Feature Article of the Quarter


By: Patrick McCarthy, Kyoshi

Edited by DJ Lamberton

In today's diverse and divided world of karate, you can find several schools of thought surrounding kata; the common fabric with which the tradition is woven. However, misunderstanding this ancient ritualized practice is now only a matter of choice.

How many times have you learned a kata, but had no idea what offensive themes its defensive principles actually addressed? Or, that such themes even existed! It's a common problem that's been compared to learning a song in a foreign language. Melodic, but if you can't speak the language, the meaning of the song's words remains a total mystery! When you learn a kata without knowing about its inner workings, you might as well be dancing.

Both holistic and anaerobic, kata is an important vehicle that helps a learner develop physical and mental qualities essential to Karatedo. However, without having first learned how to manipulate its defensive applications, kata alone is little more than physical exercise. By itself, kata does not teach the meaning of its techniques. Rather, it culminates defensive knowledge already embraced by the student, who should be fluent in every aspect of kata 'language' - from techniques to applications.

Kata - The Time Capsule of Karatedo:

Recognizing what kata represent is the first step to understanding the brutal usefulness locked within these remarkable geometric configurations. To those who understand the language with which kata is written, generations of defensive heritage are revealed. Developed by innovative Shaolin monks, kata embody practical defensive responses to habitual acts of physical violence through the use of open and empty hands. Historically guarded in an iron-clad ritual of secrecy, kata (hsing in Chinese) not only culminated a specific body of learning it also classically served as the mnemonic vehicle through which the art has been passed down from one generation to the next.

Today, however, despite the widespread use of kata in virtually every style of martial arts instruction, its actual meaning has become obscured. There are two main reasons for this. One, we do not understand the nature of man the same way that the original Chinese pioneer masters did; and two, kata has been introduced and largely embraced as criteria for elevation from one rank to the next, as well as for display in today's rule-bound competitive arena of tournaments and expositions.

The Anatomy of Kata:

There are no unnecessary movements in the old-school kata of orthodox karate. Every technique has a meaning and a purpose. However, recognizing this value first requires students to understand the fundamental premise and inner workings of kata. Let's start by identifying the five fundamental sets of fundamental tools that make up the principal kata of old-school karate. They are: 1) Punches; 2) Kicks; 3) Stances; 4) Strikes; and 5) Blocks, or parts thereof.

Classically, ritualized sets of associated exercises facilitated the development of these fundamental tools. They included: 1) Ways of punching with a closed fist; 2) Kicking techniques, leg maneuvers and corresponding techniques; 3) Mobility & posturing; 4) The use of open hands; 5) Associated methods of impact other than the fore-fist punch; and, 6) Checking, trapping and blocking.

Historically speaking, delivery systems reflect an innovator's individual understanding and interpretation of these fundamental tools, and are affectionately referred to as Ryuha or Ryugi. Despite the lip service paid to their omnipotence, Ryuha represent nothing more nor less than individual teaching styles on defensive and/or competitive outcomes. It was karate pioneer Miyagi Chojun who deduced, in 1934, that "styles" are "little more than teaching variations of common principles."

Defensive Principles:

The fundamental defensive principles intertwined within kata were originally meant to include:

1. Stimulating nerves
2. Obstructing blood vessels
3. Attacking connective tissue structures (membrane, tendon, ligament & cartilage)
4. Twisting bones & locking joints
5. Take-downs
6. Strangulation
7. Throws
8. Grappling
9. Ground-work
10. Counter attacks
11. Attacking other anatomically vulnerable zones such as eyes, testicles, temples, etc.
12. Attacking, seizing & digging into the cavities of the body unprotected by the skeletal structure.

Historical Premise:

Shaolin monks believed that the human body was interrelated to itself and to Nature. They concluded that anatomical and emotional conditions were influenced not only by our environment and diet, but also by specific physical stimulation. In TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine,) this concept is best explained by Qi (Chi), Yin/Yang, and the 5 Element theory. Through generations of empirical experience, these quanfa pioneers, within the confines of monastic sanctuaries, developed and gradually improved defensive applications based upon their understanding of this immutable knowledge.

As they continued to explore the principles of physical violence, energy transfer, and the human body, those reclusive innovators developed an anatomical blueprint to exploit the synergy between any one part of the body in relation to its whole. Early learners understood that it was always the human body's unique function and common anatomical weaknesses which ultimately dictate how personal tools of impact, ways of seizing, and corresponding biomechanics of transferring both low intensity and higher velocity kinetic force best impede motor performance: the dispassionate aim of self-defense.

After untold generations of continual study, a phenomenon for which the Shaolin order became well known, innovator pioneers were successful in identifying three distinct categories of physical violence that could be addressed with open and empty hands, as opposed to weapon attacks and responses. The first is mutual confrontation: anytime a 'defender' is forced or compelled to face an adversary(s) and 'defend' him or herself. Next, are habitual acts of physical violence. By virtue of the human body, there are only so many things which one person can do to another; i.e. headlock, bear-hug, hence, habitual acts. Finally, there's clinching and struggling. This is what usually happens in between mutual confrontation, especially if or when the initial attack or defense is unsuccessful. A clinch and a struggle often occurs before a "habitual act" can be achieved.

Shaolin monks went on to identify and catalogue no less than 36 habitual acts of physical violence that plagued their plebian society. Moreover, as they continued to improve their skills, as many as 72 variations on these offensive scenarios were identified, which in turn gave birth to a plethora of unique training drills. Ultimately, this knowledge became a systematized methodology, known as Shaolin quanfa (kenpo in Japanese): i.e. The laws of using one's fist.

The only way in which these Shaolin innovators could safely bring learners into direct contact with each act of physical violence without the threat of serious injury, was to recreate the said act in a safe learning environment. This was done for the expressed purpose of exploring defensive parameters, while at the same time acquiring skill and experience. By actually recreating individual acts of physical violence, in ritualized movement, learners were able to work with varying partners [big, small, strong, weak etc.] at their own pace, extrapolate/interpolate and gain valuable experience. In turn, this experience provided the foundation for further study of the overall nature of physical violence, and the opportunity to continually improve defensive practices.

Described in flowery ways (e.g. the Dragon spits pearls, Wind whistles around the tree, Catching a flapping fish, etc.) Shaolin quanfa pioneers incrementally developed 18 hsing/kata to culminate the 108 ritualized two-man training drills that linked the varying offensive scenarios to corresponding defensive principles. Of these 18 solo signature practices, six specialized in striking anatomically vulnerable zones with the fists; two specialized in using the palms; one used the elbows, shoulders, head, and knees; four utilized foot and leg maneuvers; and five specialized in grappling.

Tatakawa Zuishite Katsu (Victory without contention):

Peaceful by nature and resolved to living life in harmony with nature and their fellow man, Shaolin monks reasoned that by learning to control one's emotions and ego, the need for physical violence could be reduced to pure chance; the chance that someone actually seized hold of them. Even then, the mandate was to restrain or control the attacker. An old Shaolin principle goes something like this, "When no other choice is available restrain rather than hurt, hurt rather than be hurt, maim rather than be maimed, kill rather than be killed. However, avoid fighting at all cost, for all life is precious and none can be replaced."

Martial arts history is filled with gallant tales of Shaolin monks and Daoist priests avoiding physical violence by turning the other cheek and walking, if not running, away from ego-related confrontations. When this phenomenon is deeply studied, it becomes apparent that all too often our human condition (ego) is responsible for so many of today's unnecessary violent street encounters. Our inability to control our ego and emotions has long been considered the catalyst for acts of physical violence. Hence, the study of Karatedo has always emphasized a body of moral philosophy with which to govern the behavior of learners who embrace its brutal practice.

The Mnemonic Vehicle:

Of the fifty or so old-school kata collected and handed down from Okinawa's old Ryukyu Kingdom, rarely did any one sensei during the "old-days" embrace more than one or two of them in their overall training curriculum. The reason for this was that local masters of that era successfully imparted their delivery system through the two-man training drills that connected offensive scenario to corresponding defensive application principle, represented by composite technique. Kata, is a collection of solo composite techniques.

Master teachers focused upon actual applications rather than how łgood˛ the kata looked! Function, not form. Although it's hard to accept today, especially during a time when we practice kata more for physical development, holistic value, competitive purpose, or advancement in rank, kata, as originally learned in old-school karate, culminated the defensive lessons students had already been taught. Not always did students of the same school learn things the "same" way. Classical instruction was almost always conducted on a one-on-one basis, with an eye toward the student's age and abilities etc. Teaching techniques also varied with the age & experience of the master. How a master taught in their youth may have been different when compared to later in life. Group classes, like we see today, only became popular thanks to Itosu Ankoh, regarded by many as the grandfather of modern karate.

In fact, it was Itosu Ankoh (1832-1915) who collected and standardized the practice of many kata into a single tradition around the turn of the 20th century. Based upon this analysis, he went on to develop shorter geometrical representations of the older & longer traditions, which he called the Pinan/Heian kata. Up until that time in Okinawa's three principal districts [the old castle capitol of Shuri, Kumemura, the Chinese district of Naha & the deep water port of Tomari] there existed about fifty or so old-school kata which Itosu sensei, and his colleague, Higashionna Kanryo (1853-1917), brought together, including Chinto (Gangkaku), Chinte, Happoren (Paipuren), Hakutsuru, Jiin, Jion, Jitte, Kururunfua, Kushankun (Kankudai/Sho), Naifuanchin (Tekki), Nanshu, Nepai (Nipaipo), Passai (Bassai Dai/Sho), Rohai (Meikyo), Rakkaken, Sobarinpai (Peichurrin), Sanseru, Seipai, Seiunchin, Seisan (Hangetsu), Shisoochin, Sochin, Unshu (Unsu), Useishi (Gojushiho Sho/Dai), Wando (Wanduan), Wankan (Matsukaze), and Wanshu (Enpi).

Built upon ancient customs, profound spiritual conviction, and disciplined social ideology, it is important to remember that the kata of Karatedo, and the way they are embraced now during modern times, mirror the Japanese culture from whence they came. This is true despite the cultural context of their Chinese origins, and the fact that they were vigorously embraced by the Chinese-based Okinawan culture long before being introduced to the mainland of Japan at the dawn of the 20th century. We should also bear in mind that kata is the only reason Karatedo, as a ritualized tradition, still exists today. This art is as much a product of our lives as our lives are a product of the art.

Non-defensive Benefits of Kata:

In addition to addressing the habitual acts of physical violence that plague society, kata also represent a profound holistic and therapeutic application. On the surface, kata training strengthens bone and muscle, which helps to maximize one's biomechanics. This refers to developing optimum performance and includes the ability to vibrate, torque and rotate the hips, and expand and contract the muscles; the total summation of joint forces.

Kata improves concentration and the functions of various organs in the body. The controlled breathing techniques, vigorous twisting of the body and oscillation of the limbs, and the contraction and expansion of the muscles, open up jingluo, blood and lymphatic vessels, and improve the functions of the skeleton and muscular structures, as well as the digestive system.

One's ability to build, contain, and release energy is enhanced through learning to regulate the breath, synchronizing it with the expansion and contraction of muscle activity. Air is the gateway between the mental and physical, and one principal concern in the practice of kata. Because of this element, kata is also an excellent source of oxygenating the body and cultivating ki (qi in Chinese-Mandarin) energy that has an incredibly positive therapeutic effect upon the body. In light of this deeper knowledge, we can see why kata is such an excellent way to keep the body electrically charged and physically tuned.

Finally, kata can be a provocative alternative in stress management. Such a practice not only increases one's ability to respond effectively to potentially dangerous encounters, it also empowers one to better deal with the enormous levels of stress we encounter in daily life. Learning how to respond dispassionately to unwarranted aggression requires self-empowerment. In short, kata serves to develop this attribute, along with a healthy body, fast reflexes and strong movements.

Problems of Today:

At the forefront of today's highly divided international karate community, there exists a growing number of concerned instructors anxious to better understand kata in its entirety. Sadly, this issue has given rise to unprecedented eclecticism rather than promoting an inward exploration of kata itself. Instructors making the transition from the competitive element to old-school learning, remain locked in a classical paradox. Perplexed by differences that separate competitive athleticism from civil self-defense, the real question surrounds how to make functional sense out of ritualized technique, what to hold on to and what to let go.

Traveling and teaching kata throughout the world over the past few years, I must concur with my American colleague, David Lowry, who wrote, "Those lacking a first hand acquaintance with them (kata) are unlikely to take such a respectful view of classical kata. They usually interpret them to be a sterile, mindlessly repetitive imitation with little relevance to real fighting. For those not involved intimately with them, the appearance of kata is of choreographed dance with rigidly set patterns devoid of any spontaneity." (Lowry, Sword & Brush).

It is only from an informed and inside perspective that one can begin to grasp the enormous and widespread benefit kata contains. Kata is truly a metaphor, as what one sees on the outside is never what lies within its package. What may appear on the surface to be robotic and impractical is actually a brilliant method of instruction, which, with adequate guidance, allows a learner to achieve omnipotent outcomes. Because the body has changed little in thousands of years, it would make sense that the corresponding application principles intertwined in these ancient ritualized forms are as effective today as they were in the beginning.


Beyond exhaustion and despite aching muscles, we have all experienced a peacefulness flowing quietly within the brutality of our kata training. Indeed, it is through this inner-tranquility that our pursuit of spiritual harmony is realized. By adhering to the precepts of Karatedo (1. Step by step improvement; 2. Constant learning & practice; 3. Temperance in all things; 4. Peacefulness of mind; 5. Honor the virtues of courtesy and respect) one comes face to face with one's weaknesses. Through these teachings, weaknesses are turned into strengths, and strengths into even greater strengths.

Throughout the ages, masters of karate have always maintained that this tradition conditions the body, cultivates the mind, and nurtures the spirit, compelling each learner to contribute to the welfare of humanity. Hence, the tradition fulfills its purpose. The source of human weakness is internal, not external. Discovering where the source of human weakness lies reveals the inner location in which all of our battles should be first fought and won before the art of karate can ever serve to improve the living of our daily lives. This message is far more important than the physical conduit through which it is achieved.

As we perfect ourselves through the study of this remarkable tradition, we are reminded to never again forget or remove the fight from within the kata. Not only is it the very source from which the art was cradled, but from it evolves the inherent lesson teaching us to respect, preserve and cherish life. As the wisdom of Funakoshi Gichin reveals: "The ultimate aim of karate lies not in victory nor defeat but in the perfection of the character of its participants."

About the Author:

If you've studied martial arts for more than a couple of years, chances are you've come across the name of Patrick McCarthy. Whether as a best-selling author of several books on karate history and practice, as a teacher on instructional tapes, or as an internationally recognized lecturer on old school Okinawan Karate and Kobudo, you'll find Patrick McCarthy's name throughout much of the martial arts world today. Canadian by birth, Kyoshi McCarthy began studying martial arts as a boy in the 1960's. His passion for karate-do led him to the North American open tournament circuit in the 1970's and '80's, where he became a top-ten rated competitor in kata (forms) kumite (fighting) and kobudo (weapons). Trained and accredited in Japan, he holds Yudansha licenses in Karate, Kobudo, Jujutsu, Kenjutsu, and Iaido.

In 1999 Patrick McCarthy established the world's first government accredited college-level martial arts teachers' program. Hosted by the Australian College of Natural Medicine, in Brisbane, the competency-based two-year program offers a Diploma of Martial Arts Instruction (MAI). Described as a "style-free" program, McCarthy says the course is aimed at preparing an instructor of karate, irrespective of style, to better understand the art through studying kata; the common fabric with which the art of karate-do is woven.

Interested parties may obtain more information on the College Program by contacting Kyoshi McCarthy c/o PO Box 420 Virginia 4014 Australia, emailing him at bugin@bigpond.com or visiting the website: "http://www.society.webcentral.com.au/" or writing directly to the College of Natural Medicine at 362 Water St. Fortitude Valley, Qld. 4000 Australia or emailing them c/o acnm@hotkey.net.au Australian residents can apply for AUS STUDY/VETEC funding, while foreign candidates can apply for student visas.

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