What is a Kata?
When individual techniques compose a movement sequence and are preserved by regular practice, the result is a Kata, or fixed practice—the main form of training in numerous martial-arts. The numerous types of Katas that exist are presented here in two categories—performed individually and partnered. There are other possible divisions: strong and rapid Katas vs. slow, soft ones. The progress model does not contradict traditional categories—it offers another perspective, one of progress, which can be applied to all the divisions. A student will progress well with this model regardless of the 'softness' or 'hardness' of the Katas executed.
The two person Kata in Ninjutsu - preserving fight insights
In our martial-art, the Kata is the primary tool for preserving martial knowledge. A sequence is more similar to a real-fight situation than the individual movement. Most Katas we practice have been preserved in the ancient Japanese format, whereby the Kata is practiced with a partner, each with his prescribed role. This format preserves a short combat scenario, and a special understanding stemming from this sequence. Since the sequence is made up of a few moves, the performance of this Kata is short. Such Kata-format is very ancient and may be found in several koryu martial-arts.
The one person traditional Katas
The Kata families involving one or more partners are called in this model partner-synchronized Katas.
The practice of a Kata without an active partner places it in the category of individually executed Katas. Many of these Katas combine numerous combat scenarios with multiple opponents, creating a sequence fought with imagined opponents.
In such individually executed Katas, imagination and concentration on imaginary opponents is emphasized (Zan shin). Another mode of execution emphasizes stance, breathing and concentration rather than imagining one's opponents. Both modes - 'external' and 'internal' - have no fixed limits, and usually individually executed Katas, relate to breathing, concentration and the like. These Katas are an excellent practice tool, not requiring a skilled partner, and their high 'practicability' is an added benefit.
Kata learning process
The learning process of both Kata categories - partner-synchronized and individually-executed Katas - is similar. It begins by learning the basic moves at the foundation level, the kihon. They are then learned as sequences—'choreography'. But the basic performance of the partner-synchronized Katas sets even further demands: learning the proper range as well as its right timing when performed against a partner.
This is nothing new: it is common to most of the martial-arts with which I am familiar.
The initiated Kata
Both types of Katas: the partner-synchronized and the individually executed Katas may lead to an additional, important 'family' of Katas: the initiated Kata. In movement skills where no fixed sequence exists, there is room and much need for the initiated Kata, either partner-synchronized or individually-executed. Inventing a sequence enables both the practice of important sequences and an easy tool for memorizing.
The initiated Kata can be a traditional Kata in which changes have been made. The main purpose for such changes is to accommodate the Kata to different situations. The traditional Kata, of both types, aims to apply and practice certain insights. These might be fresh even today, but at times, under changing circumstances, new insights ('internal' and 'external') appear. Then, alongside the older, preserved insights, an initiated Kata can be created, preserving such new insights in its moves.
Similar work of creating initiated Katas and their collection was done in Japan in the 1960's and 70's, as sword-fighting martial-artists of all the main schools gathered and decided about collecting and changing Iai Jutsu and Batto Jutsu katas from various traditional methods. New accents in performance were meant to meet the need for exercising sword-drawing, which would be easy to learn and practice. This collection of Katas was named "Seitei gata" and is now practiced internationally and in Japan, in the form of the martial-art Iaido.
Initiated Kata: What changes can be made in traditional Katas?
Changes take place on two levels: basic and advanced.
Basic changes take place in
- breathing and concentration;
- performance speed;
- performance rhythm;
Advanced changes take place in
- the type of technique (including the rival's);
- increasing number of rivals;
- use of weapons;
- performance on difficult terrain;
- performance in difficult visibility;
- performance in difficult weather conditions;
Many of my peers, martial-artists of various schools, have observed the list of changes possible in a Kata and immediately responded: "We always make such changes." Some changes, even advanced ones, are seen instinctively in many martial-arts: for example, changes in performance of Katas on difficult terrain. Both individually-executed and partner-synchronized Katas change when performed on rocky terrain or upon especially slippery surfaces.
In both basic and advanced changes, there is room for change of breathing and concentration in performance. Several changes may be made at the same time. For example, in a Kata performed at high speed in close range vs. multiple opponents.
Set practice sequences in other fields
Set practice is a primary training tool. It enables rehearsing a large number of fundamental moves and helps preserve knowledge. If we observe just the movement aspect of first-aid procedures, we see extensive use of set practices. Every medic learns and practices the 'resuscitation Kata' with a partner or dummy. This fixed practice was created especially to develop the basic actions in sequence: checking breathing and restoring respiration, checking pulse and performing heart massage. The relatively simple movement skill that is required for initial resuscitation procedures is learned quickly. A fighter pilot, on the other hand, invests much time in repeating dozens and hundreds of set practices for various instances. Planners of medic training programs, just like pilot trainers, have long since understood the need for set practice - the initiated Kata.
Spiritual role of the Kata in martial-arts
Even though this model focuses on pragmatic goals, it is not blind to other aspects of training. In martial-arts unlike fighter-pilot or first-aid training the way is no less important than the goal itself. The Kata and its practice have a spiritual role in understanding many insights. As indicated earlier (the section about the spiritual framework of Ninjutsu), there are three phases of practice: preserving (the traditional Kata), breaking (the initiatied Kata), and letting go (the randori).
The latter stage begins in the sparring, at the next level, but letting go can happen at the Kata level as well, after years of Kata practice. The warrior has internalized the Katas by then, and performs them effortlessly.