Friday, March 23, 2007

Using Kata in a Fight - Keep It Simple

This post was brought up in a discussion I was having at regarding the usefulness/uselessness of kata.

This question was raised to me after I mentioned the fallacy of using people who train kata but fight poorly as evidence for the uselessness of training kata (mistaking correlation with causation, to put it in statistical terms):

Could you offer some information regarding ways to make kata training more applicable to self defense and enhance fighting ability? We could go back and forward saying we think kata is good or bad over and over (which has already happened a bit in this thread). But I would be interested in hearing from those who are experienced in making kata work, and what it is in the training that sets them apart from the "doing kata for fun" crowd.

My response:

I said it in my first post in this thread, but keep things simple. Based on everyone's responses to it, this was misinterpreted pretty much as "people who do kata are just doing fancy things so don't waste your time memorizing useless kata". That's not what I said.

Chibana Sensei always used to say that if you had to change the movement of your kata to match your meaning, or the meaning to match the movement, then your meaning is usually wrong. (For background, "meaning" or "imi" was the word most commonly used to describe what a movement meant in a kata. The word bunkai is a relatively newer phenomenon.) In other words, how you move in the kata is how you move in a fight. There is no point in continuous repetition of a move that you are going to do completely differently in a fight. There is the obvious slight modification due to your opponent's size, etc., but the core movement is the same. The core process of what you do and how your body does it is the same.

Chibana Sensei taught three different levels of technique within the kata, pretty much younger kids, high school, and advanced. The thing is, even the "advanced" techniques weren't mystical pressure point manipulations or 3-step grappling maneuvers. The advanced part usually meant the technique was just more vicious and permanently injurious/fatal than the "basic" techniques. What people fail to ultimately realize is that there are no advanced techniques, only advanced execution of basics. A lot of times, that block is just a block, that punch is just a punch. What made them worthwhile to practice was that the kata taught you exactly the proper posture, stance, movement, and timing necessary to give you a punch that would knock someone out cold in one shot or a block that would literally floor your opponent.

The sad part is, most people can't punch or block with enough effectiveness to end a confrontation with a single technique. It has got to the point where even the idea itself is considered ridiculous. Most people give up on the idea entirely. Therefore, they have to invent new meanings for moves in the kata, since their attachment to kata remains, even if they can't fight effectively using it. Currently, there is an intense interest in grappling, so you see all these hidden grappling techniques taught, some of them bordering on absurdity in their complexity. I'm fairly sure the Pinan kata weren't formulated to end up with an armbar on the ground. But you will find many enlightened kata analysts who can modify the technique in a kata so it bears a passing resemblance to the movement, but is something entirely different altogether. Again, if you're not going to train the same execution as you would use in a fight, you're doing something wrong.

There is grappling in karate, don't get me wrong. We have a fair number of throws, a few joint locks, and the odd choke every now and then. But usually a "super secret hidden technique" is more often a simple grab to the ear with one hand, the throat in the other, and a turn which facilitates the throw. Very simple and effective, yet often overlooked because the meaning couldn't possibly be that basic. Like it or not, the mainstay of karate is striking. Grappling is just a bonus used upon convenience or necessity.

Again, because there is the lack of ability to generate pure destructive power from very simple techniques, people insert extra things into the kata, both analytically and physically as they alter the movements or how they do them. At this stage, the kata lost connection with their roots and anyone attempting to keep the kata simple would only have weak basics. It is a sadly vicious cycle and not one that anyone can mend other than having the fortune to train with those who truly learned the basic methodologies of those who have passed down the kata with only minimal individual modification.

If one reads between the lines, you can guess how much I feel even the majority of traditional karate meets my above criteria. I have my doubts as to how many people are afforded even the opportunity to learn good kata under an instructor who can teach what needs to be taught. All the same, there is no doubt in my mind that kata is an effective training tool for fighting.

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Monday, March 12, 2007

Meeting up on the Mainland

On a recent business trip out to the East Coast, I met up with Ed Tiller, a long-distance student of my instructor. After living here in Hawaii since last October, the East Coast cold was not exactly my idea of nice weather, but the warm reception by Ed and his family more than made up for my ruined plans of not seeing snow at all this year. Like me, he is a former Shorinkan Shorin Ryu practitioner with the fortune of discovering Nakata Sensei, so some of our training background is very similar.

Ed was generous enough to pick me up on the first night from my hotel near Baltimore and drive me out to his residence over 70 miles away. There, I met his wife and two younger daughters and we had a pleasant dinner which left me satisfied but wishing I could make salmon that delicious. Before and after dinner, Ed and I went through some kata and kept each other on our toes as to what we probably should and should not be doing. Afterwards, Ed dropped me off at my hotel and I realized he must do an awful lot of driving every day.

The next day, I met him halfway and we drove out to the community center where he conducts a kids class followed by an adults class. It was refreshing to have the rare opportunity to meet others training with the same methodology. I really enjoyed "teaching" the class, although it was more of me giving observations and advice while providing a heavy dose of disclaimers as we did kata together. Come to think of it, I suppose that is teaching after all. So much did I enjoy myself, I regretted not having more time to spend training with Ed and his students when class ended. After practice, we swung by Ruby Tuesday's to grab a bite to eat and then went our separate ways.

While I enjoyed myself immensely, it highlighted the level of understanding necessary to put each detail of our methodology into clear and concrete terms. Not just in theory and on paper, but in actual practice. I also learned much more about why Sensei has us rotate out during kata so that we can test and correct everyone else. Of course, correcting my seniors is a little difficult since their mistakes aren't that obvious to me...

At any rate, I would like to extend my gratitude to Ed Tiller, his family, and his students for having me and I wish you all the best of luck in your training.

For those of you in OSKA wanting to know more about Ed, he has assured me that he will post his introduction on the mailing list soon. Hah, the pressure is on!

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