Monday, October 22, 2007

The Efficacy of Kata

One of the debates that has recently resurfaced, as it does periodically, is on the tradition and training method called kata. Or poomse. Or forms. Or patterns. I was inspired by a relatively recent comment on a previous post here at TDA (Are Kata/Poomse Important?), and by Black Belt Mama's thoughts at her blog on the same subject (The Great Kata Debate). To summarize a few views out there (and here):

My (Nathan at TDA Training) views from Are Kata/Poomse Important?:

What forms are good for:

  1. Preservation of classical or "traditional" technique.
  2. An excellent workout.
  3. Teaching concentration and memorization.
  4. Demonstrates and preserves the beauty of the martial arts.
  5. Forms provide steady income for schools.
  6. Forms break up the monotony of training.

What they aren't good for:

  1. Kata techniques aren't used in self-defense.
  2. Kata performance is not an efficient means of preparing for sparring, fighting, or self-defense.

Bottom line: Kata aren't the most efficient way to prepare for unarmed combat, but are a great way to carry on the techniques of the past in your respective arts. I will continue to do them into the future because I love them, but I'll be training for battle in another way. [Please see the original post for full explanation of each bullet point]

Other Views:

"Being a martial artist that started learning kata during my very first karate class, it never even occurred to me that the martial arts could exist without kata.  To me, it has always been the backbone of what I am learning; and as one of my instructor's calls it, "the vehicle" to greater understanding of technique.  It's not just that either.  Repetitive kata has the ultimate goal of the practitioner entering a state of mushin (mind no mind), which loosely translates into your mind being so free from thought that you just instinctively react to what's going on around you.  Simply put, mushin means "don't think."" - Black Belt Mama, The Great Kata Debate

A great point, and one which I don't cover, but experience almost exclusively through kata.

"Employing true martial waza during sparring is definitely not socially responsible behavior. So to maintain the original fire that a traditional art was forged in, we have kata. Kata, specifically bunkai, reminds us that the martial arts are of a very serious nature. When Okinawans were denied the right to bear arms at various times throughout their violent history (including the US military occupation following the second World War), the practice of kata became a stealthy option. Karate's earliest training sessions were shrouded in secrecy, and often took place after dark. So it should come as no surprise that kata was created, in part, to conceal its real purpose." - John Vesia, Breaking The Kata Code

First of all, how do BBM and John come up with those great post titles! Man, if only I could hire them at TDA! My response is that John is correct: sparring cannot include the more serious and deadly techniques of any art - else we'd all be cripples or dead. But herein is the crux of my argument against kata as "the most efficient way" to prepare for fighting or self-defense - they're not! If it requires interpretation, there is a shortcut: just teach the application, but in a way that's truly applicable.

"I've been studying martial arts for about 6 years now, and I felt the way you seem to about forms (their combat applications being useless) until a few months ago. I'm currently studying at a Matsubayashi-Ryu School that emphasizes bunkai for Kata (applications) and links self-defense to Kata.

Now, you may think this is cheating, but you have to look at Kata as the tip of the iceberg of Karate. Each move is abstracted to be non-lethal, and to effectively 'hide' the true technique.

I don't want to keep talking forever about this, but a good book I would recommend is Gennosuke Higaki's (a pen name, not his real name) Hidden Karate.

Kata really are the encyclopedia of a martial art, and I bet if you looked hard enough (again, if you don't think viewing Kata as far removed abstractions of combat is cheating) you would see the combative moves you practice for self-defense 'hidden' in the Kata/Poomse/forms that already serve as valuable tools in your curriculum." - Dean Dieker, replying to Are Kata/Poomse Important?

To which, I replied, "... I respect your position, and think I understand it. I am coming to this point of view after many years (30+) as a student of martial arts, and over 20 years teaching them. It took years before I learned the application of forms, then years before I abandoned them as a form of training for application.

Here's a summary of my reasons:
I agree, that hidden within each pattern/poomse/kata are self-defense techniques. I just question whether 1) they are all valid in today's world, and 2) whether kata are the most efficient means to their instruction.
You have inspired me to post on this again. I will try to locate "Hidden Karate" as soon as possible.
Please understand that my opinion is no more or less valid than anyone else's, even my own students'. It's just my opinion. It (my opinion) has changed before, and will probably change again on this very subject."

John Vesia even posted to the same effect a few months ago: "Certain bunkai (traditional self defense applications) are either misunderstood in some schools, or require too much finesse or fine motor skills to pull off when the heat is on." Which reinforces my point. The skill required to use the technique can definitely be achieved, but is it the most efficient means to that end? I say, "no."

Will I change my mind? Hmmm. Who's to say, but I don't think so. I will always consider kata as the truest expression of Karate-do: grace, peace, violence, harmony, and coordination in action. Will I consider it the best means to teach how to defend one's self? Probably not.

For more information, please read:

"Why Kata Is Important" at

Many posts at Isshin Ryu Karate Bugei by Charles James


John Vesia said...

The kata debate is an old one and I doubt it'll go away anytime soon. With all the UFC/MMA stuff that's in vogue, the main focus now is "does it work?" Bunkai is supposed to be the distilled essence of combat effectiveness, yet I've seen bunkai demos that were so convoluted you'd laugh.

Like you, I'm divided on the issue. Kata really does have their finer points, which have all been mentioned here. But kata is also useful for taking up class time, winning trophies, and earning rank. Not exactly efficacious. But kata is here to stay.

Nathan Teodoro said...

Thanks for the comments, John. I'm glad you sense my conflict on it - I love forms, but I love practical teaching as well. Sometimes the two are one, many times, not.

All of the other points made in the post are why I don't abandon kata. However, I think the point that I'd like to emphasize the most is that what I do is OK for me, and what you do is OK for you. At some point I may change that, as my needs change. And so may you.

Great dialogue.

KarateFighter said...

KarateFighter ("KF") on Kata.

If you look @ martial arts as a physically-based, sports exercise, then you conclusions about kata are correct. Kata is irrelevant to actual fighting.

Moreover, the application or "bunkai" apsect is a secondary level of kata teaching. Certainly these techniques can be learned or applied through other exercises than kata, per se.

I think the katas taught by the tradtional Japanese karates only go so far, and doing more and more of these katas has diminshing returns.

ON THE OTHER HAND, if you approach kata as a mental exercise, approach traditional karate as a mental disciple, then kata takes on a whole new relevance, the relevance the master's intended, IMHO.

The secret to kata is the mental level of training it confers. You can not overtly see this in a kata performer's exhibition. The changes are subtle and occur withing the person, then begin to show in the mental disciple the practioner can exert over their body.

Unless one is willing & able to accept & approach kata as mental training, as mental discipline exhibited through physical forms, you will never appreciate or gain the martial value of kata.

Various traditional martial art / karate sites delve into the subject. Karate is not sports physiology in a fighting wrapper.

Karate is a mental discipline. It's not about physical power--it's about control, the precision use and rapid decision making about the application of coordinated, whole body power. Applied to fighting, the opponent is disabled in seconds. That's it.

Investigate the mental aspect of traditional martial arts training. What mental abilities are developed through the traditional martial arts principles of training, here kata? How do these mental abilities combine & enhance with physical ability to produce superior fighting skill?

There is your question & the answer.


Pat said...

I started training with Chen Kai-shan in Taiwan in the 60s. He taught Crane style. I had only learned one quan-tao, and it was one that seemed designed only to work on inner stuff. It was all done in slow motion. I had also learned something similar to neko-ashi-dachi (cat stance) but with even less distance between feed. It's called crane stance, Sagiashi-dachi.

Population density is high in Taipei, and when the movies let out the distribution on the street is less than one person per square yard. I was moving along in the wake of some guy who suddenly remembered that he'd left the gas stove burning or whatever. He whirled in place and was immediately within my personal interaction sphere. Totally without conscious awareness or intervention I was down in stance and with hands in guard position.

I had never practiced the reaction I made that day. Not even basic stuff like ten-attack sparring. Where did the reaction come from?

This experience, and a couple other experiences, have convinced me that learning kata has some functions that may not be apparent outside of real-world "emergencies." (Clearly the guy had no hostile intent. I've always wondered what he thought when he turned around and saw me in a "karate stance."

I've been taught to do some things that have seemed nutty to me until I've, e.g., suffered an injury that tightens up something that I'd never need to stretch under ordinary circumstances.

Aid the Way of Heaven!