To understand how a single kata can form the basis of a complete personal martial art, we need to start at the most general level and work our way to the most specific aspects of practice. Before we can talk about the mechanics of kata movement and learning to apply it to varying and changing contexts we need to start at the most basic level; what is a martial art?
The martial arts are not physical objects. There is no concrete thing in reality called a martial art. They are expressed with the body, but they are not the body. The only difference between a martial artist and the layman is that the martial artist can use his body more effectively for violence. We all have a body, and we are all subject to the laws of physics. The body is capable of an astounding variety of movements and positions, but only a finite number of these movements and positions are advantageous for physical violence, so there needs to be a way to transmit and use this information. Martial arts are different ways for organizing and applying these movements. They are merely the ideas of how we achieve the core goal of martial arts.
The central goal of a martial art is to train a person in using their body efficiently and effectively for physical violence. There are many, many side benefits to the practice, but at the very heart, the martial arts is about using your body to cause physiological damage to another person. Historical fencing though a hobby and pastime to many is still about the study of violence in a historical context. It is no longer relevant to the modern day, but it still has its basis in the art of combat. It is the study of how we can break another human being.
How do we damage someone?
We damage someone by using our body to transmit force into our opponent's body. In the case of karate it is almost purely kinetic energy. The energy we create by accelerating our mass. Mass times acceleration equals force after all and the more mass or the more acceleration we have the more force we generate. Efficient use of force is required for all successful applications. This is all techniques: striking, locking, throwing, gouging, chokes and strangles all require force to be applied in some way shape or form. It is impossible to perform any of these techniques without using kinetic or chemical energy. Chemical energy being muscle power, which we produce by burning calories.
How do we apply this force efficiently and effectively?
We do this efficiently by taking advantage of our bone structure, mass and bio-mechanics instead of relying on strength. We then marry it to intent. Action and intent must spring forth at the same time. Think of any mundane task that you've mastered. We don't think about how to tie our shoes, we just tie our shoes. We've mastered the action and we've paired it with the intent, which is secure shoes. It's so hardwired that one might even have trouble explaining to someone else how to tie their shoes. We just do it. We take this type of efficiency and we utilize it effectively by targeting the vulnerabilities in our opponent's structure, mass and bio-mechanics. This means we take advantage of leverage, anatomically weak targets, and the limits of the human body.
The martial arts in a practical sense is training to make functional movement subconscious, so we can instantly recognize vulnerabilities and intuitively exploit them to destroy our opponent. The difference in the martial arts comes from the avenues in which this goal is approached.
Karate like all martial arts is about training towards these same goals but it does so through the practice and application of kata. Kata are the fixed forms that survived violence in Okinawa to be passed down through the years. These kata were subsequently collected by practitioners like Mabuni Kenwa, Gichin Funakoshi and others to make the core practice of what many recognize as karate today. They changed the practice of focusing on a very small number of kata, sometimes only one, to practicing a dozen or more kata. This is what is practiced in most commercial dojo. It is what people are most familiar with, and it is usually practiced in the same style as calligraphy. In calligraphy the emphasis is on the aesthetics of the writing and the very act of putting pen to paper, rather than the transmission of ideas, which is the purpose of written communication. Modern karate is practiced in a similar fashion. The focus is on the aesthetics of kata practice itself, making it a performance, rather than focusing on how the movements are used for doing damage. Because the focus shifted from practical application, to what could be called spiritual development and sport there is a debate over how kata can be best applied for physical violence.
There is a segment of karate practitioners who are looking for the practical applications of karate kata. They are looking for the “missing” pieces, which are more or less absent from most traditional karate practice. It is generally thought that kata movements in some way represent viable fighting techniques. There is no evidence of a verifiable list of interpretations or techniques, which can be definitively attributed to being the meaning of kata movements. Each kata movement has spurred the creation of any number of different techniques. Many based on the same fundamental movements. This has led to the overall principle that there is no one viable interpretation to any kata movement. This means that if I create an offensive technique, which matches the kata movement, it is just as valid as someone else who creates a defensive technique, which matches the same kata movement. There are sometimes hundreds of different interpretations to the same kata movement. This creates a paradox, a self contradictory state, because how can one movement be a hundred different things? It seems hard to swallow that one could encode so many applications into a single movement. Unless the movement is in fact not a technique or a code.
If the same movement can be a strike, lock, block, throw or gouge, than what is the connecting factor between all of them? It is the movement itself. It is the force vectors, the skeletal structure, the transmission of kinetic energy, which is facilitated in the movement. The only difference between each interpretation is that the same kinetic energy, force vector and skeletal structure is used for different means. They all represent a context where this type of movement is best utilized. It has a particular plane and avenue, which it excels in transmitting kinetic energy. This is how techniques with seemingly counterintuitive or contradictory outcomes can come from the same movement. This means that a kata movement is not representative of technique. We cannot make a universal principle in regards to technique, which will be true for all interpretations. There are just too many. We can however make a universal principle when it applies to movement. A kata movement represents the means to produce kinetic energy, which is the energy used to facilitate technique.
Instead of techniques or drills, each kata represent a complementary set of functional movements used to produce kinetic energy in various general planes of engagement. They are one step removed from technique. If tactics are one step removed from strategy and technique is one step removed from tactics than kata movement is one step removed from technique. It is the motor, the template, which is used to power techniques based on the context of the situation. So instead of having technique, tactics, and strategy, we now have kata movement, technique, tactics and strategy.
So how do we get from movement to technique? How do we organize this into useful information, which we can use to reach the goal of martial arts?
There are generally two ways of organizing this information, there is a predictive technique-based model and there is a preparative principle-based model. These are also sometimes just called predictive and preparative models. Let's start with describing some of the aspects and challenges of a predictive technique-based model.
Whether or not the paradox of multiple interpretations of movement is recognized or not, many people organize the information gained by applying kata in much the same way as other martial arts are taught. They pair a specific action to a specific context, and create a drill around the exchange, which is practiced until memorized. Basically a person comes up with a technique based on kata movement, and designs a drill for that technique. Example: Kata movement A is used as a block counter combination to a high punch. Training partner high punches, and the movement is applied. This is a specific action to a specific context. A block counter to a high punch. Each subsequent technique discovered or invented requires a new drill to be mastered. Unlike other martial arts, such as Judo, there is no list of techniques, which poses a problem, because the list is neverending. Let's put this into a little bit of context.
For a single kata movement there can easily be 10 different technique variations or more. Strikes, locks, take downs, gouges and chokes, not to mention limb clearing, or moving and manipulating a body. These change based on your position and the position of your opponent, and don't cover all the possible actions of the opponent as well. With this many variations being possible for all kata movements this becomes just by sheer mathematics very tricky to practice.
To use my own kata as an example, there are 13 distinct movement patterns. If there are 10 technique variations for each movement pattern, and we want to practice all the different variations with a partner in a flow drill there would be hundreds of billions of different flow drill variations. For just a set of 13 techniques there are over 6 billion ways to put these 13 movements in order. To put this in another context, it would take well over 100,000 years of continual practice to get through one repetition of each distinct flow drill. Even if I try and simplify the process by narrowing my practice down to how each of these different variations could be a simple attack and counterattack drill, we run into similar problems. Even with 10 variations of each movement taken two at a time there are tens of thousands of permutations. Imagine having to memorize this many flashcards. Each new technique discovered adds to this process and becomes more compounded when we find different and more creative ways to apply the kata. This is not a practical mode of study when it comes to kata. Some would argue that each kata is merely a memory-aide list of simple defensive techniques, so this is our list. The problem with this theory is that there are so many viable technique variations within each kata. Keep in mind that this amount of variation is just one kata. Many traditional dojo practice up to 20 different distinct kata. In effect an infinity of different techniques. It is rather difficult to get to muscle memory when the repetition count is infinity.
When you practice in this way you are essentially guessing what your opponent might do. Even if the drills are set up realistically, they cannot even begin to encompass the huge amount of variation, which can take place in a violent situation. Because it is so cumbersome to practice this many different techniques one must focus on those he finds most practical. This is a guess that what you have trained will match up exactly or close enough to the violence you encounter. Anything that takes place outside of this list will be completely foreign territory with no framework to fall back on. If you train standing up and get knocked to the floor, the ten thousand stand up counters you have memorized won't do you any good.
This mode of study takes a lifetime to become proficient, just from the sheer number of drills and techniques that need to be memorized.
What are the positives of this mode of training?
It is much easier on the instructors, because it is easier to test a list rather than principles and concepts. It is easier and somewhat safer to use drills for training. It is a more expedient way for the teacher to instruct students. The only thing that needs to be internalized is the stimulus response reward/ punishment setup of the drill. You practice the drill and succeed and the drill gets reinforced, or you fail and get punished, which reinforces that you did it wrong. Of course when you do a drill, you almost always succeed. It also provides a steady revenue stream for instructors, because it takes so very long for their students to become competent. Or is that a negative for the students?
To get it out of the way the idea that a kata can accurately predict what someone will do, is saying that a 100-year-old kata can predict the actions of a living, breathing and thinking human. It is not possible.
Unlike the previous model, the preparative principle-based model focuses on internalizing the abstract properties of each of the kata movements in a single kata, the planes and avenues in which they best generate force, and how this force can be used to exploit the weaknesses in our opponent. This is done by studying the connections between movement, technique, tactics and strategy. Techniques are only taught as concepts, and are the marriage between learning the functional properties of the movement, and learning to read the context of the situation rather than the individual action. The context is your position, your opponent's position and the environment. We read the context, recognize the vulnerabilities of our opponent and act to exploit those opportunities with an appropriate kata movement. The function of the kata movement plus the context gives us the technique. The technique however is just the end result of this internalized process. The technique is not drilled. Applying the function of kata to context to achieve a preferable result is drilled. Instead of being limited merely by the capacity of our memory, We internalize these concepts to bring forth a personal, adaptable, intuitive and creative martial art based around a single kata. For example, we recognize an opening for a strike, and we use a kata movement, which will generate energy in an appropriate direction to power this strike. We see the opening for a lock and we use an appropriate kata movement to power the lock. Instead of trying to run through a list of specific scenarios, we are merely acting on the opportunities that we see and the opportunities we create. See target destroy target. The aim is not how to use a specific technique, but how we can apply kata toward a goal.
The shortcomings of the preparative principle-based method are the strengths of the predictive model. It is harder to test. It takes more work on the instructor's side. Practice is a little more hazardous, but more fun. It takes more work up front for the student to internalize concepts and principles, instead of rote memorization, but it pays dividends and should only take a student a few years to become competent. This means a temporary income stream for the instructor, but is more beneficial to the student.
This is a very abstract idea, so let me compare two other similar systems that you will be familiar with; an alphabet and an iconography, which is pictograph in nature, a single symbol represents a single word or concept. They are both taught in a similar way as the predictive and preparative methods. An iconography is pure rote memorization. The more symbols you know the more words you know. It is efficient to teach and is concrete in nature. The downside is that it takes a long time to learn a large enough amount of symbols to be able to communicate in writing. Each new concept needs a new symbol, and if you don't know the meaning of a symbol you have no way to figure it out on your own, or even communicate it on your own. It is highly specific. These types of languages usually only spread among the wealthy, because so much time and energy had to be invested into mastering enough symbols.
The alphabet on the other hand is highly abstract. None of the individual letters actually mean anything. They are merely representative of sound. The sounds we make when we talk. The letters are combined to make words, which are combined to communicate the transmission of ideas. It is very general and highly adaptable. The English language at the time of this writing has about a million words, but the English language is completely and effectively communicated through 26 letters. Twenty six little squiggles. A word can be spelled phonetically with a fair amount of accuracy, and be understood by someone else. New words do not require new letters, because the same letters are used. Each new concept is just a different individual combination of letters. The letters along with the rules of applying the language, sentence structure, and syntax etc. are all you need. Unlike the iconography, an alphabet is compact enough and adaptable enough that it could be mastered relatively easily among the poor. Remember that even in the American South, slave taught themselves how to read.
The same is true of a single kata practice. The kata is the alphabet sort of speak. We will apply rules to it, so that we can use it effectively and efficiently for physical violence. Kata movement like the sounds of the alphabet are mere representative of a plane of producing kinetic energy. It is energy. As we know the martial arts are about transmitting kinetic energy into another person, and studying kata is studying how to use that kata to break someone.
As we’ve concluded before a martial art is about training someone in efficiently and effectively transmitting kinetic energy into another person to cause physiological damage. A kata teaches us how to produce energy efficiently with our body, which is used to exploit the weaknesses of another person. This energy can be used to power an almost infinite number of varying techniques. The practice of a single kata is therefore a martial art, and since karate is the practice and application of kata, we are also practicing karate. Solo kata practice is therefore a way for a person to easily take up the practice of a martial art.
We now understand that a single kata can represent a complete martial art in the way that the English alphabet can represent the foundation of a complete language. It is essentially a primer for violent action. To understand how this is specifically accomplished we need to look at breaking down the mechanical aspects of a kata movement and how they are used functionally.
The practice of a single kata requires layering concepts. This means that once one level of meaning is internalized, we layer another level of meaning on top of it. The functional aspects of kata must be internalized, before we can understand how context affects function and vice versa. We need to understand function and context before we can understand application. Once we understand application we can move on to tactics and strategy. We go from the most general to the most specific. A kata however is the map and the key to karate practice. This means that a kata is like a puzzle. We put the pieces together and we can’t make out the picture until you put that one just in the right place and the entire scene becomes clear. All of these concepts are puzzle pieces and we need to be trying to put them together all of the time, until it finally clicks inside your head. This will happen through dedicated practice, but you need to know what you’re looking for, before you can find it. If you don’t know that you need to pay attention to certain aspect you will ignore them. These are the building blocks of a kata.
I’ve stated before that we will not be memorizing techniques. We will be learning how to apply movement. We do this in general terms by matching an appropriate movement to an appropriate context in order to maximize on our opponent’s weakness. The movement remains the same, but the context always changes. We can think of this as a little equation to break it down. Function plus context equals application. This isn’t a flow chart. This does not lead us to a list of techniques. It instantly creates a technique. The fact that it is something called a technique is really only an afterthought. It is better suited to the word application. So function plus context equals application.
What is function?
Function is the understanding of how the fundamentals of a movement work together in that plane of space. The complementary movements of a kata provide you with a way to apply kinetic energy in almost any direction. Each kata movement delivers energy in a particular plane of space. Up, down, left, right and back and forth. The sphere of our control, the main avenues from which we can be assaulted and in which we can assault.
What do I mean when I say kata movement?
They are the individual gross motor movements, which take place between a single step. One step equals one movement to put it very simply. Our limbs move between this step towards a predesignated fixed position. The most important part of the movement is the path that the limbs take on their way to the ending position, not the ending position itself. It is the space inbetween the staccato rhythm of a kata, which are important. All of the movement is used, not just the ending posture. In Motobu Choki’s book, Karate My Art, he talks about how the “postures” the movements are merely templates for action. It is not a static position, it is how the body moves.
To really understand a kata, you need to understand the fundamental aspects of each movement. These fundamentals are what make up the foundation on which everything else is built. If you have weak foundations everything else is going to be weak. It doesn’t matter how good your theory is or how strong you might be if you don’t have these imbedded into your very bones than you cannot apply kata efficiently or effectively. They need to be unconscious acts, which can be directed indiscriminately. The movement may remain the same, but the context is always changing.
What are the fundamentals of kata movement?
These are the fundamental elements of a kata movement.
Kinetic Energy 1 is energy of motion. The kinetic energy is produced by the movement of our mass, our weight basically. The more of our mass we can deliver into a target the more energy we can produce. We accelerate our mass creating kinetic energy, which get’s used to do work. The work in this case is used to damage another person. In the case of karate we will let gravity be the force, which accelerates our mass. The steps we take in kata are the engines for these movements. They allow us to basically fall violently towards a certain direction. This direction is the force vector of the movement.
The force vector 1 is the accumulative direction in which you are delivering force. It is the general direction of movement. Each of your limbs is doing their own job. Covering, blocking, feeling, and delivering energy through skeletal structure. Everything however is still moving towards the same direction.
Structure is how we deliver this force. The postures and movements provide us with a template for violent action in a particular direction. The kinetic energy needs a stable platform, which will transmit as much energy into the other person without acting as a shock absorber, with the least amount of effort required. It is one of the most important aspects of movement, which you need to be paying attention to while practicing your kata. Structure and power generation are what a kata represents. We want to use as little muscle power as possible when applying kata. Our structure and moving our mass does the majority of the work. A simple example of how we use structure efficiently is merely standing. The bones in our legs are mostly aligned, so our mass is merely balanced on our skeleton. We’re exerting very little energy, compared to squatting where we use almost no skeletal structure, but raw muscle. The large bones of our arms and legs can withstand and deliver much more energy than the small bones in our hands and feet, and gravity acting on our mass can deliver a significant amount of near effortless power. Imagine dropping a bowling ball on your foot from waist height. It sounds really painful and maybe crippling. But your body weight is much much more than your average bowling ball and can deliver much more force. We don’t want this energy to bleed off because our structure is bad. If we don’t have the proper structure our own body will act as a shock absorber. Structure is therefore key to all of karate.
The energy, force vector and structure combined make a kata movement a utilitarian tool. The use of force and structure is indiscriminate. It is limited merely by one’s imagination. We will therefore mentally categorize each movement by force vector. It is the individual element of a movement because each uses kinetic energy and many share the same types of structure. The direction is unique. This narrows the possibilities down from as many as you can think up, to various cardinal directions. We don’t have to label them because we will mentally associate the direction with the movement. The same way we associate a letter with a sound. A movement with a direction. If we know where we need to direct energy we’ll have a movement waiting to pounce. Once these are sufficiently ingrained you’ll no longer be thinking in terms of direction, but just moving. The complementary aspects of each movement make it easy to move from one to another even outside the linear presentation of the kata. This gives us a set of movement, which we can apply in a huge variety of situations.
The other part of the equation is the context. It is your position, your opponent’s position and the environment. Your position has an impact on what you can do, your opponent’s position has a huge impact on what you can do and the environment has an impact on what you can do. (Rory Miller Facing Violence). Your current snapshot position gives you a limited set of functional options. The position of your opponent gives you a limited number of options, and the environment gives you another set of limiting actions. These are things that we need to learn to see automatically. We always want to be aware of our environment, we want to be able to move effectively from any position and understand how that can be done, and we need to know which movements will have the biggest impact on our opponent. Essentially what we are looking for is vulnerabilities. Open targets for strikes, the opponent’s balance, joints we can lock. Whatever we see or feel, we attack ruthlessly with an appropriate movement. The movement we use is completely dependent on the position of you and the opponent. We can’t know our opponent’s position, so we focus on our own and learn to observe for openings. We can know our own position, because the kata is our template. The complementary nature means we can flow from one movement to another moving freely and independently within the set. We study how we can move from one advantageous position to another through the kata. The limiting functional aspects mean we have a small set of contexts for ourselves to become familiar with and study.
They are the general contexts in which we will be engaged by an opponent. Front, back, left, right, up, down, inside and outside. These can be adapted to meet all the variations in between, but practically speaking these are the avenues we have to worry about and focus on.
There is also the general context of violence, which we must be aware of if not actively prepare for.
Physical violence is dangerous and unpredictable. The samurai saw a survival rate of about ⅓ in a one on one due. You live and he dies. You die and he lives, or you both die. This is risky business and should be avoided at all times. Because it is dangerous and unpredictable, if violence is unavoidable it needs to be ended as quickly as possible. A kata movement needs the ability to drop an opponent instantly, and needs to be performed in such a way that at least unbalanced the opponent. Marc MacYoung has the golden move. A move that advantages you, disadvantages them and ends the fight immediately.
The high risk involved means that you will need to rely on gross motor skill rather than small subtle movements. Fine motor control decays significantly during an adrenal response and gross motor skill needs to be ingrained on a subconscious level.
For the violence to end quickly you need to impact the opponenet as fast, hard and overwhelmingly as possible. The OODA loop is an example of how we process information. We observe, orient, decide and act. If our senses are overloaded we are stuck in merely observing and orienting we can freeze. This also means we can use this to disrupt someone else’s thinking processes.
This also means that a kata movement needs to be proactive. We cannot wait and hope that the opponent will do the one thing that we have the unstoppable counter for Every second that goes by might mean we’re taking damage.
This is putting function to context. We see an opening, we know how we can efficiently impact that opening, and we perform the movement as hard and as fast as possible. This boils down to see target, destroy target, but first we have to absorb the mental machinery, which is involved in this kind of process. We need an efficient and appropriate movement and we need the circumstances for that movement to succeed. This is how function and context come together to form application, but thankfully this is not how we learn to apply this. It is not a flow chart. It is understanding what is necessary for a technique to work. Instead of memorizing the technique, we memorize the principles necessary for the technique and use the kata to fulfill those necessities. You need energy for techniques, kata movements provide energy and the structure to transmit that energy, and if it’s used in the proper context it will be devastating.
It is important to understand a few attributes of kata application. Generally these movements are best applied at very short range. Chest to chest fighting. Because the range is so close, we rely on touch and being aware of our own position through proprioception. Outside of this range the kata movements have limited use.
The Goal of Application
The goal of application is the goal of the martial arts. It is to efficiently end the fight as quickly as possible no matter how that happens. This covers a complete range from walking/ running away to great bodily harm. It doesn’t matter how we get to that goal as long as we get there. In kata, the outcome is far more important than how you got there.
There are two types of application. There is a general and a specific application. The general is a default violent action. It is efficient flailing when you have no idea what to do. You use the kata movement as a grinder and you use the different directional aspects of that kata to navigate the grinder where it needs to go. The specific application is taking advantage of a observed opening. If there is an opening to strike, I’ll use a particular kata movement, it’s energy or part of its structure to power a focused technique. See neck exposed, send forearm into exposed neck with my weight behind it. It’s a little more tricky because a situation will be fluid, so openings will come and go, but you’ll fall back on your SOP until you create an opening or you are presented with one.
“Your arms and legs are like swords.” Funakoshi teacher Ankoh someone.
Imagine that your arms and legs are giant blades. Everything they touch will be cut. You could grind someone up piece by piece if this were the case. This is how we must think of kata in the general sense. Everything we touch along are arms and legs should take damage. A hard and fast kata movement can hit a person on multiple levels at once creating the potential for multiple points of damage. This is not thinking, planning or preparing. This is the base animal response with the structure and energy delivery of the kata. It is a devastating preplanned and pre-practiced flail. It is a flurry attack, which hits hard, fast, on multiple levels, which can cause sensory overload in another person. It is the absolute default position of kata application, which involves no thinking besides the most basic general directions.
The general barebones meta strategy of a kata is move, recognize, exploit. We move violently, we observe for openings as best we can, and we exploit them ruthlessly. If we don’t see any openings or don’t know what to do than we move violently. If a movement stops working we will abandon it just as ruthlessly and switch to another movement until another one works.
Move, Recognize, Exploit
How could this possibly work? Luck favors the prepared, violence of action trumps technique, and some other stuff.....
Because the goal is to expeditiously dispatch another person, Martial arts is less about what we do, but how we do it. It is very easy to know that what we need to do is damage our opponent, it is entirely different knowing how to damage an opponent. We may know that we need to drive a car, but if we don't know how, knowing that we need to is not very helpful. In the same way we may know that we need to punch, but don't know how to punch. We know that we need to damage our opponent, but the how is what we need to know.