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Why do Kata?

By Mel Reyes


Kata (型) (literally: "form") is a Japanese word describing detailed patterns of defense-and-attack movements practiced either solo or in pairs. Kata are used by most traditional Japanese and Okinawan martial arts, such as Aikido, Iaido, Jodo, Judo, Jiu-Jitsu, Kendo and Karate. This is the dictionary definition of the word, but far from the true essence of the word, kata. Many of today’s eclectic and mixed martial artists discard the concept of kata. They claim that it serves no practical purpose in the combative arts.

The practioners of Goju ryu are an exception to that philosophy. Chojun Miyagi, the founder of Goju ryu, systemized what he learned from Kanryo Higashionna.  Goju practioners are real world combative fighters. Goju is a well rounded fighting system. We are stand up, ground fighting, deadly force, as well as alternative to deadly force, empty handed, and armed body bangers. From the rank of brown belt and higher, open targets are the groin and face. Many karate systems don’t even allow hard contact, let alone groin kicks. Shotokan, one of the major karate systems of Japan, founded by Gichin Funakoshi, is an example of no contact. The Korean art of  Tae Kwon Do is another system that does not allow punches to the face and strikes to the groin.

Kata is the principal method of teaching technique before actual combat. Kata also prepares the mental state of a warrior. During kumite or free sparring, you train to sharpen your skills in timing, judging distance, execution and strategy. In kata, you can kill your opponent in your mind. You fully commit yourself to give up your life in your mind. You become committed to death. When you train for life and death, you attain a higher spiritual plane that will be expressed in your kata. Karate for beginners is purely physical. When two newcomers go at it, the stronger one will win. At the advanced level, the spirit becomes more important. The Goju fighters  train to fight as if they are willing to give their lives.  This gives them a tremendous advantage in breaking their opponent’s will to fight.

Karate ni sente nashi, means there is no first attack in karate. The true karate and kata trains your skills to recognize an attack and respond with a barrage of overwhelming counter strikes that will subdue your opponent, if not finish him. When practicing kata, your thought should be a primitive one, “ live or die.”  This thought should reinforce your total commitment throughout the entire kata.  Once in mokuso, prior to the break,  your mind should teleport you to the field of  combat, where you ‘ll encounter your attackers. You should be able to see, feel, hear and smell your enemies and their attacks. Master Peter Urban use to describe someone learning a kata as being in the “dance.”  When other people can see your opponents, Master Urban described it as coming out of the “dance.”

The hachimaki is the headband used to exhibit an individual’s total commitment to learning Goju.  This is karate ni sente hissho. Hissho means “guaranteed to win.”  In fact, I’ve seen Japanese college students wear hachimakis with the characters for “hissho” prior to taking exams on campus.

Katas also have meanings. During the days of Higashionna and Miyagi, katas were the foundation of their training. Students would practice a kata for years, before advancing to the next one. There were hidden meanings in the techniques. Bunkai refers to the sense of interpretation of the moves in a kata. Bunkai is sometimes self-evident, sometimes elusive, depending on the techniques in question, the one preceding and following it. There are stages of depth of comprehension of bunkai only reached through the passage of time, the rewards of which are priceless.

The other unique aspect of Goju katas are the expression of the elements, earth, wind, fire, water, and the void.  The challenge of being able to exhibit one or some of the elements in a kata is easier said than done. Goju is an internal system, as well as external. The external aspect erodes as we get older. The internal aspect is much more difficult to develop, can get stronger, even with age. Two internal or heishu  katas of Goju are Tenshoa and Sanchin. The Sanchin kata is the signature kata of Goju, although there are versions of it practiced in Isshin ryu, Kyokushin and Uechi ryu. To witness a Goju karateka perform Sanchin, one will not forget the explosive breaths used during the kata..

Sanchin is known as one of the oldest kata in Karate-do. It literally means “three battles,” or  “three conflicts.”  It can also be translated as “three points” or “three phases.” Certain legends attribute the creation of Sanchin to Bodhidharma in the early sixth century. Sanchin kata seeks to develop three elements at the same time.

-The mind, body, and the techniques

-The internal organs, circulation and the nervous system

-The three core locations where chi or ki can be found.

    -The top of the head (tento)

    -The diaphragm (hara)

    -The lower abdomen (tanden)

Sanchin is an isometric kata where each move is performed in a state of complete tension, accompanied by powerful, deep breathing (ibuki) that originates in the lower abdomen (tanden). The practice of Sanchin kata not only leads to the strengthening of the body, but it also aims at the development of the inner power (ki) and the coordination of mind and body. It also emphasizes on basic footwork, hand techniques as well as basic blocking techniques.

Kanken Toyama, a contemporary of Chojun Miyagi, and the founder of Shudokan karate, once experienced a brutal attack from several U.S. servicmen, post- World War II. He knew not strike back, but was able to endure the attack with  little or no injuries to himself.  In Okinawa, it is said the individual’s spirit is disturbed when harming another individual.  Toyama also stated: “ Secret techniques begin with basic techniques; basic techniques end as secret techniques. There are no secrets at the beginning, but there are secrets at the end. The key to success is hard training.”


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