Ever since karate gained a foothold in the United States, the dojos that specialize in the tournament scene have attracted greater numbers of students than those that concentrate upon the long, slow study of the traditional artform. This is even more true now in the era of so-called “mixed” martial arts. The prevailing sentiment seems to be: Why bother with all the fancy forms? Why make punches and kicks pretty? Combat isn’t supposed to be pretty. What works is what matters.
This is just the latest iteration of an age-old rift within the fighting arts community, the “practical” guys on one side and the “artists” on the other. It’s no surprise the practical guys outnumber the artists. “What works” sounds so right. It sounds “duh” obvious.
And yet in dojo after dojo, it isn’t all just putting on the boxing gloves and wailing on one another. It isn’t all weight-training and abdominal crunches. A bunch of instructors, even in those tournament-oriented schools, are still teaching kata. Why?
Because “doing it pretty” is a powerful teaching tool.
Charles Darwin said that creatures of the earth have “a taste for the beautiful.” He mentioned it in evolutionary terms, of course. A female of a species finds a particular male attractive for some reason, and mates with him, leading to a perpetuation of whatever that attractive quality was. What I see is that beauty is a fundamental part of the way we interact with the world. When it comes right down to it, using beauty to teach combat techniques is in its own way “duh” obvious.
If at age nineteen I had walked into a tournament-oriented martial arts school instead of a college class in classical goju-ryu karate-do, I wouldn’t have lasted long. The thing that keeps students at most dojos hitting those punching bags and makiwara boards is competitive juice. They picture themselves moving up to the big time, becoming a champion, opening their own dojo, or at the very least, having the pleasure of One Good Day at a regular class session when they get to prove to that stuck-up brown belt with the sports car that he’s not actually God’s Gift.
I don’t have much competitive juice. Never did. I hate competition.
This is the point when “practical” players sneer. They hear the words, “I hate competition” and think it means, “I’m scared.”
Sorry. I don’t hate competition because I’m afraid. I hate it because it bores me.
As a muse, competition is flawed. It requires a person to measure his or her skill using an external gauge. That has always felt false to me. If I do well in a session of jiyu kumite (freestyle sparring), is it because I was great, or was it because my opponent’s performance sucked? Do I deserve credit in those instances when I just happened to be the player who was bigger, stronger, faster, or younger? If I do poorly, is it because I slipped up and used lousy technique, or was I simply matched up against a stronger, faster, younger opponent against whom I didn’t really have a chance?
If I’d hadn’t found a way to measure my progress that I could believe in, a way that felt real to me, I would’ve quit.
Beauty was what hooked me.
Imagine, for a second, we’re talking not about karate, but about playing a guitar. If all you do with a guitar is randomly pluck a string or strum a chord, it doesn’t really matter how well tuned the instrument is or how well you managed to manipulate the strings. No, you have to play a song — then you know how good you are.
As a karate player, I needed the equivalent of the songs. I found them in the form of kata. Drills were just drills and sparring was just a manifestation of testosterone. But kata? That’s when I understood that karate could be beautiful.
Every martial art can be done elegantly, but I saw right away that kata had something more. An intrinsic beauty. Something extraordinary happened on Okinawa over the centuries of its development. The others arts don’t have the equivalent of kata.
You probably want to tell me there are plenty of equivalents to kata in other artforms. I don’t agree.
A kata isn’t just a drill. It isn’t just a training routine. It isn’t spontaneous in content. In a kata, one proceeds through a specific sequence of moves. In all of the advanced kata — the kaishu gata, the ones from the old days before exposure to the general public required the leading instructors to develop simpler, preparatory kata — the moves are mostly combinations, not simple repetitions of one or two techniques. The number of steps, the sequence, the direction one faces, and the ending point, are precisely determined. It’s a song, and just as a jazz number can’t substitute for bluegrass and neither of them can substitute for a classical piece, kata is its own thing.
A buddy of mine once showed me the “set” he did as part of his Thai kickboxing regimen. He moved different directions and he performed an evolving set of techniques and he certainly — and quite impressively — exerted himself. I could see that what he was showing me was a superb way to build up cardiovascular stamina and sharpen his punches and kicks. But it wasn’t a kata. The choice of technique was something he decided upon on the spur of the moment. The number of moves he did was up to him — he told me the usual yardstick was to do it until he was winded.
I watched a group of wu shu practitioners do a routine during a festival in San Francisco’s Chinatown district. This was the closest I’ve seen to something that resembles Okinawan kata. It’s not surprising that this would be so, inasmuch as nearly all Okinawan kata are said to have originated in China and were only later brought to the island. But what the wu shu guys were doing was not a kata. Supposedly all eight of the practitioners I was watching were doing the same choreographed set, but some punched at chest level, others at midsection level. When they turned, the angles were loosely defined. This wasn’t just a matter of individual quirk, because the a given practitioner was inconsistent in the depth, power, speed, and angle compared to himself. It was plain to me that the variation didn’t matter. It wasn’t something required by the artform.
A kata, if done right, calls for precise cardinal or intercardinal-point angles. Ninety degrees. Forty-five degrees. A kata will often end on the same spot it began. The rhythm of the sequence is rehearsed. While there is room for spirit and interpretation, randomness has been expunged. A standard is in play for almost every aspect of the performance, much like there is a standard for a gymnastics routine in the Olympics.
Meeting that standard takes focus. The investment in attention is extraordinary. You’re not just “getting in and getting out” as you would in a tournament bout, forgiven for sloppiness if what you do succeeds in giving you a point. The trophy isn’t the goal. You have to force every part of your mind and your body to do something specific. When done right, it’s beautiful.
Now that I could relate to. That struck me as something worthwhile to achieve. I kept chasing that beauty. As class after class session went by and the colors of my belt evolved from white to black, karate kept being interesting. I didn’t have to compare my performance against someone else. I didn’t have to compete. I just had to pursue versions of the song that felt genuine, that adhered to the beat and key but still incorporated some of my own personality. You could say I was performing for nothing more complicated than to get better at performing.
And do you know what? All that effort inevitably meant my body became conditioned, my techniques became more refine, and my reflexes were sharpened. That transferred into sparring. Over time, the competitive aspects became interesting — even to me. My personal experience of jiyu kumite evolved until it wasn’t just a matter of getting a strike or a kick in, or blocking what was coming at me, but a chance to do all that beautifully.
What works is what matters. Duh.