Why your kata should not look like your applications

In all of my books and videos there are deliberate differences between my kata and my paired application (oyo) that has resulted from my analysis (bunkai).

“Practicing a kata is one thing, engaging in a real fight is another.”

Gichin Funakoshi, Twenty Precepts

Karate kata are generally taught and trained as a solo platform. Through their stances they hint at suggested weight distribution and methods of movements that can support the upper and lower body techniques of which they are made, and indeed at the oyo (if any) of the form that its teacher had in mind from their own bunkai.

I say ‘if any’ because changes in kata may be made to obfuscate purpose, allow greater speed in transitional movement for aesthetic purposes, or provide a greater athletic challenge. Furthermore changes may come about through the copying of the movements of older karateka who have themselves changed their form to reflect how they wish to move and exercise their more mature bodies, or through ignorance of potential oyo or flaws in their approach.

This is not meant as a criticism of any one system; the onus is on all of us to examine what we do and ensure that in application we use the most appropriate posture rather than sticking with something higher or deeper as the case may be.

But whether moving slow or fast in the kata, there is a significant difference between executing controlled techniques into thin air compared with endeavouring to make maximum impact on a target, or moving against the resistance of another person while grappling. This is a subject about which I have written in greater detail in Volume Four of my Pinan Flow System series of books.

The postures and techniques found in the majority of movements in kata are not designed to exactly replicate the biomechanical structure for optimum application, but instead their purpose is varied and can be:

  1. to protect karateka from unbalancing, instability and injury by limiting the power of movement against no resistance,
  2. to balance the ‘hollow body’ that forms good biomechanical structure for striking and grappling with exercise that inverts that posture to ensure balanced muscle development for good health,
  3. to indicate either a single tactic or through generalisation (lack of specificity) give an altered movement that acts as a coat hanger reference point for multiple similar or overlapping tactics,
  4. to highlight a principal of movement on which a number of tactics are based,
  5. to provide an important physical exercise that underpins and strengthens the muscles required for many tactics.

In many kata there are straight rear leg postures or very high stances. These are not necessarily wrong, but a product of their context. A straight leg can be an exaggerated example of thrust, codified into ‘good form’ for aesthetic purposes and to limit forward momentum against thin air which risks injuring the knee joint. In similar vein, thin air fighting puts balance and weight bearing limits on power generation through the movement and positioning of the knee and hip.

Unlike the postures often utilised throughout the majority of kata, when grappling with a training partner, attacking, preparing to attack or bracing during an attack, the back should not be held at a perfect right angle to the ground.

No matter how good your stance or footwork, having an ‘upright’ or classically ‘arched’ back while resisting physical force from another person is biomechanically unsound. The greater the level of force you are resisting, the more necessary it is to brace appropriately to take the load so as not to place undue stress on your back or compromise your balance, so the greater the angle of your back (and depth of stance and thus angle of shin) required. There is a difference between lifting an object and exerting or resisting force along other planes of movement.

The postures of kata protect and develop the body in solo training. They are the other side of the coin that balances the effect of the postures of paired training. Karate is soft and hard, relaxation and tension, grappling and striking, slow and fast, expansion and contraction.

For health and flexibility, form cannot always mirror function. To provide greater depth of application from a limited sequence of movements, form cannot always mirror function.

The kata is a map, but the map is not the territory.

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