In a practice session a couple of weeks ago, I chose one of our seemingly easiest katas and gave it a lot more time than I would have normally. Initially I chose this “simple” kata so that I could focus on “other things” like breathing, flow, and footwork. The hand motions are not complicated which might be why the kata can be found in many different martial arts systems. Ironically, weeks later, I am still enthralled with the kata and it is in fact the hand motions that I have become obsessed with; changing them, that is.
Now don’t get me wrong. I do believe that katas were designed in a certain way, with a purpose, and I don’t suggest making changes willy-nilly. Learning and practicing them as shown is vitally important. However, I think it is equally wrong to see them as completely sacrosanct, particularly in context of solo training. It is one thing to make changes and then teach those changes to others. It is another thing to practice the kata differently as part of your own personal development.
Here are a couple of rules of thumb to use if this type of exploration interests you. First, do not add or subtract anything that contradicts the overriding logic of your fighting style. This is a strategy that you must always return to so that the kata remains cohesive and the new movements work with the old. Second, do not add or subtract anything that will weaken your stance or leave openings in your defense. It was in fact a feeling of vulnerability in the kata I spoke of that lead me to add additional moves in my own practice. Third, try to keep the pattern and key movements intact so that the whole form remains recognizable. This third part is important because the goal is not to make up a new form but to look for ways to challenge yourself within the existing pattern.
It has been suggested that one might also augment movements based on specific applications (bunkai). I agree that it is important to look at applications for every movement, but I don’t suggest using them exclusively to make changes. There is no one single application for any kata movement (in my opinion) and redesigning a move to fit one specific idea might well negate the other possibilities.
Recently there was a post on the blog Ikigai Way comparing the different versions of Seisan Kata. The author includes video of each version, all thought to come from a common source. Clearly change happens over time. Some of the reasons for changes in kata have to do with misinformation. A student interprets something incorrectly and goes on to teach that misinterpreted version. Their students make similar mistakes and the cycle continues. Other changes reflect the conscious efforts of masters to focus on aspects of the kata they personally find most important. These changes have often reflected their own fighting styles, body types, and the historical and cultural context of their lives. Different masters, with different ideas, have shaped the katas differently and the multitude of martial arts styles today reflect this.
In exploring changes, you will be walking in some pretty big shoes. Don’t let it go to your head. I certainly don’t think any of my ideas are ground breaking but they keep me questioning why movements work a certain way. And the only way to answer those questions is with more training. Maybe one day I will feel confident enough to share them with others but, for now, it is enough to be thinking for myself.