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Okinawan Shorin-ryu Karate-Do

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This article is reprinted from Black Belt Magazine 1983
Yearbook.  Written by Jerry Gould with Diane Gould.

The Seven Aspects of Kata: Formula for a Perfect Form

He stood silently, his breathing slow and even.  His nostrils flared slightly as he inhaled, as if to smell the air.  Now, slowly and effortlessly, he exhaled through his slightly parted lips.  Both eyes were fixed upon his assailant like lasers, burning beyond his opponent's eyes and into the brain, yielding the foe helpless from the devastation of his stare.  Suddenly, jerking his head, his glare quickly switched toward the noise heard from over his left shoulder.  Seeing a figure lunging toward him from out of the shadows, he stepped away from the oncoming punch.  His breathing changed now as the puzzled opponent initiated a second attack.  Inhaling sharply through the nose, instinctively the defender's body contracted as the blow was deflected by his block.  Exhaling sharply through the mouth, retaliating with a momentous thrust punch, tightening his not fully extended weapon of flesh and bone just before impact, his fist sank into the ribs of his shock adversary.  The two ruffians were finished now; he stood there poised, yet totally on guard.  Suddenly another attack came from the rear, and still another from his right.  He retaliated with blocks and counters, one after the other.  Moving in and then away, using combinations in absolute unison as if a precision timepiece, he struck two more down.  A final deafening kiai left the only remaining assailant stunned.  The enemy crumpled at the old master's feet, finished from the powerful blow that had gathered such tremendous strength from the deafening sound of the shout.  The last challenger had fallen, leaving the more skillful old one standing, still poised and unharmed midst the shadows of five broken bodies.

No, what you have just read is not part of a script from an old martial arts movie.  It is actually a modest attempt to show you a fragment of a brief, yet perfect kata; it could be a portion of any one of the many traditional Okinawan forms.  It is perfect in that it contains all elements needed to perform the complete kata, the little-known, centuries-old, and tightly guarded seven aspects of kata.  The perfect kata.  It's something the traditionalist strives for, dedicating so many countless hours of practice trying to achieve.  To learn all seven aspects that make up the perfect kata is relatively easy.  To master each of them individually is not quite so hastily done.  To have all seven of them come together at the same time, in order to produce the ultimately perfect kata, is not only extraordinarily difficult, it is almost an impossibility.  Yet, in order to even attempt it, you must practice all seven.  Strive to understand them.  Each should be done as if your life depended on it.  Applying these aspects will actually make your kata come to life.  Applied correctly, these seven aspects will allow the techniques in your form to appear and feel as if an actual, real-life battle for survival is taking place.  The seven aspects referred to have been practiced for centuries in the pure Okinawan karate systems.  Although, separately, some of the seven made be spoken of in dojo outside of Okinawa, there is only a small handful that even know that a formula for perfect kata exists, much less that it is centuries old.  The seven aspects of Okinawan kata contain all that the karateka must strive for while practicing. These elements will develop both the individual and his form over a period of years, until the student is one with his kata--that is to say, until the psychological and the physical attributes blend together into one working unit.  Kata is very popular right now, especially for competition.  The problem is that most practitioners do not fully understand their form, so it has no life or spirit.  The knowledge of, and most importantly, the understanding of these aspects will be helpful to the martial artist in his training.    For over 20 years these seven aspects have represented the basis of the author's daily kata practice, and he has benefited greatly from them as their mastery has overlapped into all areas of karate practice.  There is no doubt that this formula is the most important and functional tool the serious-minded forms practitioner can use:  Strive for the absolute in traditional karate, the perfect kata.  The seven aspects of kata are always taught in the order in which they will now be presented.  This exactness of order is for good reason; its has been tested by time as being the perfect and natural sequence of learning.

The Seven Aspects of Kata In Shobayashi Shorin-ryu Karate we study and enhance our performance of kata by applying the seven aspects of kata. Grand Master Eizo Shimbukoro says there used to be seven judges at kata competitions and promotions of rank on Okinawa. Each judge would be responsible for judging one of the seven aspects.

1. Pattern
Pattern refers to the sequence and memorization of the movements of the kata; their direction: the stances you utilize during the performance of the form; and the punches. Kicks and blocks, as well as their sequence throughout the kata. This requires a great deal of mental work with the memorizing of each movement, as well as a physical commitment in repetition to the point where your body remembers the sequence without having to think about it first. The pattern aspect is self explanatory and generally understood; anyone who does kata is familiar with it. The task here is to be disciplined enough to do the repetitious work, without deviating from the traditional kata by making up your own movements.

2. Breathing
Correct Breathing is an extremely important aspect of kata; without proper application, the student will become extremely tired. He will move slower with less strength throughout the techniques of the form. The Importance of proper breathing has just recently been stressed in the western cultures over the past ten or 20 years, where in fact it has been practiced for centuries by other cultures.  Psychologists have started to look at breathing and its effects on the mind and body. A pregnant woman is taught proper breathing to help relieve pain and to make the birth process easier. Hyperventilation is something many people experience if breathing is improper. It can be brought on by a number of different situations: through fear, anxiety, stress, physical exertion, and more. But quite simply, it is already brought on by improper breathing. When the breathing is altered, so is the individual. When fear sets in such as when a person might be protecting himself, if inhalation and exhalation are not kept under control. The fear builds and completely controls the individual. At the same time, oxygen and nitrogen levels in the blood change, affecting the brain, which in turn controls the physical, emotional, and mental state of the person. It is vital to have controlled breathing in order to perform well in kata.  Within the breathing aspect there are two types of inhalation. The first is done very sharply through the nose, usually done as the body contracts or during most blocking situations. It occurs as the block is being made. This type or inhalation is also used when preparing for attack. With the second type of inhalation, one breathes very slowly through the nose, as if trying to pick up a scent in the air. This usually done when moving from one position to another or where there is a pause or rest in the kata. There is only one type of exhalation. Breathe out sharply through the mouth, with the tongue in contact with roof of the mouth. This is done before expansion of the muscles, or before punching, kicking, and also before some blocking techniques.  This type of breathing regenerates the body and prepares it for explosive attack; it also clears the mind. Through the practice of proper breathing kata, the student is able to keep mental composure and physical stability throughout practice in class and in daily life as well. Breathing correctly not only enhances speed, power, balance, and both mental and physical endurance, but also concentration, focus, and spirit.

3. Combination & Timing

Combination refers to the grouping of the movements in kata. Within this aspect is also the element of timing. Combination and timing change the kata from being a monotonous pattern of movements performed mechanically into a series of movements split apart from each other thus representing different fighting situations within the kata. Timing puts the different movements, contained within each combination together through pauses and differing speeds. Combination and timing give the kata life. The two provide the student with the opportunity to visualize and comprehend the different techniques of kata during performance.

4. Form and Meaning (Bunkai)
The form aspect means to apply perfect body positioning to all movement in the kata. One must have correct stances with proper width and depth (there are exact formulas for obtaining and checking the perfect stance for an individual body). Correct hand positioning is necessary as are properly executed blocks, kicks and punches. The body must also be, perpendicular to the ground, with the shoulders in a down position, with the chin tucked, and with proper eye contact. In essence, perfect form. This is one of the hardest aspects to master. To have correct form, the student must practice for many years, constantly being both corrected by others and corrected by himself. There are many areas within this aspect of form and meaning which could be discussed at length. Meaning is best explained as, follows: when doing kata, the student should be able to convey the true purpose of the different techniques that occur in the form to anyone observing. To do this, the student must understand form and apply proper muscle control to each technique. Correct muscle control means one must use proper strength in application to any given technique. To do this, you must understand bunkai, which is the meaning or the technique. For example, let's say one is doing the kata, kusanku dai. In the last technique in the form, one turns around 180 degrees and blocks a kick that was to be delivered to the tail bone. This is a lifting type of block, lifting the Opponent's leg and throwing him by breaking his balance. To apply this technique correctly, one must first understand its meaning, or bunkai. Then one must apply proper muscle control or the technique will not work. One must lift the leg with the amount of force it would take to properly execute the movement. In short, this is form and meaning.

5. Tight/Not Tight
This aspect of the kata gives techniques their explosiveness. The body is tight and then not tight (relaxed). If the body were to stay tight all the time, it soon would wear out and thus have no focus. Each individual technique must utilize tight/not tight to give it life. For example, when punching, the arm is not tight until just before impact, and then it relaxes again.

6. Eyes
There are two meanings to the eye aspect. First, in kata, one must initially look then move. If this isn't done, the form is being done mechanically. In theory, if one does not look, how would one know to move in that direction? And when there, what would the mental attitude be if one did not look first and visualize the situation before moving into it? How could one know what block, or whatever, to use in defense? The other eye aspect means one must have "tiger eyes"--a look that can kill. This aspect is very important to the kata since strong eyes mean strong concentration. Without this element, the kata becomes dead. The eyes help convey the meaning of the form. Strong eyes can psychologically defeat an opponent if enough spirit is brought forth. How many times have you been in a bar and felt someone looking at you. You look up and find someone staring at you. You feel intimidated.  Maybe someone gives you a dirty look, that look conveys a change in the person's psyche. Soken Matsumura of Okinawa is said to have once kept a bull from attacking by eye contact alone. Without strong eyes there is no concentration or spirit brought forth in the kata or in the individual's mental attitude.

7. Kiai
All kata (shobayashi shorin-ryu) contain two kiai (shouts). One kiai is taught; the other is left up to the student's discretion. An extremely long kata may contain three Kiai. There are several purposes to the kiai. One is to psychologically disorient the opponent so their technique can't be applied. Another is to bring the mental and physical properties together at one precise moment. The kiai also serves to tighten the body in the event one is countered during application of technique. The kiai is often misunderstood, but it is a fundamental aspect of kata.

Grand Master Eizo Shimabukoro teaches kata utilizing the seven aspects. For Example, when practicing Naihanchin Shodan we start with the pattern aspect, then the breathing aspect, combination & timing, form & meaning (bunkai), tight no tight, Eyes ("Tiger Eyes") and Kiai. We practice each and every kata seven times with emphasis on one the seven aspects of kata. One could go much deeper into each of these elements of the katas as could one with each of the original seven aspects of kata. There are so many areas within each of these original seven. We have briefly touched on each of them in an effort to show just how much is really involved when one is truly striving for the perfect kata. A perfectly performed kata contains all seven aspects. Grand Master Eizo Shimabukoro of Okinawa has noted that after ears of study, the student will still have a hard time utilizing more than three or four aspects at the same time. If the student studies hard for 15 or 20 years maybe all will be expressed at one time, and the student will be one with their kata .  Yet remember, the goal of the dedicated karateka is still striving to achieve perfection. However, actually achieving it is another matter. Regardless of karate style, these seven aspects are a helpful guide in keeping yourself honest in your pursuit of excellence.