The naughty word, Kata….

The naughty word, Kata….

“If you practice hitting a target the size of a ping pong ball, when you are in a real fight you might be able to hit a target the size of a baseball”

“If you practice hitting a target the size of a baseball, when you are in a real fight you might be able to hit a target the size of a soccer ball”

“If you practice hitting a target the size of a soccer ball, when you are in a real fight you might be able to hit a target the size of a basketball”


Have you ever heard anyone say “Kata is a waste of time…Kata don’t work” or any other of the derogatory comments about Kata (Forms, Hokei, Juru. Poomse……)? For simplicity we will use the name Kata to refer to any preset sequence of movements practiced solo or with a partner. Of course you have it is almost constant rhetoric anywhere martial arts are discussed.  And since kata is worthless all the traditional techniques practiced during kata are worthless as well.  No other aspect of martial arts practice has caused so much controversy.  Before they all give up on, and convince others to do likewise, something that should be a pivotal part of any martial arts practice maybe they should find out what Kata practice is and what it isn’t?  Doesn’t it make sense that in order to determine if something has value that you should understand what its true purpose is before you throw it out? In order to determine what Kata practice is then we should first determine what it is not.

It is not an imaginary fight between you and many attackers.  How many people have heard that story of why you are practicing a kata?  It is clear if you look at any Kata that the way you move through the presets movements that this is not the case.  You will often turn 90 degrees to the left and go through some set of movements and then do a 180 degree turn and go through the same set of movements.  Are you going to make a turn to the left if you know that an attacker is on the right?  Are you going to turn your back completely on one attacker while you deal with another?  If this were the case the Kata you are practicing is not only a bad thing but teaches you some very bad habits!

How about that it is an art form full of beautiful movements?  You will often here this proclaimed from the arts that try to appear traditional but then when they actually fight they throw away all the stances and movements used in the kata they practice and fight in what amounts to a completely different style.  This is outright nonsense.   How about these kata that people are putting together themselves at martial arts competitions where they are set to music and full of techniques that have no fighting purpose?  Of what advantage is it to practice a bunch of movements that you will never use if you need to fight?  It is called a martial art because there is an “art” to fighting effectively on the battlefield.  Do you think that if your life was going to truly depend on your fighting skill in battle that you would spend hours practicing movements that you would never use?  All martial arts originated with a life or death self-defense or military battle field purpose.

One issue with traditional martial arts techniques is that their purpose and the method of practice has changed over time. Let’s take the grappling art of the Samurai of feudal Japan.  The Samurai were very efficient and deadly fighters.  When they engaged in a fight at least one of the two or more people fighting were going to end up dead. They needed a way to fight if they inadvertently dropped their sword.  So they created an open hand style of fighting that involved, throws, takedowns, chokes, locks and submissions to defend their self in this case. This is the beginning of Japanese Ju-jitsu. Do you think in such a high stakes activity that these warriors would waste their time practicing something that had no value on the battle field?  The idea is really incomprehensible.   At some point in the Samurai warrior dissolved into history.  There wasn’t a need to fight on the battlefield like this anymore.  There was peace or the style of military fighting evolved into something else.  If you look at most fighting styles from different countries you will find that a similar thing happened.  At some point it goes from a military or my life depends on it pursuit to either a self-defense purpose or as a way to preserve a fighting art that is now in the past.  Japanese Ju-jitsu was what remained from the Samurai fighting style.    Now the sword techniques were not necessary so the techniques to choke, control and submit are emphasized.  At this point there were still some lethal techniques left in the style.

In 1882 Jigoro Kano took out the lethal techniques of Ju-jitsu and founded modern day Judo (meaning the Gentle Way).  Judo over time became a sport and then an Olympic event.  This further regulated the techniques so that no injury would occur during the competitions.

This example may not be 100% historically accurate but most martial arts went through some similar process.  They went through a process from a battle field or life or death self-defense style into something that became more recreational in its purpose or became a new style without the lethal elements.  So the traditional techniques themselves were not ineffective but the purpose for practicing them just changed. Another plague on the martial arts was the secrecy of many teachers.  Now that teachers were not training military troops in these skills they did not want students to be able to learn quickly because they were relying on the money paid for the instruction.  In some cases there were actually changes made to certain techniques to hide their real purpose from low level students and competitors.   Over time because the teacher did not tell the students what the different techniques were for until they got to the highest levels it caused the real meanings of the techniques to be lost.  If a student left before he got to that high level or if something happened to the master no one knew what the techniques were really for.

Another thing that was going on was the change of various martial arts into sporting competitions. You may think Muay Thai is an effective style but believe it or not it has become watered down when it was  made into a sport.  If you see Muay Boran or Muay Chaiya which are a couple of the battle field ancestors to Sport Muay Thai you will see that the techniques are brutal and few have any sport application.  Karate, Kung fu, Taekwondo have all been through this process as well. I think that over time when the different arts took on a non-life or death purpose more and more emphasis was put on how something looked (the art) than its effectiveness.  Also the martial arts took on a self-development aspect where the overall development of the person practicing was emphasized’

I am sorry to say that many traditional styles are also the cause of this idea that kata is not valuable.  You have the many styles that practice kata but then fight totally differently when they spar.  Why do they do this?  I believe that many martial arts instructors do not really know what the movements in the katas are really for anymore.  They do not understand the stances and their purpose (this is another blog in itself).  So instead of trying to find out what they are for they make up something that is often laughable or they just say that kata is the art in martial arts and when they actually fight use some other style.   I read a book by George Dillman a long time ago.  In it he mentions that he had bought a book on Karate that showed someone doing what many Karate, Taekwondo and other styles call a low block (Arae makgi, Gedan Ude Uke).   Now I challenge anyone out there to say that when they first practiced this block that it seemed to make sense and was natural to them? This book only showed a single person, the defender, performing the technique.  When you do this block you block with one hand and then pull your other hand to your waist.  This obviously has many problems.  The first is that when you block a punch like this since your other hand is at your waist you are leaving your head wide open to an attack.  If you are trying to block a kick like this the smallest bones in your arm will come in contact with the larger bone in the leg of the attacker, what do you think will happen then? Do you think people in the old days would risk their life using a technique like this?  The thing is that later Dillman came across an old pre WWII version of the same book.  In this book it showed both the attacker as well as the defender.  The defender had grabbed the attackers arm and pulled it to his waist (left hand to right hand).  If you have done this “block” you will know that as you bring the hand to the waist you are twisting (rotating) it.  So when the defender is pulling the attackers arm to his waist he is twisting it which turns the attackers arm over and exposes his elbow.  Then the part where you swing your “blocking” hand down in the picture the defender is striking the attackers arm right behind his elbow.  Doesn’t that seem to make a little more sense than the low block?  When I started my Shorin-ji Kempo training they were doing a block that I instantly recognized from my Taekwondo days as an upward or high block (Ollyeo makgi, Jodan Uke).  I called it an upward block (used to block attacks coming down toward your head) and my teacher said no it is a raising block (Uchi age Uke).  He had me do this block and then he struck me with an overhead blow with his arm.  My forearm collapsed (bent at the elbow) and his forearm came right down on the top of my head.  He said this block will not stop an attack from above.  He then told me to do the same block again.  This time he punched me with a straight right.  When I did the block it came up under his punching arm which raised it up and exposed his rib cage.  I was then able to easily strike him in the ribs.  The funny thing about this experience is that when I first learned the “upward” block in Taekwondo I remember thinking the same thing that if someone came down with any force my little bone in my arm was facing up and would be easily broken.

Another example of this is the knife hand block.  I could never understand why for this block you would have your hand open with all your fingers extended.  I also wondered why you were supposed to swing your hand back towards your body before you extended it back out for the “block”.  In Shorin-ji they have the same movement.  It is called Tsubame Gaeshi.  Tsubame is the Japanese name for a barn swallow.  That little bird that fly’s in one direction and then suddenly changes back in the opposite direction.  Gaeshi means to return so the name of the technique in Engllish is the Swallow returns.  If someone is punching you and you perform this movement (on the inside of the punching arm) when you draw your hand back toward yourself you will strike a pressure point on the inside of the wrist called Pericardium 3.  Then when you extend your hand you will strike a point in the neck called stomach 9.  It just so happens that when you strike P3 it has to be struck in the direction away from the attacker’s body (toward his hand).  When it is struck in this manner it makes the stomach 9 point hyper sensitive.  The stomach 9 point will cause the attackers blood pressure to drop suddenly making them pass out.  (Do not try this without a qualified instructor).

The opening quote states very clearly what kata’s purpose really is.  It is just a solo or partner practice that is part of a complete martial art.  The purpose is to refine your technique to its highest level and be as precise as possible.  It is also a way for the founder of the style to catalog the techniques that make up that particular style.  The reality of the opening quote can be seen very easily in any dojo where sparing takes place.  As soon as two fighters begin sparing you can usually see right away that their level of technique is somehow reduced to its coarsest form.  Often it is difficult to find any of the technique that you see them practicing in class before the fight begins.  It is just a fact that once the adrenalin starts rushing and you perceive a real threat of being hit that you will lose some of your ability to fight in your best technical form.  So how can we avoid this from happening?  A big part of that is kata or some sort of set movement practice.  For a lack of a better description you must practice to hit that ping pong ball!  Of course this is just a metaphor for the fact that you have to have a way to practice movements over and over in a very precise way.  Knowing that the basketball will become a ping pong ball the more you practice very precisely.  Then you will be able to maintain your technique when you actually are in a fighting situation.  Kata is not the only practice needed to make a complete martial art it is just one of many.

The Wing Chun dummy form is just another Kata.  There is a series of techniques that you perform in a sequence.  Go on you tube and you will see endless videos of students and instructors flying through these at high speed.  Now do a search on Yip Man.  Watch him doing the same form.  Is he flying through it a breakneck speed?  No he is not and it isn’t because he is old.  The reason for practicing the form in the first place is to perfect each technique when executing the movements.  How can you do this if the only thing you are thinking about as you perform them is moving at high speed?  All kata have a series of techniques strung together in a certain order.  What many people do not realize is that even though some of these sequences can actually be used together just as they are in the kata the real focus should be on each individual technique.  Most instructors will tell you that you should be focused while you perform a kata but the question is, focused on what?  The focus should be on each individual technique as you execute it making sure that you are performing every aspect of it correctly.  The truth is you can take any series of techniques from your style, even if your style has no kata, and practice them this way.  If you devote some real time doing this you will see that your ability to execute these techniques will improve.  Traditional martial arts generally follow tradition and are still use the old training methods.  The question is do they know why this training method was developed in the first place?  Take something as simple as practicing punches while in a horse stance.  I have heard people complain many times over the years “Yeah right as someone comes up to kick your butt like you are really going to drop down in a horse stance and punch them”.  The purpose of the exercise is to isolate the practice of a single technique, the punch, and allow you to perfect it.  Meanwhile by standing in the horse stance you can strengthen your legs at the same time.  It is obviously not meant to be a fighting technique.  Kata has the same purpose.  To isolate a group or series of techniques and allow you to focus on the detail of their execution.

So to actually get some good out of kata practice you should:

  • Practice slowly at first only increasing the speed when you can execute each technique correctly at the current speed.
  • Concentrate and focus on each technique as you are executing it. Don’t just be thinking about which technique comes next or which way you need to turn.  Focusing on these things defeats the purpose of the practice.
  • Know and understand what the purpose of each technique is.

Number three can be a problem.  You can simply can not practice something in precise manner if you do not know what it is that you are practicing!  If your instructor does not know what the technique in the kata is for or if that little bird is going off in your head telling you that his explanation is not making any sense then you have some research to do.  You should look at what other teachers of your own style say about the purpose of this technique. Also try looking at other styles of martial arts and see if they have a similar technique or movement.  They may explain what the technique is for which will solve the mystery for you.  Also if you are practicing a striking style do not be surprised if some of the odd movements in your kata are actually grappling or locking techniques. So don’t just limit your search to other striking styles.  You can find information like this in books but also in videos and youtube.

So in the end Kata practice is just one (of many) method of practicing techniques or movements in a very precise way.  There is no mysterious purpose.  Kata or set movement practice should be one part of your practice routine in any martial art.  It is a great way to just concentrate on the detail of the movements.  One of the good things is that you can generally practice kata by yourself when no partner is available.  A boxer uses shadow boxing as one aspect of his training.  Of course he is not going to limit his self to just this one aspect.  The same is true of kata practice.  It is a practice that adds to your styles other practice routines and allows you to hone your individual techniques.

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