Without changing the outward form, we must never do the same kata twice- this is a waste.
Note: Following the Japanese standard, 's' will not be used to indicate plurals.
Can you image the infomercial? “Check out this amazing tool that can teach and hide 'secret' material at the same time! How much would you expect to pay for this amazing, all purpose tool... $800? $200? Well it can be yours now for the special introductory price of...” The word “Kata” (kah-tah, not kadda), means 'form' and they are one of the chief means of passing along information in traditional Japanese culture. Kata often comprise a series of postures and gestures that, when performed in sequence, transmit principles of an art. Interestingly, modern research indicates that assuming certain postures or positions do more than just change our bodies- they can effect mood, behavior and even thought patterns.
Training in Kata (forms) despite their reputation, is more than rote learning through slavish repetition. Good kata practice must consist of pushing back, asking questions (of oneself and the sequence) ultimately, pulling them apart to find potential beyond the bunkai (discussion) and and oyo (applications). Oyo also separates the uchi/ura (inside) from the soto/omote (outside)- many oyo are not immediately obvious (even to participants of a tradition, let alone to those watching a form from the outside) and require explanation and demonstration by a senior or instructor. Receiving oyo is predicated on a certain amount of confidence in the character of a student, that the lessons won't be misunderstood, neko ni koban (coins to a cat or as we say in English, casting pearls before swine) or misused. One way that this determination is made through observation of a students' Kihon (fundamentals), which provide both tools and technology to perceive and (eventually) manifest the skills contained in kata.
In this context, Kihon exist as a means to inculcate a series of consistent and dependable mechanics (things like turning, transferring weight, correct grip and manipulation of tools, etc.) that function without conscious thought. The more thorough one's grasp of kihon, the more reliably they work, which in turn means the more efficiently you can learn, practice and implement the lessons of kata, particularly under pressure.
Building on the foundation of Kihon, students begin to learn Kata. A key component to making the jump from the external imposition of forms into a usable skill is built-in to sound practice: progressive stress testing. What the heck does that mean? That before 'sparring' as such*, 'unpredictability' is introduced while completing forms with a more skilled uketachi (receiving sword) or uchitachi (swinging sword) senior partner. Once shitachi (performing sword, the junior) has learned the overall series of movements, uchitachi begins to make alterations, sometimes quite subtle, to the timing, distancing, rhythm and applied force of a kata without changing the overall sequence. It is the job of uchitachi to provide shitachi with practice 'at the limit of his/her skill' without exceeding that point (discouraging the junior by just beating the tar out of him/her or moving faster than the junior can respond to properly**.) Having to adapt to this pressure can evoke very real physical symptoms of being in 'live fire' situations such as “fight or flight”, “adrenal dump”, “hyper-vigilance” and other strong biological responses but without incurring some of the poor habits that free-play can bring. Shitachi is forced to be adaptive without panicking or abandoning the sound mechanics imparted by kihon, and always against a slightly stronger opponent than is comfortable.
Although this happens under controlled circumstances (E. G. both Uchitachi and Shitachi know the general shape that the engagement is going to take) there is a plasticity required to reacting appropriately as you come to embody the underlying principles. This method is ingenious for the ways that it causes stress and provides solutions to those stressors, leading Shitachi to make (stylistically and situationally) appropriate choices lest he/she get whacked, bumped or cut, sometimes severely. At the same time, Uchitachi is being trained to tinker with the junior's perception of timing, distance, connection, power and intent, all while leading the engagement with sensitivity (changing the ways in which one engages).
This holds true for waza (techniques) as well; unarmed kata, rather than treating striking and grappling (or therapeutic bodywork for that matter) as merely a technical repertoire, provides a 'seiteigata,' an idealized form of how principles can, or perhaps ought to, be articulated together. If these seiteigata are a vehicle for transmission, the oyo are something of a map***... the course and speed of your journey depends, in part, on the interplay between Tori the (taker or 'winner' of a technique) and Uke (the receiver or 'loser').
In the best case, Uke (again, the more experienced person) moderates the level of feedback (ranging from almost leading at the beginning, through level-appropriate resistance, to eventually, actively countering) that forces Tori to stay aware of the very real possibilities of unexpected changes. This type of practice eliminates the 'Geez, I can't wait for it to be my turn to actually do something other than just get beaten-on' feeling that can permeate one's experience as Uke; It also keeps Tori from developing a false sense of competence, believing that 'winning because the script calls for it' is an expression of skill. Being able to feel how minor changes from Uke can majorly alter (or utterly wreck) the interaction is a gift. . . even if it doesn't feel like one at times.
So where does the notion that kata training is solely the mind-numbing practice of arbitrary sets before we get to the 'good stuff' even arise? It may be that early Western students (of traditional Japanese arts anyway; other cultural tradition's reasons might be different) didn't, in large part, have language in common with their teachers- it would have been simple to get someone to follow along with exercises, forms and free-play without requiring in-depth explanations. Some of it may also come down to fundamental pedagogical concepts like Shu-Ha-Ri (essentially 'learn, embody, transcend [a form or method]') carried over from pre-modern Japan. Contrast that with Western models (outside of guild systems), in which one spends significantly less time in emulation and more time in 'application' or free-play (this is not to imply that good teachers did/do not continue to engage their charges with some pattern practice- to wit: Italian fencing schools in particular are known to have featured some esoteric training through form; much of that information has, unfortunately, been lost to time).
Wherever it derives though, bridging the conceptual gap between “boring/repetitive” and “engaged/lively” can fundamentally effect the ways in which one approaches forms. In return, those forms deliver to us new ways of, at first moving and gradually experiencing things by shifting perspectives. By fully integrating a series of somatic responses, their intended meaning and accompanying mental/emotional components one comes to appreciate the brilliance and care that went into their formulation and transmission. Ultimately, well-designed kata offer far more than proscribing where you put your hands and feet; they provide a (meta)physical connection with our traditions themselves, linking us directly with the experience of practitioners of the past and present while charging us to hold the teachings in trust for the future.
Yours in appreciation,
Jigme Chobang Daniels, Instructor
Aoi Koyamakan Dojo
Reader's note: you may notice that there is no mention made of solo forms here. Sure, when many people hear the word 'kata' the image that springs to mind is of a bunch of people, clad in white keikogi, doing the same individual 'kuroddy' form in unison (either unarmed or equipped with boating/farming equipment). Despite that powerful image, the omission is purposeful- I am not familiar enough with the teaching and practice of Karate no kata**** (training forms of Karate) to offer any thoughts of use. As for Japanese arts, Tandoku Renshu (literally, solo or single [person] forging) do exist and serve valuable roles in one's physical, biomechanical and proprioceptive development. However, these methods cover a lot of ground- everything from stretching/strengthening, tendon/fascia development and alignment exercises to full-on solo forms with and without weapons- these tend to be pretty specific to individual traditions though. In the tradition to which I belong, we have some interesting examples with a couple of tools that are designed to be done as both Tandoku and Sotai (partnered) Renshu and function well without alteration both ways (but, as is often the case, really 'make sense' with another person providing 'pressure').
* Which can, without sound kihon, degenerate quickly into competition on the order of doing anything, including sacrificing principle, good mechanics and strategy in order to win at a slightly more dangerous version of tag.
** Displaying a gross distortions of transmission not beneficial for either the senior (who is usually displaying ego) or junior.
***These oyo can, depending on the art, run the gamut from overt to cryptic.
**** An important linguistic note- Karate no Kata are the forms of Karate. Karatekata means false, fake, made-up, etc.