Note: This post was originally published about a year ago. With any repositing, I intend to edit my writing and add or subtract material where needed. I hope that you get as much or more out of these posts on a second or third reading.
I have listened to many instructors over the years tell me, with absolute conviction, that if I practice drills and kata enough times, they will become second nature and, subsequently, movements I can rely on in a fight. How many times is enough? In my style (RyuTe RenMei) we have 10 guiding principles and one of them reads, “It has been said that it takes three years to comprehend a kata. In ancient days, a master studied a single kata for ten years. There is no time limit for a kata to be improved. Never be proud, even if much is accomplished. Pride hurts achievement in virtue, as well as technique and will become like a poison.”
Imagine studying one kata for ten years, doing it over and over again, thousands of times. Who has that kind of stamina? Who can maintain that much interest in something seemingly so limited? You might be that person but you are going to have to move beyond memorization before you will truly know.
We all begin the same way. Someone teaches us a series of movements and tells us to practice them over and over again. We do as we are told until, most of the time, we can get through the routine without corrections. But, due to short attention spans and the modern concept that this is, primarily, a hobby and not a job, we want more. And, whereas masters of old might have held off teaching us new material, today’s instructors deliver on that need. Within a few short years you might well have 10-20 kata that you are working on. And you might tell me that you know them all by heart. But you don’t, not really. And, until you do, you won’t fully begin to understand why and how anyone might spend ten years on just one kata.
Test yourself. Pick any kata at random. Run through it at a breakneck pace. Run through it in super slow motion. Practice the kata with shoes on, with boots on, outdoors, on uneven ground, in a phone booth (if you can still find one), in a closet, in the dark, with people watching. Do a mirror image of the kata, reverse the direction of each step, change the beginning and ending points. These are just a few ideas but if you try any of them, ask yourself if you had to think about what you were doing at all. Sure, the footwork was different but were the hands automatic or did you get confused? Any hesitation or confusion should tell you that you are not fully beyond memorization. At this point, put the alternative practice aside and go back to working on the fundamental kata. Break it down into pieces and make sure each movement or sequence is correct. Practice, practice, practice and then test yourself again.
Once you are able to run through a kata without thinking about it, a number of opportunities open up to you. You can get creative without losing the foundation that you know by heart. You can combine katas, rearrange movements, and start to really see how these pieces can be applied in a wide range of combat scenarios. You can really focus on the small aspects that often are overlooked when you are still learning the pattern. You might, for example, try to draw all your power from your center, or reduce the amount of telegraphing of movement, or improve your breathing. Once your focus changes to these aspects of your training, practicing kata is no longer drudgery. At that point, you will begin to recognize even the seemingly smallest improvements; the ones that no one else notices, but which have the greatest impact on your martial arts.