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TMA UnderGround >> The Great Kata Debate


7/30/04 6:31 PM
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NowhereMan22000
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Edited: 30-Jul-04
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From a combat and/or self-defense point of view, the practice of kata, forms or patterns in TMAs prompts two questions:

(i) Do kata contain valuable information?

(ii) Does practicing kata directly improve your combative/self-defense skills?

 

A karate perspective
Having studied shotokan karate for 14 years, I must say that, as practiced generally, the techniques in the kata have little combative value. Karate kata applications (bunkai/oyo) that I have seen taught by traditional karate masters have almost exclusively been counters to highly stylised karate-style attacks.

I will try and lay out my thinking as follows:

1. The original applications are unknown
IF (and it is a big if) there truly were applications in mind when the katas were initally constructed they are now unknown to the general community. The honest masters out there will, and do, admit this. There is a great industry (books/videos) of people trying to deconstruct the kata - all coming up with different answers.

2. So, if the originals are unknown, why bother with kata techniques at all?
Applications get assigned to kata techniques in one of two ways. Either someone takes the kata move directly and tries to work out what it might be for, or else someone sees a move demonstrated somewhere and says "hey, that's like the move from XXXX". But why bring the kata into the picture at all? Why try to fit square pegs in round holes? Why limit yourself to attacks and counters that only look like a move from a kata. Katas are unnecessarily limiting.

3. The applications, as generally taught, are nonsense
Most of the applications that I see taught are against highly stylised karate-style attacks, and clearly only work in demonstration mode. For example, the first move in bassai-dai involves a standing with your feet and hands together, then lunging forward with a 'reinfored' inside-block. I see this demonstrated against incoming stepping punches and reverse punches. Other kata applications only work when an opponent follows, say, a right kick with right lunge punch. As Vince Morris says, "but how do you know he was going to do that?".

4. The applications are anyway considered unimportant
The largest international shotokan bodies, the SKI and JKA, both do not require demonstrations of applications for 1st degree black belt. The SKI require demonstration for 4th or 5th dan and above - after you have been training for at least 15-20 years. Surely requiring 20 years of study to usefully use a kata application shows it to be the single most inefficient training methodology imaginable? Modern traditional karate (yes, an oxymoron) places 99% of its emphasis on how good the form of the kata is, not the function. Some organisations take this to ludicrous extremes - a 10 degree variation in foot or hand angle is doing it wrong. Have these people ever been in (or even seen) a real fight? My 99% figure comes from the time spent doing kata vs doing applications, and the emphasis in grading.

5. Practicing with an invisible partner is of little value
Anything and everything works on a cooperative partner. Thus if an application 'works' against a prearranged attack it gives no information on its combative value. The 'Aliveness' concept holds devastating implications for the TMA 'prearranged attack' training philosophy. If only practicing with a cooperative partner with prearranged attacks has dubious value, then practicing with none at all has much less. "But even boxers do shadow boxing" I hear you say. My response would be that you have not boxed and do not understand the purpose of shadow boxing.

7/30/04 6:32 PM
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NowhereMan22000
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Edited: 30-Jul-04
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Point #5 is the most damaging of all. Even IF the techniques were genuinely of value, simply practicing them as a kata will be very unlikely to help you to apply them in a real situation. I have had experience in or seen the 'new applications' developed by people like Patrick McCarthy, Vince Morris etc and while these are an awful lot better, points #1, #2 and #5 still apply.

In summary
The original applications, IF they existed and IF they were any good, have been lost. What is taught in their place is unrealistic rubbish that only ever works for prearranged attacks. In any case, the applications are practiced far far less than the solo performance of kata. Finally, there is a great weight of modern evidence that seriously undermines the training philosophy underpinning kata. 

If you knew you were going to be attacked in the street in 2 weeks time would you practice kata between now and then?

If you had a ring fight (full contact or semi contact) coming up in 2 weeks would you practice kata between now and then?

If you were designing a combative/self-defense system, would you have kata in it?

Kata is somewhat useful in developing attributes which are useful in fighting (balance, coordination, stamina etc) but I submit that there is no evidence to suggest that kata is the optimum program for developing these attributes and I suspect that it is an inefficient method of doing so. In reality, kata prepares you best for doing more kata.

From a combative/self-defense viewpoint, kata has little benefit and enormous opportunity cost (the cost of not doing something more beneficial).

My question
What I said above applies to karate, TKD, JJJ and kung fu (these are what I have trained in, or have trained with people who do them). Do you disagree? Do other arts not fall into the above traps?

Don't tell me kata/forms/patterns are great for self defense/unarmed combat - tell me why and how.

7/30/04 6:44 PM
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Naughty Gorilla
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Edited: 30-Jul-04 06:29 PM
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http://www.terra.es/personal/ealpan/articles/sanda.htm Look at the illustrations halfway down. Forms are useful when you don't have a partner and want to keep the movements fresh in your mind. Like shadown boxing and shadow wrestling. Shooto (Shootwrestling) jas flow drills or patterns that go from one lock to another. For an MMAist who wants to drill movements they can make their own kata out of punches, kicks, knees, shots (double legs) etc. This probably how forms got started in the first place. It might take a few minutes a day. That's not a big opportunity cost, especially if you don't always have a partner.
7/30/04 7:29 PM
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NowhereMan22000
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Edited: 30-Jul-04
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"Forms are useful when you don't have a partner and want to keep the movements fresh in your mind. Like shadown boxing and shadow wrestling. Shooto (Shootwrestling) jas flow drills or patterns that go from one lock to another. " They may be useful for that, but again the usefulnesss is predicated on the movements representing something useful - many (most?) people who do forms don't use them this way. Your post makes me wonder whether people at a certain level (say black belt) in arts where the kata applications are not realistic would not be better off making up their own kata.
7/31/04 11:59 AM
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glock4life
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Edited: 31-Jul-04
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Waste of time, plain and simple. Instead, they should be working on drills, or doing pushups or something else!

I always hated Forms, but i HAD to do them to advance in Chung Do Kwan (when CDK was important to me). I can barely remember any of them.

7/31/04 6:22 PM
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RapidAssault
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Edited: 31-Jul-04
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This might have been said elsewhere, but there is the accepted idea that forms serve as a means of passing down information, seeing that illiteracy was high back then. Of course, forms became the "textbook" for the style practiced, with the teacher there explaining the application of each movement. However, this in turn made each generation of students more dependent on their instructors for answers. Now that we are somewhat fortunate and have access to information at our finger tips, it is a wonder why there is still a reliance on forms -- other than to maintain the heirarchy. As I see it, they are a great way of preserving the past, but unfortunately, those who practice them are also drawn into the past; rather than having real progress.
7/31/04 11:17 PM
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m.g
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Edited: 31-Jul-04 11:08 PM
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Whether kata contains valuable information depends. Each Kata had a different function and purpose depending on the CREATOR of the particular Kata. Often only the creator of the kata knew what the Kata is designed for. He either kept that to himself or he taught it to others. But chances are he kept it to himself. I think if you don't know EXACTLY what the creator had in mind when he design and create a kata it is worthless to learn because it content has no meaning to you. And if a person comes up with an interpretation of a kata that is beyond or outside the intent of the creator of that kata...well that is a fruitless thing as well because the person is essentially making it mean something it didn't originally mean and the kata still loses its function and purpose. I don't think all kata were meant or design to illustrate or convey some complex or complicated technique or principle. I think some were design to a simple concept or a simple prinicple or a simple combination. Also I think the primary purpose of kata help one to recall and remember various techniques, combinations, principles etc. I think there are essentially mnemonic aids. Just like certain sayings or acronyms are meant to illict memory of a particular procedure or the like, Kata do the same. It is much much much easier to remember a single technique or prinicple when it is in sequences than when it is isolated by itself. It is easier to learn and practice the notes of a scale for ANY instrument when they are given in a specific order and sequence than when they are given one by one. I think many of the creator of various katas had a particular concept, technique, principle in mind that they wanted to have available to recall when needed. Putting the technique or whatever it is they wanted to remember into a sequence made it all the more easier for them to remember because if you wanted to remember the move all you had to do was remember the sequence. I think it would be a strand to try to remember all the moves individually. Katas exist in Bjj but they aren't called katas although they serve the same purpose. For example the three mount attack is a kata. It is a sequence of three techniques from the mount position. It doesn't matter what the moves are what is important is when you learn the sequence it is very very easy to recall the moves. It would be very hard to recall them if they were separate and isolated.
8/1/04 2:19 AM
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yusul
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Edited: 02-Aug-04 11:30 PM
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'Also I think the primary purpose of kata help one to recall and remember various techniques, combinations, principles etc. I think there are essentially mnemonic aids. Just like certain sayings or acronyms are meant to illict memory of a particular procedure or the like, Kata do the same.' this is an interesting idea, but i don't totally agree. in certain arts, kata are used to drill in fundamental posture and trasitional movements, and are more than simply aids. however, the ability to teach proper quality of movement has declined. 'It is much much much easier to remember a single technique or prinicple when it is in sequences than when it is isolated by itself. It is easier to learn and practice the notes of a scale for ANY instrument when they are given in a specific order and sequence than when they are given one by one. ' good point. proper chaining is important. as a former musician, i agree. nowhere, while i agree with 1, i would like you to expand on what you think shadow boxing is for, if you don't consider it a solo drill that helps a boxer's performance.
8/3/04 1:01 AM
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yusul
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'1. The original applications are unknown IF (and it is a big if) there truly were applications in mind when the katas were initally constructed they are now unknown to the general community. The honest masters out there will, and do, admit this. There is a great industry (books/videos) of people trying to deconstruct the kata - all coming up with different answers.' if the okinawan te really did descend from the chinese mainland (i haven't been really interested in karate to research the link), then the original PURPOSE of kata is no different than the purpose of movements found in shaolin or tai chi forms. namely, the are about developing internal body awareness, fluidity and a more meditative mind. food for thought.
8/3/04 12:31 PM
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Ogami Itto
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I haven't studied karate, but I have studied kendo and iaido and learned a lot about the bugei through my related reading. May I throw in some thoughts? 1) Kata was THE method of skills transmission for the Japanese bugei. The Japanese bugei involved the use of weapons. Dual and solo kata were practiced. It was expected that a lot of intense time would be put into the study of the kata. Bugeisha also drilled and probably had free play of some kind to accompany the kata. 2) Kata have multiple functions. Among them are to convey movements and techniques but also to develop mindset and build body and reflexes. What may seem useless or even unrealistic is, when isolated, simply one movement that is part of the style's language. For example, in iaido all the first kata start from seiza. You will never, evr be sitting in seiza with a sword at your side; it just wasn't done in a Japanese house. So why the seiza? Many theories have been advanced, among them that starting from seiza means strengthening the legs and involving the hips, fundamentals of the ryu. 3) My personal experience with weapons kata are that they have aided my free play and vice versa. Again, this is from a kendo perspective. 4) Donn Draeger has quite a bit to say on kata in volume 2, I believe, of his 3-volume classical martial arts text. Draeger describes the process of learning through kata, which begins with blind obediance to the kata, develops into broader understanding, and later produces freedom of movement. I am paraphrasing, but if you can get your hands on the text, it's very good. It corresponds to shu ha ri. Look up "shu ha ri." Again, I'm not a karateka. Could it be that, for karate, something got lost between kung fu forms and the Japanese reliance on kata? The kata may also have held religious functions, too.
8/3/04 7:11 PM
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NowhereMan22000
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Edited: 03-Aug-04
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"nowhere, while i agree with 1, i would like you to expand on what you think shadow boxing is for, if you don't consider it a solo drill that helps a boxer's performance. " Depending on the definition of 'drill', I DO consider it a "solo drill that helps a boxer's performance. " My point is that it it different from kata, for (at least) these reasons: 1. It is RANDOM: the combinations and footwork are un-planned and different every time you shadow box. 2. The boxer KNOWS what the movements 'mean': there can be no debate whatsoever as to what they are for, 3. The movements are exactly those that will be used by the boxer in the arena he is training for. IMHO, these subtle (at first glance) differences make shadow boxing quite different to kata and more useful to a boxer preparing for a fight than kata is for a TMA'er who is training for self-defense.
8/4/04 1:03 AM
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yusul
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i see. i agree with your analysis of shadow boxing. however, i found your point 5 title pretty ambiguous 'Practicing with an invisible partner is of little value', and you seemd to be attacking not only kata, but all solo drills because there's no resisting partner. which would actually be a separate argument. thank you for clarifying. however, is there really a difference between a prearranged attack/kata, and say, a 3-4 step pin to submission sequence (i do this, partner does this, so i do this and this to get to submission [which partner doesn't resist]). or a several step sequence that has permutations (if opponent does this), but doesn't deal with timing of a resisting opponent?
8/4/04 7:08 PM
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m.g
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Edited: 05-Aug-04 03:36 PM
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NoWhereMan22000, What you're saying is true to a point. However you point #2 is incorrect. Shadow boxing is not "random" or "unplanned" you infact "repeat" movement, footwork patterns, and combinations of punches. The truth of the matter is when you shadow box only certain movements and combination go together so you end up essentially doing the same thing over and over. This is true not only for combination, like for example punch combinations but also footwork. Even if you do different combination patterns there is a finite number you do. So shadow boxing is not at all "random" or unplanned. You constantly repeat "fixed" and "specific" combination patterns; combination patterns that naturally and logically fit together. You can reduce all boxing punch combination to: - the five major punches that exist and are used in boxing. - "specific" combination that these major punches are used.
8/5/04 4:26 PM
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NowhereMan22000
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"Even if you do different combination patterns there is a finite number you do. So shadow boxing is not at all "random" or unplanned" Tossing a dice is a random process, even though there are only 6 possible outcomes. So is flipping a coin. So the number of possible outomes is irrelevant in determining whether a variable is random or not. Anyway my point is not that the randomness comes in within a combination - naturally, a cross typically follows a jab and is itself often followed by a left hook. The randomness comes from having done one combination, the next one is fairly unpredictable. Of course non-random patterns could be detected, because humans are bad at choosing randomly - I wasn't really saying that it would pass a statistical test for randomness. Having natural combinations in shadow boxing is one of its strengths - those are the combinations the boxer will use in his fights.
8/5/04 11:00 PM
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yusul
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anyhow, no one has an opinion on the true purpose of kata being a form of martial arts yoga rather a training set for actual self defense?
8/6/04 4:31 AM
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masterofdisaster
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Edited: 06-Aug-04 04:23 AM
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NowhereMan, Initially I thought of a brief response such as …’Kata contains the answers but its up to you to find the questions…’ but we’re well past that mumbo jumbo :-)...right! To be a fighter you do not need kata, to be a stylist/traditionalist (one who follows a particular tradition) you need kata. We are talking about Karate - as most styles are easily identified from their katas. In my opinion there is too much focus on Kata, that is, it has been placed at the centre of the wheel, where it more rightly sits as one of the spokes of the wheel. The wheel being the tradition that we follow, whatever that may be. (tradition does not equal authenticity) Most karate-ka (karate-ka does not equal fighter) do many other supplementary exercises (hojo undo), aerobic training, jiyu kumite (free sparring), 2-man drills, weightlifting, self-defense drills, *-step sparring, and forms. And this is where kata sits a spoke in the wheel of tradition nothing more nothing less! Even senior reseachers/traditionalists admit that kata is a means of catologing techniques but only after one acquires the technique, you can't catalogue/transmit what you haven't got, (but you might find out what’s missing). Train as your desired outcomes dictate. MoD
8/6/04 6:15 AM
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Besouro
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Edited: 06-Aug-04
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IMO: First and foremost, kata is used to train body mechanics. By going through the same motions over and over, while paying carefull attention to what's going on in your body, you are able to fine tune your mechanics and build the correct neural patchways for the movements. Second, it certainly contains "hidden" techniques - well, in fact, it just contains techniques, because they're not hidden, just not passed on anymore. You don't have to look further than to Chinese styles, which are passed on relatively unchanged. For example, in Shuai Chiao you learn short 'forms' that are to be practiced without partner. Each of these forms is actually a movement for one or more throws. Now, without anybody showing you the throw represented by each of these forms, you could certainly talk about 'hidden' and 'mysterious' techniques...
8/6/04 9:51 AM
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Willybone
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I like them as a solo excercise that encourages focus and balance. Running through some of the longer forms even twice can work a good sweat for me, and I'm working pretty much every muscle group.
I think most systems just teach too many of them. I'm all for fewer forms but higher standards. I've seen too many people who can 15 forms badly. It's understandable, because I've usually felt like I was getting pushed into a new form way before I'd mastered the previous one.
8/6/04 11:40 AM
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NowhereMan22000
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Willybone, how would you define 'mastering' - what did you do on the application front? I certainly agree that they can be a workout!
8/6/04 2:08 PM
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Willybone
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how would you define 'mastering'
For me, mastering means I'm not only getting the movements of the form correct, but I'm doing them unconsciously and with correct timing. Too often, I'm still in the "and now what do I do" phase of a form when they start pushing a new one on me. This also leaves a student with a dozen forms they have to keep practicing or lose their knowledge. I think they'd be better served by just a few forms, if any.

what did you do on the application front?
I'm in full agreement with your #3 assertion. Many of the "applications" I've heard are hysterical. "This is against two guys with knives doing simultaneous attacks to your head."
My question was always, "What's wrong with just doing that move because it looks cool and it's hard to do?"

To the point, my opinions on your first two questions are:
1. Katas contain some good stuff like a book of techniques.
2. I think they only improve your practical skills in terms of general fitness through heavy practice.
8/6/04 4:39 PM
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NowhereMan22000
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Ahh, Willybone, the refreshing scent of honesty! Certainly many TMAs emphasise the 'art' side of things, at the expense, if we are being fair, of the 'martial' side. I have no problem with that whatsoever as long as people aren't hoodwinked into thinking they are doing the 'ultimate self defense art' which is what I see on many advertisements and flyers. I'll tell you what though, I'll be doing karate (and kata) when I'm sixty or seventy but I doubt if I'll be training hard in MMA into my forties.
8/6/04 9:55 PM
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m.g
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NoWhereMan22000, I think comparing the dice rolls and coin toss doesn't work very well. What you say works for those to objects but not with something like Boxing or Muay Thai. None of the sets of combinations is really "random" or "unpredictable" in those two artforms. A boxer or Muay Thai kickboxers has far more control and choice over the combination in and of themselves than a person rolling dice or flipping a coin. There may be 6 outcomes when rolling dice BUT I have no choice in which outcome will occur. BUT I do have a choice regarding the punch combinations I use AND regarding the punching combination I follow up with after completing a given combination set. You're simply incorrect in saying the execution of combinations in boxing or muay Thai are "random" and "unpredictable". That simply isn't the nature of boxing or Muay Thai.
8/7/04 8:43 PM
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Punisher73
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There may be 6 outcomes when rolling dice BUT I have no choice in which outcome will occur. BUT I do have a choice regarding the punch combinations I use AND regarding the punching combination I follow up with after completing a given combination set. ------- I would agree with this. I can take an untrained person up to a piano and he can hit "random notes" but it will not be music. Same with kata, a beginner has to learn the "music scales" so to speak before he can learn to improve and come up with his own music. Another argument about kata is are they teaching actual specific answers to specific attacks or are you learning principles/concepts that are illustrated through the kata? For example, Naihanchi kata is often said that it was taught for fighting in a rice field. While it may be adapted there, I find it very difficult to believe that such a fundamental kata would have been designed for that purpose. Now, if we look at it from a strategical standpoint what could we learn? 1) techniques to throw from a side facing postition and how to use the body from that reference point 2) how to use an object behind me so people can't get to my back . BUT, I do believe that there are katas out there that have been altered to be non functional and some that have applications associated with them that wouldn't work unless your opponent was a manequinn. Even if they are/were meaningless if a student through study can find workable meanings in them than it was not a useless pursuit.
8/8/04 9:35 PM
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glock4life
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Kata today is there to lengthen the time to get to the next rank Which means you get to collect more money from the students, which is another reason why I hated it. I would've saved myself a ton of cash if more of my training time was used on something other than forms. lso, I never disguised my disgust for Kata/forms to my instructor, which just made him judge me harder at grading times.

Unless you believe in all the mumbo jumbo, spiritual, eastern philosophy bullshit in some(most) of the TMA's, what is the point?

"Anything with a "hidden" purpose or benefit is of no benefit"--Very well said!!

8/9/04 12:41 AM
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yusul
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'Unless you believe in all the mumbo jumbo, spiritual, eastern philosophy bullshit in some(most) of the TMA's, what is the point?' glock, the problem is the people who haven't grown up in eastern culture or studied it extensively aren't qualified to give more than the shell of the philosophy. soon, this lack of depth will eventually become apparent and disillusion the practitioner. however, if you've ever had the naturalistic taoist context properly explained and demonstrated in martial arts principles, you might not consider it mumbo jumbo anymore.

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