I suppose it is possible to practice a kata and not think at all about its application, but that’s never been an approach that’s appealed to me. As a result through analysis and experience I’ve gathered quite a lot of applications for individual karate techniques and combinations over time.
Almost a decade ago I drew a number of my then favourite applications together into the Heian Flow System, and three years later I published the majority of those Heian drills to share with others. Nine years is not that long a period of time in training terms, and yet to me the environment in which I now write and train seems very different.
When I first wrote the Heian Flow System the concept that kata might be focused on HAOV, or involve close range grappling and throwing did not seem to be mainstream. While perhaps still not the most common approach, these views, espoused in recorded sources by significant figures in Karate history such as Itosu, Mabuni and Funakoshi, are now reflected in research and good quality bunkai material emerging from Europe, the UK, North America and Australia.
At the same time it would be an understatement to say that the adoption of high quality body armour and the ability to safely run force on force simulations of real violence has not had an effect on the continued development of my own perception and interpretation of Kata. As a result, while adhering to the same principles, if you compare my favoured bunkai for a movement in 2013 to that in 2004, the two are likely to be quite different.
With this in mind I made the decision a while back to put together some more material on the Pinan/Heian kata to share with people who haven’t had the opportunity to train with me at a seminar. Over the last few weeks I’ve been trying to make decisions on which bunkai drills to include, and that’s been an excellent excuse to do more training while I make up my mind.
The training has formed an interesting pattern: perform the solo kata as an aide memoire, work through all the kata bunkai drills in sequential order as best as we can in paired training, revise with the solo kata, then repeat with the next form. It’s been… beautiful. For me it’s almost the perfect way to train the kata, and almost the perfect session.
The problem is, as a regular format for training, it’s missing a few things.
I want impact. I’m not really hitting my partner because then he wouldn’t train with me, so I’m doing the moves in the paired drills with just enough force to move and unbalance him, but not enough to seriously hurt or injure him. Neither of us therefore are working our ability to make solid contact.
Because I’m not trying to hurt my partner with my applications, I’m not really working on developing speed. We could do the solo Kata really fast, but that works our ability to move fast against no resistance, which isn’t the same thing. It also makes it hard to properly visualise intent without breaking out of ‘proper’ form. Obviously my partner punches, pushes, headbutts or grabs me fast, and I have to move fast to cover. But my response technique is pulled.
We could pop the Spartan Training Gear body armour on and increase our contact, but then realistically we’d need to lose the Gi for the amount of contact and body armour we are wearing (to avoid heat exhaustion and to have optimum mobility). That’s not an issue for me, but it might make someone watching us through a window not realize we’re doing karate – because if you were to see close range striking, trapping, locking and throwing in response to HAOV would karate be your first thought?
A cheaper solution is to do the techniques against appropriate pads. Now we can work our speed, distancing and contact without fear of hurting our partner. It may not have the mobility or contextual realism of the armoured training, but we can hit harder and faster and improve our technique.
So the use of pads and armour was what was missing?
In two and a half hours I performed each of the five Pinan kata twice and my training partner and I each did one repetition of each application drill that I have decided to share. If I’d been less ambitious and picked a single kata with its drills, run through it as a solo aide memoire, donned armour and drilled the bunkai with moderate impact, then isolated the striking techniques and worked them against pads, then revised with a solo performance of the same kata, I reckon I could have ninety minutes of well balanced training. The perfect kata lesson.
Wait a second, was that kata, kumite and kihon?
Oh well. If it works…