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?