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Kata as Mental Exercise

    The practice of kata within the martial arts is done on several levels. Physically, it is exercise, basics in motion. It is also a great way to rehearse movement and create muscle memory. Traditionally, katas were patterns of movement that were passed from generation to generation of martial arts practitioners, much the same way oral history was passed down through songs and poems.

    Spiritually, it is said, kata is moving meditation. The practitioner enters a zone, where movement is balanced, technique is perfect, and the mind is calm and still, with the practitioner fully alert and in the moment, yet not consciously concentrating on what he is doing at all.

    The bridge between the physical practice of kata and this spiritual state of practice is in disciplining the mind during the practice of karate. For many years now, I have employed a concept during my kata practice to help discipline my mind to a higher degree of focus. The concept is based on two things, a Japanese word, "Zanshin," and a line that Jimmy Ibrao kept using at the Gathering of Eagles during the Panther seminar, "You just let your form die."

    Zanshin is a type of mental focus that refers to a state of readiness at the end of a given movement. In other words, if you throw a reverse punch, lock it out, then pull it back with intention, the state of zanshin has been achieved for that punch. If, however, you throw a punch, lock it, then allow it to come back, or shift your focus to another movement and allow the arm to drop, then zanshin has not been achieved, and to quote Jimmy Ibrao, "Your punch died."

    In a form, once the form has begun, the whole body is "alive," meaning that no movement is without meaning or intent, no matter how small. Obviously, this is much easier to do in a form such as Short #3 than Tiger and Crane. The problem with the numbered Kenpo forms is that they have techniques that have beginnings and endings. Therefore, one can practice the form fully achieving the state of zanshin with each separate technique, yet neglect to achieve it for the form. This is done by ending, say, Bridging the Gap in Short #3, then relaxing the body and hands as you make the step to 10:30, then refocusing on Headlock. During the transition, the kata has died although the techniques may be perfect. To keep the form alive, there must be an intentional, focused transition of movement from one technique to the next.

    The trick is to focus your attention during the transitions. Don't allow them to happen, give them meaning. Some are done for you. For example, in Short #3, after 2 Headed Serpent, feet return to attention, hands punch straight down, then the hands come up as eyestrikes, and then you drop into the beginning of Circling Elbows. Without the specific transition, the hands would naturally move through almost the same positions, yet by giving meaning to the transition, the practitioner is required to continue to focus on all the movements of the body during the transition, not rest through the step to the next technique.

    Practicing the kata in this way, it becomes more than a collection of techniques, more than a physical exercise, it becomes a mental exercise in focus, and it allows us to take inventory of our movements, no matter how minute. In a kata, the stances should always be perfect, posture should always be perfect, balance and footwork should be perfect, breathing should be coordinated with movement, and all movements should be done at their full range of motion. Each technique should be practiced as a separate technique, but what will bridge them together into a smooth, uniform kata is the maintenance of the state of zanshin not only during the techniques and between the techniques.

    It is this type of focus that allows us to begin to transcend the physical aspect of our karate and allow it to become a mental state. It starts with basics. The kick is not finished, concentration not broken, until the kick is back on the ground. The self-defense technique is not finished until the last movement of the technique is completely finished and back on the ground, or chambered, or a fighting position has been re-assumed. And a kata is not finished until the closing bow is completed.

    At the end of a particularly lengthy kata, years ago, my instructor praised my form and my power, then asked me how many times I had blinked my eyes.

"Sir?" I replied, snapping back to reality.

He then went on to explain to me that, if I were completely aware of and in control of the movements of my body, I would have known how many times I had blinked, and how many breaths I had taken.

***************************************************************************

David Hopper

4th Dan, Tracy’s Kenpo Karate

January 29, 2001

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