Really USING your kata


In my previous articles (eg. "Kata as a vital training tool" and "Applying forms in combat") I discuss the function and usefulness of kata in general terms. But can a discussion about kata ever move from general statements to more specific examples? I will try:

Kata as a comprehensive catalogue

It is my view that kata provides a means of cataloguing the techniques and, more importantly, the principles of traditional martial arts like karate. In this regard, kata is (and I feel should be) the mainstay of karate. Your kata should comprise, as far as possible, a comprehensive catalogue of the techniques/principles of your art, providing a neat and efficient mnemonic for remembering (and practising) all your techniques or principles.

This is to be contrasted with a system which might have hundreds, if not thousands, of “stray” techniques/drills that have no particular order or hierarchical structure. In this context, the desirability of having, say, 10-12 kata which comprehensively summarise one’s art should be obvious.

Our first kata, fukyugata ichi (a variant on Shoshin Nagamine’s kata of the same name and the shorin ryu kata pinan nidan/heian shodan). While it is quite basic, it nonetheless teaches some very sound principles

Of course kata can’t realistically catalogue all techniques: Some (such as ground fighting or other grappling skills) are hard to effect on a “solo” platform.

For this reason, while I teach a kata-based system I am also happy to supplement the kata with various 2 person drills.

I do however make every effort to connect my 2 person drills with the kata.

Kata-related striking drills

For example, each of our kata has a 2 person “striking” form associated with it which we call an “embu” (demonstration). The embu don’t attempt to put every single kata application in a 2 person context since the applications are far too numerous. Rather, the purpose of the embu is to embody and demonstrate (hence the name "embu") as many of the essential principles of evasion, deflection and counter attack as are taught (or implied) by a kata - and to do so in a 2 person form.

As discussed above in my article "The 'oh shit!' moment: more about 2 person forms" our embu take the form of a looping cycle of mutual destruction along the lines of the “rock/paper/scissors” game. Why? As I have mentioned in that article, one of the most important factors in the striking arts is, in my opinion, understanding the process of “conversion” or change (within the meaning of the baguazhang classic text, the Yi Jing or Book of Changes).

Very rarely does one get a chance to complete a technique. Mostly one’s strikes are intercepted, evaded or otherwise interfered with. In the melee to which I have frequently referred, fighting is typically chaotic. Understanding the process of change is central to understanding this chaos and converting it to your advantage.

However most karate-based 2 person striking drills I see out there suffer from 2 essential problems:
  1. They bear no relationship at all the the kata of the particular school, making their inclusion in the syllabus ad hoc.

  2. They have little to no emphasis on understanding the process of change; rather they comprise what I have previously called "attack strings" - ie. where you get to execute (and complete) a wide variety of counter attacks against a largely stationary and/or non-resistant partner. Where your partner does resist, this resistance is token or unrealistic (at least in the sense that it does not comprise an optimal answer to your counter attacks).
It is my opinion that in order to be truly useful to a traditional karateka (ie. one who is using a kata-based system), a 2 person drill must address both of the above issues.

The inclusion of (sometimes) hundreds of ad hoc 2 person drills raises the questions: Why bother with kata in the first place when your system is really found in these myriad 2 person drills? In what way does kata still form the mainstay of such a system?

And while attack strings can be useful, they are not sufficient to provide a platform for learning how to use techniques in a free-form environment like sparring: you just aren't ever going to get the chance to complete such attack strings. They can look and feel very impressive; nothing is quite as satisfying as "bulldozing" your way through an opponent with a flurry of unanswered, chained attacks. But such as scenario bears no resemblance to how most people fight - no matter how advanced they might be. The only time you can execute such a series of chained attacks is once your opponent is "on the ropes", so to speak (ie. he or she is utterly and totally overwhelmed and can no longer put up any effective resistance). And pressing your attack once your attacker is so overwhelmed is both legally problematic and morally questionable.

In my view, if you are serious about civilian defence your time is better spent:
  1. learning effective defence in the form of deflections/blocks and evasion; and
  2. understanding how your counters might be thwarted and ensuring that you can deal with this moment of "change".
The latter is the very essence of exerting some sort of control in a chaotic environment - and turning the situation to your advantage. If you doubt me, think of your last sparring match (or, if you've been unlucky, civilian defence encounter) and consider what went wrong (not what went right!): the punches that didn't land, the throw that you mis-timed, the lock from which your partner/opponent wriggled free. Improving your performance means understanding what went wrong - and making sure it doesn't happen again. One learns principally from one's mistakes - not so much from one's triumphs.

Accordingly I believe 2 person forms should attempt to provide each side with optimal defences and optimal counters. This means that if your opponent in a civilian defence encounter does anything less than optimal, you will have covered all your bases.

We use the "rock/paper/scissors" paradigm to effect this result: we take kata principles and apply them to create these optimal defences and counters for each side. Yes, you are grooving a "rehearsed response" - but when it is an optimal one, why not? And what better way of applying movements from kata in sparring (as opposed to doing your "usual", favourite techniques - which might default to what I've called faux boxing)? I have yet to see an attack string applied in sparring, but I see the principles of our embu applied by our students whenever they spar. Maybe not neatly and cleanly - but the more experienced they are, the better the principles are evidenced.

The "rock/paper/scissors" format is not a recent innovation: xingyiquan - arguably China's oldest extant fighting system - has enshrined this principle in its 5 elements (which have a "destructive" and "constructive" cycle along these lines: see my article "Cracking the xingyi code"). This training format might not be "sexy", but it works.

Which poses the question: what sorts of kata principles are implemented in our embu?

Some tenshin from fukyugata which is used in our embu for the same form

I think a good starting point is the footwork / body movement: one should work from the ground up, and the footwork (ashi sabaki) and general body movement (taisabaki) directly from, and implied by, the kata should provide your foundation.

The term that encapsulates both footwork and body movement is called "tenshin" (evasion). We base our kata bunkai (applications) directly on the tenshin from, and implied by, the kata - so why not the embu?

Our embu based on the fukyugata forms. You will note that it departs substantially from fukyugata ichi, being an advancement on that kata and fukyugata ni: it starts to apply the principles of evasion (tenshin) from, and implied by, the kata some of which are set out in the previous video.

The added benefit of encapsulating such foot/body work in a new form is that this extra (implied) material is catalogued in much the same way as the lead principles are catalogued in the kata itself.

For this reason I'm not terribly concerned that the embu does not "look just like the kata". In fact, I'm glad it doesn't. As I've said previously, minor variations in the kata sequence are largely pointless. If you're going to have a new drill based on the kata it must add value: it must act as a supplementary catalogue, not a restatement of the initial catalogue.

Creating 2 person forms that have slavish adherence to the original kata template suffer from one further problem: Most, if not all, karate kata were not designed for 2 person performance. The examples I've seen of "forced" 2 person adaptations are so artificial, so unlike "real fighting", that they are of questionable worth. Yes, they can provide some basic (kihon) training - but nothing over and above kata practice and basic kihon and sandan kumite (basic pre-arranged attacks and defences in basic stances). [In this regard I invite you to compare our gekisai embu with the traditional Shoreikan gekisai 2 person form illustrated in my article "The 'oh shit!' moment: more about 2 person forms".]

Kata-related grappling drills

I have also devised a 2 person grappling drill for each kata, utilising its biomechanical and kinaesthetic principles. Each drill can be applied either standing or (with some minor adaptation) on the ground.

The standing lock flow of fukyugata. The various locks and holds utilise the biomechanical principles inherent in movements such as the hammerfist and jodan/age uke.

I have structured our own grappling drills so that they take the form of lock flows – ie. a series of locks that flow one into another along the lines of the opponent’s predicted “escape path”. Compare this to the striking 2 person striking drills discussed above which take the form of a “rock/paper/scissors” type exchange.

The ground lock flow of fukyugata. Note how the movements have been adapted to ground use but retain their essential biomechanical structure.

Why would a grappling drill not take a “rock/paper/scissors” form?

Quite simply, locks (and grappling techniques generally) rely on a far greater efficacy of application – predominantly because they have to “hold”, at least for more than an instant. A punch to the face is a punch to the face; in a particular instant it either works or it doesn’t. A lock has to restrain, set up for a counter or to break a joint. In any of these cases, it has to be held for more than the mere instant it takes to punch/strike/kick. Accordingly locks place a premium on getting it exactly right – so that it works. Correspondingly they place a premium on ensuring you know what to if (or when) the lock weakens and your opponent slips out of your lock. This necessitates understanding the lines of escape to which I have previously referred.

Adding kata to "plug the gaps"

I've spoken about how, ideally, your kata will provide a comprehensive catalogue of techniques. But what if your kata simply don't contain all the techniques you might need?

In our system we have adopted kata to address such issues. An example would be my brother’s and my adoption of the naihanchi/naifunchin/tekki kata.

Some naihanchi/naifunchin/tekki bunkai

Naihanchi/naifunchin is so unlike goju that it was an obvious choice for addition to our system. The bunkai above detail some locks and other grappling techniques that we feel are congruent with the biomechanics of the kata. Put them together along the "lines of escape" and you get the lock flow below:

The tenshin (body evasion) implied by naihanchi/naifunchin is even more unique, facilitating a very different 2 person striking drill or embu. However, this is something upon which I shall have elaborate another time.

The naifunchin embu which is based on a foundation of the implied tenshin or taisabaki using the kiba dachi (horse stance).

In other cases we have collated stray techniques into entirely new forms, namely my 2 nagegata forms which comprise collations of stray qin na and throws from my studies in the Chinese systems.

The second of my nagegata forms: note some of the applications below.

Some applications of the nagegata kata: to perform the throws correctly, learning the footwork in isolation is a must.

Wing chun's muk yan jong (the wooden dummy form) provides yet another example of a form we've added to "plug a gap" in our arsenal. And so it goes...


Accordingly, while the “holy grail” of a “complete” kata-based system is probably not achievable, the desirability of encapsulating as much as possible in your kata is not lessened by this observation.

Furthermore, kata can and should can be supplemented by drills - however these should be kata-derived or related as much as possible for the kata-based system to have any real function. Stray or ad hoc techniques should be kept to a minimum, otherwise the whole function of kata as a cataloguing tool is undermined.

And where your kata don't cover all the principles you feel are essential, nothing should stop you from adding a kata or katas that you feel would "plug" this gap.

So, for kata to be truly useful, you need to use them. If kata are just some kind of anachronism - a like a quaint vintage car you pull out of your garage for the odd Sunday rally - then you might as well abandon them altogether in favour of a non-kata based system.

Copyright © 2010 Dejan Djurdjevic


  1. Hi, Ian Abernathy's new web site led me here and for that I am grateful. Your view and discussion on using kata is great, thanks!

  2. My pleasure Charles - I'm glad you find my blog interesting.

  3. Totally agreed. Kata is the great but understood base of martial arts. You are pretty much the only person I'm aware of that shares the same idea about kata being used for the learning of principles.

    Everyone else says they teach you how to fight...uh no. lol They teach you the tools and princples, only someone who knows how to fight can teach you how to fight.

  4. I agree Joshua - kata is about the tools and principles.

    The kata-related 2 person drills that I teach are also "tools". They enable you to apply kata principles in sparring - yet another tool.

    Real fighting is something different again. Having the right tools is a good start, but it is only the start.


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