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What is Kata? Part 2

“It is obvious that these Kata must be trained and practiced sufficiently, but one must not be ‘stuck’ in them. One must withdraw from the Kata to produce forms with no limits or else it becomes useless. It is important to alter the form of the trained Kata without hesitation to produce countless other forms of training. Essentially, it is a habit – created over long periods of training. Because it is a habit, it comes to life with no hesitation – by the subconscious mind.” Hironori Otsuka (founder of Wado Ryu)

I wanted to address Kata once more, mainly because I’m still getting comments and emails about my last bit of rambling on it.

For a lot of modern martial arts students in general, especially younger students, the definition of KATA is often given as something like “a choreographed or imaginary fight between two or more opponents.” And, if you don’t know any better, that is a very solid explanation. On the surface, that is precisely what it appears to be. There are a lot of punches, kicks, blocks in varying directions, and turns.

To make matters even more confusing, modern Kata, especially tournament-targeted ones are actually created with that in mind. They tend to be an elaborate martial arts dance, showing off flashy moves going in different directions. A lot of times, students may even have a set of partners whom attack at intervals as they perform.

So, for Tournament Kata, that is fine. Go all flippy in whatever direction you want and imagine a battle against a hundred ninja. More power to you.

However, for Traditional Kata, that definition is not only misleading, but it is down-right false. The best definition for Kata would be something closer to “a mnemonic device used to record a series of techniques from an individual teacher (or school).” Or, for those who love video games, a set of moves used by one a character. That’s right, if you’ve ever played Mortal Kombat, you could take all of Scorpion’s moves and develop a Kata to help remember and solo practice them. Kusansku Dai, to belabor the point, is a Kata recording the combat teachings of Kusanku by his student, Tode Sakugawa.

Kata are a method of communicating those teachings to future generations of students.

They are a learning aid, and a way for an individual to practice the movements on their own. They were NEVER meant to be the end result of a form. They are one piece of the puzzle. They are one of the three K’s that make up the foundation for any martial art – Kata, Kihon (basic technique), and Kumite (sparring). You need all three for your forms and techniques to function properly. You also need to train in a fashion that addresses your goal – tournament training is very different from practical combat or self defense training…but that’s the subject for another post.

A lot of martial artists hate Kata, and that is because they don’t understand the reasoning behind it. They were taught (or misunderstood) that Kata was the end goal. That learning Kata was the reason for an art. You’ll hear a lot of Taekwondo practitioners talk about hating forms, for example. This happens when Kata is perceived as being a destination and not just the sign post along the way.

Kata are cliff notes AND solo drills all in one. They allow you to practice forms in movement so you don’t forget them. They give you a set of fighting techniques taught be an instructor – or the fundamentals of their teachings – and put them into a set of movements to allow them to be remembered, practiced, and passed on.

When you partner the movements of a Kata with Kihon training and then apply them in Kumite, you then have a complete martial art. This is where a lot of modern martial arts schools fail. They teach Kata without the underlying structure – they teach the surface without revealing the muscle and bones beneath.

Kata can be an amazing tool for a martial artist if properly understood, explored, and practiced the way it was meant to be. Embrace Kata for what it is and you’ll be able to take your martial art, whatever form you practice, to the next level.

“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” Gichin Funakoshi (founder of Shotokan)

-Mat Nastos, the Karate Geek

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Mathias Nastos is the Karate Geek: Formerly 450+ pounds, I'm a dad getting fit thru #MartialArts. Nidan in Aikido, Shodan in American-form Karate, studies kali, boxing, BJJ, and judo. Best-selling action novelist.