One Kata

I recently talked to a karate student who’s taken a break from karate to pursue other things. She was worried about getting back into karate because she felt like she wouldn’t remember anything. I told her, “I basically know one kata right now.”

As you gain in belt level your own expectations of yourself increase accordingly. Each student has their own way to measure progress and success. For some it becomes an increasing library of memorized katas they can pull out on demand. For those of us, myself included, that find memorization a challenge, it can be daunting to have learned so many katas but retained so few.

Other students simply become obsessed with one kata and pursue that one to perfection. They repeat it for hours on end, for months. These students progress just as well as those who have a bunch of katas in their repertoire.

We all have our own definition of success. Some of us strive for perfection relentlessly, others are content to move more slowly. We are all heading to the same place in the end.

Working on a team kata for our in-house tournament has helped me get deeper into the finer points of a single kata then ever before. Our group is possibly the most type A set of people to come together in the dojo. Each of us brings our own set of ideals, edging all of us ever closer to the elusive moving target of perfection. We have dissected everything from the bow, to walking on, to the timing of our announcement. We have broken down individual parts of the kata into fragments, aligning our timing, gestures and kime. We spend 1 – 2 hours a session training together on this single kata. When we have only 20 or 30 minutes together it just isn’t enough.

The funny thing is the subject of winning has never come up amongst our team members. Our obsessive breakdown and repetition of the kata is less driven by thoughts of winning and more about falling deeply in love with the kata itself; the process of getting to know it, and each other, on a deeper level. It is rare to come across a group of people working together driven purely by the pursuit of quality for its own sake.

In his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi talks about the autotelic personality, defined as someone who does things for their own sake rather than for an external or later goal. He sights early writings about flow from Taoist scholar Chuang Tzu, writing about 2,300 years ago about the concept of Yu. It “is a synonym for the right way of following the path, or Tao: it has been translated into English a ‘wandering’; as ’walking without touching the ground’; or as ‘swimming, ‘flying’ and ’flowing.’ Chuang Tzu believed that to Yu was the proper way to live–without concern for external rewards, spontaneously, with total commitment–in short, as a total autotelic experience.”

During one training session Mr. Knight spoke to us about his constantly raised bar – which, as soon as you’ve mastered one thing there are 5 others to work on. He said, “You’ll never be able to do everything I’m asking. But if I don’t have high standards than that is only how far anyone will ever be able to go. Just say ‘yes sir’ and move on. Don’t worry about it.”

This was a bit of a revelation to me, personally being on the perfectionist side of the personality spectrum. To be released from having to even try to meet all the standards was a relief and freed me to get into the flow without so much worry. Counter-intuitively the result was actually being more open to and capable to integrate feedback.

In my own drive for flow experience I’ve found many hours of training a week make me feel happy, strong and focused. For others it might be only a few hours a week or even just a single class here and there. The cool thing is we each get to define what that is for ourselves. If we believe in Chuang Tzu’s guidance to live spontaneously, with total commitment, there is no prescriptive set of actions or behaviors, rather an attitude and way to experience the world.

2 Replies to “One Kata”

  1. I find myself less of a perfectionist doing karate than in other areas. Maybe it’s because it feels like a conversation between my conscious mind and my aging body, done in the context of a hundreds year old art that is changing just as my understanding of it changes. The process of refining has different flavors on different days, and I am eager to sample them, rather than view the finished project. The majority of my frustration with it has come from – as you say – the struggle to memorize, which is real. But if I learned it once I can learn it again. Thanks for writing!

  2. I love how you describe your relationship with karate as a conversation. It’s also a dialogue with our training partners not to mention the kohai / sempai dynamic. In context of history our daily struggles seem small. We are just links in a chain in the evolution of the art. Thanks for commenting! I’d love to hear more about your experience.

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