The Key Is to Customize Your Forms by Playing With Them!
Kata, or forms, have been taught in the fighting traditions for hundreds of years. The thing that makes them so effective as a learning tool is what's overlooked in most modern schools, where forms are often treated like an annoying curriculum requirement. Classical forms are composed of actual self-defense techniques that are based on sound and reliable principles. So the first step is to actually practice forms "for real." This means that forms training must include not only the solo performances but also the bunkai, or two-person applications.
Now, some people say they practice bunkai, but they're misleading themselves if their practice consists of defending against stylized attacks that bear no relationship to what one is likely to see in a real-world encounter. And they're misleading themselves if the responses to those stylized attacks — supposedly, the movements from the form — depend on distance and anticipation to work. True bunkai is the purely functional use of movements from kata against common forms of aggression.
Note: To test whether you're practicing true bunkai, have your training partner attack with intensity and realism. If you can't make your application work, it probably is not true bunkai.
When kata are taught properly, the first step is to provide students with a simple, realistic and usable interpretation for each movement of a form. Each individual move is taught as a response to a realistic attack. And it's taught on the assumption that the attacker is about the same size as the defender. But what if you're a 5-foot-6-inch, 125-pound woman training in a dojo full of men who are 6 feet tall and north of 200 pounds? Clearly, the standard techniques won't work as standardly taught.
This is precisely what makes kata training so important. The secret lies, first, in understanding that kata are practical and that practicality is expressed in realistic bunkai, and second, in acknowledging that realistic bunkai is ultimately about understanding and applying the principles of a technique. In other words, if you have a practical use for a kata movement, you have one good technique. But if you understand the principles of that one technique, you have a thousand techniques.
So how can kata be taught and subsequently fine-tuned in a way that maximizes practicality and conceptual understanding? The answer is to give yourself permission to think creatively about forms so you come up with a variety of bunkai that work best for you. And to accomplish this, you must give yourself permission to play with the forms.
And how does one play with kata? Any way you want. A simple way to start is to change the timing and emphasis. For example, while performing a downward counter (gedan-uke), the emphasis is usually on the downward strike. Instead, emphasize the beginning of the movement when your hand comes up near your opposite ear. Suddenly, you discover another striking action hidden within the movement. Your downward counter isn't a low strike away from yourself; it's a rising strike that moves toward your own body.
Another way to play is to start with bunkai and work your way backward. Perform a bunkai you already know but on a differently sized or abled opponent. While performing the technique, pay attention to modifications that you make to execute the move effectively. Once you have identified a modification, try to apply it to the solo performance of kata play.
The point is to learn to think freely and creatively. Playing with kata is a form of free expression. This leads to creative thinking and to the discovery of principles of effective self-defense. And this, in turn, leads to different ways to solve tactical problems and ultimately leads to the skill one needs to make good tactical solutions under stress.
Now, some very traditional practitioners will object to the notion of playing with kata because it implies "changing" the forms — a notion that attacks the very heart of the traditionalist sense of orthodoxy. But playing with kata does not imply abandoning the "orthodox" versions, however they're defined within a given style or tradition. In fact, it's the custom of the authors to practice orthodox kata, then to perform a personalized, played-with version of the same forms.
Other instructors might object, claiming that it will create confusion if students are given permission to personalize their own art. But imagine what would happen if students were taught to think on their own — and not simply parrot the teacher's movements. Imagine how much more they could get done during class. Instead of struggling with students who can't get something to work, the students can play with the movement themselves and find alternative methods that work for them. In this way, playing with kata can solve some very important dojo problems.
For example, if students think there's only one correct way to perform a technique, they'll tend to sacrifice technique and muscle their way through the move when necessary to make it work. But when students are encouraged to adapt techniques to suit their strengths, they begin to work independently on improving their technique through proper body mechanics.
Another dojo problem revolves around the fact that karate is a male-dominated adult activity. But if you look at the kids classes, there's a more even mix of girls and boys. What causes girls to quit training?
There's no one single reason, but part of the problem is that girls are not being taught how to adapt techniques to make them work. Most girls, as they grow, find that they can't muscle their way through a technique against an adult male to make it work.
Sadly, most sensei don't have enough time or knowledge to teach a different way of doing the technique when this occurs. Nor should they. Instead, if all the students are given the freedom to play with kata and the corresponding bunkai, those girls — who might be in danger of quitting — can learn to think independently as they modify their moves.
Another dojo problem is that training partners don't always attack in a helpful manner. This is especially an issue for women training with men because the men sometimes will try to demonstrate their superior strength with female training partners. Students who have been taught to play with kata and modify them for different situations have a much better time adapting to meet changing circumstances — all the while, still using the framework of the kata. For students trained in this approach, kata aren't stagnant routines; they're living things that can be manipulated and shaped to fit a variety of combative circumstances.
Who knew that playing could be such a useful learning tool? Students who have been given permission to think creatively about kata will become better fighters. They will have already learned how to adapt to different situations and circumstances. Sparring will improve with the freedom to think outside the box.
And should the students find themselves in a self-defense situation, they will be prepared to think on the spot instead of freezing when a technique doesn't work like it was supposed to.
The ability to think is arguably one of the most important fighting skills anyone can learn. A good fighter has a good mind. Kata are the perfect tool for training a strong, effective mind — as long as you're given permission to analyze, adapt, shape, understand and play with those kata.
About the authors: April Taylor is a practitioner of Ryukyu kempo. She stands 5 feet 6 inches tall and weighs 125 pounds — and regularly trains with 200-pound men. Chris Thomas is a longtime practitioner of the martial arts and a renowned instructor whose articles have appeared in Black Belt since 1981. He is also April Taylor's dad. Click here to visit his website.