My style, Okinawa Kenpo, has a hefty amount of kata. The late Seikichi Odo Sensei was a renowned collector of forms and worked hard to preserve much of Okinawa’s fighting culture. On top of that, he combined Shigeru Nakamura’s karate with a kobudo program collected from some of the great weapon practitioners on the island. All in all, there are 21 open hand kata and 30 weapon kata. 51. yikes.

The big, gaping, obvious problem with soo many kata is actually twofold:

1. Learning the kata and keeping them in your brain

2. Learning them with any amount of depth and significance

It’s all too easy in traditional, kata-oriented styles to create a mental kata checklist. In order to progress in rank or status, one could easily get swept up in squirreling away kata just for the sake of having them. Instead of focusing on the true intent of the form, it becomes: “Yep, know that one. Yep, know that one. Ohhh – I need this one for my next rank”, and so on.

A compounded problem on top of kata-gathering is never learning anything more than base-level bunkai (or no bunkai at all). Deep, introspective analysis of each kata takes years of focus on what the form is doing and how it can work for each of our specific body types (and against various body types). We then need to take those concepts and apply them in our two-man drills and sparring.

The obvious solution to these problems is simply to learn less kata, right? Not so fast. We have a giri to our instructors to pass on the knowledge they passed to us. In the specific case of Okinawa Kenpo, it would be an affront to Seikichi Odo and Shigeru Nakamura to pick and choose which of their kata we want to keep. So, how can we reconcile learning a large number of kata with learning them well?

The answer is simple to state but difficult to pull off – increase our ability to learn.

It is possible to learn better. Some people think that since kata doesn’t stick well with them that it will never stick well. That’s not true, and over the years I’ve noticed certain practices and methods that have helped me and others learn forms more effectively. The following are some steps you can try in order to increase both the speed and depth of your kata absorption (nothing here is prescriptive – just some ideas I’ve stumbled upon while teaching and learning).

Assess Your Innate Abilities

Before anything can be done, you have to accurately assess your own situation. There are internal factors involved in learning kata that a lot of people don’t realize. For example:

* What is your average level of stress? Higher stress levels can cause you to focus on your stressors instead of what is being taught. Some people have the ability to leave their day-to-day life at the dojo door. That helps them focus on the here and now. Some people have a harder time with that.

* What is your age? With age comes maturity, but also a higher degree of difficulty for memorization. Younger children have a natural ability to internalize what they see, which is why preteens and teens can sometimes pick up kata faster than mature adults. On the other hand, adults have the bonus of being able to focus themselves through self discipline.

* Has memorization been a strength or weakness for you? Different people have different levels of recall. Some people can sponge up what they see, while others feel like they have to chisel new information through a mental brick wall.


* Are you a visual or explanatory learner? When trying to learn something, do you pick up more by simply stepping back and watching, or by interacting with the instructor and discussing the details? Most people benefit from both but tend to favor one over the other.

Once you have an accurate self assessment, you can set realistic goals and decide how much effort you’ll need to put into each kata you want to learn.

Keep It Simple, Take it Slow

The first tip here is a basic one – keep things simple. Kata are filled with intricacies and subtle movements, but if you try to focus on those too early you’ll hamper your ability to see the big picture. It’s natural to want to put the same amount of power and focus into your techniques that you see the advanced students use, but that tends to be counter-productive. Instead, take it really slow and analyze what you’re doing. Make sure your basics are in good working order because that is the most important building block to any good kata.

One reason why so many instructors harp on kihon (basics) is that you can free your mind from it during kata practice. The more you have to ask yourself about stances, the more you’ll distract yourself from the basic kata performance. Take things slow, be mindful of the techniques, and relax.

Find The Patterns

Most kata are pattern oriented; It’s your job to find that pattern and create mental cliffsnotes for yourself. One of the biggest mental hurdles to overcome when performing a new kata is that timeless self question: “ohh crap, what’s next?”

One great way to keep things straight is to give yourself directional help.

For example, in kata Ananku in Okinawa Kenpo, you go straight, left, right, back, straight.

Ok, not too hard. Next is 45-degree left, 45-degree right, straight, and back.

To finish, go 45-degree right, 45-degree left.

At first glance that might seem a little tricky, but if you spent 5 minutes reading and re-reading what I just wrote, you’d have it. With that in your pocket, you would have created a mental scaffold upon which to put your techniques. And just like with mnemonic devices, a little trigger can go a long way.

Are you Piecemeal or Whole Thing?

There are two main ways kata can be taught – all at once, or piece by piece. Generally, when people experience both of these styles, they gravitate towards one or the other. Some people like to repeat the beginning of a kata over and over again until they have it cold, then move on to the next section. Others like to do the whole kata, letting pieces slide into their consciousness. Think of it this way:

With the stacking toy on the left, each ring must be inserted in order. The focus must be on the largest ring first, then the next largest, and so on until the toy is complete. The jigsaw, on the other hand, can be put together erratically. The puzzle builder doesn’t really know how it will come together, but he does know his end goal is to get all the pieces in place.

To learn kata more effectively, you have to figure out through trial-and-error which method appeals to your brain.

Ask Questions

There always seems to be certain pieces of kata that trip us up. It’s not necessarily the same part for everyone, but we all fall victim to this phenomenon from time to time. A great way to overcome these brain fades is to ask questions about the particular series causing trouble. Ask either about the performance of the move itself, or what that move might mean. This is doubly beneficial because you are getting an early peek at bunkai while at the same time connecting the technique in your mind to a specific explanation. The next time that particular series in the kata roles around, you’ll have a very specific memory to attach to it.

Another reason to ask questions is that it will elicit further explanation and demonstration from the instructor. By being able to watch your troublesome portion again and again, you can better burn it into your mind. Furthermore, when doing the kata together, your instructor will likely watch you more intently during your rough patch, making corrections that he might have otherwise overlooked.

Rote Repetition

I think this is the most important but also the least popular piece of advise: utilize repetition. Repetition can be boring, tedious, fatiguing, and generally blah, but there is no better tool for committing kata to memory. If you do one kata for two-three hours using some of the principles I’ve described above, you could potentially walk home with a new kata in hand.

During your repetitious training, don’t forget to give yourself breaks. It can be a physical break (going and grabbing water), or mental break (training other kata that you already have). These breaks will allow your mind to reset and rest. There is such a thing as over-practice, even for kata, so pacing is important.

In The Dojo, In the Dojo, At Home

A lot of times people have two different mental realms – inside the dojo and outside. Once you leave the dojo, you’ll be very tempted to start thinking about other real-wordly things like work, kids, school, etc. That’s why there is one important thing to remember – after you’ve done your repetition in the dojo, don’t forget to try the kata once at home before you go to bed. Your brain has done a hard reset from dojo exercise, and the true test of internalization is if the kata is still in there.

If you’re feeling energetic, try your kata the next morning after sleep has taken your mind even further away from training.

Ultimately, once you study kata for long enough and if you take the time to delve deep into bunkai and application, you’ll start to understand the root concepts that make kata what they are. Once you sink that deep, you’ll be able to rely on that knowledge to augment the learning of any new kata you encounter. So, in that sense, learning kata actually gets easier as you go. Stick with it, and do your best!

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