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FireFlea
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Kata - a movement based learning approach

I recently wrote an article about Kata practice as a tool to understand universal movement principles. I hope you guys like it and feedback is warmly welcomned.

https://shotokantimes.com/2019/04/27/learn-to-move-kata-as-a-movement-based-learning-approach-by-florian-wiessmann/

Iain Abernethy
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That’s a very well written article. I like it and agree with much of it. My main divergence would be based around the following:

[Rory Miller] finds the body mechanics developed by kata practice to be identical to violent encounters and advises “learn to move” with kata practice. Digging too much into the “deeper secrets” of kata movements is rather counterproductive.

I don’t think body-mechanics can ever be separated from their intended purpose. There is no “good” without defining the measure of “good” i.e. good for what? Kata is indeed designed for violent encounters. We karateka should therefore understand both violent encounters and the body-mechanics that get the results we want in those violent encounters.

We need to understand what the kata is seeking to achieve if we are to have a measure of what body-mechanics facilitate that. We therefore can’t avoid “digging deeper” and doing so can never be counterproductive. We need to deeply understand what the kata is seeking to do in order to measure if our body-mechanics are “good” or not.

As I see it there are two key mistakes that karateka make in this regard:

1) Form without function.

This is where some arbitrary idea of “good” is imposed on the kata. There is no objective measuring or testing and “good” becomes wholly subjective. The purpose of the kata is not understood, and it becomes an empty shell (albeit a pretty one). This is a common problem in 3K circles.

2) “Function” being sought without form.

This is where the necessity of highly developed technique is overlooked. This is normally a overreaction to 3K karate i.e. “Those 3K types spend all their time working technique, but we just get stuck in!”. This is inefficient because they are trying to strike, lock, throw etc, with poor technique and it won’t survive testing (unless tested against those with similarly poor technique).

I would suggest that it is this second issue that Rory maybe commenting on. He has certainly wrote about the functional testing of kata methods elsewhere: http://chirontraining.blogspot.com/2013/08/martial-mistakes.html

“When people don't have a reality check they have this really stupid tendency to make up a reality check.  'Make up' and 'reality' rarely belong in the same thought.  I almost always pick on karate for this.  When I look at their kata and kihon, they have possibly the best body mechanics for infighting that I've seen... then they choose to test it at sparring range, where it sucks.  Or, worse, point contact range where it sucks AND it screws up everybody's sense of distance and time.”

Rory seems very clear here that body-mechanics devoid of functional and objective testing is not desirable or possible. They are inextricably linked.

My concern is that suggesting the body-mechanics of the kata can be divorced from the intended function of the kata (bunkai or the “deeper secrets”) seemingly supports the notion that kata can be practised without bunkai drills and objective testing, and yet still help develop combative function. Sadly, many karateka think this. To me, this is a little like showing someone the motions of a swimming stroke, but never telling them it is designed to propel them through the water or having them test it in the water. They need to understand what they are doing and test it.

I don’t think this is what you are saying  because you reference testing, power generation, etc, but Rory’s quote (when isolated from other things he has written and said) does make it sound like he is endorsing doing kata as an isolated “movement exercise” as a means to enhance combative efficiency; without considering the application and without objective testing. Rory is a practical as it gets so that’s not going to be the case.

Elsewhere in his work, Rory has expressed reservation about kata as a training method. These reservations are ones I would share when kata is isolated from the process of which it is part. However, as a pragmatic karateka, I am a great believer in the value of kata … but only when it is part of the wider process.

Kata needs to be understood. The lessons it has to each need to be objectively tested. I don’t think form and function can be divorced from one another, nor can they be presented as competing entities. They are dependant on one another. No motion without function. No function without motion.

Again, I’m not saying you are suggesting otherwise. You clearly are not. My concern is that, because the vital roles of bunkai and empirical testing are not strongly stated, people could read parts of the article as an endorsement of kata as a movement exercise which has combative unitality even when divorced from the bunkai of the form.

All the best,

Iain

Further Info:

This article covers why body mechanics can’t be divorced from function:  https://iainabernethy.co.uk/article/occams-hurdled-katana-logic-kata-application

This video covers the importance of body mechanics: https://youtu.be/MK4qriYwEvc

This video looks at the requirements of a good kata and what constitutes “good” when it comes to body mechanics and technique: https://youtu.be/cAiiUTAMq_M

FireFlea
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Thank you very much for taking the time to comment, I really appreciate it.

Iain Abernethy wrote:

I don’t think this is what you are saying  because you reference testing, power generation, etc.

...

Again, I’m not saying you are suggesting otherwise. You clearly are not. My concern is that, because the vital roles of bunkai and empirical testing are not strongly stated, people could read parts of the article as an endorsement of kata as a movement exercise which has combative unitality even when divorced from the bunkai of the form.

I am indeed not suggesting otherwise. The article is about building focus points for approaching kata. In this case it's understanding universal movement principles as base from which applications can be applied. Eg. understanding hove to move my center, using both hands and so on and this will enable me to put function into the form.

Quote:
I would suggest that it is this second issue that Rory maybe commenting on.

I guess so. As written above I do not see kata as pure movement training. But bunkai became somewhat of a trend were people desperately try to explain everything, which in some cases leads to some kind of 'over-bunkaiization' or wild theories about the historic roots of some kata. Nowadays you find explanations like 'Naihanchi for groundfighting', 'Naihanchi as fighting on small roads' or all kind of complicated drills and joint locks, where I more often than not have to question the realism (or the historical correctness) of the approach. I suggest Rory means this with his comment about digging to much into deeper secrets.

Quote:
I don’t think body-mechanics can ever be separated from their intended purpose.

My concern is that suggesting the body-mechanics of the kata can be divorced from the intended function of the kata.

Absolutely but allow me a critical comment. This works perfect, if you are in a school, were the intended purpose of form is still known and taught. Karateka, no matter how traditional the line might be, will face some challenges here. One point is, that most kata might be devised for violent encounters, but maybe not all. Tetsuhiko Asai clearly developed some kata to teach some stuff like whipping motion. 100 years from now people might interpret some fancy applications in his kata, which was never intended to be analysed in this way. Regarding 'historic' kata, Nagamine Shoshin writes in his book 'The Essence of Okinawan Karate-Do', that the significance of some movements remains unexplained and it is more or less impossible to give a complete explanation of kata movements. Regarding Karate kata researcher Andreas Quast also suggests, that 'in karate, kata only provides the external form of the technique, but not the content. In other words, the practical skills are not defined and the kata do not clearly demonstrate the relationship between external form (kata) and technique (waza)' and that 'the kata of karate are the theorization of principles and carry a plurality of skills with their meanings hidden behind a high level of abstraction. Each move or gesture within a kata of karate can easily be interpreted as a multitude of applied techniques'. http://ryukyu-bugei.com/?p=5391

In think this is were your practical approach fits in nicely.

Iain Abernethy
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Thanks for the reply.

FireFlea wrote:
But bunkai became somewhat of a trend were people desperately try to explain everything, which in some cases leads to some kind of 'over-bunkaiization' or wild theories about the historic roots of some kata. Nowadays you find explanations like 'Naihanchi for groundfighting', 'Naihanchi as fighting on small roads' or all kind of complicated drills and joint locks, where I more often than not have to question the realism (or the historical correctness) of the approach. I suggest Rory means this with his comment about digging too much into deeper secrets.

I’d agree with that observation. However, I’d suggest that that is a result of people not digging deeply enough. They read one unsourced “explanation” on the internet and then they are done. If we dig a little deeper, we can clearly see the nonsense of such things. We need to dig deeper until we hit something solid, rather than scratch the surface.

Function and body mechanics can’t be separated in practise. Way too many karateka fail to see that, and they simply do the motions in an unthinking way without an objective measure of “good”. I’d therefore word the problem as them not digging deeply enough as opposed to the contrary.

I can see how people can, to quote Funakoshi, “take refuge in theory” in the guise of “deep study”. So, I can also accept the wording used. However, I’d personally say that people need to dig for the empirical truth (a truth that will have a demonstrable and objective measure). That’s the pressing problem. Digging therefore needs to be encouraged.

Iain Abernethy wrote:
My concern is that suggesting the body-mechanics of the kata can be divorced from the intended function of the kata.

FireFlea wrote:
Absolutely but allow me a critical comment. This works perfect, if you are in a school, were the intended purpose of form is still known and taught. Karateka, no matter how traditional the line might be, will face some challenges here …

In previous writing, I’ve drawn a distinction between being a “pragmatist” and an “historian”. A pragmatist cares about the pragmatic function of what they do in the present day. An historian cares about the way the kata was applied in the past. The pragmatist can get definitive answers to what the application of the kata is i.e. does it work or not? The historian is the one who struggles because they can’t get definitive answers in many cases due to the lack of solid historical sources.

A karateka can determine if they are a pragmatist or an historian by conducting the following “thought experiment”:

You have a piece of bunkai for a kata that works well. It matches the kata, is consistent with criminal violence, and it works well in live practise. Today, you find out that historians have found a verified document that shows the original intent of the kata. This document (a handbook for the kata in question) proves beyond all doubt what the original intent of the kata sequence was; but you feel it is less effective than the one you currently attribute to the sequence. What matters more: function or historical accuracy? If you practise the less effective version so you are historically accurate, then you are an historian. If you ignore the history and stick with the more functional “reinterpretation” then you are a pragmatist.

I’m a pragmatist.

I therefore know with 100% certainty what all the movements in the kata we practise represent (to us) and therefore I can likewise be 100% certain about what the correct mechanics should be every kata motion.

The kata have not been changed and they match the bunkai we do … but I can’t be 100% certain of the historical accuracy; nor do I care because they serve me in the here and now; just as the kata of the past served the karateka of the past (their “here and now”). We have alignment in intent. Paradoxically, the historian does not have this alignment in intent because the past masters were seeking function too and not “historical purity”. I therefore see the pragmatic approach as being the more “traditional”, but I know others think differently.  

In my dojo, each movement has a specific primary function which is, for all intents and purposes, THE application. Sure, we look at “secondary applications” later on too, but bunkai is not a perpetually open-ended question for us. We have answers. We know what each move means. I think all karateka need to reach that point too. We don’t need to agree as a mass, but every given group should specifically know what the kata means to them. (More on that in this podcast: https://iainabernethy.co.uk/content/karate-30)

It’s the historian who has problems here. If they don’t know what the movement means (because function is not a satisfactory measure for them and historical sources are insufficient), then they can’t possibly know what the correct body mechanics will be. If they don’t know what the movement is trying to achieve, they can’t possibly know how best to achieve it.

In the absence of an objective measure, we frequently see subjective ones used instead; primarily adherence to an arbitrary aesthetic. Working to achieve the “right look” or “right feel”, were “right” is undefined and nebulous, does not mean the movement will be useful in combative exchanges.

This brings us back to the main point in that you can’t divorce function from body mechanics. We need to know what the objective of the moment is. We can’t know what “good movement” is without knowing what that movement is trying to achieve. Therefore, bunkai needs to be central to any approach to kata that proports combative function.

We need highly refined movement, but that requires an understanding of the objective of that movement. Knowledge of the objective also gives us a means to truly test whether that movement is good or not, because we can empirically test it.

Without bunkai, there can be no clearly defined objective reference for measuring the quality of the movement. Without bunkai, there can also be no objective test. Form and function are not competing entities and can’t be separated in practise.

I don’t think you are saying otherwise. It’s just that, to my mind, “movement based learning” is a potentially problematic term because of the fact that movement and function can’t be divorced. All movements arise from their function. You can’t therefore base a functional approach to kata on movement alone. That movement is dependent on the function. As I say, my concern is that people could read parts of the article as an endorsement of kata as a movement exercise which has intrinsic combative unitality, even when divorced from the study of bunkai. As I say, I don’t believe that was the intent, but those of the view that kata has value away from bunkai could read parts of it that way.

I do like the article but, as someone who is passionate about karate returning to being a functional and pragmatic system, I’m ever mindful of the dogmatic nature of “3K thinking” in some quarters and how the article may be interpreted by them.

All the best,

Iain

FireFlea
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Iain Abernethy wrote:
I therefore see the pragmatic approach as being the more “traditional”, but I know others think differently.

Thanks again for your insights.I like that passage quoted above. To a certain extend everyone has to find it's own Karate and the existing content gives the practitioner a base to work and improve.

Just a further thought - instead of trying to find sense in existing kata, wouldn't it be also legitimate to create new kata, were the creator exactly knows, what his aims are and were nothing is open to interpretation (Iet's asume the person knows his stuff, I'm not talking McDojo here)? I guess this would be also traditional, as many koryu founders created their own kata based on their experience and insights after founding their schools. This would not be my personal preference but I'd like to hear your opinion about it.

Iain Abernethy
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FireFlea wrote:
To a certain extent everyone has to find it's own Karate and the existing content gives the practitioner a base to work and improve.

Absolutely. Karate is is a multifaceted pursuit with each individual practitioner having their own objectives. 

FireFlea wrote:
instead of trying to find sense in existing kata, wouldn't it be also legitimate to create new kata, were the creator exactly knows, what his aims are and were nothing is open to interpretation ...

That would be entirely legitimate. There is no reason at all why new kata can’t be created by today’s karateka. The reason that I’ve stuck with the traditional ones is because, having analysed them, I’ve found they serve my needs perfectly and I don’t think I could improve on them. There’s also advantage to having “communal kata” that are widely practised. While different groups and individuals have differing approaches to the applications of those kata, we nevertheless have a common set of kata (style idiosyncrasies aside). We can therefore swap ideas and learn from each other in a way that would not be possible if we all had unique kata. As mentioned in the above post, in my dojo, each movement has a specific primary function which is, for all intents and purposes, THE application. We therefore don’t have the ambiguity that new kata would seek to solve.

I have created kata for my own practice and enjoyment (i.e. one based on Motobu’s 12 two-person drills), but I’ve never taught them to others. As I say, for us, the traditional ones meet all our needs. I do think it’s totally legitimate for others to do so though and I agree with your observation that doing so is traditional. You can point to most of the past masters and see that they learnt some kata, revised some, and created others. There’s no reason for that process to stop if value can can be derived from doing so.

All the best,

Iain

FireFlea
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Dear Iain,

the Chief Editor of Shotokan Times, Dr. Christian Tribowski, asked me to ask you if it would be ok, to publish part of your answers as an article on its own to highlight the practical aspect of kata training? Would this be ok for you? Of course you would receive the version to be published for approval.

All the best, Florian

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

FireFlea wrote:
The Chief Editor of Shotokan Times, Dr. Christian Tribowski, asked me to ask you if it would be ok, to publish part of your answers as an article on its own to highlight the practical aspect of kata training? Would this be ok for you? Of course you would receive the version to be published for approval.

That’s really kind, but I’m not sure it would work. My posts were written to conversational and I don’t think they’d work well as a standalone article. The writing would not scan well, and we’d be missing your part of our conversation. It would take some rewriting to make it readable and to ensure my view was accurately expressed. Under normally circumstances I’d be more than happy to write / rewrite something, but with a young baby at home, along with the usual workload, time is very limited at the moment. I therefore know I’m unlikely to be able to produce anything useful in a meaningful timescale. Sorry about that. If you could pass on my email (iain@iainabernethy.com) we can maybe do something together in the future.

All the best,

Iain

FireFlea
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Thank you for the answer, I will pass on your e-mail.

Al the best,

Florian