Now, before anyone thinks I’m looking down on that, I’m not. The American Karate form I studied while I was losing weight (and helped me drop 180+ pounds over 2 years) was a tournament form. The katas were all flashy, and the instruction was more based on copying movements than in the practical side of the martial arts. While my own predilections lie with the more practical side of things, the sport forms are very cool in their own right and are absolutely worth pursuing. They are great for health, coordination, discipline, and a number of other things. They aren’t really great for self-defense the way they are taught, but they really aren’t meant to be.
Our conversation begin with a discussion of the bunkai of a kata I had been demonstrating (Jion). I had been showing the various techniques in the kata when the newly minted black belt from another system brought up “hidden moves” in a kata. He had been told by one of his teachers that every form they were taught (all of which were either tournament forms or “tricked out” versions of traditional kata) held secret moves. This is something you hear from a lot of martial arts instructors who like to pretend to know more than they do, or who want to show off.
It’s not true. Or, more precisely, it shouldn’t be.
You see, as I’ve discussed before, a kata is simply a mnemonic device for remembering techniques you have learned from a teacher. Think of it as a semester worth of learning condensed into shorthand to keep you from forgetting what you’ve been shown. In other words: if there are hidden moves in a kata it means the teacher hasn’t been doing his job very well.
The way kata should be taught, and this is completely my opinion, is technique (or group of techniques) first. An instructor should show and drill the movements and techniques until a student can perform them. Once they have perfected (or come as close as they can to perfecting) a technique, only then would a instructor teach a kata. That way, the student has the practical side of a move-set down in their head before thy are given a way to recall and continue to train those moves. Kata, without the foundation of application first, is just dancing.
I will toss in a little addendum here: yes, there are movements whose nature may not be understood at first, especially if a student is improperly being taught with the kata-first technique. Techniques may blend together in a kata, or the movement when practiced in “shorthand” may not appear to be exactly as what it is. That doesn’t mean the moves are “hidden,” it just means it is in shorthand. A kata does not represent the reality of a group of techniques. It is just a way for a martial artists to keep techniques alive in their memory.
I’ll say that again: a kata isn’t the reality of a set of techniques.
This question of “hidden techniques” in a kata is only slightly less silly than someone who teaches that a kata is made up of a fight between multiple opponents in multiple directions. Sure, it is fun to see in a tournament, but it isn’t the reality.
-Mat Nastos, The Karate Geek
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