Within the traditional martial arts, particularly the ones found in Asia, a good deal of the lessons are taught through forms. The term forms mean sequences that include preset movements and techniques that end in a given outcome. This is true for the majority of martial art styles that have existed for many decades, such as in Chinese styles like Hung Ga and Xing Yi, the Korean style of Taekkyeon, and the Indian style of Kalaripayattu. Japanese traditional martial arts, often labeled as kobudo (古武道), are no different. One of the reasonings behind forms is that they help to ingrain the given style’s movements and techniques into the body. This is important, for it not only helps the student to learn the essence of the martial art being studied and preserve it for future generations, but it keeps training partners safe. It takes a good deal of time to see the fruits of one’s labor in training through this method, but in the end the results tend to be solid.
While a good number of traditional martial art styles have a considerably long history where they have had a chance see use in conflicts, their effectiveness are being questioned as the years go by and countries around the world are seeing more times of peace. This is heavily contributed by modern martial arts, as these have gotten more exposure and gaining popularity. This is true especially for those systems that are used competitively, such as Sanda, Brazilian Jiujitsu, and Mixed Martial Arts. Some of the strong points of these modern systems include the following: shorter time of intense training yielding effective results, relatively simpler training methods and techniques for quicker understanding, and an emphasis in a muscular physique. While their effectiveness for actual conflict will not be questioned, the point I want to focus on is how the form-driven traditional martial arts are approached to be effective. While I’ve had abit of exposure to a few Asian styles, I will speak based on my ongoing experience with Japanese martial arts.
Forms in Japanese martial arts are called kata (型 or 形), while the term commonly used when studying kata is kata geiko (形稽古). Kata can range from being short sequences of, at times, 5 movements, to long sequences of over 10 movements. Within these sequences are intricate movements, principles, and basics that are essential for developing one’s foundation. At first glance kata can seem simple, sometimes to the point where you accept what is presented at face value. However, this is not the case, for a kata hold many lessons that one can study from and formulate many applications over the course of time. A teacher who has studied their art correctly can lead students to understanding this point.
Here’s a few steps one takes when studying kata in a traditional Japanese martial art. To note, the following is based on my experience over the years under qualified teachers and the results that came with it. In no way am I claiming that these steps are the only means to training in kata, for each individual school and style may utilize other steps that can produce the same results.
1) REPETITION: When given a particular kata, you should go through the motions in the kata many times as shown. Doing it a few times isn’t enough; the kata should be repeated hundreds of times. This can be done with a partner (if it calls for it) as well as solo. Those engaging in kata should take their time as they go through the motions, even when working with a fellow partner. The reasoning behind this is not only do you want to ingrain the movements into your body, but as you repeat the movements in the kata, a certain understanding should start to develop.
Over time you should gain more insight and proficiency in little things such as control, timing in execution, the dynamics in the footwork, and so on. Repetition is more than just muscle memory for the sake of doing the kata, but learning to discover what the kata is trying to teach you to do.
2) BUNKAI: At some point during kata geiko, you will start to do bunkai of the kata you are learning. Bunkai (分解) means “analyzation” or “breaking down”. Through bunkai, you generally will be shown, in details, what’s going on in the kata. It is more than just a visual explanation, but on a much deeper scale in regards to your responses (i.e. the movements you are doing) against an opponent’s movements. Reasoning behind the movements and the techniques used will be explained, along with the type of energy and intention behind the movements you should possess, as well as different scenarios they may play out in.
Usually, principles and lessons key to the art will be revealed through bunkai. As a better understanding of the given kata is acquired, you should start increasing the amount of intent used (between 30%-50% depending on one’s skill level) when practicing with a partner, as well as working to develop a smoother, yet unrushed, flow.
3) VARIATIONS: Depending on the particular martial system and its lineage, you may be taught variations of a kata. Variations serve several purposes, with one being to approach the same concepts and principles of the kata in question in a different light. There are different labels for variations, such as henka (変化) and ura (裏). In any event, variations may be handle the same as the original kata, such as being required to drill them consistenly, or shown as a supplement to emphasis specific points. Some variations are near identical to the original, save for a few moves in its ending sequences. Others may diverge in terms of appearance very close to the beginning, but retain certain principles and movements from the original kata. Then there are those that do not resemble the original kata, for they may be designed to approach the same situation with a completely different solution.
As a whole, variations are necessary to learn more about the toolset and lessons received from the main kata, and how they can be applied further against new obstacles. These should be treated with the same importance as the original kata, and be used during one’s practice to push you to learn how to handle changes in an opponent’s attacks.
4) FREE PLAY: As the name applies, you approach your kata geiko with training methods that grant abit more freedom and a chance to test your abilities. Free play is a coin term for different training methods that allow you to interact with your skills against others in a challenging fashion. Keep in mind that there are still rules when approaching this, with the biggest one being that you must use the art you are training in. Methods that fall under free play may have different names and rules depending on the martial system. One of these methods I work with is called randori (乱捕). What takes place in randori is a semi-free exchange between one person taking the role as a defender, while the other person assumes the role of an attacker. As the attacker presses on with different attacks, the defender has to use the skills and principles learned from kata and apply particular techniques to outbest the attacker, as a way to understand how things would work under more realistic circumstances.
Randori can be structured to allow for more or less freedom in the techniques one can use, as well as have a different number of attackers. Generally, the intent level used in this can exceed over 50% of what you would normally use in training, but never reaching 100%; although both students should feel like they are in a struggle, randori is still done in a controlled manner to avoid injuries.
As one can see from above, there are steps to use kata as a means to learn a particular style properly, as well as understand how to deal with conflicts. It does require a lot of time, on the other hand, but with almost everything in life that requires proficiency this is normal. Studying martial arts require a lot of effort and commitment, for a person is working to develop proficiency on a physical, mental, and (depending on the style) spiritual level that takes years to achieve. Even then, one must continue to refine one’s skills and understanding, for our body and mental state changes as we get older. One of the strong points about kata is that they retain the lessons to be learned as they keep the same components, yet are ageless in how these lessons can be applied with each generation.
There is a sense of responsibility one should be prepared to bear when studying traditional martial arts. It is more than just fighting, but the upkeep of the martial style through perfecting our abilities through kata, for we in turn represent the effectiveness of the style we sign up to learn.
This is just my thoughts and advice concerning kata used in martial arts. Hope it helps to shed some light for those who may question the necessity and use of them, and why it is used mainly in traditional martial arts.