Monday, January 18, 2010

Kata, Learning, and Preferences

The brillant bloggers Thoughful Sensei and Pat at Mokuren have been having a discussion on educational theory and the role of kata. Thoughtful Sensei is a kata man, believing kata must be practiced precisely in order to gain understanding. Pat has been talking more about clouds of waza and kata launching ground of creativity.

My first 5 years in aikido was in an organization that had a very structured kata system. The kata was very precise - angles, balance breaks and the results they are trying to achieve became predictable. The students they produce are good.

My next 3 years in Aiki were in a Daito Ryu school in Numata, Japan. There, kata work even went more to the levels of insanity. I worked the same 13 techniques in kata order for three years. Nothing else, just one kata. The students they produced were good, but were uncomfortable outside the kata structure.

When I returned to the United States there was no school in the area I was interested in joining, so I started my own group. I tried drilling them in kata the way I had learned. But when my old teacher came down for a seminar he told us that he really doesn't work the kata anymore. All he enjoys and now focuses on is balance breaks. He continues to produce good students.

Next I found a new teacher in Round Rock. He pretends to not even know the names of techniques. He views the mechanics in concepts as balance breaks, yin yang, freedom and space. He is producing good students with no concept of kata at all.

So I am now a professional educator, and the state of Texas demands I spend an ungodly amount of time studying education theory. I would like to throw my 2 cents in on the loose versus precise kata debate as a vehicle for education. As in most human endeavors the answer is yes, no, maybe and depends on the situation. Is precise kata the only way to learn aikido? No. It works for some people and clubs. It is a preference. Does working a loose, or even no kata work? Of course, but maybe not for everyone.

Fact is when it comes to education some people require a strict routine. They require strict curriculum, expectations and goals. If you find yourself promoting strict kata system as THE way to learn and transmit aiki, then likely you have an engineers mind. In the engineer's mind Aiki is a science that can be quantified and broke down into it's composite angles and ideas. This is your preference and the academy you found will reflect this methodology.

If you approach the problem of aiki and transmission from one of 1000 other paradigms, you will come up with a very different system of practice and experimentation. Work at it hard enough and likely you will be successful. Remember most of the aiki world does not use the kata system as conceived by Tomiki Sensei. Their work is just fine too.

As Lowry Sensei pointed out to me, all variation in practices comes down to PREFERENCES. How does your mind and body work together? How does your body work? How do you learn? How do you process information and chaos? How do you like to structure practices and the organizations we create? Preferences.

I myself phase through months were I become precise kata czar, and then go through long phases I cannot even remember the technique names. This thus far has been my preference. I am producing some good students and have made a thriving practice from my preference.

Every time we proclaim this is the WAY aiki should be taught and practiced, likely we are speaking from our own narrow view and forgetting people are out there doing killer work doing everything the opposite we teach and think.

Someday I might just wear a black gi and white hakama to make it clear my thinking is backwards from everyone else. That's just the way I prefer to be.


  1. The fact that this Kata subject follows the one on Shai is good. Because both of these martial arts tools can be miss-used and not be used within the balance of the art. Learning how to use them,to learn the Art,is important.

    They should be viewed not as tools to make the Art but as tools from the Art. One's which make us.