There is disagreement today about the continued relevance of kata in martial arts. Some schools consider kata too old fashion or think the only place for kata is in the realm of flips and kicks in front of a panel of judges.
I am no master in kata (or martial arts in general) but I am continually striving to build more understanding. As a kid I took Tae Kwon Do for a few years and only saw kata as a requirement for testing and something that had to be done before we could spar. As an adult, I received my first black belt in an American Mixed Martial Arts system that does not include kata as part of the curriculum. The testing is based on sets of techniques that are learned at specific belt levels along with punch and kick combinations. It wasn’t until recently (about 3 years ago) that I added kata, pinyons and weapons forms to my martial arts curriculum, both traditional and competition.
When I started my exploration of kata, I was going through the motions. I had only a cursory understanding of what I was actually doing. I thought of kata as only as a demonstration of techniques. Some of the techniques I just didn’t understand. I used kata as physical exercise, a measure of my martial arts skill and something fun in which to compete. It wasn’t until one of my martial arts mentors explained to me that I was only scratching the surface of kata that I started to ask questions and explore their real meaning.
I started to ask what certain moves meant and why would techniques be used in a specific order. I started my research reading books, talking to masters and reviewing my kata to better understand what I was doing. When I get information on a technique or a set of techniques, I drill those moves until I understand the purpose and flow of the techniques. I then practice the move with an opponent, so I can really understand what I am trying to accomplish with the move.
When executing my kata, I still visualize myself against an opponent, blocking strikes and striking back. I even go as far as looking at the starting positions to understand the strikes, blocks and joint manipulation they represent. Kata offer a surprising amount of hidden knowledge. Those who just think of kata as jumping around for the entertainment of the judges at a tournament are missing a huge learning opportunity. From my reading I discovered that kata was originally the main (sometimes sole) method used to transfer knowledge of a system from master to student. Traditional kata are not dances. They are the recorded techniques and expressions of the martial arts system’s key movements and behaviors. They are a blue print to be used in building martial artists.
Martial arts is not a purely a physical art. It requires an understanding of patterns and the use of those patterns as an appropriate response to outside forces. Kata offer a guide to those patterns and help build the bond between mind and body.
I am not here to say that one style of martial arts is better than another whether or not the study of kata is included in the curriculum. I will say that as a martial artist you are missing out on an enriching experience by not exploring kata. My exploration of kata has enhanced my experience as a martial artist. It has helped me develop a stronger understanding of techniques and helped me develop better fighting strategies.
I have only scratched the surface in my study of kata. I am looking forward to continuing my journey and am excited about the things I will be learning. I encourage you to explore kata as well.