Long Live The Kata
Updated: Jan 28
Kata is not just practiced by middle-aged-overweight-George-Lucas-Star-Wars-Dungeons-And-Dragons-Cosplay-Karate-Nerd-fans 🤣. Unfortunately, these have been the common ramblings of various top notch mis-informed keyboard warriors.
Check out Master Hidy Ochiai's body...enough said.
As an aging martial artist, I want to play the long game. I dug out my copy of the Jan 1984 Karate Illustrated Magazine featuring Hidy Ochiai. When people think of Hidy, one word comes to mind...KATA.
Here are my reflections on Kata, its misconceptions and inefficiencies, and longevity in the Martial arts.
1. What is Kata?
In my 30+ years of training, I have understood it as a biomechanical alphabet or toolset and a lesson delivery system, downloaded to us by the masters. It's like an antiquated "internet" for the masters so to speak. Like a lot of ancient oral and dance traditions, it was a vehicle to pass on information and teach lessons to the masses without a digital connection.
The ideas contained in the movements are static representations of principles, findings, self-defence concepts, and exercises that were passed on for 2 main reasons, in my opinion: to help you stay fit and survive life and death situations.
This Sanchin Kata snippet is loaded with a variety of tools, to name a few, it contains:
isotonic exercises (hard breathing, dynamic movements)
stance training (quad and glute activation)
mental focus (full body awareness of muscles, angles, breathing)
contains self defence strategy (pic #2 - block and counter)
What else do you see?
2. Misconceptions of Kata
Photo by www.nt-okinawa.or.jp Kata is basically a dance. This is a popular belief among people who don't understand the true tradition of Karate training.
If you don't engage in any kind of sparring or progressive resistance training, then Kata is basically just that, a dance. You need a good coach that will foster a cross-training approach to help you creatively problem solve under progressive resistance drills.
Boxing, grappling, and diverse weapons systems like FMA, will help you unlock your kata. I have trained in these arts, and they are invaluable in helping me understand bunkai/application. The masters did it, why can't we do it too?
3. Okinawan Masters Cross-trained to Functionalize Kata
Founder of Matsubayashi Ryu, Shoshin Nagamine, asserts in his book The Essence of Okinawan Karate Do, that attributes like endurance, mobility, and stability often found in martial arts and sports like Kendo, Judo, Aikido, Boxing, and wrestling, are frequently neglected in sparring and kata practice in some schools of Karate.
Yes, he said that. I don't know about you, but for me, this finding excites me!
Photo of Nagamine at 22 taken from - personal copy of The Essence of Okinawan Karate Do Nagamine, along with a whole slew of other Okinawan masters, in my opinion, were proponents of cross training. They all did striking, grappling, and weapons systems in order to stay versatile, strong, and perpetuate Karate toward a healthy evolution.
Look at Nagamine at 22, he's a jacked, lean, mean, monster! You don't get to look that way, if you don't train athletically. Nagamine worked in law enforcement in Okinawa, and cross trained in Judo and Kendo.
Get out there, and cross train as the masters did!
4. Inefficiencies of Kata
Kata is an inefficient, and antiquated delivery system of information. Wow, I can't believe, I just said that! But I did! Let me explain before you leave. I didn't say it was bad, I said it was inefficient.
From my experience, I really never knew the meaning behind the moves until I started cross training with others, testing them out in sparring, and researching ideas on the internet and other sources.
We are blessed to be living in the information superhighway. We can efficiently communicate information at lightning speeds and have access to a tonne of resources at our fingertips.
Photo by Bell Canada pinterest.com Nowadays, we can look up ANY technique, concept, drill, self-defence solution, and training method. We can ask questions immediately and receive prompt feedback. This form of learning is way more efficient than learning via Kata.
We now have a globally accessible curriculum and are living in the best generation for learning and training in the Martial Arts.
As Karate practitioners, since we have learned all this Kata, should we discard it in lieu of the internet and technology?
I say, make use of everything.
Here are some of the things I have done to make sense of my Kata:
take parts of kata and see the commonalities in other arts and sports
find other instructors doing kata-like moves, and learn how they use kata principles
study! study! and study Youtube, Podcasts, articles, Jump on a Zoom Training, understand how people are moving, take notes, and figure out apps yourself and test in sparring
study CCTV footage of violent civilian crimes and reverse engineer your Kata apps; figure out ways to defend yourself with your Kata tools in combination with other tactical solutions
5 - Kata and Longevity
Master Ochiai, is now in his 80's. He's living proof of an individual that uses Kata to stay healthy. I want to live a long and fulfilled life for my family, my friends, and to pass on my knowledge to others.
I am now 52. My hard sparring days are over...sadly but true. But Kata practise along with cross training in Boxing/Muay Thai/Savate and other arts, gives me ways to make sense of my Kata.
" Sanchin is not only for young people, you can do it for the rest of your life" - Hidy Ochiai
For me, I can't let go of Kata. It's been part of my childhood, and the more I cross train with others, I see its benefits day by day.
As an aging Martial Artist, here's some of the ways I train with Kata:
Meditate with it - turn on some music and move with your kata, it will soothe you
Cardio Exercise - move around in timed intervals and repeat
Clean up your basics - move and analyze certain kihons and angles
Self Defense Analysis - this is tricky, as there's not one absolute solution here, so I take kata moves, and cross reference them with other arts and combat sports that contain similar biomechanical movements; I spar/live drill it, and figure out solutions/applications.
sparring - I take certain kata moves, and spar with it; make changes to rhythm, timing, energy, and motion
Despite the misconceptions and inefficiencies around Kata, I will always hold a dear spot for it in my training. Personally, I have found ways to navigate around these issues.
I love everything about it, and like Hidy Ochiai, I want to use it to live long for my family and for others that I care about.
Kata, for me is an exploratory exercise that allows me to meditate, exercise according to my physical limitations, and it gives me ideas to develop applications while I cross train, teach, and share my ideas with others via international seminars.
Kata might not be your groove. But I say, keep moving. We only have one life. Stay healthy, happy, and active.
Thank goodness I didn't throw out my old magazines! They are a gold mine of ideas and allow me to reflect on my Martial Arts journey.
What's your experience with Kata? How do you train with it? Do you have any old cool martial arts magazines kicking around you want to talk about?