Flow: why it is an essential component of kata


I have written previously about my views on the importance of flow or connectivity between movements and the role kata plays in this process. In particular I have noted the importance of connecting a series of related techniques (eg. a block/deflection and counter) so that they comprise one cohesive sequence rather than separate, disconnected movements.

In my article "The importance of flow" I used a specific example of a movement from Aragaki seisan as researched by Patrick McCarthy and as performed by Erik Angerhofer, a student of McCarthy Hanshi’s respected International Ryukyu Karate Research Society (IRKRS).

I chose to compare Erik’s and my performance of the same movement for a very specific reason: I did not do so in order to assert that I was "faster than Erik". On the contrary, I chose Erik’s example because I felt that he and I were moving at more or less an identical speed. What the comparison was intended to show (and which I feel it demonstrated conclusively) is how the presence or absence of flow can affect the time it takes to complete the same sequence of movements.

Erik was emphasising “koshi” – the use of the hips to generate power, while I was emphasising the connectivity of movements that I felt (and still feel) are properly part of one sequence (in that case, a block/deflection and its related counter).

One response to my view on "flow" has been that within associations such as the IRKRS kata are not used for the purposes of developing flow: in the case of that particular association, if one wants flow one should look at their 2 person flow drills.

Should kata and 2 person forms embody different concepts of flow?

The IRKRS 2 person flow drills are exceptionally good. I encourage readers to look at Patrick McCarthy’s material online (or attend one of his seminars) if they have not already done so. The research McCarthy Hanshi has done in developing his material constitutes a very important contribution to karate in general and provides some of the most effective training methods around today. These drills are all the more impressive in that they are designed (as karate was intended, in my view) to be responses to what McCarthy Hanshi has termed “HAPV” (Habitual Act of Physical Violence). Grooving effective responses to HAPV is, I think, what civilian defence systems like karate are all about.

why should there a be a difference between the flow in 2 person drills and the flow (or lack of it) in kata?
Clearly one can supplement kata with an almost inexhaustible array of effective 2 person “flow” or other fighting drills. As I have argued in my article "Really USING your kata", such 2 person drills should ideally have some sort of nexus to the kata of the system, however more commonly they do not. Regardless, I don't see any reason why kata and 2 person forms should have different concepts of flow. In fact, I feel it is imperative for the flow to be the same in both. Why? The answer lies in the function of kata.

How kata function demands the same flow as that found in 2 person forms

At some point the question must be asked: Why have kata at all? Why not dispense with kata and simply do 2 person drills – particularly if those drills catalogue all the essential techniques/principles of the particular art?

My answer to this is as follows: It is helpful to learn certain principles solo before they are applied (with increasing resistance) against a partner. The initial absence of resistance allows you to refine your movement and be more efficient. More importantly, it avoids you defaulting to brute force or using a tried and trusted, but different, technique or principle to the one that you’re learning.

So you might be learning tactic B, yet you are more accustomed to using tactic A. Under pressure you might default to tactic A every time so as to avoid getting hit. And yet, tactic B might provide a far more elegant and sophisticated way of dealing with that attack; it’s just that you can never find a way of “grooving” it sufficiently well to trust yourself to try it under pressure.

However a solo form lets you groove the hand, foot and body movement in isolation and without resistance, never mind the stress of being hit. You have the chance to make the sequence of moves reflexive – at least to some extent. And even once you’ve started applying it against a resistant partner, the solo form allows you re-examine your technique and see refinements in angle, position, footwork posture, etc. This is particularly so as you contrast your form “under pressure” with your form in an “ideal” state. Having an “ideal” gives you something to which you can aspire.

But we now get back to the same issue: why should solo movement be different to the 2 person movement? If we are going to catalogue certain techniques/principles in a solo form, and if we are going to move from the solo form to a 2 person form, shouldn’t the type of movement be the same? I believe they should.

For kata to be at all useful, they should inculcate the same kinaesthetic habits and movements as those found in 2 person forms or even in free sparring or fighting.

Yes, kata movements are often fuller, more complete, more "formal" movements (see my articles "Form and formality in martial arts techniques" and "Abandoning form: the paradox of the 'shrinking' martial art"). But the same principles should underly both solo movements and partner movements. And, more importantly, it is my view that the connectivity between related techniques should be identical.

It is one thing to assert the above and another to prove the assertion is correct. I will attempt to do so by positing a couple of examples of a series of movements that are commonly performed in kata without flow (ie. in a disconnected fashion) - but where 2 person performance of the same movements clearly dictates that those moves are completely ineffective unless they do flow (ie. they are connected in a way that makes them one cohesive stream of movement rather than separate, disjointed, albeit powerful, movements).

Examples of the need for flow in both kata and 2 person performance

There are 2 examples that immediately spring to mind:
  1. one from the shorin kata pinan nidan or heian shodan (which is substantially similar to our fukyugata ichi); and
  2. another from the goju ryu kata seipai.
Pinan nidan / heian shodan and the hammer fist sequence

The kata pinan nidan or heian shodan has a sequence in which the performer retracts from a full forward stance (zenkutsu dachi) into a half stance (han zenkutsu) while performing a breakout and a hammer fist strike. The performer then follows this with a step forward and a punch.

It is common in many schools to insert “koshi” (an extra hip preload) before both the hammer fist strike and the following punch. For example, consider the performance below at 1:06 to 1:07:

A performance of pinan nidan / heian shodan with koshi. Note in particular the techniques (and the hip use) at 1:06 to 1:07.

The problem I have with this performance is that the extra hip "wobbles" disconnect the hammerfist from both the breakout and the following punch (see the adjacent animation).

"Yes," I might hear you say, "but the purpose here is to train the use of the hip in adding power to each technique."

The problem with this argument is that, when this particular series of movements is applied in a 2 person setting, there is simply no time for the added hip motion, bearing in mind that if someone has grabbed you by the hand, they will probably be in the process of trying to hit you. They won't stand there idly while you use your hips to both (a) break out and use your hammerfist and (b) punch.

In my view, it is necessarily implicit that kata movements like this are (or should be) far more connected than a basic analysis of the kata might suggest. Indeed, the movement must be connected to work in a dynamic setting - where your opponent is continually moving. What we see in a basic, standard, performance of the kata is only the first layer of understanding. I don't think that the layers get any deeper by disconnecting the movements. Rather, I've found they get deeper by connecting them.

On this point, when one conducts a deeper analysis the footwork of the kata, one discerns that instead of following the literal stepping pattern (pull back, hammerfist, step forward, punch) one might well roll the movements into one, using what some call "replacement stepping" (hiki ayumi ashi). Consider the following video in which I demonstrate such stepping, in particular at the beginning where I discuss the same hammer fist sequence:

Some examples of hiki ayumi ashi or replacment stepping - something that requires "connectivity" or flow. Note in particular the opening sequence from our fukyugata or pinan nidan / heian shodan.

As I have said, I regard this sort of footwork as necessarily implied by the kata - not as a "long bow to draw". I'm not alone in this either: many senior karateka have demonstrated hiki ayumi ashi in their bunkai of kata, Morio Higaonna of the IOGKF being just the first who springs to mind.

Such footwork certainly makes sense in a 2 person framework. However it is impossible to do it if one does the “koshi” version. It just can't be done because the movements are disconnected by the insertion of non-contextual hip loading.

I'll make the assertion here that any 2 person drill is unlikely to feature such extraneous hip movement. I certainly haven't seen one (at least one that was performed convincingly). This is because all 2 person forms must flow (in the sense of connecting related movements) in order to be effective. Any hip movement arises naturally and contextually - ie. there is no "pre-loading" or "double hip" action.

And if a kata catalogues techniques that you would apply against a partner, one might expect the performance of the kata to be consistent with this. Otherwise you are inculcating 2 completely separate concepts; one that applies against a partner and one that does not.

Yes, the “koshi” version one might well be teaching one how to load the hip. But this can already be done in practising isolated basics (kihon). I see no valid reason to see kata as a series of separate, isolated kihon exercises; particularly when they are brimming with 2 person applications.

In summary, I feel that applying the hammer fist sequence from pinan nidan / heian shodan is completely inconsistent with the “koshi” performance of this kata.

Seipai and the Okinawan kokutsu dachi sequence

Another good example is to be found at the beginning of the goju kata seipai, where the performer deflects a kick using a forward tenshin (evasion) in an Okinawan kokutsu dachi (back stance), followed by a scooping deflection of a punch (sukui uke) and a chopping action (shuto uchi) (see the adjacent animation).

It is quite common to see an extra hip "wobble" being inserted after the low deflection (gedan barai) and before the punch deflection (sukui uke). I suppose the theory is that it adds power to the sukui uke.

But the problem with this theory is 2 fold:

First, if you've moved into your opponent to deflect his kick (as the kata dictates), you will almost certainly face a follow up punch or strike to the face (again, as the kata anticipates). That follow up punch or strike is going to happen very quickly. You just don't have time to "add power" by inserting an extraneous hip "wobble". Indeed, your priority is to get arm up to protect your head - either by deflecting any such attack, or simply to occupy the space so that the attack is thwarted before it begins.

As part of this process, your hip will, if anything, be starting to turn towards your opponent (as it needs to if you have connected your movements into one flowing sequence). The last thing you want to do is throw your hip the opposite way.

Second, why is "extra power" from the hip necessary for this deflection? I've experimented with it for years: the sukui uke slips/parries/scoops the attack in a very soft, but effective manner. Even if the attack has a roundhouse action, the "hook" in your wrist can ensure that it is safely scooped away. In other words, the deflection operates on both a horizontal and vertical plane to deflect an attack using minimal force.

I discuss both these issues in some detail in the video below:

I discuss the particular movement from seipai, noting the need for flow or "connectivity" in order for the technique to work.

As with the pinan nidan / heian shodan example, the seipai movements not only benefit from flow or "connectivity" - they require it in order to work.


I have illustrated just 2 examples in this article of kata movements that cannot be applied if they are "chopped up" by extraneous hip movement. There are, however, many thousands more: the same analysis applies to virtually every group of related techniques in every karate kata.

I have yet to hear/read any logical reason for why solo performance of kata requires "chopped up" movements, where 2 person performance dictates that they "flow" one into another.

Indeed, it is my view that the basic function of kata dictates that solo and 2 person performance be identical in this respect. I can see no reason why you should practice kata as a series of disconnected kihon drills - not when the component parts are clearly part of a related sequence of events.

Learning connectivity between related movements is nothing short of critical when it comes to managing what I have called the "melee". And I personally take every opportunity to be aware of this connectivity - whether it is in kata, in 2 person drills or sparring.

Copyright © 2010 Dejan Djurdjevic


  1. Kata should "naturally" take you to flow. After a zilion katas techniques merge, fold into one another, indistinguishable. Stance, those pauses, can be either short or long, but there has to be a rhythm, a beat that you can either accelerate or slow down. Plasticity also comes with the flow to either absorb or project. To be in the dance of the thing, the mortal dance: kata.

    Great and enlightening post!!

  2. Yes - there has to be a rhythm.

    Many people have mistaken my views on "flow" as a call to make kata like wu shu. But this is not what I mean: movement can punctuated, but still connected.

    Those punctuations are a bit like the crashing of a wave; the wave crashes with finality, yet the motion never ceases.

    Kime gives kata this this kind of rhythm.

    Unfortunately, many have put so much focus on the kime that the "pauses" have become diconnections.

    There is a subtle distinction between a disconnection (a full stop) and the other "punctuations" that are necessarily part of kata.

    Thanks as always my friend!

  3. So true it's not even funny.

    There's a HUGE difference between doing combinations and doing lots of individual moves. This is true even in basic kihon, where you can tell someone to do sambon-zuki and they end up doing it as if you were counting for each punch.

    This is something that always bothered me, to tell the truth. If you're being asked to do a combination, do a combination. If your technique falls apart, that means that your technique is wrong in the first place, and you should look at why, not do disconnected single techniques just so it can look good...

    Oh well, c'est la vie


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