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Learning a Kata: A Brief Study Guide

by on May 1, 2009


There’s a lot of work involved in learning a new kata and furthering your understanding of those you already “know”. Here, “know” refers to remembering the sequence of techniques that make it look the way it does. This is just the first step to “knowing” a kata. With only a little practice, just about anyone can learn the movements even without karate training. For a more complete understanding of a kata, you’ll have to dig deeper.

Digging deeper with some study of a kata is not easy. Where do you begin? When does it end? In what order should you explore the different aspects of a kata? I’ve had these questions as well and so here I want to begin assembling a miniature curriculum of how to learn and study kata and gradually gain a more complete understanding of all of its eccentricities. If you have additions or suggestions, let me know and I’ll add them.

Kata Trivia

If your club is anything like mine, you’ll be quizzed on the kata at various points in a class. Be sure to study these simple factoids about each kata (where applicable):

  1. How many movements (or “counts”) are there?
  2. At which points (or counts) should you kiai?
  3. What does the name mean?
  4. What is the general shape of the embuzen line?
  5. Is it a shorin or shorei kata?
  6. What stances are used in this kata?

But more importantly, there is knowledge embedded in the kata that takes more involvement to really master (except perhaps for the first one listed below). Here are a few things you can do to get on your way:

  • memorize the sequence of moves
  • learn at least one application of a handful of moves
  • evaluate why the application of each of these moves might be incorrect (even if it’s not incorrect, it helps to critically analyze the moves)
  • learn more applications of each movement
  • how does this kata relate to other kata? is it “based on” any other kata?
  • research or figure out how each movement or sequence of movements can be used in self-defense
  • what is new to you in this kata? (assuming some order of learning kata)

There are many ways to practice a kata before your body entirely digests it. Instructors often ask if you “know” the kata. People usually respond yes (or “osu”). Then the instructor gets you to do it in a way you haven’t seen before. This is 50% a lesson in humility, 50% a lesson in expanding your knowledge.

Ways to Perform a Kata

The main goal of performing kata is to get to a point where your body and mind completely understand what each move is intended for and to execute those moves without concious thought. The less your concious mind is involved with the execution of a kata, the better. One small part of getting here is to perform the kata in several different ways, so as to completely train the body and ingrain the kata into your mind.

So here are a couple ways to practice a kata so you are not caught off-guard in class, but also so you’re body and mind begin to react in a natural way.

Kata “as is”: simply abiding by the normal speed, performing it at 100% speed and power.

Extremely slow kata: used to train stances and practice breathing, performing a kata extremely slowly can be both difficult and fun (partly because it’s difficult). Do the kata as you normally would, but take about 2-4 times longer to perform each movement. For heian shodan, this method would take you about 1 minute 24 seconds to complete (as opposed to 40 normally). As another example, each block at the beginning of hangetsu would take about 10-12 seconds to complete.

Deep, deep stances: more obviously than the previous method, this way trains stances as well. If you can do the kata 5 times with a much-deeper-than-normal stance, it will improve your performance when doing it regularly as the load on the legs and hips will be lessened, making it relatively easier to do. Less obviously, this method can help with judging distancing when defending against a shorter individual or one who can move away quickly.

Mirror reflection of a kata: perform the kata as you would if you saw it in a mirror. If the kata normally begins on the left, start on the right. For example, with heian nidan: double upper-block to the right first, followed by the second block and back-fist strike to the right, then switch over to the double upper block to the left, 4th block and back-fist strike to the left, set up the kick and kick with the left foot, landing with shuto-uke with the right hand… get it?

Reverse order: personally, I’ve found this one to be the hardest of all these listed here. The challenge here is to perform the kata starting from the last position, working backwards. The hidden challenge is to remember the order so well that you don’t have to run through the kata in forward-order in your mind before doing the next part (in reverse order).

Kata bunkai: mostly self explanatory. More on this in the next article.

As fast as possible: this is a lesson in training your body to perform the kata without much thought. When you do it rapidly, there’s no time to think about “what move comes next?” and even if you know the sequence well, the requirement to be fast doesn’t let you think about it at all. This is the essence of mushin. Normally when watching people (or doing it myself) they (or I) end up shuffling feet, not setting up a block or attack, not completing an attack, or other short-comings. The point is to do it extremely fast without sacrificing anything.

Without moving feet: not even an inch. This emphasizes the hips and arm techniques. Kicks are not allowed, but you should visualize these.

Lower-body only: do the kata but keep your arms by your sides or put your hands on your belt to keep them from moving. This also emphasizes hip movement (in all directions, depending on the kata), feet placement, and body movement and shifting.

“Phonebooth kata”: imagine performing the kata in a 5×5 feet room. There is no room to move forward with an oi-tsuki, so you have to readjust your position.

It was conveyed to me that students should not practice the above methods too often. Kata are traditionally meant to be performed “as is”, but that 10-15% of the time you can break out and do one of the above variations. Once you feel you’ve got a good handle on the kata, then you might up this percentage. Unless you are performing the kata for a competition, there is no reason to not make variations to it. Best agility is achieved if we are well-rounded in our abilities. But be sure you can still perform the kata regularly without getting confused.

After writing all this, I thought to myself that this is not how I would teach the kata, but perhaps how I would learn it on my own. If I know a kata well and were to teach it, should I teach it the same way as above? Would there be a better way to pass it on to others?

From → karate, kata, training

  1. Excellent writing, by the way…but there is 1 element I think might have been overlooked (or at least not emphasized). The element of what you are THINKING while practicing the kata. This is very important too in that if you are not mentally prepared for a fight(or not used to associating the kata with actual fighting), then all that practice could very easilly fail you under the stress of a real world situation. As much as possible you should be placing yourself mentally in a fight (imagining attackers/opponents) every time you practice a kata. This will make your practice more successful towards what kata was originally designed for…Fighting.

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