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I have been reading various blogs this week, some specific to my own style, and some more general in their scope. Two questions started to emerge from the noise: “How do we define kata? How does that definition affect the way we use kata in our solo training?” And, whether you caught it or not, I have just given away my position on the subject.

Many schools, lineages, and styles teach kata out of a desire to preserve their history. The forms are put up on a pedestal and treated as an almost sacred connection between modern times and the ancient past. Many of the movements are interpreted as symbolic, especially those at the beginning and ending of the forms. Even though there is more interest these days in bunkai (practical applications), by and large, there is little connection seen between these choreographed routines and “real fighting.”

This way of thinking leads teachers and students alike to see kata as untouchable, unchangeable. Despite the fact that one can find innumerable variations of any widely practiced kata, no one wants to take responsibility for those changes. “This is how we do it. This is how it has always been done. Don’t change it or a piece of our history will be lost.”

But there is another way to define kata. Instead of seeing it as an artifact, see it as a tool. It may be an old tool but it was created with a purpose and that purpose is to teach self-defense techniques. A carpenter never cuts with a saw just to cut; he needs something shorter for what he is building. The tool is subservient to the final product. Kata should function the same way, especially as part of our solo training. And, if alterations help us to learn, we should not fear them.

Probably the most commonly know story of alterations has to do with the creation of the five Pinan katas around 1900. These kata were the brainchild of Anko Itosu, who had recently begun teaching karate in the Okinawan school system. He discovered that the children had a hard time learning longer, more complex katas. He took movements from Kusanku and Channan in particular, and divided them into the Pinans for easier instruction. These kata are now part of many Okinawan, Japanese, and Korean systems and no one dares change them.

I am not suggesting that we all follow Itosu’s example and start changing things willy-nilly (He did have a reason for the changes he made). In fact, I am a firm believer in continually practicing kata as shown so that, when the time comes for us to teach, we pass things along as unchanged as possible. However, in addition to this practice, we will benefit from questioning the movements, experimenting, adding and subtracting things, or simply working in individual sections to the exclusion of the rest of the form. In some ways kata is less a tool and more of an entire tool shop. And, like a carpenter selects the right tool for a specific job, we can select the sections of kata that help us grow and overcome our own personal obstacles.

The key is to always keep the goal of self-defense at the forefront of our mind and see every part of our practice as subservient to that goal. Over time, changes will probably occur. I would be hard pressed to believe anyone who says that the katas in their style have never changed. But, if the goal is adhered to, those changes may not be all bad. Instead they may reflect the different perspectives and levels of understanding of individuals committed to using their tools effectively. What greater lineage could there be than that.

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