the execution of technique during two person kata practice that “A tendency in kata practice today seems to be the meaningless application of the various kata, being studied and applied only as a prerequisite to the various Dan. Trainees enter into kata quite reluctantly, and the average approach brings little material benefit. Instructors and trainees must employ kata in their training sessions, and should understand that the prearranged exercises are to be practiced with meaning in accordance with the principles of attack and defense and should convey such spirit. Movements made with careless motion or those with no mental alertness become useless” (Draeger, Judo Training Methods, 87). This also applies to the study of karate kata, in which each technique should be practiced as if it were in under actual circumstances. Moreover, such training should also include, joint locking, grappling, as well as stick and knife defense.
While quite possibly one of the most beneficial ways to practice kata, breaking the ritual down into isolated segments is also one of the most neglected aspects of kata today. Our hesitation to do so comes not only from lack of understanding, but also from an overriding tendency to view each kata as a sacred cow never to be butchered, no matter how hungry we are. This is a belief which overlooks the fact that progress is made only after the cow has been butchered, dissected and eaten. Kata sequences should be isolated and practiced in a realistic manner for it is only by doing so that our skill levels will grow.
Sensing Hands Kakie
Imported from China, sensing hands practice, known as kakie, was commonplace among Okinawan fighters before Karate’s introduction to Japan. However, as karate assumed sport characteristics and with its widespread popularity in the West, kakie came to be identified as a Goju-ryu training aid. Prior to this time, kakie was not limited by stylistic boundaries given the eclectic nature of early karate. Mabuni Kenwa, founder of Shito-ryu, studied both Shuri-Te and Naha-Te and was no doubt exposed to kakie while training with Kanryo Higaonna. Tatsuo Shimabuku, founder of Isshinryu Karate also studied Goju-ryu; however, his reason for omitting kakie from Isshinryu’s teaching syllabus is a mystery.
Push hands, sensing hands, and kakie are all terms used to describe sensitivity drills that teach a fighter how to mold with an opponent thereby gaining an edge through pliability. Within both internal and external styles of Chinese boxing, sensing hands drills are practiced with one of the most popular being Tai Chi’s push hands drill. Other Asian cultures also embrace the sensing hands concept as can be seen in the teaching formats of Indonesian Silat and softer forms of Burmese Bando.
Kakie’s importance is that it helps the karate-ka develop a sensitivity in the arms allowing him or her to mold with the opponent’s movements, thereby capitalizing upon any openings that may be presented. The concept’s premise is one of yield and conquer, for where there is resistance, there is force, and if your opponent can exert force upon you, then in all likelihood, you will be injured. When combined with locking and grappling strategies, this feature of kata, adds a depth of complexity normally not found within mainstream schools today.
There are many ways to practice kakie, all of which have their merits. However, it is usually best to begin with basic routines and then progress in complexity as skill levels increase. The most basic practice of kakie is performed with both karate-ka standing in a stationary position, using one hand, which, when moving in unison, travels back and forth in a straight line between the two practitioners. This can be done in a Seisan stance; however, if emphasis is being placed on lower body development, then Sanchin, Seiuchin or Nahanchi stances can be used.
As the karate-ka grows comfortable with the forward and backwards hand movements, then other actions can be utilized such as circular and side to side actions. The key behind early kakie practice is getting the karate-ka used to adhering to, and molding with, the training partner’s movements. Proper footwork and technique will come with time; however, the student should initially strive to overcome fear of maintaining intimate contact with an opponent. Once this fear diminishes, then the ability to predict an opponent’s actions by light touch starts developing. Nevertheless, this ability can only be developed if the karate-ka is secure enough to mold with an opponent’s attack in a relaxed and flowing manner.
After single arm kakie has been perfected then it is time for two arm kakie. This exercise is basically the same as single arm, except that two arms, instead of one, are now being used. The intensity of kakie training can be increased at this stage by having the practitioners move in prearranged sets, or else by allowing them to practice free form during which any stepping pattern or arm action the karate-ka chooses can be used, provided contact is not broken between the two practitioners.
Alternative Kata Practice, Ground Grappling and Closing the Range
More often than not today, kata is presented to the student as a complete entity, one never to be broken apart but studied only through solo practice. In actuality, kata is a grouping of individual techniques and strategies which, when brought together make up a cohesive paradigm. But despite the paradigm’s cohesiveness, some techniques used within kata can be omitted during practice so as to allow the karate-ka to focus on a particular concept or technique.
Kicks, heel stomps and knee strikes are often used in traditional karate kata to accentuate the effectiveness of locking and throwing techniques. This strategy serves two purposes. First, it allows the karate-ka to strike an opponent before executing a throw. Second it helps distract the opponent while the lock or throw is being applied. Unfortunately, it is common to interpret kicking techniques as being the core strategies of a kata, and in doing so, incipient practitioners overlook strategies which hold a much more profound combative rational, particularly where grappling is concerned.
It is essential that the karate-ka be able to identify and use grappling techniques found in the kata. Therefore, to enhance this learning experience, the kata should be practiced minus kicks during solo and two- person training. This not only helps the karate-ka recognize existing grappling strategies, but it also exposes them to a different rhythm of movement, one unbroken by a kick. Hence, the karate-ka is able to practice the lock or throw in a manner, much the same as found in Aikido or ju-jutsu, thereby helping him or her to appreciate yielding and molding with an attacker’s actions. This same principle can be applied to punching, permitting the karate-ka to perform the kata at its most base level, thereby revealing core body movements which are the paradigm’s foundation. By doing so, the karate-ka comes to have a better appreciation for slipping, shifting and distributing weight, activities which are ever present but seldom go noticed during kata practice.
Unfortunately, studying the intrinsic value of kata is frequently overlooked today because of tournament demands that necessitate flamboyance in performance. This emphasis on show performance often leads to hyper-fast executions, higher than normal kicks, exaggerated breathing, broken rhythms and other traits, which, although impressive to the audience, go against the grain of traditional kata. When combined with point sparring, these mannerisms lead the karate-ka into thinking that a fight begins at foot’s distance and then progresses outward, a notion counterintuitive to traditional kata practice where the engagement starts at foot’s distance, then progresses closer to the karate-ka, providing the reason for locking and grappling techniques.
As simple as the matter of distance may seem, it is one of the crucial dividing points between sport and combative methods of practice. For within the realms of life and death, hand-to-hand combat, the distinction between offense and defense becomes non-existent as both combatants try to kill or maim one another. The will to survive makes a person exhibit aggressive behaviors, putting the combatant in either a fight or flight mode. Should the person decide to fight, then he or she will be like a caged animal which knows only one route to survival: attack. Arthur Anderson, member of the International Hoplology Society, described this behavior and its effects on combat: “Even when you surprise the enemy, they don’t just stand there. They attack your attack in a state of startled mayhem. It’s a fumbling, bumbling mess where the idea is to be calm and control your breathing, but the reality is that you smash, crash, bash and scream bloody murder, cutting, stabbing, slashing, biting, hitting anything that gets in the way or comes within distance” (Anderson, Hoplos, Winter 2002, 12).
The fight or flight behavior pattern is addressed in traditional kata training where most engagements begin at foot’s distance and then move towards the karate-ka, resulting in the use of grappling and locking techniques to subdue the opponent, or else holding the opponent in a position until a fatal strike can be executed. Tournament fighting differs in that one player attacks and the other moves away, a strategy that employs no close quarter’s techniques and exhibits none of the fight or flight behavior characteristics commonplace in mortal combat.
If the karate-ka is to gain proficiency in grappling and locking strategies these strategies should be isolated and practiced independently. Nevertheless, this course of action requires a strong distinction between point-tournament and combative engagements, as well as the behaviors associated with each type of fighting. Likewise, with the influence of UFC style fighting, the differences between sport-grappling and self-defense based grappling need to be recognized.
Sport methods used in UFC events base their strategies on taking an opponent to the ground where he or she can be defeated by superior stamina and grappling skills. This strategy is well suited for the arena where opponents fight one- on- one and unarmed. However, during mortal combat, to stay afoot is to stay alive because numerous opponents may be encountered, some of whom may be armed; therefore mobility is essential for one’s survival. It is this environment that traditional karate kata are designed for and the reason why techniques which require spending a prolonged period on the ground are not found within them, despite sumo wrestling’s popularity in Okinawan culture.
Most traditional kata teach a mobile form of fighting that uses locks, holds and submissions to restrain an opponent long enough until a debilitating strike can find its target. The goal is to hurt an attacker severely so that the karate-ka can get safely out of harm’s way instead of fighting a prolonged ground-grappling engagement and attracting other assailants during the struggle.
The strong emphasis placed on upright fighting in traditional kata imbues these forms with an anaerobic rhythm, rather then an aerobic one. Much of this rhythm’s purpose stems from traditional kata being designed for mortal combat where engagements tend to be short, fast, and violent. Therefore, explosive power takes precedence over aerobic endurance. Hence the reason why many traditional kata rely on quick, explosive bursts of energy to execute several well placed techniques and their practice is of an anaerobic nature, instead of an aerobic one.
Although often misunderstood today, kata is a means by which the fighter can preserve knowledge, enhance skills and develop personal insight. Kata practice stimulates growth instead of hindering it, but often this is the case when we view kata in a one dimensional manner and practice it exclusively as a solo exercise.
When practiced in a traditional venue, kata is one of the most beneficial forms of training available to the karate-ka. It is only when the traditional venues are discarded that the ritual’s message is lost.