Martial Arts America, Chapter 7 Title

Martial Arts America, Book Cover


    Kata was designed by warriors who depended upon their skill in the martial arts to stay alive. When a warrior performed a kata, it was for his benefit; each movement practiced was a technique designed to incapacitate his opponent. Individual techniques were performed just as they would be executed in a combat situation.

— Rick Clark, 1989    
Inside Karate magazine    

Capital 'C'alled kata, kuen, and hyung in Japanese, Chinese, and Korean, respectively, forms are basically choreographed shadow boxing. Largely a solo-practice training method, forms practice can also be done as synchronized or coordinated multiman routines. Practiced with weapons or with empty hand, forms were originally designed to teach technique, movement, and proper breathing, and to develop and condition the body-all of this for self-defense. Today, however, most kata are taught and practiced for very different reasons, leading many in the martial art community to question their value for the contemporary practitioner. This chapter examines forms training and asks the question, "Is it still a useful training tool?"

Still a Useful Training Tool?

Over the years my position on kata has changed from one of complete disdain to that of conditional appreciation. Accepting that the original purpose behind forms training was self-defense, as stated by Rick Clark above (1989, 61), I once believed that if a technique in a form is not performed exactly the way it is applied in the street, then it should either be changed or discarded. I realize now, however, that within reasonable limits, it is acceptable to see some deviation between a fighting technique in application, and how it is executed in kata. This is because the various movements in a form or pattern do more than simply teach self-defense techniques: some build strength, others improve flexibility; still others use repetition to ingrain some basic pattern of movement into the student's mind.

Front-kick to opponent's groin
Front-kick in application.
Front-kick as done in practice
Front-kick in practice.
Visualize, for example, a technique where actual application has the defender executing a rising front kick to his assailant's groin. This same technique may be performed in kata (or practice), with the same rising front kick, but in the form the kick may legitimately rise as high as the imaginary opponent's face. From a self-defense perspective, kicking to the head weakens, rather than strengthens the defender's technique; however, from a training perspective, not only is the high kick acceptable, but, in some ways, it is desirable. When used in self-defense, the technique has one and only one objective: disabling your opponent. When practiced in a kata, however, its purpose is broadened to serve the following two additional functions:
  • Teaching basic movement
  • Physical conditioning

Teaching basic movement is critical, for just as protons and electrons are the building blocks of atoms, movements are the building blocks of techniques. In any fighting technique, a block-any block-is simply a movement. A punch or a kick is another movement. Combine the two, and you have a basic technique. Learn any system, style, or fighting art's movements, and you have all that you need to create your own techniques.

"Learning an art's movements" involves much more than simply learning to put the hand here or the foot there. It also means developing a thorough understanding of, for example, a movement's purpose, mechanics, and underlying principles. Understanding motion and movement at that level provides you with everything you need to create your own techniques. This is exactly what you do when you move beyond the practice and into the realm of spontaneity: in combat, you spontaneously create your own techniques. Of the two objectives and functions listed for kata, then, teaching basic movement is the most important.

Behind teaching practical self-defense and basic movement, physical conditioning is the third purpose of forms training. If, for example, you practice kicking higher than necessary during training (something you do when warmed up and in appropriate, loose fitting, apparel), then you should have little difficulty kicking the lower, more practical targets when in street clothes and with no time to stretch or warm up. Forms training is where we push and extend what are otherwise practical limitations-exaggerating our moves, deepening our stances, and heightening our kicks. These limit-pushing exercises-impractical in a real fight-develop the flexibility, strength, balance and coordination that the fighter needs if he expects to succeed in that real altercation.

Classical Mess
Beyond these three basic functions of kata, there remains a nagging problem. Too many forms today no longer teach relevant, practical self-defense technique, or even the basic movements from which such techniques are built. For those studying an art for reasons other than self-defense this is not a problem, but for those studying an art primarily for self-defense, it is a major one. Attack, defense, and methods of movement continually change. They also differ considerably from culture to culture. Most classical kata represent a method of combat that is radically different from the way we Americans fight today.

In Chapter 4, you were shown an example of a knife technique from the days of the samurai. That technique is vastly different from the fighting methods used by modern knife aficionados; it has to be. Like a knife technique from the past, a naginata or halberd in a kata from a bygone era will very likely contain techniques and patterns of evasion and movement that are based on the premise that the opponent is, for example, on horseback and carrying a weapon common to that era (but one that is uncommon today), or that he is wearing some type of protective armor. Techniques designed for those circumstances might be completely inappropriate and, therefore, ineffective today. These are major differences that most classical forms do not address. For the most part, then, forms development has not kept pace with the differences and changes in fighting.

Contemporary Mess
Classical forms are not the only culprits in all of this. Many today teach modern forms that have even less (if any) martial application. Tinfoil swords, super-lightweight weapons that break on impact, and weapons that allow you to beat yourself with little fear of raising even a small welt, are not martial art weapons. Practicing kata with toy-like replicas of the real thing is like heading off to the pistol range and whipping out your plastic "Dirty Harry" Smith & Wesson 44. That piece may look impressive, but it is even less than the real thing is when its empty; it lacks real substance.

Plastic gun vs. knife
Lacking real substance, a plastic gun offers little for self-defense.

I remember very well a young tournament competitor whose performance in kata was very impressive. It was good that her chronological age confined her to a youth division, because her skill and heart would have humiliated many of the adult black belt competitors. This young lady performed an exquisite naginata kata. Not only that, she performed it with a weapon that most male competitors would not care work with. The weapon was heavy and difficult to maneuver; however, because she practiced with this real classical weapon-only the blade was dulled for safety-she developed a real appreciation of the skill necessary to handle such a formidable instrument. She also understood the potential and limitations of the weapon many times better than one training with a lightweight replica. Few competitors today understand their empty hand forms to that extent, let alone their weapons kata.

Unrealistic weapons breed bad habits and a lack of respect for the real thing. Back flips, splits, and "moon walks" now common in so many modern tournament forms may be entertaining, but they are not martial art. At best, such moves have only limited, if any, martial application. As outdated and ineffective as some classical forms may be, they are at least based on once-effective self-defense techniques and fighting scenarios.

Numerous problems plague classical and contemporary kata alike. What is needed, then, is a balance between the classical approach and the contemporary, go-for-show artistic license so prevalent today. There needs to be movement back to the original purpose of kata: teaching effective self-defense. With that purpose in mind, today's martial artists need to develop new forms-or change existing ones-so that they, once again, contribute to effectiveness in combat.

Understanding Forms Training

Examine kata in light of their original purpose, and you come to the realization that most self-defense forms fall into one of two groups: training forms and demonstration forms. Let's look at the difference between the them.

Training Forms
Training forms are usually repetitious and often very basic. They teach the student what I call movements. Movements are broken down into movement and motion (the basic components of fighting techniques)-like learning an alphabet and building a vocabulary. Movement involves stances and how to move from position to position smoothly-left, right, off-center, spinning, and so on. Motion, on the other hand, is how we strike with our elbows in, say, a half-dozen different ways. Practicing elbow strikes repeatedly in a kata may not be very "pretty." The sequence may not even constitute a practical technique, but practical techniques are only effective when they flow, and they will not flow without sufficient practice. Training forms give the student the basics that are needed for the demonstration forms. (For the remainder of this chapter I will use the term "movements" to mean both movement and motion.)

Demonstration Forms
Like training forms, demonstration forms also teach, but they teach something else. Demonstration forms provide the martial artist with possible sequences for the movements learned earlier in the training forms. Ultimately, demonstration forms should exemplify the practitioner's art, style, and skill-taking the "characters and words" learned in the training forms and making them into intelligible sentences and cohesive paragraphs. That which the martial artist learned in the training forms should be evident in his execution of the demonstration forms, and it is here that the dramatic element is introduced.

The introduction of drama does not mean the excessive snarling, facial expressions, and antics so common today. It does mean adding the intensity, focus, and eye contact between you and your invisible opponent: things like a look of surprise as you duck or leap over his attack. Snarling and other excessive facial displays are merely poor attempts at the higher level of acting skill necessary to make a form come alive. Kata represents the age-old struggle of life and death, of good against evil. That reality is dramatic enough. Adding fantasy only detracts from it. Demonstration forms, then, should be where the individual's style polishes his already excellent technique-not where style overpowers it.

It is unrealistic to believe that a single form can both teach basic movements and provide the student with a substantive demonstration platform. To learn demonstration forms without spending sufficient time on the training forms results in, at best, a mechanical copy of the movements. On the other hand, the martial artist who spends sufficient time in training forms develops "flow." Flow is spontaneous, shaping itself dynamically to meet the need. Flow comes only after hours of repetitive practice. Training forms develop this flow. Demonstration forms, on the other hand, show that development. Forms training must teach both: movements, to ingrain the desired reflexes, and techniques to provide possible sequences for those movements. Done this way, forms practice is a very useful training tool.

Change or Sacrilege?

There are those who call this idea of changing forms sacrilege, asking, "What right do we have to change what many masters have spent their entire lives developing?" What do we say to them? We can answer with the words of a past master who said that his goal was to revise kata . . .
. . . so as to make them as simple as possible. Times change, the world changes, and obviously the martial arts must change too. The karate that high school students practice today is not the same karate that was practiced even 10 years ago, and it is a long way indeed from the karate I learned . . .

Recognizing that change is inevitable, that same master also said,

I have no doubt whatsoever that in the future, as times change, again and then again, the kata will [even] be given new names. And that, indeed, is as it should be.
Gichin Funakoshi
Gichin Funakoski. 1868-1957
That master was none other than the founder of Shotokan karate himself, Gichin Funakoshi (1981, 36-37).

It takes little research to find master after master who took what his teachers gave him, refined it, and subsequently created a new system. There are past and present masters who can, and do, change and create forms. (I mentioned earlier how Chojun Miyagi changed the forms he brought into his goju-ryu karate from their original open-hand expression to those using fists.) There are also those who, though formally qualified, should not do so. The ability to create or modify forms requires more than credentials. Credentials only represent recognition of ability. Knowledge of forms (historically and technically) and the ability to perform them are only part of what it takes to create or change kata.

A bigger part is this, does an individual possess sufficient experience and knowledge in his art to analyze its forms, and where necessary, revise them? Some will disagree and would have us believe that IQs have mysteriously dropped in the last 100 years. They believe that only past masters were smart enough and experienced enough to make such changes. Without a doubt, static, unchanging arts make an instructor's life so much easier because they simplify what he must teach. However, such thinking does not face reality. In any art or science today, one is hard-pressed to find a subject that remains static and unchanging.

Change is inevitable. The questions, then, are as follows: Can an individual analyze, adapt, change, and even create forms that are both aesthetically pleasing and technically potent? Do the new forms demonstrate proper speed, power, focus, and flexibility? Do they flow from one technique to another without hesitation? Most important, do the forms prepare one for combat?

All of this in no way means that we ignore or discard the work of past masters. What they passed on to us should serve as a foundation on which we build. We owe them our gratitude and respect. However, we should never so hallow their work that we label it as "perfect" and, therefore, unchangeable. Nor should we consider our creations, our new forms, as unchangeable.

Necessary and Natural Change

Dan Inosanto provided an excellent example of necessary and natural change. He pointed out that in track and field record after record falls. Why? Partly because of advances in equipment, but largely because the training methods have been constantly replaced with better ones. Can you imagine a 100-yard dash between a turn-of-the-century Olympian and one from the last Olympiad? There would be no contest! (My only hope would be that the modern Olympian would be as gracious in accepting the win as he was fleet-of-foot in accomplishing it.)

If forms practice is to remain a viable training tool for today's martial artist, it, too, must be allowed to change. Classical kata represent the combat techniques of past masters. Contemporary kata should reflect the combat techniques of our day.

If your goal in martial arts is "cultural study," keeping some time-honored tradition alive, that's OK; just stop calling it a "martial art." Call it "classical" or " traditional martial way" (fill in the blank with the culture of your choice).

If your goal is entertainment, have fun, but do not call that martial art either. Call it martial dance, gym-kata, whatever.

If, on the other hand, you wish to keep alive those things past masters gave their lives for, then do it with the same fire and vision they had. Create a work of art that springs from the very root of martial arts: self-defense. Create a form that represents the combat techniques of your day. Season it with just enough drama to make it come alive and, voila! Forms training will be everything it is supposed to be.

Appreciate classical forms as a vital historical link to the past. Learn the principles they teach, because principles of movement remain constant, and these principles spring from the fountain of past experience. Enjoy the entertainment forms for their gymnastic skill and theatrical showmanship. Add some of that drama and visualization to your demonstration forms. Remember, however, that drama and showmanship, like salt and pepper, only please the palate when used in moderation. Too much, and the entrée is not fit for consumption. Finally, balance everything with your personal martial art goals; then, forms practice will be as useful a training tool for you as it was for the masters of the past.

Our  emphasis  is  on  the  practical.
©Copyright Bob Orlando, 1993-2016
All rights reserved.
Last update:  Aug. 6, 2016
by Bob Orlando
Web Site of Bob Orlando: Instructor in Kuntao-Silat (Chinese kuntao and Dutch-Indonesian pukulan pentjak silat), author of two popular martial art books: "Indonesian Fighting Fundamentals" and "Martial Arts America: A Western Approach to Eastern Arts"; and producer of four martial art videos: Fighting Arts of Indonesia, Reflex Action, Fighting Footwork of Kuntao and Silat, Fighting Forms of Kuntao-Silat. Offering practical martial arts instruction to adults living in and throughout the Denver metropolitan area including, Lakewood, Littleton, Morrison, and Golden Colorado.