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What is kata?


There are many different views on what kata is. Kata has been said to be the soul of karate, a source of forgotten 'secrets', a form of moving mediation, a 'record' of the combative techniques, a pointless dance, or an archaic relic that should be abandoned.

To my way of thinking kata can be all those things and all those views can have merit. Essentially it comes down to what is meant by the word 'kata', the background of the individual martial artist and their experience of kata.

Kenwa Mabuni (pictured right) one of the foremost masters of the time, who was a historical collector and teacher of all Okinawan kata of the time said; "In karate, the most important thing is kata. Into the kata of karate are woven every manner of attack and defense technique. Therefore, kata must be practiced properly, with a good understanding of their bunkai meaning."

Kata were predominately created to record the fighting methods of a given individual. To protect oneself from a civilian (non-martial artist) attack. The self-defense or self-protection of the time, and of course has the same value today.

Master Kenwa Mabuni image

Master Kenwa Mabuni practicing kata

Master Kenzon Mabuni image

Master Kenzo Mabuni practicing kata

Kata is a physical solo template, consisting of combative motions, created to record the key principles of a given fighting system so that those principles can be passed on to subsequent generations. Kata is a detailed pattern of movement which forms a complete fighting system.

As you become older, Kata training will increase because sparring and other contact exercise may become too extreme for the physical limitations that naturally accompany time. The uniqueness of Kata means that you can practice almost anywhere, anytime. You do not need large space, partners or special equipment. The important point is to practice often.

Many Kata have been handed down by masters from previous generations and is therefore important that we practice and recreate these Kata in their original form.

Gichin Funakoshi, considered to be the father of modern day karate, his 18th precept of karate was, "Kata must always be performed exactly; Combat is another matter". In Genwa Nakasone's explanations of that precept - which Funakoshi endorsed - he states, "In actual combat it will not do to be shackled by the rituals of kata. Instead, the practitioner should transcend kata, moving freely according to the opponent's strengths and weakness".

To summarize: kata is a record of combative principles. To effectively make use of those combative principles we need to move beyond the solo form to practice the techniques with a partner (in a realistic fashion), so that we can internalize the underlying concepts and then freely express those concepts in sparring and in combat.

In addition to demonstrating the correct techniques of a particular Kata, the instructor should also explain some of the other points of the Kata being practiced.

"Bunkai" - the breakdown & analysis of the Kata movements.

"Oyo" - the various applications of the techniques.

"Embusen" - the map or line of movement of the Kata.

"Zanshin" - to remain in awareness but calm.

"Kiai" - the spirit shout at set points within the Kata.

"Kokyu" - breathing. Breath control related to posture and movement of the Kata.

Red line image

With thanks to Iain Abernethy

Minori Higa image

Minoru Higa Hanshi practicing bunkai


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