The Three Elements of Kata

   by Carol Gittins

To perform kata correctly, karate practitioners must incorporate three elements. These elements are, not surprisingly, body, mind, and spirit. By spirit, I mean the feeling or emotion, a commitment of the soul, as in the phrase "the spirit of bushido."

Almost all karate practitioners include the physical element when performing kata. They concentrate on precisely performing hand and foot techniques, on maintaining correct embusen, and on developing timing, focus and power. They work diligently to make their kata technically flawless. And this is a good thing, because the physical element is important, but it is not the only important element.

When an idiot savant plays the piano, he or she strikes all of the notes correctly and with proper phrasing, yet the music is not alive. Why? Because the player lacks an understanding of the music and the ability to project his or her spirit into it.

Karate practitioners must incorporate the mental element in performance of kata, how the techniques are applied, and why the timing and focus are as they are. In essence, practitioners must know the bunkai for every kata they do, and they must demonstrate their knowledge of the bunkai in their performance of the kata. This inclusion of the mental element gives a reality to kata that mere technical perfection cannot. Yet the mental element combined with the physical still does not make the kata complete.

To complete the kata, to perform perfectly, karate practitioners must add the element of spirit to their kata. Spirit adds intensity to kata as the performer creates the emotional impact of actually applying the movements against and opponent. The heart races and vision becomes tunneled as adrenalin rushes into the system and breathing alters. Performing with spirit, the practitioner goes beyond thinking and instead allows his or her body to act reflexively. The practitioner concentrates on imbuing the kata with emotion, making it dynamic and absolutely realistic.

But what happens to the physical and mental elements in the spirited performance of kata? They are still there, forming the basis of the kata. They are the framework on which the correct performance of the kata depends. The more concentration and effort the practitioner spends on practicing the kata and understanding it, the more the kata, when performed with spirit, will retain the technical and mental quality.

Spirit, or emotion, exists in many forms. Which one should the practitioner feel when doing the kata? I would say it varies from person to person and from time to time. However, I would venture the opinion that some displays of spirit are more appropriate than others in performing kata.

When performing kata with spirit, I usually feel as I imagine a cat cornered by dogs must feel -- scared, but determined to fight 100%. However, I have performed with other emotions, possibly less appropriate ones at other times. Near the end of my endurance, I have felt desperate and spiteful as in "I'll die doing this kata, and then won't you be sorry!" And at the beginning of a workout, I have done kata exuberantly.

My husband, Boyd Gittins says that the spirit he usually feels while performing kata is rancor combined with a steadfast refusal to allow his opponent to prevail. Jerry Shervy says he feels as Boyd does, but he perceives it as more of a state of "no mind", of existing only in the moment.

The karate practitioner must combine spirit with the technical excellence that comes from countless practices which focus on detail and the mental clarity which comes from understanding the applications of the kata. This is the only way to perform kata correctly. If any of the three elements is missing or is weak, then the kata will be weak and flawed. Only when the elements are present and balanced can the kata be perfect. A karate practitioner may take a lifetime to reach the point where every performance of kata achieves this perfection, but each kata along the way which approximates perfection should provide sufficient encouragement to continue.

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