The Secrets in Kata

So, kata has “secrets”. Yup. I guess. They certainly carry information. But I don’t want to get into what techniques are hidden in our kata (sorry if that was what you were looking for). I am more interested in how that information is held, and how it is transmitted. How to access it.

Kata are pretty easy to teach. They are essentially short combinations of movements, in the Okinawan arts usually taking a minute or so to perform. A professional dancer would probably be able to learn and repeat a sequence of similar or greater length and complexity to the most difficult karate kata in a single training session, and would learn dozens a year taking class. If you know how to move and how to learn, they really are not that hard to take in.

But we spend years working on the same forms. Why? Here is the secret. It is not in the sequence of the forms, as important as they are, but in how they are performed. This is why a dancer could probably learn any of our forms in an hour or two but not be able to do them quite properly. They wouldn’t know HOW to do the forms. Internal muscle work. Posture and structure in our art as opposed to theirs. Breathing. Power generation and direction. Intention (yi). The things that are more important than the sequences.

I see lots of bunkai that emphasize the sequence of the movements. This arm does this, you move here, etc. etc.. Ok. That concept of kata, that the sequence of movements in itself holds the key to using them is pretty appealing. It means if you learn the sequence you can then learn the application. By learning more sequences you learn more applications, and by extension have more skill. But it is also a very shallow understanding of form, of what kata is doing and how it fits into a system. It says anyone can do the applications if they know the sequence. It implies the shape of the movements holds the key, as opposed to what is inside that shape.

To make the kata movements work, and make sense, you have to contextualize them within the system. This is really not complex. It means they have to be used in concert with how the system works. What is the range preferred might be one element. One of the most important elements when looking at kata, in my opinion, is how the body works. How does the system generate power. How does it move. How does it deal with strength and structure. And so on. Looked at this way the kata are not isolated “textbooks of technique”. They are part of a system. That means they don’t function on their own.

For example, a movement that looks like a press, the palm edge rotating down from a defending position at mid extension, might actually be a strike to break bones if the system focuses on short power development but could never be interpreted that way if that type of power development was not in the practitioner’s body. What looks like an extended arm deflection might be a powerful throw if the system has good methodology for developing the “frame” and waist-shoulder-arm connection and power, an option that would again be invisible or impossible if you don’t have that skill.

So while learning a bunch of forms might teach you some interesting techniques or combinations, it really won’t help your art grow any. Those techniques will all be bordered by the skills you have. You will see in them what you already know. This may or may not be what the system was designed for…

That is one of the difficulties with kata. They do hold application for the system. But this may look mysterious or seem confusing if you don’t have the system’s approach in your body and mind. (It may still, but a topic for a different time!) It may lead to some pretty convoluted, or conversely really simple, applications if what you are doing, probably without knowing it, is working out an application that doesn’t include the attributes of the system, that is actually working around the skills you don’t have. It may even resemble the movements at the end, and so how to say it is wrong? But starting with the system’s foci- power, range, structure, etc.- might lead to some very different answers.

And this is where taking in lots of forms can be very misleading. It is nice to think that by learning the “highest” kata in a system you have been given some secret or special knowledge. You can even (shhh!) short circuit the system by learning the highest forms from another source, even from video. But if the secrets to the application of these forms are not in the sequence but in how they are done, you have not really short circuited anything because you have not learned the skills that make these forms work properly. You don’t know what you don’t know.

An analogy I have used is dropping a Ferrari engine and transmission in a pick up truck. With some effort you might be able to get the truck to go, even to haul things. But it won’t really work right. The transmission probably won’t take the load from the engine with a bed full of gravel. And the other way around? The truck engine and transmission won’t really get the Ferrari to move like it could with the right insides. What a shame… In much the same way the applications in the forms require the right engine. That is the lens to see them through. Different engine, different capacities, different answer.

This really comes to the fore when learning forms from other systems. Without also learning their engines all they do is reflect what you already have. I’ve had the pleasure to experience a number of good systems in seminars or from friends. I have enjoyed and learned from it. But if I were to do a Hsing’I form it wouldn’t be Hsing’I. It would be Goju, or Feeding Crane, or Kingai, or the mix of those that I brought to the form. If I examined it for application I would find applications I could do, ones that ran off my Goju, Kingai, and Feeding Crane body skills and tactics.

So secrets in the kata. Yup. They are there. And they come out through the basics of the system. Not what we often think of as basics- punches, kicks, etc.- but the real basics. Power, structure, sensitivity, options, position, all the choices inside these variables the system prefers. Using those as a lens opens the kata in a very different way.

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