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Learning Kata - Phases

When a student is learning kata, it is important that he learn each movement very precisely. Each movement, each stance, each sequence, etc. must be learned exactly.

It is like learning your alphabets in pre-school. The letter "A" must come first, then the letter "B", etc. The letters must be in the proper order. There is a proper sequence to the strokes for each letter. The student must learn the upper case and lower case versions.

At this phase, the student is memorizing the letters -- or the kata.

It takes me a long time to learn kata. I cannot learn by watching the kata just a couple of times. I have to go over it again and again. Sometimes it take me months. But then I will remember it pretty much forever. Sometimes students who learn quickly also forget quickly. When I learn a kata, it goes into my long term memory.

But once the "learning" phase is over -- by this I mean the phase of learning the details and sequences of the kata -- then there are other learning phases. The student has to learn what each and every movement of the kata means (bunkai or imi). How can each movement be used in the event of an attack? How can the movements be combined? What works best?

When movements are combined, they are like words. When we use words during conversation, the assumption is that we know that they mean. Otherwise we are just making "baby talk" or gibberish.

In the same way, when we perform a kata, the assumption is that we know what each movement in the kata means. Otherwise, what are we doing?

Another phase has to do with body dynamics, movement, alignment, flow, etc. This entails learning how to do the kata -- not just how each movement should look. If you took photographs of a kata, you would probably have movements 1, 2, 3, though 25 or whatever. There are 25 movements in this kata.

But really, there are thousands of movements. How do you get from movement 1 to movement 2? This is a process. You have to shift your weight, move your center of gravity, move your feet, change the alignment of your body, and execute the technique that ends up as movement 2. Between each movement there are a world of movements!

A beginner must learn movements exactly. An advanced student must learn things generally. It is not enough to "know" a particular movement. You have to know all movements that are within the same same range of movement. If a kata provides for a punch to the chest, you have to be able to punch at any height. You have to be able to improvise.

Advanced students have to learn to break from from the structure of kata. That said, they will continue to use that structure as a reference.

I was asked to perform Gojushiho at my friend's dojo. When I finished the kata, I was facing the wrong direction. I have no idea how that happened. I realize that I must have made a wrong turn (or forgot to turn), but I was "zoned out" during the kata. I was more occupied with the flow and feel of the kata rather than the specifics.

If a beginner makes a mistake in a kata, they usually get embarrassed. They are still learning the details.

When an advanced student makes a "mistake" in a kata, I wonder what they were seeing in their mind? Did the attacker move? Did the terrain change?

Honestly, when I make a mistake in a kata, I think it is funny!

If I am practicing with my Sensei and he makes a mistake in kata, it is not a mistake. If he punches twice rather than three times, I will do the same. I will perform the kata as he does it. He is the Sensei and I am the student. If he changes from one kata to another in the middle, I will do the same. It would be like a singer switching from one song to another.

My Sensei cannot make a mistake in kata. He does the kata, I follow. If he switches kata in the middle and I continue with the first kata, then I am the one making the mistake.

If my Sensei asks, "Did I make a mistake?", I would say, "Oh, did you?"

When you are in pre-school, you should be printing the alphabet. But when you are in college, you should be writing essays or even books!

I went to college for 8 years. I have been practicing Karate for much longer than that! What forms of expression should my kata take?


Charles C. Goodin