Thursday, September 24, 2009


I am going to share with you one of the low points in my karate training. It was during my last Dan rank testing in 2006. I was given five weeks notice to prepare for testing. To say that I did not feel ready was an understatement. It was necessary to split into two groups because there were so many testing candidates. My group was ushered to the first floor to test in front of the Federation President and several members of the Renshi-Kai.

Everyone did a great job and passed the test. The test lasted a few hours and included kata, bunkai and two-person weapon forms. At the conclusion of the test, the testing board congratulated all the candidates and shook our hands. One of the black belts, who I have known for years and consider a friend, pulled me aside and said, "A little vanilla, you need to put more of yourself in the kata."

At first I was confused. Aren't we all supposed to look the same? Isn't that the point of traditional keep things exactly the same from teacher to student? I was told that I demonstrated the kata technically correct with power and focus. What was I missing? What did I need to do in order to improve? How can I be the same yet look different? How do I take my kata training to the next level?

I thought about the black belt's comment often. I tried to resist the concept at first. But over time, I realized that I needed to make karate more personal. My goal was to perform the techniques within the technical parameters but look like me while doing it. Let me tell is not easy. There is a fine line between making kata "your own" and changing the kata.

Flash foward to 2009....

On a Monday nights, a small group of black belt students gather in the dojo to work on our own material. It is not a class and there is no structured curriculum. We work on kata, drills, bunkai, techniques or self-defense. There is no official start time or defined end time. As a group we discuss concepts and work through our questions.

On one particular night, we worked on the kata Chinto. This is my husband's favorite kata. He uses this kata as his highlight kata during testing and in competition. He moves through the kata with speed and finesse. He asked the group to run through the kata. He spotted a slight...and I mean slight and barely noticeable...variation from the way he performs a technique in the kata. The group examined the technique for a few minutes and discovered the source of the difference. It was in the manner in which we executed a particular inside forearm block.

A block? An inside forearm block was causing the difference?

We each in turn explained our bunkai. The move follows a left foot forward seisan/left downward block. The next sequence is to look over the right shoulder, kosa behind with the right foot (180 degree turn) with a left upward block/right inside block.

My husband was using the block as a post and grab to the outside. He was slipping past the opponent in the kosa stance.

I was using my left hand as the block as my right hand was executing an arm break.

A different black belt was using the left hand as the blocking hand and the right hand served double duty as a parry followed by a strike to the head.

We stood in a circle for a moment. I looked around at all the faces in our group. We were all deep in thought and nodding.

We were technically the same but different.

Each of us put ourselves in the kata.

Definitely not Vanilla.


Charles Hobby said...

That's a perfect explanation Michelle of the process of making a kata one's own.

As I train entirely on my own there is nothing preventing me from changing any aspect of a kata that I want, and yet I do my best to remain true to a certain standard. Doing so is the framework within which I choose to perform my art.

Michele said...

Hi Charleyhorse,

Thanks...I am glad you liked the post.

Felicia said...

You now, this is something I wrestle with on occasion. My son, training partner, Ed and I travel a bit during the summer visiting several of our sister dojos (same style, instructors from the same lineage who came through the ranks together) and always, always, ALWYAS there are subtle differences in the katas. I often wonder if we all learned from the same place (our instructors' instructor is the same), how did the differences creep in? I think you explain it perfectly: putting that little bit of who YOU are in the kata is par for the course. If it can be explained, it works for you and doesn't change the original to a point of complete unrecognizabilitly (is that a word, LOL?), I think those subtle differences are OK.

Adding a little vanilla. Like that. Like it a lot :-)

Michele said...

Hi Felicia,

Thanks for commenting. I know what you mean about visiting sister dojo. There are always subtle differences. When I was a kyu, it used to bother me. Now...I have a better understanding. Even though my husband and I went to the same dojo, our material has very slight differences that are a result of different class instructors.