Kata techniques as "stem cell movements"


I have often spoken of kata as teaching "principles" rather than "techniques". It occurs to me that one of the best ways to illustrate what I mean is by reference to the most "basic" kata in karate. Why these kata? Because even if they are less "realistic" than more advanced kata, the methodology remains the same: they achieve their effect through "principles" not through "actual technique".

In this regard it is important to note that kata are not intended to comprise "shadow boxing" routines with movements you would (or should) actually use in a civilian defence situation.

Rather kata put your body through specific movements designed to promote motor learning and essential kinaesthetic awareness.

This kinaesthesia and motor learning is central to so many different aspects of martial technique that I often compare these "fundamental" movements to to stem cells: ie. they are "elemental" movements that can be applied in umpteen different actual techniques.

"Basic" kata

So what do I mean by "basic" kata? Well essentially these are the opposite of those that contain movement I have previously described as "advanced". Regular readers will recall that I have defined this to mean “movement that is harder to learn” or “learning that relies on what has already been learned”.

Clearly a beginner can find every movement in a completely new physical discipline hard to acquire (consider a beginner learning to play a piano, golf or tennis). So practice catered to beginners should focus on the most elemental movements only – movements which, once mastered to a sufficient degree, will permit the learning of other, more sophisticated, movements. This essentially means gradually shifting focus from gross motor skills to more and more subtle and sophisticated ones.

Examples of kata that are the most "elemental" include the various "kihon" and "taikyoku" kata. However I don't propose to examine these in any detail: Not only are they fairly modern innovations, they are arguably also so "simplified" that they are relevant only to the grossest motor learning – ie. the kind befitting young children. Since this blog is geared primarily toward adult learning and has an overwhelmingly adult readership (are any kids reading this?) I propose to start my examination one level up from this.

So the next level of "basic" kata are the more "traditional" beginner kata. In the Naha te tradition these have included gekisai ichi and ni as formulated by Chojun Miyagi. In the Shuri and Tomari te tradition these have included kata such as the Shoshin Nagamine's fukyugata ichi (fukyugat ni being another name for gekisai ichi) and Anko Itosu's heian/pinan kata – in particular the simplest of these, namely the kata known as "heian shodan" or "pinan nidan".

A video where I discuss "stem cell" movements in kata

In this article I particularly want to focus on the last of these (which we practise in the Academy of Traditional Fighting Arts with hybrid elements from fukyugata ichi). For the purposes of this article I will call this kata "heian shodan" (as per Gichin Funakoshi's renaming of the form) and I will focus on movement typically found in Funakoshi's Shotokan system. Why? Because it is commonly held that Funakoshi "simplified" the kata even more than their traditional "Shorin" form. It is this "basic" movement that I wish to examine so as to show that it still teaches vital principles in the form of fundamental motor learning - even if the movements appear inherently "unrealistic".

Straight out of the "blocks": a principle to help you deal most efficiently with attacks - of all kinds

I have had many prospective students approach me over the years saying they don't want to learn such "basic" kata; they tried it once (as kids), didn't enjoy it and didn't see the point of it. They want the "good stuff".

Yet right from the first movement, a kata like heian shodan teaches you vital fundamental principles for coping with the most challenging, committed attacks. Let us consider the opening move:

The kata move involves a step in towards your opponent, followed by a turn and a downward block. Many beginners have asked me over the years what in the world this is good for. Assuming it is a defence against a low attack (eg. a kick) what possible use could it be? It seems to envisage one walking straight into a kick, with forearm meeting shin bone! Indeed, this is precisely what someone lampooned on Youtube some time ago (prompting my response article titled: "Low 'blocks' against kicks – are they ridiculous").

But on closer inspection, this isn't at all what the kata is teaching you to do. In my next article I'm going to examine exactly what is technically wrong with this "analysis" of the opening move of heian shodan. (Essentially, there are layers of subtlety in how the "entry" can "wedge" you into an attack through using the form of the kata. If you want a quick idea of what I mean, you can examine my video embedded above.)

In the meantime I'll just make the following observation:

This whole analysis proceeds on a rather "literalist" assumption: that the kata is trying to teach you a physical technique, not a principle of martial movement.

If the kata is trying to teach the latter, what is this "principle"? Very simply it is this:

Against a powerful technique (be it a kick or a cross or whatever) your best chances often lie in moving directly into your opponent - not away!

This is what some call "seizing the initiative" - which you should of course do wherever ever possible.

Forward vs. offline movement

I previously discussed how karate and other traditional martial arts often train to modify the flinch reflex. While this often involves moving your body back with arms moving out, it is equally true that one should, from an early stage, start learning proactive movement forward into the opponent. This is because, in my experience anyway, beginners often blunder forwards naturally anyway (ie. they don't actually have much of a timely "recoiling flinch" reaction at all!). Only once they have been hit a few times do they start to flinch backwards with some urgency!

So the "first" kata starts with the assumption that you can and should start teaching forward movement.

Later kata teach some off-line evasion.

And still later, the highest expression of evasion returns to movement directly into your opponent. So it is that the "first" and "most basic" kata is also the most "advanced" in many other respects: it contains lessons that are applicable right to the end of your martial journey.

I remember being told that Funaksoshi taught that "heian shodan is the only kata you need for self defence". For many years I thought this was really stretching things a bit. Surely other kata were more sophisticated – more "advanced", more "practical", more "realistic" – you name it! But I have really come full circle in this respect. Yes, other kata and techniques are going to be important, if not vital. But in terms of fundamental lessons that will remain pertinent from your first days in martial arts to your last, this kata still features one of the most important such lessons, namely this:

If you can do it, moving into your opponent is often preferable to moving away.

If you move away from your opponent, you simply delay the inevitable further attack. By contrast, moving into your opponent can be the quickest, most efficient way to neutralise an attack (assuming you have the time and opportunity to do so).

Differences between beginner and advanced training of the same movement

It is important to remember that while the principles of traditional martial arts remain the same regardless of your experience, how they are practised and applied (in class or even in the "street") will vary necessarily depending on a student's level of "advancement".

In other words, the opening move of heian shodan might well contain the general approach (entering) that both beginner and master will want to adopt. But how the beginner and master manifest this principle is going to be quite different.

[Again, I will illustrate this more in my next article!]

It is for this reason that the kata do not and should not contain a "literal" movement. To do so would buy into the myth of the value of what Bruce Lee called "rehearsed routines". I have yet to see anyone ever "pulling off" such a routine. It just doesn't happen.

So many people scoff at the suggestion that "the downward block is against a kick" for the reason that "people don't often kick in the street". But they are missing the point. Apart from the fact that "soccer-style" roundhouse kicks to the legs do occur (even as young prosecutor early 90s I remember noting that many attacks at, say, the train station involved such kicks), the actual attack is really quite irrelevant to your practice precisely because you're not rehearsing a routine.

What is being taught here is the principle of entering – nothing more and nothing less. Trying to create a "realistic scenario" was, I believe, very far from the kata designer's (I think Itosu's) mind. It was as far from his mind as teaching someone to write a complex novella is to someone instructing a child in forming letters. The student is acquiring kinaesthetic and motor skills – not rehearsing how you might apply these skills to write a story at some later point.

Accordingly, in this respect it matters little whether the student is imagining a kick or punch – or whether he or she isn't imagining any particular attack at all. The value is in learning to move into a hard and fast attack without hesitation.

The value of kick defences for learning how to "enter"

For what it's worth, a kick is particularly good for training to do this. Why? Because legs are heavy and powerful – much heavier and more powerful than any punch. If you can learn not to flinch backwards against a kick, you'll be far more likely to learn not to flinch backwards against a punch. This has been my experience as both student and teacher.

I have almost no doubt that this is precisely the thinking underlying so many "low blocks" in karate kata (particularly the more "basic" ones). You aren't learning a literal "technique": you're using a particularly "momentum heavy" attack (the kick) – one that leads to "backward flinching" more than any other – as a means of adding "urgency" or "resistance" to your practice so that you can better learn to move forward into your opponent (even when it is the last thing you would "naturally" do as an untrained person).

The kick lets you do this with relative safety (a few bumps and bruises aside). The only other way to train this is to include a level of speed, penetration and commitment to punches for which beginners (and even intermediate students) are not really ready (in terms of safety, that is).

Sadly, some senior martial practitioners I've encountered over the years have by-passed this sort of training entirely in their careers. Yes, they've done "hard dojo sparring" – but this has generally involved "faux boxing", with the practitioners defaulting to some unconscious and unrefined habits that have little to do with their basics or kata (they usually comprise the practitioners' "typical" moves – repeated year after year without any refinement or progression).

Then they go off to do some standing start "bunkai" which is applied with "realistic" scenarios but (for reasons of safety) is executed with half-hearted, slow attacks (after all, a full-speed, committed right cross isn't all that easy to control!). "Low blocks against kicks" are ignored because "they aren't realistic". Yet it seems to me that this is missing the point: your practice should groove principles of movement – and these principles can only be grooved with some sort of pressure.

You can use kicks to add that pressure in much the same way as an arnis/escrima/kali baston can add speed to movement. Put another way, you can "increase the load" of your training scientifically like Roger Bannister did when he managed to break the 4 minute mile using hill and weight training.

So the fact that you're unlikely to be attacked by a kick is irrelevant: You're unlikely to remember a single one of your "rehearsed routines" anyway. What you will remember (hopefully!) are the principles underlying your practise routines (eg. "entering", jamming/wedging the attack, countering as soon as possible and with a minimum of movement, etc.).

(For what it's worth, I have learned to block kicks as well – even in hard and fast sparring – which gives me a very different insight into the "plausibility" of such a tactic from those who haven't bothered because "it's impossible".)

What the student is really learning

So in the case of the opening move of heian shodan, the student is really learning to move into the opponent (ie. "enter") - and how to do so efficiently, effectively and safely. He or she is learning how to coordinate the step, hips and arms etc. so that everything moves with what I have previously called "staged activation of body parts" (large to small). He or she is learning not flinch: ie. to move decisively (ie. instantly converting the tendency to flinch "back" into a flinch "forwards") – no matter how "fearsome" the attack and no matter how much his or her body is screaming: "Back, back, back!"

The beginner needs to start learning the latter sooner, rather than later. Why? Because it takes many, many years to learn how to make such a radical change to your natural "retreat and cower" flinch reflex. If you're going to make it work, you have to start practising it early.

And yes, the rawest beginner might well flounder in anyway. The kata can echo this in the early stages. But it won't take too many encounters – in the dojo or in the street – for the student to become naturally wary of "entering". In my experience, after a short while the student will devolve into "backing away" despite any such training. And it is then that karate traditionally starts to teach offline evasion - often in the form of retreating 45 degrees back (or even straight back).

How does more "senior" kata teach such evasion? The answer can be found in the kata "embusen" or "floorplan" and the turns and steps. It is my view (gained from cross-referencing Chinese and Okinawan movement) that these necessarily imply offline movement – forward, backward and sideway (I won't discuss this topic here, but I invite you to read my article on this subject).

It is only when the student reaches more advanced levels that his or her body movement "offline" is reduced until it is directed straight into the opponent. The kata envisage this: movements tend to become "smaller" and more subtle as the practitioner becomes more senior (what some folks call "internalised") until there is barely any movement at all.

That is why the kata do not contain many overt "offline movements": the kata has to serve its practitioner for a lifetime – and not merely serve as a lesson that is discarded after a year or two. Kata are encyclopaedic repositories of martial knowledge – not "grade" appropriate "shadow boxing" routines.


Accordingly, you can see that even the most "basic" kata in the "traditional" syllabus are not just "beginner" kata at all. They are instead better described as "fundamental" kata: they contain lessons that serve as a solid foundation for all your martial movement – from the first step to the last along your martial journey.

In this respect, attempts to force such kata into a "strict syllabus" are almost misconceived. Traditional kata don't really follow any set order or hierarchy. They are all designed to be of use from "white belt to the grave".

I say "almost misconceived" because some kata are, in my view, manifestly "less advanced" (in terms of easier to learn first or relying on pre-existing motor skill to be learned) than others. Furthermore some (like Funakoshi's heian shodan) bear the hallmarks of at least some "simplification" for teaching high school students.

And I've previously spoken of my view that some arts are generally more "advanced" than others (again, in my previously defined sense of that expression).

So I will continue to teach kata in a particular order in most (but by no means all!) cases. Will that order be "perfect" or "optimal"? Almost certainly not. But I hope it will offer some logic and utility in terms of a syllabus structure.

In the meantime, I will know that whatever kata my student happen to learn first, each will contain fundamental principles: ones that last a lifetime.

I will continue to resist the temptation to change these kata to make the movements "more realistic" – because that is not where the "magic" of the kata lies. Rather, the magic lies in the fact that each move is a bit like a "stem cell": capable of developing into so many different movements – each pertinent to a different step along the martial journey. To narrow a move so that it reflects just one of these is to miss out on that "magic" – ie. to void the very reason kata are so useful to traditional martial artists in the first place.

[Next: Part 2: specific examples of how "stem cell movements" morph depending on a student's experience.]

Copyright © 2013 Dejan Djurdjevic