Uselessness of kata in the real world!

Cayuga Karate

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Since I began training in the mid-70s, I have been intensely interested in the application of Okinawan kata movements in fighting scenarios.

I have had reasonably broad exposure to these kata, and the attempts by many to make sense of it all. My original system was Shito Ryu under Kuniba and Hayashi, and both of those masters were reknowned for application of kata. I have trained with Oyata's students, also devoted to bunkai. Patrick McCarthy has made efforts to share a broader range of application. And in more recent times, we have had a number of karateka doing the same including Iain Abernethy, Tony Annesi and Vince Morris. There are a lot of ongoing efforts of karateka trying to make sense of these strange sequences we know as kata. What we typically find is those with experience in other arts, especially grappling arts, find sequences of movements in kata that map quite well to the locks and takedowns they have learned in Judo, Jiu jitsu, Aikido, Tai Chi's Chi Na, etc.

I would argue the following regarding bunkai.

Regarding the application of kata to empty hand fighting:

1. The kata often do not provide complete sets of movements for application. Something often has to be added. Let's consider the first the first four directions of Bassai Dai as found in systems practiced by students of Itosu: Funakoshi, Mabuni, Toyoma and Chibana, who named his version "Itosu Passai". There are several series of two armed movements, often called blocks, with no corresponding strikes. One common application is to block twice, then add one or more counters. You can find this "adding of movements" to many systems' approaches to application. You find things not in the kata. There is nothing wrong with this. But it worth noting, it is common to find "things added" to actually make the kata movement work.


2. Many kata, especially in Shorin ryu, have long asymmetric sequences forward and back, often punctuated with symmetric patterns side to side and on angles. What I have found is that many systems have some fairly decent applications for the side to side movements. They often lend themselves to close-in fighting. However, for the long sequences to the front and rear, it is indeed hard to find something useful. What generally occurs is an application for short pieces of the forward sequence. The full sequence is rarely treated as a complete unit of fighting. What we often times find when the full sequence forward is treated fully as a unit, is an attacker who must retreat while punching. There are lots of examples on youtube of this kind of approach. The obvious problem is that under most imaginable realistic defensive scenarios in empty hand fighting, the attacker is arm's distance away. So there is a simple engineering challenge in attempting to respond to an empty hand attack while charging forward with three or four strides. The attackers body is in your way.

3. There are, in general, several problems with the way applications have been handed down from Okinawa. The first is the unrealistic attacking strike that occurs in much bunkai that is taught. A person charges in using a long, low stance, freezes at the end, and punches in front of his own solar plexus. Some have endeavored to add more realistic attacks, including Oyata's students who often attack as a boxer would with hands high, shuffling in, and attacking the head. It is my experience that there is far too little emphasis on common attacks, especially, the left jab-right-cross attack to the head, a basic unit of attack to anyone trained in a modern striking art. The big challenge here is that so much of karate kata have movements where the hands are down low, such as in a downward block position, with one hand on the hip.

4. The second obvious challenge to the way much application is taught is that it often revolves around a single counter attack, very often to the solar plexus. First, this is simply, the wrong target. And we all know it. In kumite, we often punch reasonably hard to the body, and aim for the solar plexus. It is very difficult to hit. And when you miss, you hit the sternum, pectoral, ribs, and abdominal muscles. Strikes to these areas, especially against larger attackers, are often not very useful. In addition, while your hand is low, at his solar plexus, your chin is open, leaving you vulnerable to his hook.

5. In addition, the lack of multiple strike counters is a fundamental challenge to the effective application of kata to empty hand fighting. The whole concept of one strike-responses in empty hand fighting is a myth, a fallacy. It has no place in modern training for self defense. One only has to look at kobudo kata where it is not uncommon to find the bo wail 5, 6, 7 times in one direction to recognize the Okinawans may not have fully bought into this whole one-strike concept. Kama kata can have up to a dozen cuts in one direction. Nunchaku kata can have numerous strikes before changing direction. If one needs to train to hit an opponent multiple times with a weapon, how could it possibly make sense to train to hit him just once with your fist.

6. The hands are simply in the sub-optimal positions many applications of kata. In modern fighting systems, fighters understand that while a punch thrown from the hand chambered at the cheek may not be the strongest punch, it is far safer than one thrown from the hip. That is the unfortunate truth. It is simply way too dangerous to have the hands away from the face. Your head is too vulnerable. It's a trade-off. You give up some power to ensure your head is fully protected.

This is not to say that there are no circumstance in which a punch launched from a hip-chamber is not optimal. There are many scenarios. For example, any time a successful initial counter momentarily prevents the attacker from counterstriking, you have far greater flexibility in how you continue your attack.

7. There are a few important components lacking in kata that are necessary tools in effective self defense training. First and foremost, there are no hooks in kata. There are hook-type motions. Naihanchi is but one example that has a number of these. But a hook has a distinct twisting motion that pretty much requires one to lift the back heel off the ground. Kata have heels on the ground. Second, as we all know, there are plenty of front kicks in kata, but no roundhouse kicks.

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I have been following these discussions on kata applicability on these kind of forums going back a decade when they were news-groups. (Can anyone remember alt.rec.martial-arts)

Let me give you a fictional discussion that includes bits and pieces from these types of posts.


Poster A: Okinawan kata are encyclopedias of self-defense movements for empty hand fighting.

Poster B: I gave up kata long ago. I didn't see any practical use for it. I find my training better suits me if I do more kumite, more striking work and a few grappling techniques for special circumstances.

Poster A: You must have come from a dojo where kata application was not taught.

Poster B: No, it was taught but it wasn't realistic. It didn't model fighting as I understand fighting to be. A big guy is pummelling my head. That's what I am training against.

Poster A: Well if you had gone to the right kind of dojo, they would have taught you useful empty hand applications from kata.

Poster B: I practiced for years in the xyz system. It's Okinawan. Shouldn't they have done it correctly.

Poster A: Well, that might be the problem. You see that in my system, our kata is the original kata, and that may be the problem. You see, the kata in your system is different. They must have been changed, and when that happened they lost their original applications.

Poster B: I don't know about that. I learned these kata were the ones that master ABC taught to master DEF. They must be old and original.

Poster A: Sorry to disappoint you fella, but it is widely know that master ABC changed the kata. My system is still the original way.

Poster B: I am still unconvinced. Can you share some ideas that you find useful.

Poster A: Go do a search on youtube. You'll find plenty.

Poster B: I did a search, and didn't find much. Can you give me a few links?

Poster A: Here are two links.

Poster B: I looked at these links and found movements that I find unrealistic. The attacker charges in with a single strike and freezes, while the defender does techniques with his hands down, not protecting his head. I don't believe those kinds of applications are good empty hand fighting. Can you share something that you practice in your dojo?

Poster A: Sorry, can't help you there. You see our system is very private, and we don't share on the Internet. (Or... our moves are secret. We don't share them.)

Poster B: Can anyone on this forum share some useful ideas they practice in their dojos

Other posters: S I L E N C E.
------

You can see this thing time and again on forum such as martialtalk. You have to look no further back than 8 threads ago when superfly posted a request for bunkai.

[URL="http://www.martialtalk.com/forum/showthread.php?98193-Bunkai-Applications"]Bunkai/applications[/URL]

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My purpose here was certainly not to argue that there aren't a lot of good applications out there. There are. And we should expect ever more as more people look to draw lessons from their training and come up with their own ideas. However, we should recognize that maybe, just maybe, there are sequences in kata that just might not map all that well to empty hand self defense. And you know what? That's just fine.

Those who know my background will understand that I have my own rather unique viewpoint on why I believe we shouldn't expect empty hand kata to translate completely into empty hand self defense. I do believ that. However, I also believe that every known movement from every Okinawan kata that likely was taught to Okinawans by Chinese people in Okinawa, make complete and total sense. I can't find a movement that is not useful. And thanks to youtube, there are perhaps 100 versions of these Okinawan empty hand kata that were likely taught by Chinese in Okinawa. I say likely, because it was all taught in secret so we can will never verify for sure. Motobu lists around 12 that were passed down. Funakoshi, a couple of more. Due to the variations found in these kata, that adds up to perhaps 80 unique kata on youtube. (Many, many, share many common movements.) These omit all the variation we have from Aragaki which number perhaps a dozen on Youtube.

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But that is another discussion, another thread, another time.

For those that doubt the effectiveness of kata, please accept that there's quite a bit of really good application out there being practiced, but not all that much on Youtube.

And for those that believe that kata are infallible textbooks of useful application, it might be worthwhile to reconsider whether that is truly the case. Don't believe everything your teacher tells you. Use critical judgment. After all, it's your head that needs protecting in a fight.

I am one of probably many that believe that much of the bunkai practiced today is more bunk than bunkai. Yes, it might work in the artificial world of the dojo, where the attacker is frozen, in a deep stance after a single strike. I have strong advice for those that have been misinformed by their teachers about the utility of these concepts in actual fighting. Please, please don't fall for some of the tall tales taught in many dojos. Any school that practices attacking with a single strike to the solar plexus, and defending with single strikes to the solar plexus are training their students in "dojo" fighting, something very different from actual fighting. Some of the body mechanics are transferrable, but it just makes no sense to limit your "application" training to poor defenses against unlikely attacks.

Yes karate kata doesn't have hooks. Use them anyway. Yes karate kata often requires you add something. Add a three strike combo before that armbar. Don't just really on single strikes. And while you are at it, put a hook in that three strike combo. A real hook, not in front stance or back stance, but just as it is supposed to be thrown.

After a kick to the groin, the attackers head just might sink a foot or two before rebounding. Hit him with that hook, right upside his head. Don't worry that it is not in the kata. Any good fighter will tell you it's an essential tool in your toolbox.

Cayuga Karate​
 

Tez3

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When people post up asking for Bunkai for katas they are likely to have little response to be honest as it seems to be an easy way out of learning Bunkai. It's like they want others to do the work for them, having the Bunkai explained to you over the internet is a rather lazy way of learning. In superfly's case he hadn't learnt any Bunkai at all on his way to his black belt testing so posted expecting us to provide Bunkai for all the katas leading up to that test, it's little wonder he got little help in his 'quest'.

the deep stance isn't a fighting stance as such and I've learnt from Iain Abernethy exactly how that is to be used (incidentally the MMA fighters use that deep stance when holding someone up against the cage) Iain's application for that stance is practicable, useful in a 'street' situation and not at all obsolete and no I'm not going to put it up! The clue however is in the word 'Hikite'. No one who does Bunkai usefully will do the single punch from a deep front stance.
 

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heh, randomly i decide to check this post and immediately see my name mentioned :)

yeh my issue is i havent been introduced to bunkai until VERY late in my training (one thing i'll bring up with my sensei on thursdays training) so im kinda working from a blank slate here and there are so many options, variations, interpretations of applications of kata that asking 'can you show me bunkai for all these katas?' is probably too vague a question to get a proper answer.

tez gave me a nice answer and gave me a couple of things to think about but until i have a proper chance to try out a few things with a partner i'll still be a bit confused about it. i missed training last week as i was away so im really keen to spend my entire training session trying things out and finding out exactly whats involved.

what i have learnt is just because the kata has a certain movement or direction doesnt necessarily mean that is set in stone. movements can be adapted to other less obvious purposes and directions can be adapted to suit where the attacker is coming from. the key to kata is learning variations of movements open to you; it is up to you to be able to apply them effectively in a real situation.

I believe this article sums up the practicallity of kata "bunkai" very well

http://seinenkai.com/art-bunkai.html

edit:
and i wish a link like this had been posted on my thread. VERY informative
 

Ojisan

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Fly,

You talked about adapting "direction" based on where the attack is coming from. One fundamental principle in kata is that the direction you change to is the angle of attack you should assume toward your opponent based on his location (right in front of you) before the change of direction.

OK, to be somewhat clearer. In Pinan Shodan, from the initial stance you turn your body sideways to the left. This might suggest that an attack is happening from your left side, however it is more likely that the kata is addressing how to deal with your opponent in front of you and how turning purpendicular to your opponent may give you advantage depending on how you interpret the attack.

FWIW

Bill Bent
 

Victor Smith

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Cayuga,

There is truth in what you say but there are also other answers. Shiroma Shimpan in the 1938 "Karate Do Taikan" clearly shows that additional techniques were added to kata technique, so changes to kata that seem to be missing something were likely done so on purpose, but the adept in that tradition would receive them. Similar to 'Kakushite' described by Demura does the same thing. I suspect that only more advanced practitioners received such training and many who passed their art along may not have gotten that far, but Shiroma shows how to say the least.

Likewise the two side blocks in Passai are themselves one technique not two singular techniques, a parry then lock/takedown. Just a different timing in efficient application than used for kata performance. Just a different answer than the other Passai kata.

As for hook strikes, well Isshinryu starts them as basics and they're included in SunNuSu kata and are effective.

But I personally believe bunkai is to restrictive a methodology to view karate application study.
 

SuperFLY

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Fly,

You talked about adapting "direction" based on where the attack is coming from. One fundamental principle in kata is that the direction you change to is the angle of attack you should assume toward your opponent based on his location (right in front of you) before the change of direction.

OK, to be somewhat clearer. In Pinan Shodan, from the initial stance you turn your body sideways to the left. This might suggest that an attack is happening from your left side, however it is more likely that the kata is addressing how to deal with your opponent in front of you and how turning purpendicular to your opponent may give you advantage depending on how you interpret the attack.

FWIW

Bill Bent

i guess what you mean is just because a kata has you turning to the left for example doesnt mean that's where the attack is coming from. that seems most highlighted in the multiple attacker bunkai's where attacks are coming in from 2 or more directions at the same time and the movement (in whatever direction) can defend against both attacks regardless of the direction you're turning.
 

seasoned

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Fly,

You talked about adapting "direction" based on where the attack is coming from. One fundamental principle in kata is that the direction you change to is the angle of attack you should assume toward your opponent based on his location (right in front of you) before the change of direction.

OK, to be somewhat clearer. In Pinan Shodan, from the initial stance you turn your body sideways to the left. This might suggest that an attack is happening from your left side, however it is more likely that the kata is addressing how to deal with your opponent in front of you and how turning purpendicular to your opponent may give you advantage depending on how you interpret the attack.

FWIW

Bill Bent
Great point, Bill. Before assuming multiply opponents, working the kata angles as presented within the kata, with the attacker in front of you is paramount to understanding kata...
 

Victor Smith

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Yet a different perspectives is to learn the application potential of turning with kata turns as a guide. More than just changing angles to execute a technique the turn itself may be a lower body sweep making the rest of the technique superfulous.
 

seasoned

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Granted there are many throws in Okinawan GoJo that explain some turns as well as the angels for facing and repositioning stance. I feel that kata is all inclusive, and contain a vast understanding of combat. We just need to decipher, as you have done over many years. :)
 

Steve

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Bringing this thread back from the dead, in lieu of starting another (or derailing) another one.

Folks are starting to talk about "true understanding of kata". What does that mean to you? When you think of people who truly understand kata, whom do you have in mind? Can you provide some examples of actual people whom you believe "understand" kata?
 

Kung Fu Wang

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Can you provide some examples of actual people whom you believe "understand" kata?
First you have to assume that the form contain no error in it. If the form creator created it wrong, how can you understand the wrong move in the form?

In the other thread, I stated that I don't understand the "flip arm" movement. I believe my teacher don't understand it. I also believe his teacher don't understand it.

 

Bill Mattocks

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Bringing this thread back from the dead, in lieu of starting another (or derailing) another one.

Folks are starting to talk about "true understanding of kata". What does that mean to you? When you think of people who truly understand kata, whom do you have in mind? Can you provide some examples of actual people whom you believe "understand" kata?
I have re-read the thread, including my contributions from 11 years ago. Still ok with my own statements, mostly.

I don't think I've used the term 'true' understanding, nor do I think there is such a thing. I might have said many who dismiss kata as useless don't truly understand it, but that's somewhat different.

Any movement, in my opinion, can have more than one meaning, and more than one useful application. Lets say a person punches you, you do a simple block. Nothing wrong with that.

One of my senseis would do exactly that. Oh, and because he's so dang good at understanding timing and nerve points and hard/soft techniques, he could do the same block 20 different ways and the varying types of pain I'd receive would be a smorgasbord.

Another would demonstrate the same basic movement, but it would instead become an arm bar, and with speed, accuracy, and a firm understanding of body mechanics, he'd have me looking at the ceiling faster than I could say ouch. Then he'd show me another ten ways to do it, each resulting in a different fascinating contortion of my old inflexible body.

And they'd always invite all comers to give their best effort. Avoid whatever they chose to do. Punch them fast and hard. Throw the other hand instead. They'd make it work. You'd believe it.

That's one simple move. I could spend the entire class plus after hours practice trying to nail down two or three of those moves. If all I wanted to do was that one move and all the variations they showed me, months of diligent practice.

They are my senseis two primary instructors. They've been training with him since they were 13. They're in their mid 50s now. They are dangerous men.

My sesnsei who taught them is as beyond them as they are beyond me. You ask who, anyone who knows my sensei knows I do not exaggerate. I have never, ever, been able to say "Show me how that works in real life" and not gotten an instant and thorough demonstration.

I was 46 when I started training. A former Marine, an MP, former LEO, not some easily impressionable kid. I don't belive in magic or woo-woo karate. I've seen one or two things that challenged my belief in science, but beyond that, I'm satisfied that what I've chosen to devote my life to learning is a deep, complete, and powerful self-defense system that also has given me meaning and purpose in a deeper personal way as I've gotten older and lost my physical prowess.

I'll never truly understand the kata I study. I know three men who are closer than anyone I've seen to date. Sure, I'm biased. But I also know what I am capable of with the meager amount I've learned from them. It's freaking scary. If they can teach me, superior students are in for a treat.
 

Hanzou

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Bringing this thread back from the dead, in lieu of starting another (or derailing) another one.

Folks are starting to talk about "true understanding of kata". What does that mean to you? When you think of people who truly understand kata, whom do you have in mind? Can you provide some examples of actual people whom you believe "understand" kata?

Look forward to seeing the answers.
 

dvcochran

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I have re-read the thread, including my contributions from 11 years ago. Still ok with my own statements, mostly.

I don't think I've used the term 'true' understanding, nor do I think there is such a thing. I might have said many who dismiss kata as useless don't truly understand it, but that's somewhat different.

Any movement, in my opinion, can have more than one meaning, and more than one useful application. Lets say a person punches you, you do a simple block. Nothing wrong with that.

One of my senseis would do exactly that. Oh, and because he's so dang good at understanding timing and nerve points and hard/soft techniques, he could do the same block 20 different ways and the varying types of pain I'd receive would be a smorgasbord.

Another would demonstrate the same basic movement, but it would instead become an arm bar, and with speed, accuracy, and a firm understanding of body mechanics, he'd have me looking at the ceiling faster than I could say ouch. Then he'd show me another ten ways to do it, each resulting in a different fascinating contortion of my old inflexible body.

And they'd always invite all comers to give their best effort. Avoid whatever they chose to do. Punch them fast and hard. Throw the other hand instead. They'd make it work. You'd believe it.

That's one simple move. I could spend the entire class plus after hours practice trying to nail down two or three of those moves. If all I wanted to do was that one move and all the variations they showed me, months of diligent practice.

They are my senseis two primary instructors. They've been training with him since they were 13. They're in their mid 50s now. They are dangerous men.

My sesnsei who taught them is as beyond them as they are beyond me. You ask who, anyone who knows my sensei knows I do not exaggerate. I have never, ever, been able to say "Show me how that works in real life" and not gotten an instant and thorough demonstration.

I was 46 when I started training. A former Marine, an MP, former LEO, not some easily impressionable kid. I don't belive in magic or woo-woo karate. I've seen one or two things that challenged my belief in science, but beyond that, I'm satisfied that what I've chosen to devote my life to learning is a deep, complete, and powerful self-defense system that also has given me meaning and purpose in a deeper personal way as I've gotten older and lost my physical prowess.

I'll never truly understand the kata I study. I know three men who are closer than anytone I've seen to date. Sure, I'm biased. But I also know what I am capable of with the meager amount I've learned from them. It's freaking scary. If they can teach me, superior students are in for a treat.
Love this post Bill.

I think some of your experience and the expression in you post crosses over into the philosophical side of learning a MA. Which, of course, gets even deeper and broader in regard to 'explaining' something.

Kata/forms/hyungs/poomsae/etc; at the base level are just a compilation of movements for practice. Just like the progression and maturation a person goes through in any taught process, things should refine and get better; more polished. The body/brain commits them to memory and they become more a part of the person.
In the ensuing study and time committed to the kata, a person can expand on their understanding of what is happening or what can be done with or within the movements, outside the confines of the base language.
This is comparable to the system of education where a person can go from learning grade school English to associate to bachelor to Master to PhD levels of learning. And then still continue to expand on the learning (aka, training).
How else do we think new ideas and new things are developed?
Expansion is one of the greatest prime movers of the human mind. This is no different for the martial arts in my humble opinion.

To this point, I believe a person never 'finishes' a form. A pursuing person should continually find new and practical things within a form. This is one of the best proof's that a person is actively training and working, especially in a TMA
Let's face it; most of the originators are either long gone or getting very old. This is something I am facing. My 82- year old GM had knee surgery yesterday. He has been slowing down for some time so naturally I worry about his future and the future of our main school.
 

Oily Dragon

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Part of the issue with this dead horse debate is part of that "understanding" thing is physical, not just mental discipline or learning. The amount of challenge a form presents makes a huge diff.

Not all forms are the same. Some kata are slow and performative. Some of the first fist sets in a number of TMA are physically grueling and impossible to do without significant training of the body and breathing, just like Yoga has variation of difficulty, some TMA hit you with suffering right from the start. You "learn" them but that is only step one. The thousand reps after are for getting stronger, faster, and most important of all, calmer. Calm wins fights.

Sadly, a lot of really bright, smart people who know kata well, but have little physical discipline to show for it.
 

Steve

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Part of the issue with this dead horse debate is part of that "understanding" thing is physical, not just mental discipline or learning. The amount of challenge a form presents makes a huge diff.

Agreed. I've heard kata described as the alphabet upon with karate is built. Using that analogy, the conundrum I run into is what's in between learning the alphabet song, writing sentences, and then writing a well crafted story. Not everyone can write a good story, and the journey in between learning to write and learning to write well involves a LOT of writing... a LOT of feedback.

So, with kata, it's like this odd mix of two incompatible things. On one hand, kata are a mysterious, esoteric exercise that some few will fully understand. On the other hand, they are a practical drill that, according to some, will teach you what you need to know for self defense.

But in both, there is a bunch of stuff in the middle that is just sort of glossed over. It's like the joke with kids, where you can count from 1 to 100 in less than 4 seconds. "One, two, skip a few, 99, 100!"

Not all forms are the same. Some kata are slow and performative. Some of the first fist sets in a number of TMA are physically grueling and impossible to do without significant training of the body and breathing, just like Yoga has variation of difficulty, some TMA hit you with suffering right from the start. You "learn" them but that is only step one. The thousand reps after are for getting stronger, faster, and most important of all, calmer. Calm wins fights.

Sadly, a lot of really bright, smart people who know kata well, but have little physical discipline to show for it.
 

J. Pickard

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Maybe they are all just really bad at training kata so their kata is useless and so just assume if their kata is useless then all kata are useless. It's a lot easier to project that idea than going back, learning something new, then admitting you were wrong.
 

SahBumNimRush

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To this point, I believe a person never 'finishes' a form. A pursuing person should continually find new and practical things within a form. This is one of the best proof's that a person is actively training and working, especially in a TMA
Let's face it; most of the originators are either long gone or getting very old. This is something I am facing. My 82- year old GM had knee surgery yesterday. He has been slowing down for some time so naturally I worry about his future and the future of our main school.
I am facing a similar situation as well. My Kwan Jang Nim stopped dying his hair during the pandemic, which really shows his age as a Korean. Since 1985 I have known him to be a youthful looking and powerful martial artist. He is now in his 80's and, he is also slowing down.

I hope we can continue to pass down the knowledge and skill that has been passed down to us. It's a responsibility I hadn't put much thought into, until recently.
 

ThatOneCanadian

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Here's how I like to view it:
In order to do a good kata, you have to be physically and mentally conditioned in every aspect of your being. And if you have such conditioning, you can probably fair decently well in a self defense situation. In other words, if some mentally unstable troublemaker attacks a conditioned athlete, the athlete will most likely win.
Some people ask me "But why not just practice by sparring? Isn't that more useful?" And to that I say yes, sparring is more useful, but also more dangerous. Kata has little to no injury risk.
 

angelariz

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I have a different view of forms than I had as a younger guy. After a big accident all I could do was forms to rehab from my whiplash and back injuries.
Also, as I understand it, forms are the encyclopedia of alot of traditional styles.
 

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