Bruce Lee, one of the most famous martial artists of all time once commented,” Anyone who places so much time on kata is wasting his time.” Often misquoted, many martial artist take his quote out of context to give themselves excuses to not do katas.
Katas are often misinterpreted as useless, flowery movements that have no real practicality other than helping you progress a belt level. I don’t blame people for misunderstanding them as so. Many dojos/dojangs nowadays only practice katas because they help a student progress in their belt. Most of the traditional martial arts schools nowadays don’t go beyond just learning the forms. As such, many students are only able to repeat the movements but have no understanding of what they are doing.
So are katas/poomsae or any sort of choreographed patterns of movement in martial arts useless? Nope. It happens greatly on the individual and how one practices them.
1. Practice with understanding
Most katas are usually practiced alone with an imaginary opponent. Every movement in the kata actually has a function. The actions only looks flowery because it is not done to an opponent. Hence, sometimes it may be hard to imagine how such a move might work. In order for katas to be a useful form of training, the person practicing the kata must understand what he is doing when he is following the movements of the kata. It is only then can his practice be meaningful and know how to apply the techniques. It would certainly help if there’s a coach who will explain how these movements are used. Or we can do the modern method, look for instructional videos on Youtube.
Below, we see videos of how kata and poomsae may be applied to different situations
I too used to not think too much of katas and am only concerned about memorizing the movements so that I could do well for my belt promotions. My coach did explain how some of the moves are used but these videos also definitely deepened my understanding.
2. Practice actions correctly
Katas are not just moves done to an imaginary opponent, they are also invented as ways where one can train their muscle-memory alone. This is especially true in many traditional chinese martial arts where 套路 (chinese for kata) is way whereby martial artists learn the proper way to project their force, energy, chi and even their mind.When practiced correctly, they are muscle-memory building tools used to get your body coordinated and at the same time learn movements that can be applied in a combative situation. However this can only happen when students practice these movements correctly, taking note of every tiny detail of each action.
I remember in the past where poomsae is a tool my coach used to each us how to punch correctly. In Taekwondo poomsae, straight punches are thrown in a way whereby the first two knuckles is aligned with the elbow and the shoulder. This teaches proper alignment of the fist to the target. Next, force is generated via the twisting of the hips and turning of the upper torso. This teaches students to use their body structure to generate force instead of just using their arms alone to generate force. Finally, when executing a punch, one’s body should remain relaxed and only tense up when the knuckle reaches the point of impact. This teaches the student flexibility, how to by quick and how to “whip” their punches so that power is maximized.
Geek stuff! This video explains how the little details in each movement help to generate force in Taekwondo.
3. More than kata
Katas is also said to be able to help practitioners enter a state of mushin, a mental state where very highly trained martial artists are said to enter during combat.
However, having said all these. One should also realise that practicing kata alone is not enough for sparring and self-defense. This is because your opponent may not always attack you in the same way as you expect in a kata. It is thus then important for the martial artist to be able to adapt what he has learnt in katas and apply them in real-life combat situations. This can be practiced through sparring.
The sad truth of traditional martial arts nowadays
While katas and poomsae can certainly be good tools to develop a martial artist, I agree that 99.9% of many traditional martial arts schools don’t go beyond just learning the forms. This is truly sad as it further reinforces the misconception that kata are useless. This problem is made worse when people only train katas to get their belt promotion so that they will earn their black belt but have no intention of being serious in the martial arts.
In Singapore, many parents like to send their kids to Taekwondo classes so that they can earn their blackbelt. However, few are really interested in helping their kids be serious in martial arts as in Singapore, studies always comes first. Hence, when I was in junior college, I found many Taekwondo black belts who can’t kick for nuts. Need less say do poomsae or spar.
However, I believe with the right method of practicing and good teaching,one may find many hidden gems in katas and poomsaes.