Face serene, eyes focused, arms relaxed, his foot steps onto the mat. Thousands of spectators sit and watch. Light streams into the arena through massive plain glass windows. Outside, raindrops fall, the wind blows and the Japanese fall will soon be winter.
He walks with an even pace, stopping in the middle of the mat to bow toward a panel of judges, who simultaneously lower their heads in return. His next movements will be scrutinized closely, every moment analyzed in a number of ways; for style, balance, intent, concentration, precision and presence. The Karateka hopes only to perform at his best. The judges hope he performs with perfection. The spectators collectively inhale, wishing for the best.
The martial artist performing pauses for just a moment following his bow. He attempts to clear his mind, drawing his attention fully to the moment, then begins.
This past weekend, I attended a nage-no-kata course and learned a great deal about an approach to training that I’ve never really given too much credence to; formalized sets of movements, practiced repeatedly, as a method of gaining understanding and perfecting form. In Japanese martial arts, this is known as kata training. There are many different types of forms available to martial artists, and many traditional styles of martial arts place emphasis on this approach to training. In our MMA-influenced modern world, however, this “rigid” approach comes under criticism quite often because it is not reflective of true combat, which is unpredictable and more realistic. Forms or kata are thought of as flawed. The question is “how much can one learn of fighting by never fighting?”
And the answer is a lot. There’s a great deal to be gained from training in this way. I don’t think I’ll ever be someone who’d focus primarily on kata, but certainly, there are numerous benefits that help to produce fantastic martial artists.
One of the main tenants of form based training is the concentration of the practitioner. It’s quite easy to tell the difference between someone “dialed in” to whatever they’re doing and someone who’s half out to lunch. Kata requires focus, mostly because one is required to be incredibly focused on what they’re doing in order to perform their movements in the correct fashion.
And focus is an incredibly useful tool for any martial artist. Whether one is sparring, or attending a long training seminar, or fighting for their life, the ability to bring one’s full mental faculties to bear on a single task or goal is immensely powerful. Kata trains this “secondary” skill with amazing efficiency.
By practicing movements slowly, there is the potential for one to be performing them with absolute perfection. Kata takes away all of the “barriers” to perfect technique, including the need to hit (or throw) a moving target and the danger of someone hitting you. What this leads to (as long as you have a good instructor) is the opportunity to see exactly how something is supposed to look, how it’s supposed to function, how it would work in an ideal situation.
With an in-depth understanding of the techniques at your disposal, you’re more likely to be able to use them appropriately. Of course, kata training does not guarantee understanding – one has to be engaged enough and have an instructor that is teaching good principle. However, when those things are present, understanding of technique through kata training is likely. Then, of course, it’s up to the martial artist to start applying that understanding in more realistic ways.
Mastering kata takes a really, really long time. That means that to get anywhere with kata, you have to be patient with yourself and your practice. Most effective martial artists need to be patient in order to achieve proficiency, and kata provides ample opportunity to work on your patience. You will screw it up. You will forget which part comes next. You will perform poorly one day, better the next, even worse the next day. Getting through all of that requires patience.
And the same is true of sparring, or competing or training for fighting. The first time you do it, you’re going to get rocked. You’ll be tapped out, smacked in the face, completely overwhelmed and it’s likely to happen a great deal. Getting through that phase of your journey requires patience, and patience is something that kata can provide.
There are likely many who care little for tradition and could likely cite many other training methods that would provide the same benefits listed above. But, for this martial artist, loyalty and reverence are important traits. Paying respect to the roots of martial culture is important to me and as much as I love more realistic and competitive training, I also have a great appreciation for the tradition of kata and the history behind it. For that reason, I’m more than willing to use kata in my classes and try to relay its importance to my students.
Even though in recent years it has perhaps fallen out of favor in many circles, I for one hope that martial artists all over the world continue to use kata as a training tool and area of interest.
“Students of any art, including Karate-do must never forget the cultivation of the mind and the body.”
~ Gichin Funakoshi