At Yuuki Defense, our goal is to deliver tangible empowerment through personal safety training. We accomplish this by teaching better. We teach better than the way we were taught, and we teach better than any other provider on the market. Period. It may sound simple, but it takes a concerted effort and a purposeful commitment to deliver essential truths about personal safety training in concentrated increments that illustrate the distilled principles of the art in everything that we do. This is not training for the sake of tradition or through mindless monkey repetition. This is training for results.
It starts with a commitment to teaching
What is teaching? We can define teaching as : the transfer of information from one party to another in such a way that the receiving party is able to take ownership of, and utilize, the received information to solve novel problems, independently. There is obviously the component of learning involved in being able to solve problems independently, but for now, let’s place the burden on the teacher to transmit the knowledge. After all, the teacher already knows what the student is trying to learn, so he/she should be able to design an effective delivery method. This is how we arrive at kata, or forms, in traditional martial arts.
What are the requirements?
There are 3 training factors that we must address in any effective personal safety program, and perhaps, any worthwhile endeavor in life : Mind, body, and spirit.
First and simply, Intellectual learning is critical, because movement without understanding is useless. In the real world, we must defend ourselves with physical motion focused through the mind, even if it just means being smart enough to run away. Using this basic example even, we see that we cannot separate the physical skill of running from the intellectual understanding of when to apply it. The same goes for all martial arts training, and all personal safety learning. The mind is the bridge between body and spirit. Without it, you can only become a ferocious martial dancer, or a highly skilled mimicker, at best.
When most people think of martial arts training, they immediately think of training the body. This part of training is the most obvious, it is the part that we can see, and it is the part that we can quickly identify with. The old masters knew that in order to achieve real competency in self defense or personal safety, you have to feel it. You have to feel the energy, the movement, the techniques from both sides, attacker and defender, to truly gain an appreciation for what you must do to effectively apply a solution. There are many elements to this body training including proprioception, metabolic and physical conditioning, biomechanical efficiency, individual techniques, combinations, and actual applications on an unwilling opponent. Reaching a level of proficiency with this outward manifestation of self-defense can take years.
You may ask what spirit I’m referring to. This is not spirituality in a religious sense. It is your fighting spirit, your will to survive, and your commitment to emerge victorious when you are placed in any kind of danger. Spirit is so important, in fact, that Master Funakoshi stated as one of his 20 Guiding Principles of Karate, “Spirit first. Technique second.” Without the commitment to survival, without a fighting spirit, all of your technical training can be rendered moot, because there’s simply no walk to back up the talk. This is why the samurai and other warrior classes throughout history, including modern warfighters like Navy SEALs, spend so much time cultivating their ferocity through rigorous training. The fighting spirit underpins everything else.
Kata as a historical tool
For the majority of human history, people have been engaged in conflict. This conflict at its most basic level occurs in a one-on-one, unarmed confrontation. Scaling this up we get: armed confrontations, group violence, organized group engagements and counter-engagements, and eventually war, manifested as a perpetuated series of conflicts on any and all of these levels. Humans have been doing this for thousands of years, rightly or wrongly. Over time, those methods that work the best have been recorded and passed down, first in families, then among tribes and city-states, and eventually nations. Without video, and with the majority of civilization illiterate for most of our history, some kind of teaching device had to be created to satisfy this need to pass martial knowledge down, for survival’s sake. This is, in a nutshell, is where traditional kata, or forms, come from. Over many hundreds of years (perhaps thousands if we really trace it back), these forms and methods have evolved into the myriad kata, patterns, and drills that we see today when we think of “traditional martial arts.”
There is a common criticism in certain circles against kata, claiming that it is outdated, outmoded, unrealistic, etc. There are 3 important factors to consider when responding to these claims: 1) These forms have only been able to survive over time because they contain some practical element needed for effective self defense. 2) Kata as a training methodology is really an evolution. The forms we practice today are not exactly the same as the forms practiced even just a hundred years ago. Subtle variations are introduced all the time. That’s not to say that all variations are more effective than the “original” versions, but it does point to the fact that as understanding of conflict changes, forms do evolve. 3) The way that kata are employed should adequately address the three elements that comprise effective self defense discussed above: Mind, Body, and Spirit. If they are being used, but ineffectively, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the kata are defective. They have survived for thousands of years. Perhaps the teacher doesn’t have a thorough understanding of kata, and is unable to cover the required material due to gaps in knowledge and information. This is far more likely based on kata’s history than a failure in the form itself. Remember that practicing movement without understanding is useless.
Rebutting the criticisms of kata, we return to them as a valid training tool, but with certain conditions. They must be applicable to realistic and modern self-defense scenarios, and they must address the 3 elements of mind, body, and spirit. Luckily, humans have the same arms and legs that we have had for our recorded history. And, as far as we can tell, the laws of physics that govern human motion have not changed anytime recently. Therefore, we can reasonably conclude that with the same tools (arms and legs) and under the same physical laws, the basic attributes of unarmed attack remain as familiar in modern times as they did previously. That settled, the only remaining condition is to satisfy the mind, body, spirit requirement, which comes down to teaching methodology. Kata, therefore, are relevant and applicable as a teaching tool because those elements can be satisfied with a proper approach to teaching.
What do Kata actually demonstrate?
There are 4 basic elements illustrated in kata.
- Psychological / Neurological Conditioning
Structure refers to the physical body and the posture of the spirit. There are 3 components of structure that must be studied: 1) Balance, 2) bio-mechanical efficiency, 3) power generation. In the most basic examples of structure in kata, we look at stances. Karate, or any martial art, does not occur in static postures, but rather in motion. “Stances,” as they are commonly thought of, are merely freeze frame snapshots of weight distribution and energy projection in some direction. Understanding them in this way, we learn to move with control of balance; we maximize bio-mechanical efficiency by using the large muscle groups and weight transfer to power individual techniques; and we generate power through the most efficient energy pathways in the body, using kinetic linking and weight shifting. Similarly, we protect against loss of balance and sub-optimal performance of the other functions of structure by understanding how it can be broken down.
Each kata can be thought of as an individual combative lesson. Previous masters were known to study only a handful of kata over their entire lifetimes, seeking to perfect a select few elements of defensive strategy, rather than dabbling in a wide but shallow pool of many kata. From these examples, we can see that kata is deeply rooted in strategic principles. We analyze the strategic objective of each kata by carefully studying its motion, meaning: the fighting strategy is expressed in the type of motions that the kata employs. We also look at the embusen, or overall shape, of the kata to understand the relative positions and movement patterns that the form passes through. Importantly, we analyze the type of hip motion present, specifically the movement of the hip arcs, to understand the strategic energy of the form. For example, Taikyoku is principally a forward driving kata, while Pinan 3 addresses rotational motion as a strategy. Understanding the overall strategy of kata allows us to utilize the tactics (specific techniques) as archetypal movement patterns that can be used in many different ways, enabling us to escape from the common trap of ineffective, memorized technique sequences.
Individual techniques and combinations of techniques shown in any kata are specific expressions of the overall strategy of that form. That is to say, that they are tactile manifestations of the fighting philosophy being "discussed." In many cases, these tactical examples illustrate alternative ways to achieve the strategic objective of the kata against any number of specific or generalized attack patterns. Where many teaching methods fail in kata instruction is confusing tactics with strategy. This only serves to frustrate the student who may learn many hundreds of techniques (tactics), but who will have no understanding of when or how to apply them (strategy). This is one of the primary reasons why kata is misunderstood to be ineffective. However, it is not the fault of the new student. It is rather the fault of the teacher for instructing something he does not fully understand. And, it only later becomes the fault of the student if he does not dig for a deeper explanation to his kata training. The ultimate consequence of this kind of failure is ineffective martial arts in a self-defense situation, and potential injury.
Psychological/ Neurological Conditioning
Through many hundreds and thousands of repetitions of kata, the student is able to develop a trained response that may include any number of techniques, executed using an effective strategy, without second thought. This is the psychological / neurological element of training. The movements become so second nature that they can be executed almost in “macro,” bypassing the analytical and decision process that is further complicated by the fear response in an untrained fighter.
Wrapping it up
Together, the dedicated practice of these elements effectively trains the body, mind, and spirit in a holistic manner. Through learning the movements, kata trains and conditions the body. The strategic and tactical derivatives train the mind to bridge the physical motions with the fighting spirit at the appropriate moment. And, rigorous, repetitive physical training, with the understanding of what kata is for, hones the fighting spirit. A layered approach to kata teaching lends itself to comprehensive and practical personal safety and self-defense. Remember our definition of teaching from before? Kata is the teaching method, so we see now how it enables , "...the transfer of information from one party to another in such a way that the receiving party is able to take ownership of, and utilize, the received information to solve novel problems, independently." In the case of personal safety, those problems are self-defense related.
Remember, reading about it can only take you so far, because reading only addresses the element of the mind. To truly derive benefit from kata training, they must be experienced repeatedly in vigorous training. Find a good teacher, and dig deep. Kata is the foundation of martial learning when approached correctly.
-By Brandon Torrellas
Yuuki Defense teaches the full range and breadth of kata in THE BAMBOO PROGRAM. Click here to find out more. .