When and Why to Quit Kata Practice

For how long should we continue to practice our kata? Many senseis would simply answer: forever. Personally, I do not have forever to spare. Neither do you, I’d guess.

What do you have? A long list of responsibilities and interests, including but certainly not limited to karate (or other martial arts). You have a desire to maximize the benefits of your practice, while minimizing the costs. And you want to know when, if ever, you should quit your kata.

Simply put, you can justifiably quit when the costs of practice exceed the benefits. Here are a few of the potential, proposed and actual benefits of kata training.

Benefits of Kata Practice

Kata as a Memory Aid
The most frequently cited justification of kata is as a mnemonic device. The kata serves as a living dictionary of fighting techniques and sequences. Repeating the kata daily ensures that the student will not forget any of these movements.

When to quit: As soon as you can afford to buy an instructional DVD. Just watch the DVD whenever you forget your kata.

Kata to Provoke the Stress Response
According to one school of thought, students should use kata practice as an opportunity to visualize the heightened physical and emotional state of combat. By artificially triggering the biochemical “fight-or-flight” response on a regular basis, the student will become comfortable operating under its otherwise debilitating influence.

When to quit: Once you understand that this approach is completely backwards! Mental and emotional stress is a self-imposed limitation, and the study of martial arts should be eliminating such limitations, not reinforcing them. Hopefully, you will reach this understanding before the chronic artificial stress has injured your health.

Kata as Activity-Specific Fitness Regimen
Fitness is relative. Every activity, including martial arts, places its own unique demands on its participants. Excellence demands a unique blend of strength, speed, flexibility and concentration; and without regular maintenance, atrophy is natural and unavoidable.

When to quit: As long as you wish to improve your performance, or just to remain in peak condition, you cannot quit. Nor can you profitably replace your kata with a general physical fitness routine.

Kata as a Health Maintenance Exercise
A surprisingly large percentage of health problems can ultimately be traced to poor circulation. Carefully executed kata help restore full circulation: not only of blood and bodily fluids, but also of attention. When employed as preventative medicine, the manner of kata practice is more important than the individual techniques chosen.

When to quit: After you have learned a more effective method for maintaining mind-body health and wellness.

Kata as Doorway to Altered States of Consciousness
If meditation is a profound stillness, then what is a “moving meditation”? Although this phrase is tossed around rather carelessly these days, it accurately describes the state of pure formless awareness that a martial artist can access through dedicated form practice. Many students never experience these states, because they require a sacrifice of intention, and because they do not make any logical sense.

When to quit: Once you can enter this state directly, without a need for kata repetition.

What other benefits of kata/poomsae/taolu/form practice have you experienced? And when would you be willing to abandon them?


  1. Being involved in taijichuan I use kata like form.
    I have also had limited karate instruction as a child, most of it based upon a few specific kata.
    While I like to use shorter sequences from the form for practicing over and over, I am reminded by the words of my teacher that to learn taiji we abandon the form.
    I am sure each school has its own teachings on what to do and why to do it, so I won’t get into the particulars of my own practices and tradition, but it strikes me that there comes a time in training when the standardization of orthodoxy gives way to the individuality of personal expression.

  2. At first, I thought you were being facetious with this article.

    You didn’t mention what I feel is the MAIN reason for kata – practice. Performing kata is the easiest way to practice alone.

    If you don’t practice, your skills atrophy, and then when you actually NEED them, they won’t be as sharp as they could, and a result of that could be that all the work you put into learning them in the first place was for nothing.

    I suppose if you’re not studying for the practical self defense applications of your art, then this may not rank as highly with you, but for me that is the very core of why I study and why I train – to be able to defend myself, my loved ones and anyone else who may need it.

    Another reason is because the longer you do a kata, the more nuances you find in it, which leads to a deeper understanding of the art and of your body. Taking the time to correct the smallest defects and understanding why a slight shift in weight or angle of a foot or extension of a block adds power and speed and efficiency to your technique.

    Kata is a way to perfect your movements and train your body to move correctly. Unlike your mind which may very well retain this knowledge without application, your body will not.

  3. joshuahyoung,
    Feel free to get into the particulars of your practice and tradition.

    I like to play the contrarian, but this post is no joke. I have met some decent martial artists who hate kata (but love “drills”); and others who reject the idea of “perfect form” as a matter of principle. The rest of us only have 24 hours in a day.

    If you are devoted to “practical self-defense”–and I cannot bear to write that without quotation marks–then tell us, what do you consider practical? One hour of kata every day? Three hours? Why that much, and not more?

    Why abandon a particular kata? So that we can find something better to explore. You know, empty the teacup and all that jazz.

  4. I’ll admit.. Kata is one of my least favorite ways of training. It’s not my forte. I’m much more naturally inclined to be a brawler than a technical fighter.

    I certainly never suggested that you should do hours of kata every day, or even make it the main focus of your training. I simply made the point that excluding it removes one way of training when you’re alone.

    Like you, I’ve only got 24 hours in a day. I make it class twice a week and while there, try to spend the time working on partner drills or sparring since that’s the stuff I can’t do alone.

    The rest of the time I practice, it’s usually midnight or so.. in my kitchen.. by myself. My friends and family LONG ago stopped wanting to be my training partners.

    Living in an apartment, I can’t exactly start working the bag that I have at that time, because the noise would bother my neighbors. I do also practice single person drills (we call them combinations in my system), but those are just quick reactions to an incoming attack.

    So kata gives me yet another way to train. I find it tends to be the most introspective for of training for me. When I fight, work drills or hit a bag, I don’t put the same amount of focus on the minute details of my movement the way I do in kata.

    I’ve gone through phases over the years of slacking on my katas and focusing more on drills and without fail, my fighting get sloppier.

    The minor corrections and modifications that I make in kata – and practice over and over – move FROM kata INTO those other training methods and the end result is that my fighting gets sharper.

  5. Chris — This was an interesting post, even though I know nothing about kata or karate. It seems to me that what you said could apply to anything we’ve made a priority in our life. Our lives change as will our priorities and we have to find our own way to make adjustments that meet what we need at the time:~)

  6. I quit doing kata or going to any martial arts school that taught katas. In my opnion they are useless in a real fight and like many things out there should be left behind and forgotten. As for it keeping you fit and in shape I have a gym for that I would rather pump iron then do some silly dance with a few punches and kicks mixed in.

  7. On more thing that I would like to focus on is the fitness part of kata. I never gained any muscle or fitness doing kata I never got tired and it was easy and boring. What is better a lung burning run that gets your heart pumping or kata? I can already answer this the run is better. Kata may have been good 1000 years ago but not anymore. Martial arts has changed it’s gone from the dojo to the sports gym.

  8. Wang Xiang Zhai, who was one of the big kahunas of the Chinese internal martial art of Xing Yi Quan, eventually gave up the practice and teaching of forms. He was concerned that his students were too concerned with external appearances, rather than what he considered to be the most critical part of training: intent.

    The basic exercise of his new art, Yiquan, is the standing stake exercise. That’s where he would have his students begin, simply standing.

  9. Wayne,
    I would still like to know where you draw the line, in terms of minutes or hours of daily kata practice, and why.

    You are right, nothing in the martial arts is specific to the martial arts. The connections are apparent to anyone who looks deeply enough…and that is the purpose of this website.

    Do you consider fighting to be an aerobic exercise?

    Rick Matz,
    I respect Wang Xiang Zhai and his opinions. But forms do not kill spontaneity; people do.

  10. You got me there chris but weights and running is better exercise than fighting.

  11. I don’t approach it from a “draw the line” perspective. I don’t think in terms of a time limit – either minimum or maximum.

    I’ve found that for myself, when I have time to practice, but no one to practice with, one way I can continue to improve my skills and understanding of my art is by doing kata with proper focus and intent.

    And even when I’m doing a kata that I’ve been doing for 10 years, I STILL find little things that I can do better.

  12. Cobra –

    It depends on who is teaching the katas or forms and how. You can fast track fighting skills; heck, the elite commando units do that all the time.

    But I’m now learning that you can slow track them and spend time on their fighting applications.

    One other thing: Is not shadow boxing a form of kata?

    Finally, there is more to kata than just fighting or exercise.


  13. Chris,

    I whole heartedly agree.

    What is the limit? I study Wu style taijiquan now. I usually have about 30 to 60 minutes a day to put into my personal training. From what I’m told by my teacher, I could get everything TJQ has to teach from the study of the form and push hands with enough varied and skilled opponents.

    At home, I’m not getting any push hands done, but I do try to pratice the form every day, which takes me from 30 to 45 minutes depending on what I’m working on. With my remaining time, I work on whatever supplementary exercises I’ve been taught. Or maybe I just stand.

    For me, that seems to be the best use of my time for now.

  14. I disagree that kata can”t be excellent conditioners for the body, but I am sure opinions on what is best.
    My teacher taught that to learn taijji we abandon the form, because the form is for training specific things, including the use of its component elements in infinite expressions of motion. This diversity using standardized jings is at the core of the body motion technology in the system I was initiated into. Because the form is finite it combination it cannot express the variation that will truly be required in martial contexts.

    However to abandon the form we must understand what it is and why we cannot progress past a specific aspect if we fail to abandon it. In this context abandon does not mean stop using the form or such rather it means that we see it’s purpose, and limitations.
    The form in my taiji consists of variations upon jings and patterns dealing with the core body technology of the 13 postures. The form contains the basic elements and recombined them several times in concert with variation upon directional motion and in response to various likely scenarios. When this really starts to sink in you start to see how it was put together and what it is missing. You end up realizing that through the various forms, drills, timing, conditioning and applications exercises you have learned not only the content of the form, but learned content that while incorporating elements from the form does so in combination the form itself lacks. In this way to fully express the art the form becomes a mere example of what is and can be, a type of educated play if you will,
    What sets the art apart to me is the jing content of the form, there are elements of motion that the form contains that cannot be learned through weight training or running, not that those are bad. Taiji is based upon an understanding of the simple realities of motion and impact based physics and this understanding is not something people discover on their own.
    In some arts the bigger, faster and stronger you are the better you will be, this has to do with genetics in the end. However in taiji you learn to develop skills that have little to do with physical power or speed or size, rather they are skills that have to be learned, no amount of speed, power or size will result in the realization of these skills, rather it takes specific practices designed to develop the specific skill involved.
    In this way not only do we abandon form in the end, we only do so having realized the skills that can be learned from the form, but cannot be had through other types of common exercises.
    For an example designed for taiji players on the idea behind abandoning the form consider the following sequence, ward off left, separate right, turn parry and punch. You can do non-orthodox sequences based on the form energies with skills learned from the form, but how could you learn this without form at first? In this way it is a teaching of my lineage that we learn the form to abandon it. Moreover in accordance with our applications teachings the jings and such must flow and not be preconceived attacks but responsive reciprocal and proportional movements regarding changing martial situations, this can only be approached, so far as I know, through first learning the content and essence of the form, and then using it in a manner that transcends the structure of the form.

  15. Mr. Patterson I see your point but I see kata and shadow boxing as 2 different things. When I leanrt kata it had to be perfect not mistakes but when I shadow box it does’nt matter what I do. Kata may be good for other things but I don’t really care about all that. @ Josh genetics are’nt everything.

  16. Genes may not be everything but without things like steroids it is they which ultimately set limits on size, speed and power.

  17. I came from a style of taekwondo that but more emphasis on the performance aspect of forms (aka kata) than the moves therein. I’m now in a traditional style of Kung Fu that takes what is taught in the forms and then makes us apply them in various situations. So I do see value in kata or forms. This from a guy who often has criticized them.

    I’ll leave you with one article to consider:


    “Numerous other masters were also very critical of karateka who only emphasise the aesthetic performance of the kata. To my mind, without in-depth study of bunkai (kata application), kata practise loses all meaning. We should always keep in mind that kata were created to record fighting techniques and principles.”

  18. Mr. Patterson, the author’s most favorite justification for kata (“a way to record and summarise the key combative techniques and principles of a fighting style”) is my least favorite.

    We stop reciting the English alphabet in elementary school, but who among us has forgotten it?

  19. Sorry, Chris, your alphabet metaphor is more an arguement against practicing kihon/basics than kata/forms.

    A metaphor that comes to my mind is an accomplished jazz musician that starts with a tradition piece (kata), and then improvises (free fighting).

    But to me, even this misses the point. Kata are learning tools that help a beginner become an expert. Early kata are training wheels that eventually allow us to cycle freely. Advanced kata are opportunities for us to work on our techniques, like difficult trails for mountain bikers. We can test ourselves against them, work on them over years in an effort to perform them with the characteristcs that our styles value.

    Want to give up on them early? Good luck with that.

  20. Some people like to pretend their kata are endlessly instructive. They never stop working on their “focus”, “structure”, “technique”, et cetera. In truth, they only perform the kata because they can control it. Unlike live partners, their kata will never take them by surprise.

    This kata freak is no different then the neighbor you see out in his driveway every weekend, working on his car, even though it is plainly immaculate, and he never actually drives it anywhere.

    But I’m sure this description doesn’t apply to you. 😀

  21. Since my practice is constantly changing and developing (more now after 31 years of training than at any time in the past), kata’s are the place where I test, and then store, the changes. I never do a form the same why twice. How could I? The purpose of kata is to reveal the limitlessness of our true nature.
    When you get tired of being limitless, you should give up kata.

    –great question!

  22. KarateYellowBelt (“KYB”) on When and Why to Quit Kata Practice:

    KYB believes Chris is wrong, theoretically speaking.

    Traditional martial arts skill, such as karate, is achieved through a common regimen of training. Kata is the most sophisticated component of this training regimen. Because kata is very sophisticated, many martial arts people do not understand it or apprecitate what kata is trying to do.

    This is not to say one cannot progress in martial arts without doing kata, or that one cannot become a good fighter by training solely in applied fighting-type techniques. What is true is that kata, trained properly, imparts a highly sophisticated level of martial arts skill.

    Time or other pracitical limitations may preclude one from training in martial arts as the regimen calls for.

    However, the mistake that virtually all critics of the traditional martial training regimen make, is that they put the goal of wanting to be a good fighter ahead of the discipline it takes to study, understand and learn well the skills imparted by rigorous, traditional martial arts training.

    KYB doesn’t think that the korean martial arts masters are the best at explaining karate.

    KYB does think one of the best quotes about the correct attitude to have on karate training comes from a Tang Soo Do master who said; “Remember, it is not how much you know, It Is How WELL YOU KNOW What You Have LEARNED!”

  23. KarateYellowBelt (“KYB”) responds to Mr. Patterson comment above on the importance and validity of KATA:

    The first part of Mr. Patterson’s comment, KYB bascially agrees. Let KYB also say that he recognizes that traditional martial arts training, particularly the karates, have weaknesses, so KYB can be a critic also.

    The second part of Mr. Patterson’s comment, KYB takes some issue with and would like to add another perspective on kata and the “bunkai, ” or fighting applications presented in kata.

    Notwithstanding these bunkai, and the importance of them in developing actual, practical fighting skill, the major, critical value of kata IS NOT “bunkai.” The real value of kata is that kata is the synthesis of traditional martial arts training in one, comprehensive exercise. Kata is taught the way it is because this is how one builds that very high level of martial arts skill.

    Perhaps one of the biggest misconceptions of martial arts critics and practitioners both is that you have to do a lot of free-style sparring to become a good fighter. And contrary to the conventional thinking that kihon (basic) karate is of poor applicablity in a ‘real’ fight, karate basics technique ALONE can make you a very good fighter.

    Where karate basic techniques fail in a real fight is in two cases: (1) the KARATE skill-level of the karate practitioner is low; (2) the basic techniques are misapplied, used in a ritualistic way rather than intelligentlly applied to accomplish the designed, KARATE effect.

    While it is good practice to train kata with a mind to practical applications, this is really laying a lot of extra work on an already highly sophisticated training tool; and KYB thinks that Chris’s comment about topping out in kata training could well come into play. KYB is by no means saying to ignore or exclude kata applications and bunkai.

    The main goal of kata training is to give you the fundamental martial arts physical and mental skill set to compete / fight at a very high level of performance. In martial arts, there is NO better substitute.

  24. KarateYellowBelt (“KYB”) on Wayne’s comment on his kata training.

    KYB thinks Waynes comment above is an example of the proper way to view kata training.

    KYB wants to say also that like Wayne, not everybody enjoys kata practice or wants to devote a lot of effort to it. Wayne has the discipline to do kata, and he should benefit.

    Furthermore, KYB wants to say that people have different apptitudes and preferences in their training. So kata may not provide the best forum for their karate training in some ways. Traditional martial arts provides for this by having a number of parts to the training regimen; individual practitioners are free to emphasis what they wish.

    However, kata is there, included for a reason; it is up to the practitioner to get the value out of it–just like real life.

  25. KarateYellowBelt (“KYB”) on Chris’s comment about “Kate Freaks,” and their misperceptions about Kata’s endless progression.

    KYB believes that kata, as is martial arts training, is endlessly progressive. This endless progression is what confers the ability on karate fighter’s to become so devastatingly effective in real fighting.

    Chris, KYB has been ‘labeled,’ including at his current karate school as a ‘sissy,’ not aggressive enough, too traditional, to questioning, etc., etc. This is because KYB trys to ‘get out’ of free-style sparring whenever he can. KYB does not exhibit a lot of aggression and ego in his behavior. You might consider KYB, an uninformed novice, a “Karate Freak.”

    The real-life problem with labeling people and sterotyping is that it is done with narrow, often self important thinking–as my opponents have found out.

    People can claim KYB does kata because this is how I have control. KYB does kata because it makes my karate EXCEL.
    One can claim KYB is pretending kata does this or that. When those people who have faced me in the in-class sparring contests, they find their sterotypes and labels are useless against good karate. This includes some boxer and kickboxer types who pride themselves on their fighting acumen. They all lost.

  26. The purpose of martial arts is to swell the Ego so that one feel that one has attained something that others have not. Thus allowing a justification for arrogance and prejudice. This is the purpose that I have learned most recently, from martial artists themselves.

  27. KarateYellowBelt (“KYB”) to Josh on “The Purpose of Martial Arts is Swelling the Ego.”

    KYB disagrees that the purpose of martial arts is to swell the ego. The purpose of marital arts is to produce a stronger person. The martial artist can use the strength to swell the ego or use the strength to balance the ego.

    Some people think that people’s ego can not be disciplined, and in general, in the real world this is usually true. So it is also, unfortunately, usually true with martial artists. But still, a choice exists.

    At KYB’s current karate school, one of the instructor’s held up my application to join the umbrella organization because he didn’t think someone like KYB could do karate. KYB was able to demonstrate to the instructor that his predjudice and arrogance was standing in the way of his role in teaching–this wasn’t an easy task. The instructor came to see his error and approved my application. Once I had won his respect. he later came to seek out my counsel about his teaching approach and experience.

    The real mistake the instructor made was that KYB was always that person he could count on; he was just too egotistical to see it. Josh, over the internet, I can’t do anymore than explain as best I can what I have learned.

  28. Josh just hit the nail on the head. This is a partial explanation of why martial arts training attracts so many losers.

  29. the more you practice the Kata the easier your ability to know what the movement of your opponent is about an how to handle it without difficulties.

  30. What I was told when i was training at the Jundokan in Okinawa by Sensei Kinjo was that you only need to train 1 or 2 kata dilegently, and just aim to perfect those.

    The way I look at Kata is like the alphabet, once youve learnt it you dont go through it day in day out, you just know it, then you spell words, make sentences, write paragraphs, books, novels.

    In kata terms!
    Technique-spell words
    Application-make sentences
    Ippon kumite-write paragraphs
    Ju kimite-write books
    Make it your own-novels

    Hope that helps.

  31. I like to use kata to experiment with techniques from a variety of martial arts, one learns what might work and what doesn’t, which moves sacrifice balance for a possible quick strike, and many other issues that vary from individual to individual. Sometimes free form movements are included in the kata, which isn’t strictly a kata but adds interest and expands the number of movements one is familiar with.

  32. During my kata exercises, points in space are often used as imaginary origins of attacks or targets for counter strikes, kicks, blocks or evasive moves, which promotes accuracy. The exercises also vary the location of kata targets and attacks.

    As an example, during bathroom kata, attacks in rapid succession may be assumed to come (one after the other) from the counter edge, the right end of the towel rack, the door handle and the hamper top. The responses (kicks, blocks and strikes) stop just short of the targeted point. This exercises the ability to change focus as new threats appear, and fine tunes the movements needed to realign and respond.

    Kata movements to dodge, slip or roll away from an attack may use wall corners or columns for leverage. These can be practiced almost anywhere.

    A towel hung over a chair or a hanging shirt or coat may offer viable point targets for strikes, kicks or blocks that just barely touch the target point. Adding physical point-in-space targets for Kata movements makes them all the more valuable, and challenging, from my perspective.

    I’am not promoting the use of varying points in space as the replacement of standard Kata practice, just presenting an interesting and useful alternative when things get stale.

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