In Defense of Kata

Here’s a simple fact: some people like practicing katas (forms), and some people don’t. You can delve into this debate just about anywhere martial arts are discussed in gyms or on the Internet. MMA and BJJ guys think they’re a waste of time, self-defense gurus think they’re dangerously unrealistic, non-martial artists think they can be fun to watch but generally don’t want to practice them.

Remember the old Gracie Challange matches?

These matches diffused a lot of the mystique surround the Asian martial arts that came to America in the 1960’s and 70’s. The Gracies, masters of not only jiu-jitsu but also marketing, have promulgated the results of these matches and the effectiveness of their style through the UFC. Consequently . . .

no one really likes katas.

As a karateka, of course, it’s hard not to take the disdain for kata personally. After spending years and years practicing your form, developing physical and mental focus, and painstakingly breaking down techniques, you become proud of your work. And you should! Katas are the bread and butter of good karate.

My sensei always said that if two martial artists got into a fight, and one trained solely in kata while the other sparred all the time, the one well trained in kata would win. I took that to heart without really understanding it. Training with martial artists from other disciplines have caused me to question it.

After all, why should anyone tirelessly practice katas when they could just learn some basic grappling and striking? Here’s Captain Chris explaining his style of self-defense.

Interesting. Did you catch the graphic near the end? “Always walk with a purpose” and “Strike above the collarbone or below the waist”? It seems that principles, not always techniques, are what we come to rely on when attacked. Anyone teaching jiu-jitsu for self-defense will say the same things: 1. close the distance, 2. take down your opponent, 3. establish mount.

It seems that at the heart of it all, we’re dealing with principles.

Kata, while there is a heavy emphasis on technique, deals mainly in principles, right? Tips like, “lower your base,” “twist your hips when striking,” and “focus your eyes on your attacker” are sound principles no matter what art you study.

And as you master principles through effort and repetition, you become a better martial artist more capable of fighting in the cage or defending yourself on the street. No matter how you translate principles into technique.

One point for kata!

Here’s another observation. Any grappling, kickboxing, or Krav Maga class worth attending drills technique and includes sparring. These are good things to practice, as acquiring muscle memory through drills and applying it through controlled fighting is a great way to learn how to use it outside the gym. However, how will you know when to use force? Do drillwork and sparring increase awareness and presence? You may have your techniques down cold, but will you know the right time and place to use them?

In The Art of Learning, chess master, Tai Chi push hands champion, and newly minted BJJ blackbelt Josh Waitzkin explains the importance of presence:

“The more present we are in practice, the more present we will be in competition, in the boardroom, at the exam, the operating table, the big stage. If we have any hope of attaining excellence, let alone of showing what we’ve got under pressure, we have to be prepared by a lifestyle of reinforcement. Presence must be like breathing” (172).

When you practice mount escapes or knife defenses with a partner, are you also practicing presence? Do you watch your partner’s whole body, not just focusing on his attack? Does he blink before moving? If you push into him, does he push back? Do you know what the other people in the gym are doing? Is a thundershower about to pass through?

Should you be trying to answer all these questions while training? Probably not. But the point is, you should be able to through your presence. Unique to the Asian martial arts is emphasis on meditation, as is awareness of yourself, your opponent, and your surroundings. Without awareness, how will you know when and where to fight?

It seems kata is a perfect tool for developing a strong sense of presence. Learning to control your breathing, to take note of your surroundings, to feel your way through your techniques despite distractions–these are hallmark benefits of training in kata.

Two points for kata!

I don’t know of another exercise that combines martial arts principles and presence as well as kata. Think of the three most dominant UFC champions right now: Anderson Silva, Georges St-Pierre, and Jon Jones. All three consider themselves martial artists rather than fighters. All three are capable of tremendous virtuosity inside the ring. All three practice principles and presence outside the ring. It seems my sensei was right. Kata may not seem effective merely on the surface, but, when you look deeper, it is essential practice.

Watch it all come together.

Remember too that practicing martial arts is not merely for sport or self-defense. We train for a better life. Practicing kata again and again, for years and years, may seem like an endless pursuit. But that can be a good thing. Here’s how Waitzkin supports studying the traditional arts. Let us know what you think.

“I believe an appreciation for simplicity, the everyday–the ability to dive deeply into the banal and discover life’s hidden richness–is where success, let alone happiness, emerges” (The Art of Learning 186-187).

But wait, there’s more!

Here’s my attempt at practicing principles and presence. The idea is to get through siesan kata blindfolded and to begin and end in the same spot. It’s not perfect, but you can see what I’m trying for!

About moaimartialarts

Lucky enough to grow up with the martial arts, I have felt their positive influence throughout my life and am especially interested in sharing these experiences with others. I enjoy working with youth and adults to give back some of what I've received. If you would like to learn more about Uechi-Ryu/Shohei-Ryu Karate, or if you want to find people to train with, please contact me. I am the head karate instructor for the Meriden Martial Arts Club.
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3 Responses to In Defense of Kata

  1. Benji-san says:

    I find it very therapeutic to practice one main kata over and over again over a series of months and to learn what the techniques are trying to show me, and to learn more about how to move my body. My Sensei has always taught the importance of self study in Kata and in creating the belief that you are fighting many opponents.

  2. Martial arts can help develop the strength of core muscles and the flexibility of joints. In short, taking a martial arts course can help form and shape your exterior and greatly increase the depth and potential of your inner being.

  3. Pingback: In Defense of Kata Part 2 |

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