Be the Artist & Think
Kata: The Questions that keep coming
By Shaun Banfield
Karate has been a part of my life for twenty years now. I have studied karate for longer than I have studied or practiced anything really, so has naturally become intrinsically connected to my day-to-day lifestyle. More emphatically, it is actually connected to who I am as a person. It has helped shaped me, and there is little doubt that I would have been a different person had karate not been a part of my life.
The huge impact and influence karate has had on my life, is not only connected to my time involved, but is also linked to the age at when I started. To many adults starting karate it may not be as impactive, but for me - starting as a child - it has been all I have ever really known.
A few weeks ago, during a visit to the SKDUN World Championships – held in Halle/Salle (Germany) – me and my pupils decided to visit Berlin for two days of tourism. Whilst there, we naturally visited most of the iconic tourist landmarks such as the Reichstag Building, parts of the former Berlin Wall, Checkpoint Charlie, and a Holocaust Memorial. On the first day of tourism however, we all decided to pay a visit to Berlin’s Salvador Dali Museum.
Now, followers of TSW and my articles, will know that I am a great Arts enthusiast, studying Fine Art both in Art College, and then pursuing it in University. Salvador Dali had been my muse for many years, with his surrealist works prompting profound questions in my artistic development. Without further regressing, we visited the gallery hosting a vast array of prints and other works by the artist.
For my squad members that visited the gallery with me, this to them may have appeared a little perplexing, with one member - for example – asking ‘Well what is this print trying to show or say?’ when looking at one of Dali’s more obscure and challenging pieces. I then explained that whilst the content of the work may have had meaning to Dali, the absence of descriptive plaques suggests that the exhibitors want the audience to draw their own interpretation as to the meaning. Therefore I asked the squad member ‘What do you think it is showing or saying?’
Kata has been a big part of my life for twenty years.
Over these twenty years, the role of kata in my life has changed immensely…No, I’ll say that again. The role of kata in my life has evolved immensely.
In my younger years, kata had been a requirement for gradings. Therefore, knowing and being able to perform my kata well was simply a requirement, a necessity you could say.
In my teens, kata became important to my competitive career. Therefore, my kata practice became aesthetically focussed. Emphasis was primarily on speed and its performance. I vividly remember being in Liege (Belgium) competing at the World Championships, and being in the competitor preparation room, working on making my turn into age-uke at the end of Unsu sharper and cleaner in delivery. It was all about the performance.
Then when I was 18, my personal circumstances forced me to have a clear and distinct change in direction, therefore meaning that competing no longer became an option. Whilst at the time I remember being distraught that my competitive career was on hold – when I still hadn’t peaked – it turned out to be the biggest blessing in disguise. It was at this stage that I started travelling the UK, following Sensei Dave Hazard 7th Dan.
Anyone that follows TSW, or reads my articles with any regularity will know my opinion of Sensei Hazard. He is, in my objective opinion, without question the finest Martial Arts teacher I have ever trained with, and the impact he has had on me – both from a personal and karate perspective – is immeasurable. I am so honoured to call him my teacher.
From 18 until the present moment, as a consequence of my exposure and following of Sensei Hazard’s teachings, kata – to me – has become about conflict. Kata is about living in the moment, using the whole body as a violently efficient weapon to put a resounding silence to the chaos of conflict. Please do not misread me here, I am not for one second suggesting that I am fully ‘able’ to practice kata in this way, but it’s the objective I am working towards. This is the ethos and spirit of kata to me.
With this in mind, I would like to use this article to discuss an issue connected to kata that I think is quite interesting – that connected to kata application.
I run a small, humble dojo - Cowbridge SKC- in South Wales (www.cowbridgeshotokankarate.com). There, I have a steady group of karateka from 10th Kyu (White Belt) to 3rd Dan (Black Belt), with visitors often attending training of varied grades from 10th Kyu up to 6th Dan. Across this spectrum of grades, one question crops up more than any other when practicing kata ‘What does this mean?’
I was brought up, in my youth, by a culture of spoon feeding. I was spoon-fed ideas, which to a huge extent is fully accurate for lower grades, but even as a more seasoned karateka, I was still being told what to think and believe. Therefore, when asked to think for myself I was lost, because I no longer had the scaffolding of ideas upon which I could steady myself. I could set forth the points that I had been fed, but when my opinion was challenged, I couldn’t defend it as the opinions were not my own, they were someone else’s.
When I started to follow Sensei Hazard, one of the most significant things I developed was the ability to think. As a karateka and as an instructor, Sensei Hazard is never standing still. He is always trying to improve, which is both inspiring and infectious. I learned to think.
The ability to think is vital in karate, but the timing has to be right. Think too early in your training career and you will, without doubt, fall off the road of effective development as this is the time of listening and following instructions.
There must come a stage in the development however where you do start to think about the karate you are practicing. When that stage comes is not up to me to say, as it is both personal and linked to ability, maturity and time served.
A few nights ago, I was teaching the kata Unsu in my Brown and Black belt session. We were working on the sequence where your drop to the ground and deliver mawashi-geri. We worked on the sequence, developing the drop to the floor. Then we worked on developing the hiki-ashi of the kicking leg. Then we worked on ways to increase the ‘springability’ of the turn to kick in the opposite direction. It was this point when one of my students asked ‘But what does this represent?’
Now...application is central and key to my kata teaching, as it is to most practicing karateka. When I am teaching a seminar, I will often apply the kata in the way I feel most appropriate to the level of karateka, to their needs or interests. When I am teaching within my own dojo however, I ask the class what they think it represents and shows.
Similarly, when asked the question – ‘What does it show, or represent?’ I challenge by asking ‘What do you think it shows or represents?’. More often than not, they will have an idea, or inkling, but perhaps don’t have the confidence to fully formulate the opinion.
I have learned, through my experience teaching karate, but more importantly through working in Secondary education, if you are always quick to give all the answers, you will always get questions to things that the pupils already know the answers to. I have learned that if you facilitate an opportunity for the pupil to think, with enough regularity, thinking will become a natural process.
Similarly, in work, pupils read a question on a worksheet and they ask me what it is asking of them. They already KNOW the answer, but are too lazy to think for themselves, as asking me for the information is easier. But what about the day when I am NOT there to explain it to them? Maybe when they go to University? Therefore, I only give answers when I have forced them to think first.
I never want my dojo students to only have my perspective, for in doing so, they will be mistaken in the belief that my opinion is the only opinion. Furthermore, I want them to develop a thinking mind, which – consequently - will challenge me as an instructor to continue developing and refining. Like my pupils, and like my teacher - Sensei Hazard, I never want to stand still. Therefore, I encourage everyone to think first and ask question second.
Kata are, in many ways, moving paintings. They tell a story of war, brought alive through physical energy. Just as I encouraged my pupil to look at the Dali painting and formulate their own opinions and interpretations, I ask them to look at the kata and interpret them through their eyes. Don’t get me wrong, I am constantly giving my opinion, and illustrating my perspective – as this is indeed also a role of a teacher – but I try to ensure they engage their thinking processes.
Therefore, over the last couple of years, within the black belt sessions, I have ran a number of activities with them to help facilitate this development of interpretation. Now before I go any further, I must add that my brown and black belts are all 16+, and these activities only work with mature, experienced karateka, and not youngsters.
Activity 1: Long term study
Now, as you can imagine, teaching kata with such an open forum of ideas and perspectives requires a great deal of time. Therefore, I would take a series of weeks to teach one kata, taking whole lessons to work on individual sequences out of the kata being taught. This gave my lessons, and the kata sequences, enough breathing space for the kata to be fully developed. Questions could be asked, the kihon could be refined and developed, exercises could be practiced to help develop the kihon of the sequence, a vast array of different interpretations of the sequences would be applied, tons of questions can be asked, and lost of questions get turned back on the pupils to facilitate thinking.
Now, don’t misunderstand, I wouldn’t do the kata every single lesson as the class would spend all their time thinking, and not enough time working. Thinking has to be interpreted into the physicality by lots of spirited repetition. Therefore I would do these sessions every now and again, but regularly enough so that the kata and the information and development stuck with them.
Activity 2: Peer teaching
Another exercises I used involved giving each member of the black belt class (all of whom are 2nd dan or above) a kata. For example, one pupil Ryan was given the kata Meikyo. I gave them all 6 weeks to research their kata, formulate their applications, ask me questions about the kihon and application…then at the end of the 6 weeks, they had to teach a class based on their chosen kata.
This challenged all of the members to think, study deeper and formulate their own perspectives. In the preparation for the taught lesson, they would often come to me with their ideas and ask for confirmation. There were often times when I demonstrate that what they had formulated would not work for whatever reason, but the very process of thinking and developing a lesson in this way encouraged them to dig deeper and think.
The purpose of this article was to explore the theme of thinking. Having never been encouraged to think, I without doubt felt at a disadvantage when I was forced into a position where I had to think. Therefore, don’t jump the ship and start doing things beyond your grade or experience, but when the time is right, it is indeed important to start thinking about your karate.
When thinking about kata, and interpreting meanings, whilst it is essential to gain experience and insight into the ideas of others, time spent analysing the movements yourself is essential. Even if you get it wrong, and you are proven wrong, a process of development is being tapped into.
For me, right now, Kata is very much a personal thing. Therefore, I want to make the kata mine, and understand them as my own. Like I said, Kata are moving stories – physical depictions of conflict, but it doesn’t always have to be someone else painting them. Don’t always be a spectator, be the artist and think.