The following excerpt is taken from “The Essence of Karate”, by Harry Rosenstein
“Karate begins and ends with kata. Kata is the essence and foundation of karate and it represents the accumulation of more than a thousand years of knowledge. Formed by numerous masters throughout the ages through dedicated training and research, the kata are like a map to guide us, and as such must never be changed or tampered with”.Morio Hiagaonna Hanshi 10th Dan- International Okinawan Goju Ryu Karatedo
We have all heard at one time or another this definition of kata.
Kata is a dance like pattern of movements which contains a series of blocks and attacking techniques where the karateka is defending against imaginary opponents. When a karateka performs kata they can more fully understand the meaning of each individual technique.
All of this is correct except that for the kata to come to life, it needs the participation of an individual who understands its true purpose, and there lies the problem.
As a young instructor I would tell my students while performing kata to imagine that they are fighting someone and you must block their technique and counter to eliminate the threat. The attack is coming from various angles, from various opponents with various techniques. This is good when first learning kata but loses its meaning as they progress in their training. As time went on I found that the student didn’t pay attention to this type of emphasis. In fact it just doesn’t stimulate them. So I stopped emphasizing the opponent and concentrated on kata’s purpose.
The purpose of kata is to develop balance, grace, breath control, speed, agility, flexibility, reflexes, mental attitude and ultimately reaching Kensho (self-awarness}.
“Kata training is the primary path to self-mastery. It is the attitude, and not the technique, that is paramount. Most important is winning the battle inside yourself. We put the emphasis on conquering fear, self, and ego-defeating, the opponent comes afterwards.”
“The tightening and relaxing of the correct muscles takes a tremendous amount of concentration and only in kata can one learn to control his body to respond to his wishes and also exercise the same control over his breathing. This is when the value of kata is realized.”
“When movements of a kata become so familiar that the kata can be practiced without hesitation or thinking, the mental relationship to both the body and the kinetic (energy of motion) pattern will be released and a deep meditative awareness will develop. A mind-body awareness will be absorbed. An energy pattern will result in a controlled concentration. As one tunes in with the kata he is in tune with himself, and the universe in the end. The aim is to make the individual one with the universe”.
“Kata is the martial artist’s path to enlightenment, or silence behind the sound. Kata is superior to Jiju kumite because in it you can strike with full force and you can kill your opponent in your mind”.
“Practicing kata is enough because it teaches you to cope with fear. The most important aspect in a fight is your own apprehension-your fear. Kumite, punching and kicking exercises, and tournaments only sharpen your physical skills, they don’t help you conquer your fear. Through kata you come to grips with yourself. You may be skillful, but if you are scared, all the training in the world isn’t going to do any good”.Richard Kim Hanshi 10th Dan – Shorinji Ryu- Zen Bei Butokukai
The most difficult thing to do in karate, in my opinion, is to mentally prepare to perform kata by yourself with a 100% commitment. It requires a specific mind set, discipline and desire. My students would ask me how many times in a training session they should perform each kata all out and fast. I tell them only once for if they perform it correctly and give it all they can they won’t be able to perform it better the second time. It would be better to move onto the next kata. This is assuming that they know how to perform all the techniques within that kata properly. When one performs the kata “full blast” there should not be anything reserved in one’s tank to perform it any better the second time.
When a karateka is performing kata by themselves I always recommend that they perform each kata three times. The first performance should be ultra slow, focusing on every minute detail. This will be your one chance in performing the kata perfectly, for when you speed up so do the mistakes. The second time the kata should be performed half speed, start to thrust and snap your techniques and focus on your balance. The third time should be “full blast”.
I also stress to my students to open their minds to other art forms and sports that have similar characteristics to karate. I believe that the participation in these forms would enhance a karateka’s focus and concentration as well as mind body coordination which in turn would benefit their kata development. I personally enjoy watching the dance shows on television, Ballroom, Contemporary or Ice Dancing. In particular I am amazed at the beauty and athleticism; they are all in essence performing kata. I concentrate on their artistic movements and in particular their graceful soft techniques. I am constantly trying to improve my “Ju” techniques. It’s interesting to note that the softer I’ve become the more I am able sustain and outlast my opponent in Kumite.
I constantly mention to my students, in particular the new ones, that they are not here to learn how to fight, that’s a by- product of their training, more importantly they are here to get a better understanding of themselves. They would respond with a look of astonishment and bewilderment. Over the years many of my students would tell me at first hearing those words they would tell themselves I know exactly who I am so what the heck is he talking about. I would tell them wait and you will see. If you stay long enough, and train hard enough you will eliminate and overcome your weaknesses and maximize your strengths. The way to do this is through kata.
Each kata has its own special techniques, its own set of demands and its own personality. Each one represents a different struggle, a different battle, you against this unyielding foe. As a karateka progresses in their training the kata’s imaginary opponent is attacking with new and more sophisticated techniques. This requires the karateka to train more diligently to overcome these more difficult challenges. As a karateka advances in their training they will be required to learn and perform kata specifically designed for their stage of development. The more advance the student the more difficult and demanding the kata becomes. These demands become a test of the karateka’s will to learn, comprehend, develop and perform what is required. There should be no deviation or personal interpretation that may alter the kata’s structure. The kata is perfect the problem is that the individual attempting to perform it is not.
Perfection can only be accomplished by living the kata. Getting out of the dance of kata and getting out of the dance of life. When performing kata if one is constantly thinking of every move then that individual is said to be “stuck in the dance”. In your daily life when one’s thoughts are on subjects other than the one you should be focusing on or when you are unable to “clear your mind” you are what I call “stuck in the dance of life”. These everyday outside distractions have to be eliminated for one to perform kata properly. One must be able to coordinate the Mind, Body and Spirit. The goal is to be able to reach “Mushin”, having no thought, having no emotion. This can only be accomplished through the understanding, proper performance, and “living the kata”. There should be no distinction between the kata and the performer. You must become one with the kata.
I remember one time when I gave a kata demonstration at a tournament. I performed “Suparinpei” at the time the most difficult Goju Ryu kata. I remember starting the kata and I remember ending it. Everything in the middle was a blur and still to this day it is a blank to me. I believe I reached the state of “Mushin”. I have not reached that level since. I keep trying to and I hope to come back to it. I believe I will.