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Kata - The Soul of Karate

One of the things that I have started to realise as I get older, and my journey of learning continues with Shotokan Karate Do, is that as I try and learn more through the experience of both training and teaching, is that whatever constant you have, kata is one element that you can keep improving as the years conspire to make your basic techniques a little bit slower, kicks a bit lower, and maybe, dare I say, kumite not quite as sharp as it was when you a thirty-something rather than a nearly sixty-something.

After all, it is inevitable that no matter how much effort is given to keep fast, strong, and sharp, our bodies will tell us in their own way that longevity will catch up. I work on the basis of still trying to keep as sharp and effective as my years will allow. One of the tests required when I took my 5th Dan exam with my Sensei Shihan Cyril Cummins, 8th Dan, was to write a two-thousand words thesis on any element of my Karate journey. I immediately selected my relationship with kata, what some folk call the soul of Karate. The reason that I chose this is because as my forty year plus path of learning has taught me is this: kata is a gift that keeps giving.

There is an endless and deep mine of knowledge that lie deep within; I was very lucky in that along with many others who trained with Shihan Cummins. He had a real genius when it came to kata, its intricacies and challenges. Indeed, he devoted himself in the last years of his life to try and pass on as much knowledge as he could.

He took the view that Kata was a deep and treasure-filled cavern of knowledge that was there to be explored, and by Lord, did he do just that. I would be mesmerised by his innate ability to almost effortlessly take multiple practical interpretations of any kata technique.

It used to be uplifting to watch this genius at work, but the truth is that he could do that because he really studied it to a point beyond where many go. He was relentless in his questioning and application. How could he make that technique work, and once it did how did it fit with what went before, and what came after? To be honest, it could also be a bit depressing, as he effortlessly had the Bunkai and Oyo capability to do endless real and effective Karate inspired by his love and knowledge of Kata.

I would be doing my best to comprehend some obvious and simple interpretations. To quote a football analogy, he was playing in the Champions League, I felt like I was in the Banks’s Sunday afternoon pub team, so when I wrote my thesis about what Kata and Karate meant to me, I could only write from the soul and my own knowledge, so that is what I did.

I spent the best part of 6 months working on it, every word was considered and when the day finally came, when I handed it over to Shihan for him to read it, it was with a sweaty brow.

Once he had read it, we went for a coffee and a chat about it all at his home. For two hours, we talked it through, and in the end he said to me that his job was to assess if he thought that I had generated enough understanding and knowledge to be worthy of being a fifth Dan. Which is after all a very senior grade and should never be granted lightly and it never was; every grade with Shihan had to be earned and rightly so.

Fortunately, for me, after our long analysis and discussion, he told me that in his opinion, the required standard had been reached. Now it was just the small matter of passing the actual grading itself, which on my first attempt, I failed. Why? Because I made one mistake in my kata. He made it crystal-clear that one error at that level would result in a fail, I made one and that was it.

But, Karate and Kata are also about as Shihan always said: "Never give up, never give in". He did not and by God, neither was I, so I dusted myself down and trained harder until the re-test, where I did not make a mistake, and that sums up Karate for me: a journey of discovery about who you are, and what you are made of. And it is real and can be a cruel test, but I would not have it any other way.


Sensei Austin

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