The Karate Academy

Kata and Kihon as training vehicles

Kata and Kihon as training vehicles: Martial Musings

From day one of our introduction to karate, we are taught a variety of moves – blocks, punches and kicks of varying complexity that build over time into sequences and combinations of the basic techniques that are the physical expression of our art. Ritualistic in practice, high in repetition, we build “muscle memory” of each technique allowing them to be performed smoother, faster. We are introduced to the idea of kata – an almost dance-like sequence of moves that allude to self-defence and as we progress, the kihon and kata become more challenging increasing in complexity, a reflection of our personal improvement and an increased understanding of each movement.

This is of course absolutely fine. After all, repetition is essential in the development of any skill and there is no better way of learning physical movement than to mindfully repeat that movement or sequence over and over until it becomes almost instinctive, an automatic action. 

Initially, we should not consider the practice of kata and kihon to be self-defence training. Kata and kihon practice doesn’t teach us the principles of self-defence either. They do however provide a platform that helps us learn to move more efficiently and effectively. 

The reason I say this is that kata and kihon practice that does not include an accompanying study of common types of violence, environmental and situational awareness, legal implications and the underlying principles of physical engagement (the “rules of combat”) takes on the role of callisthenics – a great form of physical exercise, but not the complete package. Of course, It would be erroneous to say that the study of karate is solely about one’s ability to defend oneself, but self-defence is – or at least should be – a part of the package.

So let’s put training for self-defence aside for a moment. What else does the practice of kihon and kata provide? Well, let’s think of them as “training vehicles” – mechanical models on which we can build a better understanding of movement and how to connect through movement. Consider 3 stages of development, first we have the mechanics, recognising the shapes and patterns of a particular movement and practicing them again and again. Then as we develop through each repetition we eventually find ourselves in the second stage. We start to internalise the movement, feeling the internal connections and transitions like links in a chain. When we reach the 3rd stage, we start strengthening those internal connections further by adding an external connection or force – a physical point of contact such as in partner work, flow drills and bunkai. This adds another dimension to our study and provides an even deeper learning experience. A simplistic view? Perhaps, but one that can dramatically impact on our personal practice and progression.

Let’s break things down a little further and address the concepts of kihon and kata separately (though they are of course each part of a whole).

Kihon practice is about training each element, drilling each component. This allows us to “maintain our weapons” – to polish each aspect – breaking down each movement to its basic elements to work on them. But remember we have to be able to put it all back together again if we want it to work. It’s a bit like having all the parts of a car engine all laid out side by side. You may have all the parts but it’s never going to work unless you can put the engine back together (and in the right order). Everything has to have a beginning, a middle, an end and when we practice an isolated technique – or part of a technique – it is just that, an isolation.

Kata can be seen as an exercise in combining techniques together (and much more of course) providing a platform for practicing technique linking, footwork, transitions and pathways. Kata provides us with a schematic, an outline of potentially defensive sequences – once we apply the correct principles. Great as a form of physical training and an excellent method of strengthening the neural pathways, or creating “muscle memory”. A “ready to go” training programme if you will. Like a suit, off the peg at first but eventually tailor made – cut to fit.

If we take a closer look at the three stages we mentioned earlier, we can see how they all interconnect. First, the mechanics – we start by learning a few basic shapes. Simple (but not easy) patterns of movement. They feel strange at first, clunky and stiff, but become easier over time. Then we start to “build” on these movements – linking certain movements together to make combinations (think mini  kata) that further challenge our cognitive abilities. It is just as important to train the transitions (the pathway of a technique) and hooks (how we link the techniques together) as the techniques themselves. Every technique has a pathway, its“start to finish” and we should aim to reduce “drag” on the movement by looking at anatomical alignment. Compare it to walking through (not on) water, through trial and error we find the physically more economic route or path – we reduce resistance. In application we look for the “line of best fit” not necessarily the “path of least resistance” which can also result in the path of least impact. 

Second stage is addressing the internal connections, which is when we start to understand – to feel – the movement. Where mechanics is focusing on the external appearance, working from the outside in, now we are starting to focus on that feeling of the internal connections – how the fascia, muscles, tendons, ligaments and skeleton connect through the various pathways – from the inside out as it were. Each phase of every movement or technique is like a link in a chain and we can begin to recognise the strengths and weaknesses along the chain, and start to work on correcting them.

Now to the external connections – points of contact or touch (partner based training including pad work, flow drills, workable bunkai) allow us to strengthen our internal connections even further. It’s like tensioning the springs, we learn to hold just enough internal tension to help maintain structural integrity. In this way we can use the tactile feedback to direct our energy, highlighting weaknesses in position, posture and anatomical alignment (yours and theirs). This touch can tell us more than mere verbal instruction can communicate – if we are prepared to “listen” so soften up and start listening.

To conclude, we should focus on kihon and kata as vehicles of learning and self improvement first and foremost. They help us learn to move more efficiently and smoothly, whether in singular technique or multiples. We become more body aware, building up the layers, constantly refining/reinforcing what has been done before. Strengthening the information pathways with each repetition of technique. If we truly want to develop these skills for self-defence we must address the rules of combat – understand the common types of assault, our combative environment and the legal implications of taking things to a physical level. 

Copyright: Don Came BSc, 7th Dan Kyoshi, Kissaki-Kai Karate 

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