Kata training is crucial to success in many traditional martial arts. It teaches muscle memory for technique, proper balance, theory of movement, and integration of body, mind, and spirit. Unfortunately, just going through the motions won’t allow you to reap all of the benefits.
At its most basic level, kata is a great workout that can teach some technique. Physical movement in kata is very dynamic and tends to exercise the entire body. I’ve encountered few training tools that can help a person get in better overall condition. But conditioning does not translate into life protection ability. To gain real self-defense and combat knowledge from kata, you have to dive deep into theory and purpose. Therein lies one of the greatest difficulties I have personally experienced and seen others experience – making the leap from kata practice to kata immersion.
Kata practice is what we all generally do while attending a martial arts class; it focuses on proper technique and sequence. During kata practice we check our stances, snap punches to the solar plexus, and concentrate on proper breathing. Kata practice is very important in its own right because without it, there is no way to approach kata immersion (that’s like trying to build a skyscraper without any sort of foundation. Not advisable).
Kata immersion, on the other hand, is when we say ‘hold on, let’s take a look at what’s going on here.’ We do technique, but through bunkai analysis we see what the technique is actually doing. We define where we are hitting and with what part of the body (or weapon). We also integrate intent by determining what kind of opponent we might be facing and what level of severity our techniques should possess. During kata immersion we also work to establish our mindset, taking kata out of a vacuum and building fighting spirit. The toughest part of getting good at kata immersion is getting started. There is a lot of self doubt involved. There are many excuses you can give yourself to avoid spending that exhaustive effort to analyze yourself and your kata. One of the biggest roadblocks I have seen is when people want to wait for kata satori.
Satori is a Buddhist term that essentially means “spontaneous enlightenment.” During Zen Buddhist meditation, monks will sit very still and very quiet for long periods of time. After awhile, their conscious mind gives up its endless chatter and clears a path for deeper wisdom. Suddenly – SATORI! – the monk achieves a level of enlightenment.
Zen Buddhist in Zazen Meditation – http://media.www.thejohnsonian.com
A lot of people hope this will happen to their kata. “If I just keep practicing the pattern long enough, a deeper level of understanding will come to me.” In my experience, this mode of thought does not translate into results. To understand what is occurring in kata, one must make the painful effort to examine every angle and question every nuance. “Why is my stance like this? What does this have to do with the last technique? Why do I need to punch twice here? What if my opponent were 6′ 5”? Do I need to kill this individual?”
There also seems to be a desire to have an instructor deliver kata satori on a platter. “One day, Sensei will teach me the inner secrets.” Again, it has been my experience that higher level karate is learned as you make the effort to improve; it is not delivered as a gift for spending X number of years or X number of dollars. More often than not, advanced technique involves subtle changes to base level technique. But you can’t learn those subtle nuances if you never examined the nature of your basics. The biggest speed bump in a person’s martial development is them self. I know I’ve made excuses for myself, and maybe you have too. Things like –
“I’ve had a long day today. I’m just going to practice pattern. I’ll think about it more in-depth later.”
“I’m not happy with my technique yet. Once I get it perfect, then i’ll worry about application.”
“I’ve got a good idea for what this kata is about. I’m ready to move on to another one.”
One thing that helps me push myself and refocus is spending time alone at the dojo every now and again. Not that you have to be the only person in the building (although that helps), just find some time to have relative quiet and a chance to focus. When you’re alone, you don’t need to feel foolish about dumb ideas and you can materialize questions in your mind. Remember, the best way to acquire the info you need from an instructor is to ask the right questions. Often times they will provide you with extra insights you wouldn’t have known to ask about, but only as augmentations to your burgeoning development.
After that ‘alone time’ to ponder, either in the dojo or elsewhere, actively engage your fellow students in conversation. Don’t be afraid to have your ideas fail. Every concept that doesn’t work is a concept you can avoid, and one that will help lead you to more effective technique. Ultimately, show a higher level instructor or student your concepts and allow them to pontificate about it. If they see holes in your theory, ask them to explain and listen carefully as they mold your thoughts into even more cohesive techniques. If they show an entirely different interpretation during class, do not vocally disagree with them or try to correct them with your theory. Simply absorb what you have seen and add it to your collection of understanding.
Ultimately, I think you’ll find kata immersion a far more satisfying accomplishment than just learning another kata. So go and explore!
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Bunkai is a critical part of traditional kata training. In kata, a person learns a series of techniques strung together to form fighting concepts. Some kata contain many techniques, 30-40, some contain far less. But these techniques are merely a physical exercise if we don’t come to understand what they represent. Bunkai brings us to a higher level of understanding by prompting us to analyze motion, body position, attack, defense, and much more.
Unfortunately, it’s extremely easy to get stuck in “base-level” bunkai. By that I mean, an explanation of technique that only represents the most obvious possible interpretation. For example, you may hear someone (or yourself) walking through bunkai saying “now my opponent punches to my face, so I block up. I step in and punch. kiai. Then I turn left and a new opponent kicks at me. I block down…step in…punch…kiai.”
This type of analysis is useful for beginning students (and please remember – a black belt represents those who are ready to begin), but there is so much more to be gleaned from kata. There are many bunkai concepts I would like to explore – but here is one that I think might be able to help you right away. After you have learned a kata and the base-level bunkai, try scenario thinking. Put yourself in situations and scenarios where the techniques of this kata can be applied. Furthermore, imagine your opponent as more than an amorphous blob. Provide him with real, visceral characteristics.
Go through your bunkai once and imagine your opponent as an enraged, knife wielding attacker. Also imagine that your family is close by. If you don’t eliminate the threat, all of your lives are in mortal danger.
Now go through that same bunkai, but this time imagine you are confronted by an angry dad at a soccer game who starts putting his hands on you.
Your technique should be different…right?
Let’s take it a step further. Here are three main ways that you can break down your bunkai to really explore what’s happening:
This one is for those who practice martial arts with deep lineages. In order to completely understand the root of our arts, we must put ourselves in the mind frame of the masters. Why did they create and practice these kata? Who were their enemies?
If you study a weapons (or kobudo) art, don’t forget to consider what those folks would be facing. An Okinawan farmer may be facing another farmer with a bo…but it’s more likely he would be facing a Japanese Samurai with sword or spear.
Standard bunkai is useful for everyone, and represents what we most often see. Standard bunkai pits you against relatively equal opponents with a knowledge base roughly the same as yours. These type of attackers are in good state-of-mind and are skilled fighters, capable of punches, kicks, and attack/defense. By imagining (or using someone else) who is as good as you, you can constantly strive for improvement.
Modern bunkai must be applicable in our everyday environment. Your modern bunkai should put you in your workplace, your home, your frequented shops and bars. Modern bunkai dares us to imagine all kinds of attackers – men, women, short, tall, drunk, high, with knives, broken bottles, pool cues.
It also forces us to use our surroundings to their most efficient degree. A bo practitioner will not find a bo in his everyday life…but he will find brooms and pool cues. A sai practitioner will definitely not find a sai lying around, but he will find ice scrappers and short, stout tree limbs.
(special thanks to my green figurine friends, whom I’ve slightly altered from their originals here – http://www.perry-miniatures.com)
Let your mind bend around the possibilities. Soon you will find yourself analyzing bunkai as you go about your day. Kata will begin to breath and take life. Eventually you’ll be ready for the next step – making kata extemporaneous and part of your reactionary combat.
But that’s a whole other post!
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