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Kata in the Martial Arts


When we first walk into a martial arts school, most of us were pretty, well, how should I say it, dumb, or perhaps ignorant. We didn’t know a lot about our bodies, we didn’t know how to move it, how it reacts, how strong it is and how fragile it is. We are faced with a teacher who, over a period of years, has learned much about the human body and the various abilities and limitations it has. This teacher is challenged to find a way to impart what they know to you in a manner that your mind and body can handle. The goal is to find a way to transfer the knowledge of the teacher to the student.

The simplest thing to do is say, “Do what I do!” or perhaps “Follow me as best you can.” Repetition, doing the same movements over and over, strengthens the muscles and bones involved. And it builds a muscle memory. Memories of movements that your body will do without having to think about it, an automatic reaction.

Over the decades and centuries, certain patterns have been developed that help those learning the martial arts to focus their strength and thoughts and help them to learn about their bodies. Learning these basic patterns is the first step in most styles of the martial arts. You learn the basic pattern and while you are learning you may be told what the various movements represent.

These patterns are called kata. This is a Japanese term meaning mold, model, style, shape, or form. The kanji character used is a combination of three characters, meaning shape, cut, and ground. Literally a shape that cuts the ground. The historical basis of many of these katas help provide the sense of tradition and history of the styles. And it is the differences in the katas between the styles that helps us to see the similarities and the differences.

Eventually you learn the kata and can reproduce it consistently without thinking about every little movement. Once you can do the gross movement, then your instructor starts refining your movements. Your body can do much of the movement automatically while you concentrate on getting the correct arm placement, or pulling the elbow in, or whatever the particular piece is that you need to improve.

Many of the katas used in the martial arts today have their roots in ancient movements that were recorded and practiced for centuries. Some are relatively recent, created and modified to meet the modern environment. The history, the names and the patterns have significance, some of which has been lost in history. But the similarity of some of these patterns show a common heritage, regardless of the name they are using.

New students are started with very basic drills, one or two step combinations that help one learn to separate the steps and the arm movements, developing strength and focus. The movement, the turning and the kicks help develop balance and orientation. Isshinryu has the ten basic exercises. Shorin Ryu has the Kihon katas. The Korean styles start with Hyung katas.


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