Unfortunately, over the years I’ve noticed that many of those interested in karate in general don’t have a solid understanding of what kata is actually for and what it’s really intended to do.
Therefore, their opinions about its worth are often stalled or go off in directions that lead nowhere productive.
There are, in fact, a number of misconceptions about kata.
Among the more obvious are the following:
“A kata tells a story.”
No, it doesn’t. Combat — even a simple confrontation — is enormously chaotic and unpredictable. No “story” could be implemented that could be even remotely applicable to the spontaneity of a fight.
“A kata allows us to practice the more deadly techniques of karate.”
No, not if you’re just going through the motions.
A finger stab done 10,000 times against an imaginary opponent’s eye doesn’t teach you any more about the effectiveness of that technique than doing it once. All the kata repetitions in the world won’t change that. A kata is just a combination of techniques, randomly assembled. Feel free to create your own; it’ll be just as valuable.
Understanding the true role of kata in karate-do depends to a considerable extent on a familiarity with the three pillars that support it. Grasp these concepts and you’ll find it easier to see the place of kata in your training and to make informed judgments about its practice.
It’s easy to look at a kata from outside and conclude it’s an arbitrary arrangement of techniques. A kata has structural integrity. The movements may be fast and light, or slow and heavy, but they make sense. They’re applicable. Standing on one leg and unleashing flippy kicks at head height while rotating in a circle might look impressive, but there’s no solidity, no proper application of power. Watch a karateka do a kata and they should be balanced, their body integrated, and all parts coordinated. You won’t find them tumbling or upside down. That’s because the kata has structural integrity.
Shin, or “mind,” is a familiar term to martial artists. In this context, it refers to the coherence of the kata. If you think of kotai as the bones of the kata, shin is the collection of muscles that allow it to articulate. Those muscles have to work in concert.
Ever see a kata in which the performer does a split or some other spectacular motion? Remember what happened next? Probably not. The movements of most contrived kata tend to be very fast and spastic. But in almost every case, if you could watch the kata in slow motion, you’d see that the move following one of those dramatic actions is weak, largely meaningless in a combative sense. The performer has to stand up or reorient himself. The kata stops, in effect. Then it restarts. It’s disjointed. There’s no smooth articulation.
In a real kata, there’s a flow. The components work together.
A real kata — one generated over a long period and by those who knew what they were doing and practiced by someone who’s been correctly taught it — has intent behind it. There’s a unifying set of principles. In some, these principles will be rapid movement, either in and out or laterally. In others, it will be a strong sense of predation — karateka doing it looks like a tiger stalking prey.
In poorly constructed kata, the performer looks like a little kid in a big toy store, his attention in a dervish-like spin. In a good kata, there’s the sense that the practitioner is controlling time and space, setting the pace. This is an expression of the focus, the intent of the kata.
Structural integrity. Coherence. Intent. These three pillars support a kata.
To kata or not to kata?
So the question comes back, is a kata worth practising over and over again. If it has the three pillars then yes. If it is made up of flashy movements that do not flow into one another and demonstrate and intention then in my opinion no it is not worth you investing your time in repeating again and again.
Any sequence of moves in a kata should be able to be pulled out of the kata and work in their own right. If the kata cannot be pulled part like this then it is simply a pretty dance without the three pillars you need. So check your kata, is it really effective or is it simply some pretty moves mashed together. Observe, question, challenge your Sensei should clearly be able to tell you the three pillars of that kata.