WHAT IS KATA?
The Japanese word, kata, can be roughly translated as form, a kind of shadow boxing which applies karate techniques in a series of memorized patterns. But to those who really understand kata training know that there is much more to it than that.
Kata was originally developed for several reasons. From the beginning, martial arts masters realized that their students cannot use full-force when sparring or they would severely injure, or even kill, their partners. By developing katas, the masters could help their students learn to apply fighting techniques with full force, because their opponents were imaginary. Also, the students could simulate fighting multiple opponents in dangerous situations, without fear of being injured.
Individuals responsible for the development of kata also had the opportunity to include a wide range of techniques during the creative process. Although karate masters focused primarily on karate techniques, they also included movements from other martial arts, as well as from everyday activities. The hunters as they pursued many different kinds of animals were particularly inspiring. Observations of the animals themselves were also very important, as the masters watched how the animals moved and fought, and then found ways of including characteristics of those movements within kata.
Each major style of karate has innumerable katas which are designed to reflect the basic elements of that style. Within each style there are also groupings of related katas that share a similar structure and focus on a specific set of skills. Within these groupings, and within the style as a whole, there is usually a well- defined progression from one kata or group of katas to the next. Students are taught katas in an order that helps them build upon and enhance their basic skill.
When individuals first become karate students, they are introduced to a whole set of new skills. New students are taught basic techniques, but they need a training structure to learn how to use them effectively. Katas are an important part of helping these students develop their first awareness of how the techniques they are learning can be used in a fight. Later, as students rise through their school ranks, the katas can become more elaborate to meet the growing need to challenge the students to improve their skills.
Beginning students need simple katas to help them get started. For Example, in the Wado-Ryu karate style, there is a series of katas called the Pinan katas that are generally taught to students in their first one to two years of training. The Pinan katas, which share similar, uncomplicated moves and include basic techniques, are used to introduce students to the concepts of learning and training with katas.
When students progress to intermediate level of training, there is another series of katas for them to focus on. The intermediate katas have more intricate and difficult combinations of movement and techniques. Students learn to differentiate between fast and slow movements and rhythms, and how to apply familiar techniques in unusual ways. This process intensifies as students become more advanced. A group of related katas can progress in difficulty to emphasize using a specific set of skills in increasingly complex ways.
For example, in Wado-Ryu, there is a kata called the naifanchi kata, naifanchi katas focus’s on one specific stance, called naifanchi dachi, which is a difficult stance requiring the knees to be bent out to the sides as far as possible and the toes to be pointed forward. Intermediate students learn naifanchi, which is often the student’s first introduction to using the naifanchi stance. Black belt level katas, of course, require the greatest knowledge of the principals in order to apply an ever-widening variety of techniques in more increasingly intricate sets, combinations, and speeds.
By the time students have achieved their black belts, they have a deep awareness of the importance of kata to the development of their skills. However, it must always be remembered even at the black belt level, that students must always continue to strive to excel with evermore challenging katas.
Another important way that katas enhance training is that students may learn the katas of other styles. For instance, Wado-Ryu karate students normally emphasize moving in straight lines, creating power by with rapidly executed techniques, while Goju-ryu karate spends more of their time on curving movements, generating power y building tension. Practicing katas from a style that uses a different approach can offer students an opportunity to understand different and complementary techniques, and to incorporate those techniques into their training.
In addition, a single kata may have several different versions. In other words, a particular karate kata may be performed in a different manner by students of different styles of karate. Many karate katas have counterparts in more than one style. Furthermore, individual schools within a single karate style may incorporate small variations in how they teach and practice the same kata. Often, these differences serve to identify the teachings and students of specific Instructors. Students wishing to expand their knowledge as much as possible may seek to become familiar with these different versions of kata.
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF KATA
In karate training is revealed in its most fundamental elements. One of these elements is that kata training has no special requirements. Students need no equipment and can practice in any season, at any time, and in virtually any location. If necessary, the required space can be as small as two paces wide, because advanced kata students are able to a just how they step in order to complete the movements.
Kata can be practiced in the mind – a method which is, in its own right, a very important and effective way of training. At its most basic, kata is excellent exercise that can benefit men, women, and children, of all ages and levels of ability. At its most advanced, kata is a superb means for students to continually sharpen their skills by allowing them to train under any circumstances.
Finally, kata training strengthens the mind as well as the body, because students must focus their minds to remember the katas, lest they be forgotten.
The ongoing challenge of kata training is to strive to achieve perfection. Of course, no person ever truly attains perfection. The greatest masters will humbly say that they, like the students, are always working toward that goal. Students must continually hone their skills, even as they’re learning new ones and must remain open to the observations of their instructors and fellow students. Most students realize that no matter how many times they do a kata, they can always benefit form listening to others who may detect a bad habit.
Advanced students need to practice the katas, they learned as beginners. Too often, advanced students neglect the beginning – level Katas, and focus only on the more glamorous and impressive katas. Retaining awareness of their beginnings can be of great value to advanced students, as new students look to them for guidance and inspiration. Because each person’s body is different, individual students will often find that some katas are easier and others harder for them to perform. Even though all katas need to be retained, students will usually benefit form focusing on those katas that are most compatible with their own abilities and physical characteristics. Emphasizing specific katas can help students develop their own particular expertise as fully as possible and allow them to contribute something unique for the benefit their follow students.
Developing an expertise is also helpful in preparing for kata competitions. Such competitions are significant elements of training that can help students learn how to deal with the stresses associated with performing in front of others. Today, many karate students are interested in sport karate, which includes kata competitions emphasizing creativity, costumes, and music. In addition there are many traditional tournaments, where judges adhere to much stricter guidelines. Competitions are also an effective method students can use to prepare for testing. Kata is a critical part of the testing process to review the growing skills and knowledge of students seeking higher rank.
Martial arts are designed to help students acquire skills useful in self- defence. The single most fundamental idea of karate is that a single blow should finish the opponent. Kata training, along with training in basics and sparring, helps students move ever closer to this objective. However, an extremely important point is that the ultimate purpose of training is to offer a means of developing a healthy body and a strong character. Kata, with its richness and diversity, is a powerful tool that can help students in their ongoing efforts to reach their goals.
Article written by Kevina Malone.