The following article appeared several years ago in a magazine called “Kick Illustrated”. It was written by James E. Thompson. At the time of publication, he held the rank of brown belt in Shorin Ryu Karate-do. He was in his fourth year of training as a martial artist.
What is kata? I have been asked this question many times by people who do not know what kata (a form) or karate is. Explaining kata to someone who is not familiar with the martial arts is similar to a physicist describing Newton’s Laws or Gravitation to a child. They hear the words but do not understand the context.
When I watched Nihanchi Shodan for the first time I thought it was a dance. I can still remember thinking “I came here to learn karate, not to dance!” I have heard even stranger comments from other people who watched kata for the first time. A friend once asked, “I have to go through all that before I hit somebody?” That night I started to search for a better explanation as to what kata is.
I have pondered the subject many times but never came up with suitable answers. Recently, when someone asked “What is kata?”, a friend explained it to that person. As I listened, I thought, “Yes, it is all that - and so much more.” Now, in my fourth year of study, I feel I have a few answers with which I can respond to that question.
There are three different aspects of kata. They vary from physical exercise, to learning and applying technique, to developing the spirit of the karateka. The benefits of kata are many, the disadvantages few - if any.
Kata as physical exercise should be understood by any karateka. Whether you do one kata or ten, the body moves and is put to work. Muscles are worked, stretched, and made stronger. The heart is forced to work harder sending blood to the body. The lungs are called upon to supply needed oxygen. Calories are consumed to provide fuel for the body functions that are in progress. The whole body is tuned and brought into peak operating condition by the exercise. Blood pressure is reduced and the pulse rate is slowed, at rest, by the exercise. This is one benefit of kata.
The second benefit of kata is learning - and strengthening - technique. Every discipline has its source of knowledge. In karate our textbook is kata. Kata holds all of our technique and theory, but it also hides much of it. It takes many years to learn and perfect all the techniques found in just one kata.
When we first learn kata we usually don’t know what we are actually learning. After many hundreds or perhaps thousands of repetitions, the kata becomes part of the karateka. The student knows each move and how it all fits together. This soon leads to the application of technique in kumite (free sparring). Each technique is learned and applied until it becomes a reaction rather than a thought process. Whatever the technique applied, it is from kata. Kumite is where some of the true value of kata is applied. Without kata, kumite would be a brawl - and karate would not be an art.
The third and final benefit of kata is spiritual. This is not a religious spiritual aspect, but the personal spirit of the karateka himself. One must commit one’s entire mind and body to truly perform kata.
I remember learning my first kata. The first few weeks were frustrating, to say the least. After a month of intense practice, 20 to 25 hours a week - just on one kata - I thought I had it right. Each week I would go to class and find out what I had been doing was all wrong. I would take what corrections I had and go home and practice for another week - only to return to class and receive even more corrections.
After several months of this type of training, I thought I had my kata perfected. I presented it to Sensei. He told me it needed three things: one was practice, two was practice, and three was, you guessed it, more practice. I also received the necessary corrections. This was almost too much for me to bear. Yet I kept working on the kata - and it did become easier, and soon I had the movements correct.
My personal spirit was damaged but not broken by this. I became determined to learn the kata to the best of my ability. This is when I started to understand what kata really is. Moving from the frustration of trying to learn a few simple moves to the joy of some semblance of mastering the kata leads the student to a sense of accomplishment. This builds self-confidence in the student and in his actions. Soon the karateka will see opponents in the kata and learn to defeat them. This is when the true spirit of the kata comes out in the karateka, that they may start to understand what kata is all about.
I do not consider myself an expert on kata or karate, but when someone comes up to me and asks, “What is kata?”, I have an idea of what I must try to explain.