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THE ESSENCE OF KATA - Understanding what it truly is...

People often wonder what is the purpose of Kata and why is it so valuable that many martial art systems spend countless hours teaching the techniques to their students. If you were to ask most martial artists what Kata is about they would typically answer "it is my form". This statement is quite misleading once the student advances enough in rank to understand that there such a deeper reason for learning Kata and what it is actually about.

Kata was originally developed by instructors in the pre-modern period of Karate. From researching the topics it is interesting to note that most instructors only had one, or maybe two forms at the most that were handed down to their students. It wasn't until Gichin Funakoshi, the founder of Shotokan, wanted to develop a system of teaching Karate to people of all ages, especially at the academic level, that Kata was to become what we know it as today.

In the early stages of development for modern Karate training, Funakoshi Sensei created the Heinan (Pinan) Kata. Each Kata was designed to instill basic techniques, stances and discipline in the practitioners of their art. Most of the five Heinan Kata are almost identical with few changes as the student progresses in their training. The foundation of developing these Kata were not aimed at competitive training, but rather at perfection of the areas examined below. When practicing Kata it is important for the student to become one with the history, understanding the deepest insights of the Masters who created them. If a student simply goes through the moves they will eventually perfect the techniques, but not have the mastery of the Kata as is required for all true Karate students.

When a student practices their Kata it is developed in stages. The first stage is memorization of the movements, turns and technical aspects of the Kata. Once the student has a grasp on this ability they often perform the Kata but with little or no true Budo in what they are doing. The memorization process is perhaps the shortest part of training in Kata for the student but can be quite difficult if they do not persist at repetition.

Once memorization is completed, the student can now begin perfection of the finer points towards mastering the Kata. During this stage the kata is worked on slowly by examining each movement, stance, positioning and technique in order to perfect the Kata. During this stage the student will undergo much critiquing for their Kata and it is often why most Americans come to hate Kata as part of their training. Americans may not like the Kata because they do not like to be told their are doing it incorrectly, but those that persist are sincerely training in their chosen art form as the masters once did when they created the Kata many years ago.

When the student has finally progressed their Kata to the point of proper techniques and execution it is then time for them to master the Kata. Mastering the Kata requires more than just knowing what movement comes when. The student must learn to perform the Kata with little or no thoughts...in other words, with a clear mind. True Kata is done in an almost meditative state of mind. It has been said that when a Kata is mastered is like watching poetry in motion and I would agree with this statement. In order to achieve this level of Kata one must repeat the Kata many years and with full commitment to perfection. This is very difficult for most students since the societal norm today is to get to the end result quickly instead of being dedicated to truly mastering an art form. If one goes into Kata training believing it to be only about performing the Kata to attain rank, they are actually training for defeat right away since perfection of Kata is the ultimate aim.

After a student has perfected their Kata to certain degree, their Sensei may begin teaching them the application hidden within the Kata called Bunkai. In most traditional systems of Karate the Bunkai has a preset meaning, but many times it can vary from Sensei to Sensei. The best form of Bunkai training is to allow the student to examine, discover and apply their own knowledge and skill against an Uke, or assistant, within the Kata. Once the understanding of the application is completed and the student can perform it with perfection of technical skill they will begin to have a deeper appreciation for the Kata and the development that went into them.