I know if you trawl though my back catalogue that I have visited this subject before but the topic came up on Facebook again today in a post by Don Came and I thought it worth revisiting.
I will make the caveat here (as I often do) that anything that follows are just my thoughts and opinions, I am not a “purveyor of karate facts”. I also only discuss the things that are pertinent to my reasons for training, they may not be the same as yours 🙂
Someone had made a comment somewhere along to lines of “we don’t need kata, other arts don’t use them”
Now for any karate-ka the initial knee jerk reaction is to fall back on the stock position of “kata is the heart of karate, without kata you are not doing karate” which is true, but it equally could be not true.
Firstly you have to define what kata is in order to even be able to converse on the subject.
For me, and many others, kata is any sequence of movements (i.e. two or more) that you do as solo practice for a set of techniques (of course, to fully understand that you need to define what “technique” is as well 🙂 ). So in that case, anybody who does any sort of solo visualisation practice in any art does kata, they just don’t call it kata because the word “kata” is just a label applied to Japanese based arts and is certainly not exclusively linked to karate in that culture.
Some people would define that as Kihon but me, being a contrary person, I don’t really define it that way. For me Kihon is a single technique (which may be a simple or compound movement) which you can break down into it’s components to examine the minutia of the body mechanics involved, this is the definition of “fundamental” for me.
Combinations of kihon are not still kihon, they are a kata (of sorts), typically with less meaning but still with a purpose (albeit only in some places).
However, what the wider karate community typically regard as kata are “the kata”, the clearly defined set of “traditional” solo forms associated with what ever their chosen style of karate is. For my base style of Shotokan that is 26, (or 15, or 27, or 25, depending on a change in the wind on a particular day 🙂 )
The upshot being that when you discuss whether you need kata or not is that karate people tend to understand it as whether you need THE kata.
So, from this point on in the discussion when I talk about kata, assume I am talking about “the kata”.
“Kata is the heart of karate!” It is, and it isn’t, I will make what will be (for many) a contentious statement here. There is nothing that I teach through the use of kata that I couldn’t teach without reference to kata at all. All the concepts and principles stand alone and are available for teaching without ever knowing that kata exists.
When I teach a self defence class to non martial artists I don’t refer to kata at all, to do so would be to muddy the waters and make people think they are learning something outside of their experience.
Does that mean that the concepts and principles that I teach are different? of course not, why would I teach something sub-optimal to one group over another.
Does that mean that the non martial arts people only get a sub set of what I do? Yes, of course they do, they are getting simple, functional, low skill versions that are quick to learn and easy to hold on to.
You do not have time in this circumstance to expose people to all the nuances, variations, subtlety and adaptability that come (or should do) with long term martial arts study.
So, I can teach a group something useful and practical in a short space without kata.
The argument would be of course that these people are not learning “karate” so naturally they don’t need kata. My argument would be that they are learning karate because that’s all I know, I have nothing else to teach them.
So, going back to my karate group. Pretty much everything I teach these days revolves around kata so for my class kata genuinely is the heart of my karate so it may seem a bit at odds to say that I don’t need kata.
So, to clarify, apart from the performance aspect (which I do teach), I don’t see kata as a thing apart any more than I do kihon or kumite. They are all just parts of a whole and, for me at least, not distinct enough to separate out.
Whilst I could teach all the stuff I hang on kata without the use of kata in a karate class I would still have to come up with and define consistent drills for the practice of the ideas and principles I am trying to convey.
I would then have to find ways to link those drills in many possible combinations to transition from one potential outcome to a number of other variables and then codify it into some formal solo form in order to allow for solo practice of the sort of details of movement that are hard to focus on with a partner.
So, how quickly would I have moved back to teaching kata? The only difference is that I am now teaching a kata that only I (and my students know) rather than classical kata.
This can work quite well, John Titchen does this in his DART group and has developed a number of his own kata to teach his concepts to his students and his stuff is highly functional, but I don’t believe he refers to this side of his teaching/training as karate. So the model is similar.
The down side with doing this for me is (apart from a lack of patience to do the work 🙂 ) that I am limiting myself and my students to exposure only to my karate. What I do is very much a sub-set of the overall art and I tend to (as we all do) favour the things that work for me or appeal to the way I think, my body type and my age.
By sticking to the classical kata I immediately have a format that is portable and widely known and also addresses approaches different to my own. This forces me to understand and examine possibilities outside of my own narrow view and be exposed to other ideas hung on the same framework. It also allows for the occasional light bulb moment when something previously undiscovered comes out of playing with these kata.
I will now say something else that can be taken as contentious.
It is commonly said that “every kata has a unique lesson to teach us”. Personally, I don’t believe this to be true particularly.
My teaching is based pretty much on 5 or 6 kata as far as understanding karate and function is concerned (and I could probably halve that number quite happily). I teach a lot more kata than that for the sake of the fact that I am still teaching the art rather than for true function, and to limit people to just what is within my understanding would be to do them a disservice (who knows what they may find and where as they follow their own path and ideas).
It is true that occasionally something will pop up in the practice of one of these kata that suggests something new (which I may well never have seen otherwise) but even in that circumstance, once understood, I can typically find it in and relate it back to the core kata I practice because, as I already indicated, kata is just the frame that I hang MY karate on.
My personal experience, when looking at applied karate, is that most people look for and find meanings in kata that pretty much match their own pre-existing processes. If you are a striker you will see strikes, if you are a locker you will see locks, if you are a thrower you will see throws and so on and so forth.
There will, or should be, some commonality in what you see down to the fact that there are universal principles of combat that need to be adhered to before anything you may paint over the top can be applied. If you are genuinely looking for meaning in your kata then they may force you to think outside your own particular box to make sense of them.
This all exists in kata but is not explicitly taught by kata. It is quite possible to know the movements of many many kata but still have no understanding of the principles that lay underneath.
So, having drifted somewhat away from the original question, do I think kata are essential?
I find kata an invaluable tool and it is the core of what I teach and train. I like the art, I like the look and the feel, I like the history, I like the path of discovery, I like the continuity, I like the portability and the fact that they are a common language where ever I go. So from that point, yes.
Could I still teach everything I teach without them? Yes, with a little more work and a little less universal appeal (and where would I be without my universal appeal? 🙂 ).
Would it still be “karate”? Despite it being the same stuff my guess would be not in the eyes of many. I would probably have to refer to it as “Empty Hand Defence”