Kata – Karate’s Yoga?
By Robey Jenkins HDKI 1st Dan
He who is victorious over people possesses power;
He who is victorious over himself is strong.
Whenever we practice modern karate, we are standing on the end-point of a centuries-long journey. It began over a thousand years ago, and its earliest steps are so clouded by legend that its traces are almost indistinguishable from myth.
A few things can be said with some confidence.
At some point around the early fifth century, Buddhism made its way to China from India and, in one of its earliest expressions, found a home at the temple known as Shaolin. But Buddhism wasn’t all that took root in Shaolin. The temple’s name in modern culture is synonymous with kung-fu, but the story goes that the first great Buddhist missionary, Bodhidharma, was aghast at the fat and lazy monks of the temple. Bodhidharma himself was of a royal, warrior background and, although he had denounced all violence as part of his missionary calling, he remembered the vigorous callisthenics of his youth and taught these simple forms to the monks – forms which they came to adapt, over many centuries (and through a great deal more contact with their Indian co-religionists) into a discipline of martial arts.
Indian culture in the fifth century was at an apex established upon an already-ancient spiritual tradition of discipline, contemplation and philosophy that expressed itself physically in what we today call yoga. These were physical trials by which the practitioner learned to push himself (the records, sadly, record few if any female practitioners, although it seems certain that they must have existed, and who would, no doubt, have had a unique perspective of their own to offer) into alternate levels of consciousness. Then, as now, yoga demanded intensive training, focus and a willingness to press on up to and beyond the limits of one’s physical form.
Although it was originally developed and practiced to its greatest extent by forest-dwelling ascetic philosophers, it had long been adopted by the bramin caste – the priests of the Hindu religion – as part of their initiation training and, inevitably, the warrior caste or kshatriya had taken on elements of yoga training not, primarily, as a doorway to greater spiritual enlightenment, but simply as a sophisticated method of training themselves for battle.
So whatever it was the monks of Shaolin learned from their Indian teacher or teachers, it was already part of an established tradition in which bodily exertions were turned both to the honing of the physical and the spiritual.
The line of descent from Shaolin kung-fu, to the early forms of wu shu, across the sea to Okinawa and, from there, via Funakoshi Gichin Sensei to our 21st Century karate dojos is indisputable. Along the way, much has been learned and much has been forgotten. Yet the solitary exercise of stretching, lunging, sweeping and rapid movements interspersed with periods of stillness remains part of the fundamentals of modern karate. And anyone practising modern yoga cannot help be struck by occasional physical similarities between the two.
In the last decade or so kata has had something of a “bad rep”. MMA enthusiasts tut at “punching air” and “striking poses”. Different styles and schools argue – sometimes petulantly – over whose kata is “right”. Competition stylists develop kata into finely-honed dance routines. And even the best-intentioned of teachers retreat into bunkai and oyo, defending kata on the basis of its myriad practical applications. But in all of this, I fear that we are losing sight of what lies at the heart of kata’s origins: origins older than karate and older than kung-fu. The monks of Shaolin practised the forms to instil in themselves the mental discipline that follows physical discipline: forms ultimately borrowed from India’s forest hermits.
By testing and overcoming our physical limitations through the practice of kata without thought to performance or application, and in pursuit of a perfection perceivable only by ourselves, we strive not to be warriors, but philosophers.
As a junior sensei, I am often asked by those learning kata “what am I doing here?” about a particularly intricate set of movements. I will often explain a simple bunkai – usually far too simple to be truly oyo – as a means of helping them to remember the moves. But lately I have begun to make the point more often that the moves are not “this attack” or “that defence”. Potential oyo are near endless, of course, but the steps of a kata are far more than their oyo or their bunkai. The steps of a kata are battle with our own selves. We take for granted our ability to walk or type or catch a ball – until it is gone, through illness, injury or age. Kata forces us to confront our physical limitations much sooner: to do things that are not natural or comfortable and to engage those limitations without fear or retreat or thought of failure and, by overcoming them and mastering the steps of each new kata, we overcome ourselves.