Kata - art or science?

Kata assembly is of particular interest to me in relation not only to its ability to summarise technical information in an aesthetic, economical and balanced manner, but also in its ability to impart essential kinesthetic prinicples to the practitioner. In other words, kata should teach you how to move (taisabaki and tenshin), breathe, tense certain muscles, balance, focus, hold or shift centre of gravity etc.

Often enough the technical information can only be effected with an understanding and mastery of the kinesthetics taught by a kata. In some respects the subtle "understanding" one derives about one's own body mechanics from practising a kata over and over again feed directly into an understanding and ability to apply bunkai from the kata. The real genius behind the design of the kata is that they can all impart this knowledge if practiced correctly and frequently.

I get the feeling that those who designed the kata did so intuitively based on their own experience and expertise. I very much doubt any scientific or pseudo scientific calculations or methodologies were employed. If they were, it was after the construction of the kata, perhaps as a justification or explanation to those viewing or performing the result.

In this regard I see the kata as being very similar to poems. If you asked Shakespeare, Wordsworth, ee cummings etc why they wrote a poem a particular way, I doubt they would say something like "the iambic pentameter provided an uplifting rhythm while the onomatopoeia and assonance juxtaposed with the formal structure to achieve the effect", although someone else studying it later might deconstruct it along those lines.

In other words, it might be interesting to analyse whether a kata employs certain biomechanical/kinaesthetic principles (or, for that matter, whether it “flows along mandalas” or “stimulates charkas” etc.), however I doubt that this was in mind of the inventor, at least in a conscious way. Genius can rarely express its method with precision, merely its result.

Perhaps this is because humans employ a lateral thinking that is quite different from the linear logic of computers. And martial arts in particular rely on lateral rather than linear response. Consider for a moment whether your response to a sudden punch is logical (ie. "I think I will use a rising deflection followed by a mawashi zuki to respond to this attack") or intuitive/lateral/instantaneous.

I don't mean to suggest that an analysis of kata along the lines suggested is a waste of time - merely that it is an exercise in deconstruction, not reconstruction.

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic


  1. The prevalent theory on YA I've heard, and I don't think it is particularly out of the mainstream elsewhere, is that kata is the encyclopedia of your style.

    Personally, for an encyclopedia, it has some massive gaping holes somehow. Whether those come from lineage transmission loss or personal defects of the instructors, doesn't really matter in the end. For the end result is the same for the students.

    Some of them may have the competence to reverse engineer kata techniques and teach it or break it down into its components, but too many still treat it as some kind of special knowledge or as something you need to train in martial arts for 30 years to get. They cannot quite put it into words, what it is they do, which is of course sort of the point of transmission loss.

    A double genius at applying things in reality and also transmitting knowledge abstractly to other people, would be useful. But those aren't born every day. Partially because they also have to be made well.


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