What's so special about Karate?

(by Marc Janott, October 2015)

When people learn that I'm a karate enthusiast they sometimes ask what it is I like about it.

My first reaction usually is: „How much time do we have?“ – There's so many aspects I love about Karate. So where to begin?

I explain to them how I like to connect with all the friendly people in the karate community, how I appreciate the healthy workout that involves the entire body, or that I'm fascinated of how karate techniques are not only good exercise but also have meaning.

The most compelling thing about karate, however, to me is kata.

What is Kata?

Kata is probably the most distinctive feature of Karate.

A kata is a prescribed sequence of movements, a choreography of around 20-60 techniques.

The katas of karate have been handed down from the old masters on Okinawa. They constitute the core, the essence of the art of karate. The old masters identified karate with kata. „Karate begins with kata and ends with kata.“ (Mabuni) To them karate and kata were basically one and the same.

Their idea of kata was not only to master the moves. It was to comprehend the meaning of kata, because each kata is a stand-alone system of principles and techniques for self-defense.

So what's so great about kata?

I'm glad you asked.

So here are a few reasons why I think that kata is a wonderful training method:

  1. Karate katas contain accumulated knowledge of this martial art in a compact form. They are karate's traditional teaching syllabi.
  2. Katas are condensed aggregations of movement patterns, to facilitate teaching, learning, memorising, referencing and passing on.
  3. Katas provide drills to instil movement patterns into muscle memory.
  4. Katas consist of time-tested effective methods for civil self-defense.
  5. Katas are composed of techniques from the entire spectrum of martial arts: Parries, blocks, thrusts, punches, kicks, grappling, restraints, escapes, locks, strangles, throws, even raking, pinching, poking. All of this using target areas that facilitate maximum effect (vital points / kyusho).
  6. Katas demonstrate principles through representative examples.
  7. Katas provide templates for partner training drills.
  8. Katas are perfect for solo practice of fighting principles (when there's no partner around).
  9. Katas can be practiced anytime, anywhere – without any special prerequisites – whether at home, in your hotel room, on the beach or just in your head.
  10. Katas give us the opportunity to practice techniques with full commitment (speed, follow-through, intensity) without harming a partner. (In partner training we always have to take care not to injure our partner.)
  11. Katas specify the ideal movement patterns. We can isolate and train single techniques or sequences to develop optimal stability, power, angles, speed, physical commitment, and the like.
  12. Katas are plentiful. A wide range of katas means there are various approaches and method systems to choose from, so that among them there should be a suitable system for everybody.
  13. Katas offer an intellectual challenge. The analysis and interpretation of kata movements requires an inquiring mind, logical reasoning, imagination and creativity.
  14. Katas have a history connected with the culture and history of Japan, Okinawa and China. This provides an opportunity to delve into that subject matter.
  15. Katas are perfectly suitable as a healthy, ergonomic workout.
  16. Katas can be experienced as meditation in motion.
  17. Katas comprise aesthetically pleasing movements which also lend themselves to athletic performances like e.g. kata team competitions.
  18. Katas are a way to teach the syllabus of methods to many studens simultaneously (even though kata wasn't designed for that purpose, because the masters of Okinawa accepted only individual students).
  19. Katas offer a great number of interesting coordination excercises which are a lot of fun to perform due to their unique kinaesthesia.
  20. Katas are a form of training, suitable for practitioners of any age, that may be performed without any risk of injury, at variable speeds and with different learning objectives.
  21. Katas allow for many practicioners of varying levels of proficiency to train together. They can progress individually while at the same time they are part of a community, sharing an experience that bonds them together.

To what extent we make use of the immense potential of kata is up to us. It depends on our goals and interests and also on our instructors' expertise.

But it is this unique combination of possible merits that makes kata, and therefore karate so appealing to me.