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Unzipping a Kata

Last week at our dojo, I taught training variations of Naihanchi Shodan and Fukyugata Ichi, in which the kata is done in a straight line moving forward only.

Take Fukyugata Ichi. The first movement is a left gedan barai (downward block) to the left. So begin the kata by standing facing to the right (rather than the front of the room). When you do the first movement, you will now be facing toward the front.

The second movement is a right chudan zuki (middle punch). So step forward and throw the punch.

Next, you are supposed to turn in the opposite direction and execute a right gedan barai (downward block). Instead, without taking a step, just slide forward and execute the block.

Whenever you are supposed to change directions, don't. Just keep moving forward with the techniques of the kata.

This is not a new kata or even a variation of the kata. It is simply a different way to practice the kata -- to experiment with it. It is sort of "unzipping" the kata.

There are two benefits to this practice. First, it makes students think more about the design of the kata. Students who are familiar with the kata should have an easy time changing the directions and flow of the kata. Students who are not that familiar with the kata, or generally just follow along with the other students, will have a harder time. This practice makes the student visualize the normal kata and also visualize the modified version. Both versions have to be in the student's mind.

What I like most about this practice is that it introduces different transitions and footwork. In the third movement of the kata, you normally change directions and step forward with a right gedan barai. In the training version, the gedan barai is thrown without changing stances (except that you shift forward in to zenkutsu dachi). At other places in the kata, techniques are thrown in half steps or half stances. The normal kata does not have such footwork. Actually, such footwork is usually found in the more advanced kata.

Students in our dojo learn Fukyugata Ichi within the first year or so of training (after the Naihanchi kata). It is not a difficult kata to learn but it is a difficult kata to do well. Any kata is difficult to do well. "Unzipping" a kata can give the students more insight into a kata they might think they already understand. In this way, they will never take a kata for granted, even it might be considered to be a basic kata or one that they learned when they were beginners.

Another way to look at this is to imagine that each technique in a kata is like DNA. The kata has the pieces of DNA is a certain sequence. By changing the sequence, things change, even though the parts remain the same.

Now I am not suggesting that kata variations are something you would do for tournaments or demonstrations. And I mentioned to my students that if a senior is visiting, we would never do this in front of him (or her). This is for our own private training.

I want our students to learn the kata correctly, but then be creative with them. Look at the kata from front to back, up and down, right and left, even in changed sequences. Look for the connections between the movements -- even between movements that are not contiguous. How does the first movement relate to the last movement? How does movement 3 relate to movement 4, and to other movements? And don't forget the mirror image of techniques.

Sometimes we should unzip the kata, shake them up, and see what happens!


Charles C. Goodin