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Iain Abernethy
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Kenwa Mabuni on why kata is needed

Hi All,

Here is a good quote from Kenwa Mabuni on why kata needs to be a part of training, but also why it should not be the whole of training:

Therefore, kata must be practiced properly, with a good understanding of their bunkai meaning. There may be those who neglect the practice of kata, thinking that it is sufficient to just practice two-person drills that has been created based on their understanding of the kata, but that will never lead to true advancement. The reason why is that the ways of attacking and defending have innumerable variations. To create two-person drills containing all of the techniques including each and every one of their variations is impossible. However, if one practices kata correctly, it will serve as a foundation for performing - when a crucial time comes - any of the infinite number of variations. However, even if you practice the karate kata as you should, if that is all that you do, if you do not train sufficiently in other areas, then you will not develop sufficient skills. If you do not also use other training methods to strengthen and quicken your hands and feet, as well as to ensure the sufficient study of things like body-shifting and distancing, you will be inadequately prepared when the need arises to call on your skills.” – Kenwa Mabuni, “Practice Karate Correctly”

I like this a lot and it is very much in line with my own thinking on kata. We need to understand bunkai; we need to know that the kata gives us an example of combative principle – not just a specific technique – and all other ways in which that principle can be exploited must also be part of study; and that kata needs to be part of an overall holistic training program. Great quote!

All the best,

Iain

JWT
JWT's picture

While I appreciate much of  the sentiment here (the need for speed, evasion and strength training), I think that the idea that practicing the solo Kata will give you a greater advantage against that infinite number of variations (which itself is over-complicating things because when it comes down to it, there aren't all that many variations) than kata based 'kumite' drills is nonsensical.  I think its important to look at this statement in the context of its time.  Many of us would not recognise many of the paired drills that are shown in books of that era as effective training for real fights, nor had Mabuni the types of training support equipment we had today for impact training, sparring or strength development.

Stevenson
Stevenson's picture

Hi JWT,

I disagree that solo kata practise does not give you an advantage in the way characterised by the Mabuni quote. It's not the context of time you need to consider but the context of the way of thinking. In the west we have a linear 'cause and effect' style of thinking, and it's very efficient, and there is nothing wrong with it. But it is not the only way to see something and to expand the mind or experience.

Mabuni does point out that solo kata alone  is in no way sufficient, but there is a deeper sense in which solo kata can be viewed that can develop fighting qualities. The nearest analogy I can think of is what Rory Miller calls 'plastic mind', which creates something of a similar effect.

To put it into terms that we in the west might understand, is to draw comparisons to other sports. If you have ever watched a high diver, or a ski jumper moments before their jump, they can be seen visualising and even practising the jump and the movements they are about to do for real. A musician uses similar techniques when practising alone...they may already know the notes, but they refine their understanding so that when they do play with an ensemble, they are only considering the overall effect and the contribution of the others and require no conscious processing of their own efforts.

It also sets up memory mapping, creating an interconnected network in the mind, making it easier for a movement or a variation to be recalled. Most of us have had the experience of trying things out in kumite or seeing or performing a technique and recognising it from kata. Psychologists sometimes call this an "aha" moment and what is happening is that pathways connecting stimulus and response are strengthened making recall much easier and less effortful.

A great way to test 'flow' (the effortless recall of a technique), is to see how well you can visualise it without moving your body. In fact ballet dancers and musicians sometimes use this technique to practise. You can actually improve your performance by visualisation, it still creates or strengthens pathways in the brain. It's usually insufficient, you require feedback from your other senses in order to make sure of it, but some people who are really good at it can learn a technique entirely by visualisation.

Mabuni is alluding to a deeper and finer understanding of karate and technique than can be achieved with the distraction of a second person. Its a form of meditation/practise common in other physical arts, and a kind of mind mapping. It's not sufficient on its own, but crucial to developing a flexible mind.

JWT
JWT's picture

Hi Stevenson

I appreciate your point but I think you are missing mine.  

Visualisation is a great tool, and an important tool for top level practitioners.  You can move (as per a Kata) and visualise the bunkai, or you can sit and visualise the bunkai (eg on a train journey from work).  Almost all my bunkai has come from non moving visualisation first, paired trying and refining with a partner second.  If I move and do the Kata and visualise properly, I will need to alter the Kata from the shirt on the coathanger to the shirt on my body.  It is very rare that the Kata movement exactly mimics the position you would be in if you were doing the movement for real - the bunkai is dirty, not clean.  If your bunkai is clean and precise like the movement of the Kata then I would say that you've left out some of the most important elements of real fighting.

Moving and visualising is beneficial, sitting and visualising is beneficial, but both are substitutes for the actual hands on of paired training with a resistant partner.  The time and place for visualisation is when you don't have a training partner.  

Stevenson
Stevenson's picture

Quote:
but both are substitutes for the actual hands on of paired training with a resistant partner.

Well actually I think that's where the disagreement is. I don't think they are substitues - they are supplements, but essential ones - or at least - extremely powerful learning tools.

Quote:
If your bunkai is clean and precise like the movement of the Kata then I would say that you've left out some of the most important elements of real fighting.

Nobody, not Mabuni, not myself, and I am pretty certain not Iain is suggesting that bunkai should be clean and precise. Especially in the 'live' application of it.

If you do kata precisely, then you are doing it for a specific training goal, which is coodination, control and mastery of ones body (or even the aesthetics). But kata is not just done for that purpose. Have you ever tried to improvise in the style of a particular kata? Shadow spar but using the principles that specific kata examines? It's quite illuminating. This would be altering and adjusting the kata to suit the situation which you alluded to. All of the masters agree that you should not be slave to the ritual of kata, but be able to adapt. Kata is like a collection of chapter headings in a book. The story is NOT in the chapter headings but in the details that you have to infer from them. I don't agree with the linear idea of you perform the kata precisely, then you learn the bunkai for each move and that's it.

Kata is performed many ways, with precision, very slowly, very fast, with great tension, with great relaxation, for the purposes of physical development and body control, and for the purposes of recording bunkai (ie performing whilst visualising it). Iain describes it as the spine of karate, and I think that's good way to look at it. Everything you study stems from that. It creates structure and a point of focus to learn good martial and self defense techniques. Find a situation that needs a solution? Refer to kata to see what some of the suggestions might be. Understand the principles underlying the kata and you a consistent and logical system to develop a fightin strategy with.

But more importantly, you have a great way to memorize it and make it easy to recall. A bit like how advertisers use poetry or illiteration pithy catch phrases to hook the mind. A kata is like a physical poem (not to get to yoda-philisophical...) which makes it easier to understand more deeply fighting principles and techniques.

JWT
JWT's picture

Hi Stevenson

Thanks for your reply.  I can see where you are coming from as your thoughts remind me of where I was with my training a decade ago.  If Iain will forgive the link I wrote a little bit on my thoughts on personal kata training and development (for combative as opposed to aesthetic purposes) here:

http://www.practicalkarate.co.uk/JTPKT.html

 I chose to use and study Kata to develop my initial answers to problems, and from there created drills to train through those problems, and then over time removed unnecessary overlaps or conflicting approaches and refined things to make interlocking drills that meet and adapt to problems.  That for me was the progression from my original karate training and cross training, to my bunkai work, through the original version of the Heian Flow System along with other drills, to the current system of DART that I teach.  

Stevenson wrote:

Well actually I think that's where the disagreement is. I don't think they are substitues - they are supplements, but essential ones - or at least - extremely powerful learning tools.

I agree that solo visualisation is an exceptional learning tool.  I think where we differ is that if time is limited I feel it is more important for the student to do paired training than visualisation training, and I do not think you need to have kata in order to be able to have effective visualisation training, you just need to know what you are doing and how it feels.

Stevenson wrote:
Kata is performed many ways, with precision, very slowly, very fast, with great tension, with great relaxation, for the purposes of physical development and body control, and for the purposes of recording bunkai (ie performing whilst visualising it). Iain describes it as the spine of karate, and I think that's good way to look at it. Everything you study stems from that. It creates structure and a point of focus to learn good martial and self defense techniques. Find a situation that needs a solution? Refer to kata to see what some of the suggestions might be. Understand the principles underlying the kata and you a consistent and logical system to develop a fightin strategy with.

But more importantly, you have a great way to memorize it and make it easy to recall. A bit like how advertisers use poetry or illiteration pithy catch phrases to hook the mind. A kata is like a physical poem (not to get to yoda-philisophical...) which makes it easier to understand more deeply fighting principles and techniques.

I think this is where horses for courses comes in.  I have taken material and ideas from Kata, put them through a range of stringent mental and physical analytical processes, kept and refined what is useful, discarded that which wasn't.  Over time things have been changed and added based on lessons learned in hard training, and occasionally these have been seen to be movements from other forms, which themselves are clearly variations of movements from the starting point.  Now I could take these drills and do what my predecessors did, and form them into a Kata for transmission, maybe one day I will, but right now I think the modern mediums of writing and filming are good enough to transmit the message.

This isn't to say I've abandoned Kata completely.  In fact I've actually refreshed a large number of Kata in my memory to join in with a local class in another Karate system.  I also decided that one of the best ways I could pass on some of the ideas and lessons from my own system to people who currently do kata was to illustrate it through bunkai, and as a result I will be teaching a completely updated version of my Heian Flow System in seminars and releasing it in other media.

Hope that helps you see where I'm coming from. :)

John Titchen

Stevenson
Stevenson's picture

It does help me see where you are coming from, but I do feel that without kata a trick could be missed. That said, undoubtedly you have worked things out so that the role kata once played is taken by sometihing else. Also, it occurs to me you seem to have come from the shotokan/shorin direction:

Just to flesh out a bit more where I am coming from, in "Four Shades of Black" Gavin Mullholland describes the the katas that you learn in Okinawan GoJu Ryu as a progression from simple response with force, through to techniques that bring you closer to the opponent, and into grappling range. The idea is to try to get the beginner to be able to defend themselves as quickly as possilbe for the majority of situations and as they progress gain greater control and able to adapt to a greater range of scenarios. So you have the two gekisai katas, which basically mean "to smash", to saifa, which means to "tear free and smash" (tearing yourself free of some form of grapple and counter), to seiyunchin "trapping battle" which deals predominantly with grappling, and then to Shisochin "4 ways of destruction (battle)" which completes the overall picture and is the black belt grading kata. After that, katas tend to compliment the 4 primary katas with greater mastery and control. For example, Sepai and saifa (in my opinion) compliment one another greatly.

So kata is not an arbtirary collection of techniques. At least in GoJu it is structured in a way to give you progression and development - a road map through your development.

I know that your primary objection is the contention that solo kata can lead to greater advancement than two person drills alone, but I honestly do think that it provides a framework for practise you simply wouldn't do if they didn't exist. And I also do think that thinking and performing techniques on your own, away from the social and time pressures of being with a second person can make you think more deeply. Just my humble opinion....

JWT
JWT's picture

Stevenson wrote:

It does help me see where you are coming from, but I do feel that without kata a trick could be missed. That said, undoubtedly you have worked things out so that the role kata once played is taken by sometihing else. Also, it occurs to me you seem to have come from the shotokan/shorin direction:

Yes, my first core art was Shotokan and I still attend Shotokan classes and teach Shotokaners.

Stevenson wrote:

Just to flesh out a bit more where I am coming from, in "Four Shades of Black" Gavin Mullholland describes the the katas that you learn in Okinawan GoJu Ryu as a progression from simple response with force, through to techniques that bring you closer to the opponent, and into grappling range. The idea is to try to get the beginner to be able to defend themselves as quickly as possilbe for the majority of situations and as they progress gain greater control and able to adapt to a greater range of scenarios. So you have the two gekisai katas, which basically mean "to smash", to saifa, which means to "tear free and smash" (tearing yourself free of some form of grapple and counter), to seiyunchin "trapping battle" which deals predominantly with grappling, and then to Shisochin "4 ways of destruction (battle)" which completes the overall picture and is the black belt grading kata. After that, katas tend to compliment the 4 primary katas with greater mastery and control. For example, Sepai and saifa (in my opinion) compliment one another greatly.

So kata is not an arbtirary collection of techniques. At least in GoJu it is structured in a way to give you progression and development - a road map through your development.

I'm familiar with Gavin's book and I really like it.  Gavin also posts here when he gets the time.  I did something similar with my first book and the Heian Flow System, using different Kata to work different concepts.   I'm doing something similar again with the updated version.

Stevenson wrote:

I know that your primary objection is the contention that solo kata can lead to greater advancement than two person drills alone, but I honestly do think that it provides a framework for practise you simply wouldn't do if they didn't exist. And I also do think that thinking and performing techniques on your own, away from the social and time pressures of being with a second person can make you think more deeply. Just my humble opinion....

Over the years I've spent way more time training alone than I have partnered so I am a fan of solo training (just not of solo training in a room filled with people).  At the moment I only pair up with people two days a week while I train alone every day.  Personally though I don't agree with the argument that I wouldn't engage in solo training or visualisation without Kata: a boxer/mma fighter will do bagwork or shadow box.  Ultimately it is horses for courses and getting training weighting right: do the Kata, kihon and kumite support each other properly?  Lots of solo kihon using combinations that differ from the solo kata and the paired kumite is not something I regard highly, but solo kata supported by kihon against pads and kata based kumite is a use of solo training in a full room that I feel I can support.  I hope that makes sense?  I don't disagree with everything Mabuni says - I just feel that the Kata and solo training can be over-emphasised if used in the wrong context.

Stevenson
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Quote:
I just feel that the Kata and solo training can be over-emphasised if used in the wrong context.

That would definitely be common ground. :-)