I'm currently learning a new kata in karate, a particularly challenging one named Seienchin Kata that is turning me hither and yon, this way and that as I try to piece it together. That, combined with some recent conversations about the application of various moves got me thinking about why we do kata and so I've been doing a bit of reading online and from books this morning. I think that there are a number of different reasons we do kata, none of them are mutually exclusive and in order to get the full benefit of kata training I think we need to focus on different aspects at different times. I'd like to touch on three or four different things and then end by pointing you to a very interesting blog post on kata application versus performance I ran across a few minutes ago.
Physical Strength: One of the most basic functions of kata practice is that it makes the practitioner stronger. At the simplest level, you are repeating a series of physical movements, moving your body, striking with your hands, kicking with your feet, transitioning through different stances, all of which works your body in ways a little outside the norm. As you go deeper with the kata, more of your body gets involved as the legs become vital parts of your hand techniques, the hip motion becomes more pronounced and your breathing becomes deeper, strengthening your core and the dynamic tension of certain moves works your muscles even more profoundly.
Flexibility: I'm not the most flexible person in the world when it comes to static stretches and so forth, but when I'm consistently training with my kata, my dynamic flexibility can be pretty good. A lot of old school practitioners scoff at high kicks in kata as being useless when it comes to application, but I like practicing much of the time using high kicks because of the physical benefits. Master Hansley used to always say that we learn and practice the hard way so that we always have the ability to do it the hard way, but also because it makes us better and faster when we do it the easy way.
Concentration and Focus: Kata is an activity that can far too easily become rote and mechanical. You're doing something that you've hopefully done hundreds and thousands of times before so that the actual progression of moves and techniques should literally be a no-brainer. But when you start a kata, you should be totally immersed in it so that there is no separation between the practitioner and the kata. Part of that means you need to decide what you are doing in the kata before you start. Are you just trying to learn the moves? Are you pushing your flexibility and strength by focusing on deep stances and high kicks? Are you thinking about application? Are you working on speed, smoothness, center of gravity? Or are you approaching the kata without an agenda, looking to find what it can teach you rather than setting the terms of the conversation ahead of time? I think that if you set out ahead of time with an agenda you are using the kata in a different way than the purist form--you are using the kata rather than experiencing it. And that's fine--we train for different reasons at different times--just don't forget to frequently approach kata without an agenda so it can teach you. This is part of what's meant by beginner's mind--keeping yourself open to what the kata can teach you rather than telling it what you want to learn. But always make sure before you start a kata that you know why you are approaching it and keep make sure that animates the kata once you start.
Application (bunkai): Just like our practice of kata can have a lot of different levels and purposes, so can bunkai. There's always the most obvious level of bunkai, wherein the low block in a Taikyoku kata is just that, a low block (a low block is a low block is a low block). There are other ways to look at that low block, for instance, consider that the block may actually be part of the chambering movement and then what we assume is the low block is actually a strike to a pressure point in the leg. Some look at the 3/4 turn in the Taikyoku kata as a hip throw. Sometimes we approach the bunkai in a kata as a long series of interconnected defenses, other times we break the kata down into discrete combinations with very specific and often nuanced applications. It's good to have an application in mind as you learn and go through the kata and as you consider it afterwards, but it's also good to keep an open mind and realize that the movements often have many more meanings than are obvious on the surface.
As I mentioned up top, I'd like to end this discussion by pointing you in the direction of a blog post comparing application and performance kata that I found very valuable. Embedded within the discussion are several videos, some showing very flashy, pretty kata, others showing grittier versions of the same kata. Check it out and consider your own kata in light of the discussion. I don't think there's any one way to approach kata and there will be times when the kata itself dictates the terms of how you approach it. But I do think it's fundamental for karateka to understand their motiviations for their particular approach to kata and I think they should be flexible enough to use kata many different ways as part of their training:
Application during kata can be a tough pill to swallow because it forces us to question ourselves. Every technique in kata is designed to off-balance, damage, or otherwise negatively impact our opponents in a way that would deter them from continuing their aggression. That means with every block and every punch there needs to be consideration for breath, hip movement, weight shifting, and kime (focus) on the end of the technique. Ignoring these things for weak quick-hand techniques or multi-snap kicks can lead to bad habits which manifest themselves poorly when dealing with an enraged attacker who wants nothing more than to punch your face in.
Please read this post in its entirety at The Interweaving of Kata Beauty, Application and Perfection.