Kata is a prearranged series of movements, using both defensive and offensive strategy against one or more imaginary opponents. This valuable tool, used by karate masters for many years, has taught students the important aspects of karate. From simple body movements to deadly self-defense techniques, kata still remains the focus of traditional karate practitioners all over the world.
Most of the katas practiced today are virtually unchanged from the day it was brought from China or originally developed by Okinawan practitioners. During this time, most Okinawan katas came from the Shaolin Five Animal System, which consisted of movements from the dragon, tiger, leopard, snake, and crane. Each method employed different breathing techniques and body movements that resembled the animals they were fashioned after. This gave kata very abstract and symbolic movements making it difficult to practice at times because not too many students could understand the meaning behind the techniques. Tradition tells of old masters hiding special techniques within the kata so that only the seriously devoted students would ever discover the meaning.
Some instructors have eliminated kata from their requirements but keep it for the sake of tournament competition. These instructors will state that kata adds no validity to karate but they can't deny the fact that kata practice develops coordination, strength, speed, balance, and can be a good aerobic exercise. Tournament competitors seem to prefer large, flashy movements, while the traditional practitioner seeks the more practical application of kata. Whether done for competition or tradition, there are certain aspects of kata that must be done correctly.
Often taken for granted, breathing is a necessary function that our body performs day in and day out without conscious thought. However, when done correctly and controlled, breath can have not only great health benefits but also increase our strength when we need it most.
As a rule, one inhales (usually through the nose) when preparing to execute any technique or while in transition from one stance to the next, and then exhales (usually through the mouth) when the technique is executed. All breathing should be done using the abdomen and not using the upper body such as the shoulder or neck muscles. Upon inhaling, the abdomen should expand, as if trying to "push" the stomach out, and when exhaling, the abdomen should contract, as if to "suck" the stomach in. An essential part of breath control is the use of the kiai (spirit joining) when executing atemi waza (destructive technique). The proper kiai combined with the proper punch, kick, or throw can be devastating.
SPEED, POWER, AND STRENGTH
Before trying to develop these aspects of kata, the student must make sure that the technique is being properly executed. In kata training, every kick, punch, block, or throw must be done with vigorous intent. Always envision that the fight is real and only real techniques will work. But, one must relax during kata. If the body is to tense, the reflexes will become slower. It's true that one should imagine being immovable as a mountain, but also to be as agile and graceful as a tiger. Remain soft, then become hard and immovable like the mountain; this is where the strength lies.
BALANCE AND FLOW
The importance of balance, both physical and mental, cannot be stressed enough. One of the first lessons taught in karate is how to stand properly. Bending the knees in order to lower the center of gravity, the student advances, executing various techniques while maintaining balance and control over the body. Only after many hours of practice, combining upper and lower body techniques, does a sense of balance begin to develop. Because each kata teaches a new approach to balance, one should never be discouraged when balance is lost. Only through patience and hard work will the kata and balance improve. With just as much speed and power as the previous technique, kata helps to develop and maintain balance while cultivating flow. Practicing continuous flow in kata helps the student to move smoothly from one technique to another. Only after learning to maintain balance and flow in kata can grace be obtained.
EYE CONTACT AND FOCUS
Remember that kata is performed by fighting imaginary opponents. When executing a technique, there is a certain order of movement: 1st-Eyes, 2nd-Feet, and 3rd-Technique. Eye contact should always be made with the opponents, real or imaginary, so there should be no looking down unless the kata calls for it. This sort of eye contact and focus is called chaku-gan. Kime (focusing technique) also helps to develop power and technique. When practicing kime, the parts of the body, whether it be the solar plexus, nose, throat, knee, or hand, are envisioned so the attack can be seen by both the student and the observer.
BUNKAI OR KAISEKI
Bunkai (hidden meaning) and Kaiseki (analysis of kata) add greater meaning to kata for the serious practitioners. Bunkai is the actual application / interpretation of the techniques performed in kata. In traditional kata, there are no movements that are unnecessary. All movements, no matter how insignificant, may have more than one application. There is usually bunkai for the beginning, intermediate, and advanced stages. These techniques are designed to be executed as close, if not exactly, as they appear in the kata. There is not a best application; it is simply which bunkai would best fit the situation.
Every kata is unique in that it has its own character. Different stances, techniques, and strategies are learned and developed through the study and practice of kata. One of the best ways to practice kata is to imagine performing it without any mistakes. Each technique executed with crisp, clean precision. Once this kata has been imagined, then the practitioner should try to perform the same kata.
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