Kata practice is one of the cornerstones of good karate training. People practice karate for a variety of reasons, including self-defense, physical fitness, esthetics, biomechanics study and as a competition sport. Similarly, kata practice can involve various training ideologies and can enhance the overall training experience no matter which of the above reasons one may study karate. The study of the self-defense applications of the movements is just one of the ways to train kata.
A few terms that I’ve seen get thrown around a lot these days, often incorrectly:
Many misinterpret bunkai to mean application. Application is just one method of analyzing kata movements. Some people think that oyo is something to the effect of “hidden meanings.” Oyo is a subset of bunkai, as application is a subset of analysis.
Levels of application study:
Some consider there to be only one application for each move. Some consider there to be 5 or more levels. Here is how I usually classify levels of application:
1. Basic punch/strike/block/kick applications.
2. Basic punch/strike/block/kick applications, involving more than just the final/primary technique.
3. Breaking out of grabs.
4. Involving more complex grappling such that the defender (kata performer) is not just breaking out, but rather maintaining contact and often counter-grabbing.
Most “traditional” dojo seem to limit application study to level one only, possibly substituting other level applications for just a few moves. In my opinion, there is nothing wrong with studying the first level to the point that those applications become part of the practitioners’ subconscious. But let’s not forget that Shotokan and most other styles of karate up until about the 1920’s involved practice of kata only. Kata application-not simply the level 1 applications-were a very integral part of karate training back when Funakoshi Sensei started training. Isn’t that actually more “traditional” a method of training, then?
Regardless of what is more traditional, there is definitely value in devoting at least some time to the study of the deeper levels of kata application.
Note: Not all moves include applications at all 4 levels. Some moves have more than one possible application for a given move. Some moves can also incorporate weapons’ use. Some moves can involve applications that deviate slightly from their basic kata form, but a large deviation should not be necessary.
Let’s take the first move of Heian Shodan for an example of how one might study the various levels of kata application. These are just some examples of possible applications. There are more, a lot more.
Level 1: Down-block or lower-level strike with hammer-fist
Level 2: Punch and/or block before stepping into down-block or strike and/or elbow strike to back
Level 3: During intermediate move, opponent grabs right wrist. With left fist, strike opponent’s wrist to break free.
Level 4: A) For same grab as above, aim instead for opponent’s elbow or shoulder, twisting opponent down towards your left leg. Or opponent grabs left wrist with either of his hands: punch with right arm and twist opponent over toward your left knee by bending his arm at the elbow and/or shoulder. Or…
As you can see from the above example, the deeper levels of application are more complex and usually require considerably more practice to reach a high level of competency. In defense of study of level 1 applications, these meanings are usually more easily taught and understood. Furthermore, learning only one application for a given move may mean that it can be more naturally applied in a realistic encounter, where there is no time to think. I usually teach only level 1 applications until they are understood. Then, I introduce levels 2-4.
For those interested in discussions on kata application, there are various resources available both on the internet and in book format. Please feel free to contact me with any specific questions you may have on this subject.
Copyright © 2022, Jon Keeling (originally published March 1999)