The main purpose of kata

The other day I received an email query about the nature and purpose of kata. As it raises some very pertinent issues I thought I would share it with you and also my response.
    "I was reading your blog and the information on the page for the traditional school of martial arts. I was just wondering your thoughts on the internal art of Tai Chi and the application of solo forms of that as well as katas of karate. The application part is what is all kind of new to me and where I am having trouble understanding. With the repetitive nature of these forms and styles, in real world setting,(not at competitions to gain points)is the aim for it to be second nature and to "re-act" rather than square up and have a formal fight?"
This query made me made me realise that I have never really addressed the issue of what I consider to be its main purpose. [Readers of my blog will be aware that I have previously discussed purposes of kata in the articles such as: “Kata - art or science”, “Kata - as a vital training tool”, “Kata as a conditioning tool”, “Changing kata” and “Straw men 2: kata and pretend fighting”]

People often speak of kata being an encyclopaedic repository of knowledge. But (as has been pointed out to me recently) if this was its principal purpose why wouldn’t we, in this modern day and age, simply abandon it in favour of books or other information storage media?

My answer to the correspondent was as follows:

The aims of forms are myriad, but principally they groove certain movements so that your body has a kinaesthetic awareness of its positioning, of the appropriate angles of evasion and interception, and ability to generate momentum by using the whole of the body as one unit (through what I call "staged activation" of body parts). In so doing, kata/xing/patterns/forms are simply providing a necessary foundation or precondition for utilising the techniques that make up the relevant art. You can acquire the kinaesthetic awareness taught by kata but in itself this is not fighting. To unlock the next door (the door to actually developing self-defence skills) you need a particular key; and that is understanding how the tactics of your traditional martial art UTILISE this kinaesthetic awareness.

In many schools this information is lost, resulting in healthy recreation but little else.

The principles taught in forms are necessary for traditional fighting tactics, but they are, in essence, conditioning drills; conditioning in the sense of teaching your body to move in a particular way as well as equipping you with the relevant muscular strength and endurance to do so. In respect of the latter this principally means having strength in the core muscles which can enable you to move efficiently and generate momentum from a strong, stable base.

Kata or forms all contain applications; the building blocks usually a composite of techniques along on the same theme - summarised into a single series of movements that can apply to all those techniques. The deeper your understanding of the principle, the wider your range of applying those techniques in practise.

You should apply all of the techniques in limited/restricted (single attack) type drills first, then semi-free style (short sequences), and 2 person forms (what we like to call “embu”). Only after you have sufficiently inculcated the techniques can you expect to apply them in a dynamic, unpredictable environment. In other words, you will be able to use those techniques in free sparring only when the responses that make up the techniques of the kata are grooved into your subconscious so that they are reflexive.

Even then it is important to note that you will rarely, if ever, perform the technique with the technique with the exact “xing” (Chinese for “shape” or “form”) as you have in practise. Rather, if you truly understand the principle or concept of the technique (what the Chinese call the “yi”) you will adapt it unconsciously to any changes that occur in a dynamic environment.

It is precisely because of these variations that kata will typically require the practitioner to perform a “fuller” movement, ie. a movement that utilises the “ideal” or “full range” of the technique (eg. a full load or chamber on a punch rather than an abbreviated “less than ideal” load one might see in combat). Another way of looking at this is that kata techniques explore every aspect of a movement so that you might apply one, or even part of one, aspect of that movement.

Furthermore, the deeper you understand all the techniques the more you will understand their inter-relation so that you can morph one movement into another when the need arises. The more you do the relevant forms of your system the more you should recognise the "change over" from technique to technique - ie. how they can "morph" depending on the movement of your attacker.

The principles of these "changes" can be plotted by complex mathematical algorithms. It is interesting to note that these bear some connection to the setup of Chinese classics such as the Yi Qing (the Book of Changes). The latter underpins bagua theory (and to some extent xingyi and some karate and other arts that have been influenced by similar thought either preceding bagua or stemming directly from it).

Yes, you could write down all this information in a book. But it is only by putting your body through the series of movements that make up a good kata that you will really come to understand the deeper essence of its teaching (ie. it’s “yi”). This is an essence that is felt as much as it is cognitively understood (especially when you manage to apply the “yi” in a dynamic environment). In the end there are some concepts you can’t convey in writing - just as it is impossible to explain the taste of a strawberry to someone who hasn’t tasted one...

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic


  1. You can never repeat the importance of kata too much. Kata fine tunes your reflexes, heals & strengthens mind, body, and spirit, and is a "physical" reference book you can always go back to. A friend once told me that a kata is like a can read it out loud, or to yourself, and when you think you have forgotten how it goes, it all comes back to you when you least expect it.

  2. Dan - thought you might like this link as a follow up to your post on the main purpose of kata. The following post was done after a session where I thought my students had lost the 'main purpose' when they were performing their kata, and I thought they should think of certain points in order to maximise the effectiveness of their practice and the combative legitimacy of the exercise. Check out Making Kata Work for You. Regards, Colin

  3. Thanks Colin - an excellent adjunct to my blog entry!

    I've been following your blog with some interest lately - and thanks for your kind words! It is a great compliment to have your support and encouragement.

    I hope to catch up in person soon. Expect some observations in relation to some of your recent (and past) blogs too! I've been meaning to do so, but despite the apparent "prolific" output here, I've actually been quite busy with "real work" - I'm mostly pasting in articles written a while back!

  4. I have been blown away with the amount and quality of your output, and have been wondering how on earth have you been managing it!!!

    Now I understand! :-)

    Looking forward to your comments and feedback.

    Would love to catch up. Some family health issues currently but, fingers-crossed, they will resolve very soon.




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