We have written a number of different articles about karate, different styles, origin, effectiveness, and more, and probably in every single one of them, the word Kata has been mentioned. However, none of them specified what it is, nor what it means, its significance to the whole world of karate, its origin, or anything else. Karate Katas is an essentially important part of any karate journey, so for this reason, in today’s article, we bring you: what is Kata in karate?
Kata is the practice of performing sequences of specific karate moves, usually alone or in pairs in order to perfect the technique and fluidity of motion a karateka has.
There is more to it, however than just fluidity and good technique. Katas have a long history and deep philosophy behind them as well. Read on if you are interested in learning more about the origin or use of these seemingly weird but very important Kata drills!
What Is the Meaning of Kata in Karate?
Kata, which means “form” in Japanese is the term used to describe specific sequences of motion that are used to practice karate technique and execution. The interpretation and the process of analyzing, processing, and visualizing these techniques and their real-life use is called Bunkai.
There is a saying which goes around dojos, which says: “In karate, Kata is grammar, Kihon is the vocabulary and Kumite is a conversation.” Within this analogy, Kata means a sort of set of rules which is both very strict yet also can be analyzed, once a practitioner reaches a certain level.
Without getting deep into linguistics, we will talk a little about how this analogy actually makes a lot of sense, especially for the Kata part. The average person is not a master of the language grammar. They might know how to use grammar, but they have never studied the underlying principles and the foundational rules and relationships between syntactic and semantic expression thoórough language. In order for one to be able to re-write a grammar book, they need to be aware of all that it already contains, and just interpret it a different way, which, in the case that it makes sense for the person making the changes and possibly people around them as well, can turn into a new branch of grammar, or perhaps reframe grammar as a whole.
This is exactly the same as Kata. First, when you start training Katas in karate class, it is the part that you will hate probably, just like grammar. You will think that there is nothing interesting, exciting or fun about it and that it isn’t useful. However, when one becomes a master and has studied karate for a long enough time to understand what Katas are in-depth, they will see the beauty in it. The whole concept of Bunkai which we mentioned earlier rests upon this; the individual analysis and interpretations of masters and practitioners. What Katas mean in karate and what they represent is both the past and the tradition of the art as well as the future and the means for innovation. Kihon means the basic, fundamental building blocks like hits, punches, kicks, and blocks, while Kumite is the use of all of these, in active engagement with an opponent. Katas are what hold it together into art and create a platform for it to grow.
Why Is Kata Important in Karate?
There are multiple reasons why these almost ridiculous-looking (to the layman) choreographies are useful and essential for karate. A good case could be made that katas are actually the very heart and core of karate. Let’s see why.
First, it is the legacy and heritage. And not only the formal type of ceremonial legacy that masters sometimes ramble about, it isn’t only about “respecting the elders”, though that is also a very important part of it. The reason Katas are and always have been so very important is that they are the perfect way to keep a sequence of techniques for generations, mostly the ones that worked.
If you teach your child to draw, just in general, they will develop a new style and the one you painted will probably be lost, at least the technique of it for sure. Katas are a strict and precise series of movements which were the best way to document movements of previous masters who wanted to pass on their knowledge. Usually, this had to be done in secret, in order for other masters not to steal techniques or to hide them from oppressing tyrannical leaders or a variety of other reasons.
There are a couple of books that have been passed down generation by generation, which were about karate and martial arts in general, and the philosophy behind it. The problem is, however, that books cannot portray the motion as precisely as a documented Kata can. This is one of the reasons Katas have to be learned perfectly and precisely; to be able to pass on the knowledge.
Another reason that makes Katas very important is purely the technical part. Bruce Lee once said, “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”
This is the principle of Katas to some extent. The execution of a Kata will never be perfect, a Kata is a perfect ideal to tend towards and try to reach, but it is a constant inspiration for learning more and getting better and better at the given Kata, technique or move. Practicing the basic kicks, punches, or blocks hundreds and thousands of times through Kata training will help your body use the given technique in an automated fashion. By the time you practiced it for the 1000th time, you will have achieved such mastery of the given skill or technique that it will seem effortless yet be extremely powerful and precise. This is why, when you look at a newbie do Katas, they are unsure and nervous, while a master with lots of experience will do it as if it were one fluid motion, peacefully, with complete focus and near-perfect technique.
There are other reasons as well which make Katas really important, the next one being the physical training it provides. Not only does it develop the joints, tendons, and muscles for given techniques and thus makes you much more efficient at them and also a lot more precise and powerful. It also helps with incorporating the techniques practiced over and over again into the muscle memory, so that you can use the technique properly should you need it. If you go to a gym to train your bicep, you will probably do bicep curls and be done with it. You will be able to perform a good bicep curl, but the small muscles which are connected to the bicep won’t be as developed, since a bicep curl has no lateral motion or anything dynamic about it.
What a Kata does is create functional muscle. This means that the muscle groups, all with the small muscles and the big ones, including all the tendons and bones which have to do with karate will strengthen up. This is where you can start becoming a real formidable fighter since you might already be one from proper Kumite training, but the Katas are what give you your specific weapon, geared to perform at the utmost perfection.
The last aspect where the importance of Katas is great in karate which we want to talk about is the mental aspect. It is somewhat like meditation; it requires a completely mindful brain, one that is completely focused on every second of the Kata with unwavering attention. There is a sort of meditation philosophy centered around being completely aware of the present moment and focusing your attention on the activity being performed at the moment. It is a form of mindfulness. Being able to perform a Kata at a high level requires this sort of practice, and it isn’t an easy thing to pull off.
This sort of mental clarity which is pursued has overall amazing effects on mental health and is also necessary for the mastery of karate because it is instrumental in perfecting one’s own style and movements.
All-in-all, Katas are absolutely some of the most important parts of karate, aside from Kumite and Kihon. It preserves karate, it helps in the diverse analysis of techniques and the emergence of different types of the art which are basically different interpretations of some original techniques and Katas, sometimes mixed with other martial arts.
How Many Katas are There in Karate?
There are all different types of karate out there. There is Shotokan, there is Goju-Ryu (which we wrote a whole separate article about), Uechi-Ryu, and a lot more. These all differ from one another, usually in the core principles of fighting and also in the places they take inspiration from. All these differences necessitate different sets of Katas as well. We will go through some of the basic karate styles and how many Katas they have.
Shotokan karate, the most widespread form of karate and the one founded by Gichin Funakoshi, probably the most popular legendary master of the art, traditionally contains 26 Katas. This is nowhere near the art with the most Katas, which is Shito-Ryu, with an astounding 94 karate Katas. The reason it has so many Katas is that the founder of this style, Kenwa Mabuni studied under various types of masters, some of whom were traditional Okinawan fighters, while some were more Kung-fu-oriented masters. He wanted to combine all of it into one art, which means that there are a bunch of Katas, all combined into one art.
Goju-Ryu, one of the most effective martial arts types has 12 Katas traditionally, though some schools prefer to split one of the Katas, the Sanchin Kata into two parts. Regardless, the standard and core Katas make up a collection of 12. A sibling style of Goju-Ryu, the Uechi-Ryu has only eight, and those eight overlap in many places with the Goju-Ryu Katas, with slight differences like the emphasis, placed more on speed than power when executing a movement.
How to Do Karate Kata?
Now that we have covered the philosophy and the fundamentals behind karate Katas and also their significance in shaping the world of karate, we can move on to a more practical topic, which is how to do karate Katas. The fact is, the best way to learn karate Katas is by visiting a local dojo, signing up for classes, and taking them. There, you will have a first-hand experience of doing Katas from a person (instructor or master) who has probably been training karate and its Katas for the past couple of decades. This will not only give you a better way to learn but also a faster one since real-life speech and demonstration will be a lot faster than trying to learn something through a manual or a video.
The second best way, if you do not have a karate dojo nearby, is videos on the internet and blogs. There are quite a lot of valuable karate books, websites, videos, and much more available online, and even though this will never give you the same expertise as a real master would, it is still a great option. However, it is much better if you use the information available on the internet much more as a way to expand your knowledge and not to set the basics that way. You cannot learn a martial art through the internet, only better some parts of it or study deeper about something.
The last and least effective way is through books. Even if they are illustrated, Japanese, and written by grandmasters of the art, you will never learn any Kata only by reading a book and seeing a couple of images. The only people who are able to read manuscripts and other old and traditional karate manuals are the masters, who have a pretty good idea of what the authors of the given texts were thinking about. If you want to learn a Kata from the start, a book will probably be the worst way to do it.
Now somewhat more precisely, how do you actually execute a Kata training. The training session in which you practice and learn Katas always must start with a warm-up, preferably with karate stretching and flexibility methods and exercises. Katas, though they do not seem as intense as Kumite, are very physically demanding to perform, even the basic and beginner ones require a level of flexibility, stability, and strength. Starting a Kata without warming up beforehand can be dangerous, since you can easily injure muscles, tendons, or bones in your body, even break or tear them.
After the warm-up, you can start executing the Kata of your choice. Now, we cannot really describe how a Kata looks, since they are long and technical to describe in text. However, what we can do is tell you a couple of basic ideas present in all Katas and a couple of basic stances.
As a white belt, you are most likely going to learn of the five basic stances, which cover the beginning of most Katas. There is the Ready Stance (Heiko dachi), Short Fighting Stance (Han Zenkutsu dachi), Long Forward Stance (Zenkutsu dachi), Horse Riding Stance (Kiba dachi), Sumo Stance (Shiko dachi). All these stances have their own functions, which are already suggested by their names. Even though there are multiple different names for these stances in different countries, dojos, and styles, the basic form is mostly the same.
From these stances, you will go on to perform strikes, hand movements which resemble blocks, holds or locks, kicks, and stance- or position-changes. One of the most important elements of Katas is also to be able to string together all the elements it is made up of, so that the fighting is fluid and natural, and eventually gets burnt into the muscle memory.
Performing a Kata is all about trying to focus as much as possible, without losing mobility and fluid functionality. Many beginner students tend to squint their eyes in concentration, but move in clumsy ways. The ultimate goal is to be able to be completely focused on the Kata yet perform it with great mastery, with speed, precision, power, and fluidity.