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Drew Loto
Drew Loto's picture
Kata as combat

Is kata in itself contain any value in creating fighters and self-defenders?

This question relates to the core of this community so if a thread like this one already exists please forward me there.  I have come to believe that this is a very personal question, so even if this thread exists somewhere else, I'd still love to hear opinions from people who may not have frequented this forum at the time of the other thread's creation.

I remember reading or listening to something by Iain once in which he made an interesting comment about why kata is important.  At the risk of straw-manning his claim, I will attempt to paraphrase.  If anyone remembers which work I am drawing this from, please speak up.  Iain said, essentially, that he acknowledges the value in the training methods employed and perpetuated by the non-traditionalists.  Iain chose to remain a traditionalist, who utilizes kata as a core teaching method, because he realizes that he personally needs to feel like his study is grounded in something bigger than himself. 

I found this community because I was looking for a way to remain a traditionalist myself without feeling like I was neglecting practical self-defense techniques.  Oftentimes, I find myself drawn to kata because it does give me that feeling of grandeur and history so I find Iain comment very agreeable.  But I also fancy myself a bit of a pragmatist who tries to ground his feelings in reality--who strips away all those emotional bells and whistles to get at the core of his being.  And, without question, I value kata.

We often talk about kata as the vehicle through which past masters were able to record their techniques for future generations.  Now that we have such impressive recording technology as the home video, what use does kata hold for that function?  Couldn't we take all possible techniques from the kata and teach the techniques without the form?

One argument is that kata allows us to practice the techniques when we don't have training partners.  Does anyone actually feel that they improve their skill at certain techniques by practicing the solo forms.  Are there certain techniques that are enhanced by the practice of kata and certain ones that are not?  Which ones?  I find that whether or not the practice of a kata actually feels like the practice of the chosen application serves as a good index for the validity of a particular application.

What other value does kata contain that makes us so interested in preserving it as an effective training technique?  This is a big question.

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Drew Loto wrote:
Couldn't we take all possible techniques from the kata and teach the techniques without the form?

Of course we could. People who practise styles without kata manage fine without it. However, it’s not the route I personally choose to go for a whole host of reasons:

1 – As you point out, I personally like to feel part of something greater than myself and kata gives me that sense of being part of a tradition that appeals to me. As I’ve said before, this is actually quite important practically because one of the most important things there is when it comes to effectiveness is lots and lots of practise. People are far more likely to practise something they enjoy … so enjoying the art you practise is vital if effectiveness is going to be achieved. So while “tradition” may not appeal to all, it does appeal to me (and those like me) and I’m a better martial artist as a result.

2 – If you think about it, we practise every technique we do incorrectly during partner practise. We want to practise techniques that can hurt and disable, but we practise them in a safe way so no one gets hurt. The way we practise runs contrary to our objectives and that’s the case in all martial arts: compromises are made in the name of safety. Kata gives us the chance to visualise, with movement, applying the technique with “true intent”. If you only event do partner practise, then you miss this opportunity. Kata gives us the chance to “fill that gap”. Visualisation is of course a highly studied and proven vehicle for enhancing performance. As kata practitioners we have that built into the system and we have the chance to perform the techniques with a mental and physical “intensity” that is not possible in partner practise. Combine partner practise and solo-kata and the whole thing becomes complete and balanced in my view. The “intentional faults” in partner practise are mitigated thorough full intensity visualisation with linked and corresponding physical motions.

3 – Kata provides a continuity of information through the generations. If you abandon kata, then you break that chain. This could mean lost information as the “syllabus” is no longer set and consistent.

4 – In my view, teaching the applications in the order presented by the kata is a very logical progression. Kata provides the underlying order and losing that could mean disordered training, unless replaced with another order (and personally I’m totally happy with the kata order so I see no need to reinvent the wheel).

5 – There are times when we don’t have a partner to practise with. Kata provides a form of supplementary solo training that will be fully consistent with, and hence best support, the bunkai based partner drills and sparring that will be done when one has partners to train with. Solo practise and partner practise are therefore strongly integrated and I believe this leads to faster progress.

6 – Away from the bunkai applications, kata is great for teaching structure, posture, breathing, body control, body awareness, etc. In modern martial arts this is not as valued as it once was and I think this is part of why we see falling standards in some areas. As I say to my students, “If you can’t control your own body, then you stand no chance of being able to control someone else’s”. Kata teaches these vital components in a way that other forms of solo training, as vital as they are, do not.

7 – Statistically, we are all more likely to die of things like heart disease and stress than physical violence. Kata is “all consuming” in that when we do it correctly we don’t so much “do kata” but instead we “are kata”. This high level of “mindfulness” has been shown to reduce stress and in some studies has been shown to be as effective in treating depression as drugs. Kata can therefore not only preserve life, but enhance it too. It can keep us mentally and physically healthy.

8 – Kata needs absolutely no equipment. As someone who travels a lot, I can’t always hit a bag, lift weights, etc. But all I need is a little space and I can practise kata, get a good workout and support my partner training.

9 – The best way to record physical techniques is in a physical medium. Despite advances in technology, kata remains the best way to record physical techniques. While the external appearance of a technique could be recorded on film, the internal nuances and the “feeling” of the motion can only be experienced through motion. Kata is therefore a far better way for martial artists to record their methodologies.

10 – Kata and bunkai are fun! :-)

There are other things I could write (but I have errands to run), and I’m sure others will add their own opinions too. For me though, the bottom line is that kata provides the central pole that holds up everything else I do. Take it away, and the whole thing sags and collapses. I would not practise kata if I did not feel it was a valuable use of precious training time. I’m not one for practising anything for its own sake. Kata provides so much benefit though that I’m a great believer in it.

Now none of this is to say those who have gone another route are “wrong”. I don’t feel any need to “proselytise” about kata. I’m not saying that those who currently don’t do kata must adopt it; because I know many do just fine with out it (many of my training partners don’t do kata). However, I know that kata has been hugely beneficial to me and mine and hence it’s something I see as being absolutely vital to my own practise and teaching.

As they say, “there are many paths up the mountain, but we all see the same view from the top.” The route up the mountain I use has kata as a vital part of it. This is the climb I know and I have experienced. Others will have their path, but I don’t want to get stuck half way up by letting go of the rope that has taken me this far :-)

All the best,


karatemonkey's picture

i suppose the question can give a lot of answers but for me i'm with Iain on this one.

Kata is a major part of my training.and like Iain said it can be performed where ever you are,i personally have stood and gone thru the moves in my head while just moving my hands and arms!

i also try to perfect my movements while doing Kata that im not too bothered with when im doing other training.

trying to figure out why that Kata was made gives me hours of headaches but i do find it interesting.

if im at training early i normally do some Kata to warm up,i do it slower than normal and dont do the energetic jumps but i do them and find the benefits at my age are not only physical but mental.Kata has a lot of information in them that takes up a lot of the grey matter to store it.


swdw's picture

First- everything Iain said I agree with.

I'm working on putting something together for my students. Here's the basic outline of it.

I'll keep this simple (limit it to 4). The 4 major speeds and rhythm for kata. Teaching- one count at a time to learn the sequence. Very segmented. Learning- working through the techniques at a slow pace- produces a staccato rhythm Flow- putting the pieces together and leaving out the unnecessary pauses. Chaining techniques with breathing. Moderate pace to kata. Techniques flow one to another *when they are supposed to* Practical- fighting tempo and rhythm Not pretty at this speed, but it cranks. (Example, doing Saifa in less than 30 seconds). How many do you think most martial artists do?

As far as kata improving combat skills- there are many requirements to being effective. Balance, and timing are just a couple of those components. (In this case, I'm talking about the timing of the diferent parts of the body in a movement). If these aren't being improved through kata, better go back and check how you're doing kata.

However, kata does not work in a vacuum. That is why youy need to be doing partner drills from the kata.

I personally know 3 different people that have used their training in multiple situations where their lfe depended on it. Each one believes wholeheartedly in the value of kata training- done correctly. So take what you will from that. (Just so happens Iain's met one of the 3.)

harlan's picture

As a beginner, I was disconcerted to be told that 'Goju is about killing'. As an old woman, just looking to add that 'something' into my life, and not knowing where this would take me, I had to question the moral value of time spent with such a purpose (killing). On whether this was company I wanted to keep.

It was deeply disturbing to me, and I asked other goju teachers 'Is karate about killing?' One teacher said something that I took to heart: 'The kind of karate you practice is the kind of person you will be/are.'

I think fighters will fight, and use the tools embedded in kata. The 'value' in kata as it relates specifically to 'fighters' may be the methodology behind it - tempering the need to fight.

JWT's picture

Without wishing to reproduce too much material, Stevenson and I had a good chat about this ame topic just two months ago here:


I'm currently typing this having got back from two hours of bunkai training at the local Judo Centre.  I write that as a person who doesn't teach Kata in their own system, though I do a large amount of solo drilling and visualisation of my drills at home.

I study and teach bunkai as I find it's a great way to impart lessons from my system to other Karateka in the form of drills that they can identify and remember.

John Titchen