“Learn to Move”: Kata as A Movement Based Learning Approach

by Florian Wiessmann

Before you do a kata, ask yourself what you can learn from the kata.

Manabu Murakami

This quote was published on The Shotokan Times a while ago with the friendly permission of Jeff Christian. So, let us take it seriously and ask: What can we learn from kata? Before we give an answer let us assume that most people (Karate practitioners, too) are average Joe´s rather than top-athletes. They won’t become highly trained experts in utilizing kata because they have daily jobs, families, and other duties. However, they like to train. To be beneficial for them, one must reduce complexity, build focal points, and find a practicable approach to use kata as a learning tool. For me this works best by understanding kata as universal movement principles about how to generate power and to organize one’s body. This leads to more efficient movements and a better utilization of the body. Especially, efficiency cannot be stressed enough. Because it is the foundation for any martial application.[1]

What Kata for Movement means and what it not means

“Kata for movement” does not mean to stand in deep kiba dachi to build up leg muscles. It also does not mean doing kata with maximum kime for developing a strong punch. To become strong, it is better to punch a heavy bag or makiwara. Fighting off air will not create the same results.[2]

Manabu Murakami teaching Kata in Munich 2018

The movement-based approach of kata is a holistic way to train the whole-body movement and the underlying movement principles.[3] The following quote by Dr. Perry Nickelston expresses that idea very well:

“The goal is not to learn a movement; the goal is to become a mover”[4]

Dr. Perry Nickelston

Power generation, aligning and connecting your body, structure and how to manipulate it – these elements are key in martial arts training. Kata proves to be an excellent tool for experiencing and developing that in a structured way. From kata can be learnt:

  • whole body movement and re-positioning,
  • transitional movements,
  • initiating movements,
  • shifting your center of gravity,
  • adjusting your posture,
  • connecting your joints,
  • harnessing certain muscle groups,
  • experiencing different ways of generating power,
  • motion economy etc

The Benefits of Slowing Down

To achieve this beneficial effects one should not to go full force or think about certain applications for ‘imaginary opponents’ while practicing kata. One should rather slow down, turn inwards and listen to the body. There is much truth in the following quote by Ram Dass:

“The quieter you become, the more you can hear”.

Ram Dass

By slowing down you can thoroughly dissect and observe movements and transitions, getting aware of how you initiate a movement, shift your weight and resettle in a stable structure, feel how different stances affect your alignment and what joints and muscle groups come to play in certain movements. Eventually you will get to know yourself better. Then you can start to analyze and improve this step by step.[5][6]

Manabu Murakami teaching Kata in Munich 2018: Here he shows how joints must connect

A brief Example: Naihanchi (Tekki) Shodan

This progress can be very subtle. For instance, the first and most important kata students learn in our school is naihanchi shodan.[7] The first sequence after “yoi” is a falling step to the right into naihanchi dachi, then haishu uke and mawashi enpi. Rather than just stepping, one could start by moving the eyeballs in the direction of the first step. That will give the head a first movement tendency and initiates actual head movement.

In turn, it will initiate further body movement and a falling tendency in the direction of the planned moving-direction. When the body begins to fall sideways, one does a step and transition/re-position into naihanchi dachi. Before one starts the next action, one should take time to feel the own stands. How are the feet planted on the ground? Are the joints aligned properly? Can the body rest and settle effortlessly into the structure of naihanchi dachi? Does the stands feel unstable and uneasy? Is muscular force required to maintain the stance? Then one should take the time to re-adjust the body to a comfortable, natural and connected position.

The Benefits of Kata Kitae

Kata kitae (hardening the body through assisted training) done by a partner can support finding weak points and help the body and structure to re-adjust into a connected state. This will also allow a teacher to individually focus on the points that must be corrected at a student. This is important, because connections are also the foundation for power generation and -delivery. If one is not properly connected, actions will also be weaker. One will be more prone to be unbalanced by the opponent. One will need to use more energy and force to compensate for unbalance.

The importance of kata kitae cannot be overemphasized. On the contrary, general commands like “stand deeper” or to adjust the foot in a 45-degree angle do not help anyone. They just satisfy a superficial and general sense of outer appearance, rather than focusing on the individual needs of a student. Because everybody moves a bit different and needs individual adjustment.

While the next sequence of the naihanchi routine, one has to take note

  • how the chest opens up and then closes for mawashi enpi,
  • the movement of spine, core and hips,
  • how the arm extends up into the fingertips,
  • how the wrist rotates,
  • which connected muscle groups like abdominal muscles come into play,
  • which are contracted and which are relaxed etc.

Then one resets into a neutral position while moving both hands into hikite and start the next movement sequence to the left in a similar fashion. One can do it even more meticulous and e.g. just concentrate on how the feet while moving through the kata. Later, more parts can be changed or added one wants to focus on.

Brief Excursus

For arranged partner exercises like kihon kumite I also advise not to block full force, because this will reduce the possibility to actually feel what is going on. Rather engage into a bodily dialogue with the partner. One should connect to his structure and feel how oneself and he are aligned. This gives the opportunity to learn how to work with his structure. It is also hard to learn if one´s partner applies full resistance from the beginning. One can start to gradually add resistance and variation with more experience. At the beginning it is counterproductive though.

The Benefits of Kata as A Movement

Gradually one will become more fluent and connected. With more coordination and a growing understanding for utilizing and moving the body can start to integrate applications and turn one´s ideas into practice. Sgt. Rory Miller, an expert in real world violent encounters, defines kata as the coordinated movement of hands, shoulders and hips simultaneously with dropping the center of gravity for power generation. He finds the body mechanics developed by kata practice to be identical to violent encounters and advises “learn to move” with kata practice. Digging too much into the “deeper secrets” of kata movements is rather counterproductive.[8[

Simply put, become a mover, kata will provide you with an excellent method to this end.

About Florian Wiessmann: Practicing Karate since the mid-1990s, he holds a nidan at the Nihon Karate-dō Shūshūkan, which is headed by Sugimori Kichinosuke (9.Dan) and its German branch is lead by Stephan Yamamoto (6.Dan). https://shushukan.com/


[1]Also take a look at this worth reading article from the Budo Bum: http://budobum.blogspot.com/2015/09/organizing-body-for-budo.html

[2] http://andrebertel.blogspot.com/2007/11/air-karate.html

[3]Asai Tetsuhiko and Ōtsuka Hironori were also known for using kata as a mean for fostering certain movement principles.

[4] https://www.facebook.com/StopChasingPain/, also take a look at his youtube channel for excellent movement tutorials: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC0SfqMJk11czuwp-YB_6v5w

[5]Driscoll, Jeff 2010: Ultimate Kempo, North Clarendon: Tuttle Publishing, P. 65-166.

[6] https://shushukan.com/todd-hargrove-why-slow-movement-builds-coordination/

[7] My teacher substituted Tekki with Naihanchi, because it better fits our needs.

[8]Miller, Roy 2008: Meditations on Violence, Boston: YMAA Publication Center, P. 14-115.


10 comments

  1. —   Hi my name is Giuseppe,  I  am writing from Italy I study karate shotokan   I am making a   research   and  I have got some question for you,  The fact is it seem who there is not connection beetween Kion-kata and Jiyu Kumite  my questions are:

    THE STANCE On karate there are more o less 10 stance but only zenkutsu is used  on Ju kumite  – How can you apply, the karate stance on ju kumite, take for example Kokutsu dachi, how apply it on ju kumite? and Sanchin- hangetsu… kiba dachiecc.ecc. What s the sense of going to forward on Kokutsu dachi and to the back on zenkutsu, like you do on kata and kion?

    THE UKE WAZA How can you apply age uke, soto uke, gedan badai ecc on Ju kumite?  

    HIHITE Many explain it with principle of action and reaction, on many dojo is said who the punche loading on the hip, give power to the techniques as there scientific evidence about it?

    KION KUMITE Many say who preaarranged forms of kumite like sanbon, gohon kumite ecc. ecc are urrealistic and have non connection with Free sparring, non my question is why training them?

    Greetings

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     

  2. Dear Giuseppe,

    let’s give it a try.

    stances: stances are mostly just a momentarily expression while moving (if you would halt a movement at one point,you get a stance). Don’t think to much about all the formal stances but more about, where your weight it distributed at one given point or how feet, knees and pelvis are aligned and were the centre of gravity is. And then you have the characteristics of many stances in all kind of movements, be it in your daily life or in kumite. Look at these guys – they probably never heard of all the dachi and do them all the time while moving freely:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ln94E9AGYTc

    uke waza: as with stances, just think about how to use both hands in a concerted way and not just about the standard blocking (and besides, uke translates to ‘receiving’ – this can be offensive as well). I can show you an uppercut punch I do 100% exactly as a soto uke. And age uke is also quite common as a kind of flinching reaction e.g. And look at this self defense guy, what he teaches as ‘flanking’. He does a gedan barai (and probaly never heard of it):
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7bQDQRb-l-U

    hikite: well the explanaition given might be just a small part. Hikite trains both part of the body (maybe like a pendulum and also to use both hands in a concerted way) and hikite doesn’t have to be at the hip (you can also pull back to a guard position). And also think about weapon applications (if you swing a bo, you will have a hikite movement). It’s also about grabbing opponents and als for creating space to punch (look a this for the last explanation – he has to create some room to punch in an infight situation and does it with hikite https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5sYyLlxaVUQ )

    kihon kumite: I agree somewhat. You certainly need some kind of pre-arranged sparring to build up experience and confidence for free sparring but sanbon- and gohon kumite done as you mostly see it also teaches much wrong stuff and therefore we don’t do it (wrong stuff is moving back all the time, moving only back with too much a distance and not teaching how to close distances or angle the opponent and so on, only focusing on somewhat unrealistic counter gyaku zuki, nothing else, only blocking with one arm, nothing else…). So yeah, do pre-arrangend sparring but beside absolute beginners people probably can do better as with sanbon-/gohon kumite.

    Cheers,

    Florian

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