Kata (forms) are sequences of blocks, strikes, and movements performed alone and generally take a minute to complete. Karate kata can be modified to include attackers and weapons. Just as a mime shows that they are trapped in an invisible box, the karateka fights invisible opponents using body motions.

Since kata donít require partners, supervision, or special equipment they can be practiced anywhere at any time; all someone needs is a clear space. Kata encourage every person to perform as hard as they want to and at their own skill level. People donít have to pull techniques (sparring) or have time to regain their breath during breaks (contests). Additionally, kata are relatively safe with most injuries caused by hyperextension.

Some martial art styles train in as few as ten kata, others study many more. Many martial arts teach kata that are nearly identical: Taikyoku Shodan is also Heian Shodan (Shotokan), Fukyugata Shodan (Shorin-Ryu), or Pyong An (Tae Kwon Do); Naihanchi Shodan is known as Tekki Shodan (Shotokan) or Chul Gi (Tae Kwon Do). Each style has small differences, but when seen side-by-side the kata are essentially the same.

Kata fall into two general groups. One kind improves speed and agility by including quick attacks, fast movements, jumping, and ducking to confront attacks. The other kind promote strength and dignity and feature bolder attacks and slower motions. Students learn both classes of kata, but smaller people usually prefer the "fast" kata while larger people like "strength" kata. In addition, students may favor kata that are powerful, quick and entertaining when young and prefer slower, more meditative, and graceful kata later in life.

All kata have embusen (performance lines). Some kata follow a simple "ĺ " (the Naihanchi series), a rough "I" (the Taikyoku group); or more complicated patterns (the Bassai set). The Taikyoku Shodan embusen in the upper right corner is an example of a kata that begins and ends on the same spot. A person must take the same sized steps throughout the kata to end on the same spot. Any mistakes will show up in another ending point.

A kata is like a puzzle; each movement in kata has a bunkai (application) waiting to be discovered. Some kata (Sochin, Jion) are very old and were passed down secretly so that the original bunkai may have been lost or changed. Some are recent (the Taikyoku series) and are still practiced the same way as when they were created. Even if the original bunkai are known and practiced they donít mean as much today as they did in the past. Modern attackers use guns, knives, and clubs rather than swords, staves, or bare hands and new bunkai situations that are more probable have been added to the foundation of the originals.

At least one bunkai for every movement in a kata should be known and practiced; high-level black belts may know several bunkai for each movement including hidden and alternative techniques. Bunkai must be studied with partners to judge distance, timing and effectiveness.

By watching kata, deductions can be made about where and with whom the person trained. Each master performed kata a little differently and taught it that way to their students. Some experts added a movement when teaching a kata to an instructor so that the master could tell that instructorís students apart. Also, a studentís kata will resemble their instructorís performance because students pick up habits from their instructors.

Instructors can estimate studentsí skill levels by watching kata. Performing a kata well requires confidence, ability, and an understanding of attack and defense. Beginning too quickly, rushing through a kata, hurrying back to a ready stance at the end, stiffness, or lack of concentration reveal an unfocused mind. Students who perform kata properly have developed strong basics and the self-discipline needed for promotion to higher ranks.


  1. Donít try to learn advanced kata until the skills learned and practiced in basic kata have been mastered.

  2. Learn each kata from someone with years of practice, not someone who learned it last month.
  3. Memorize the kata in sections, not all at once. Practice the entire kata enough times so that it can be done with the eyes closed. 100 repetitions is considered just a start.
  4. Polish the kata by paying attention to details. Once moves are memorized and understood practice them in the kata and then pull it all together to express the kataís name. Kata have themes that should be understood and expressed. Bassai Dai means "Penetrating the Fortress" and karateka tell that tale within the kata.


Practice kata in several ways: most of the time at the proper rhythm, sometimes very slowly and powerfully, other times very fast, and occasionally by visualizing. Repeat kata facing in different directions to avoid seeing the same walls on the same actions. Train on different surfaces (hills, grass, beach sand, mats, rocky areas, and wet surfaces) and practice at different times of the day and year to increase awareness of each kata.

Practice any kata as if it were a new and unexpected assault from dangerous attackers, not just as the 3rd, 23rd or 53rd time today. Complete kata every time; donít stop and start over. Accept mistakes as they happen and continue on. Remember that kata arenít a competition against others, only yourself.

Show zanshin (being relaxed but prepared to defend or attack in any direction) at the beginning and end of a kata. Display boldness, confidence, and humility with the eyes and body. A firm gaze is important but it canít be fixed in one spot. Try to see everything at onceódonít keep looking at the floor or other people. The eyes must look in the correct directions; when attacking look at the target, when defending watch the opponentís attack.

Controlling breathing is critical. If an opponent sees that someone is out of breath they will attack harder. If they can hear inhaling and exhaling their attacks can be timed to knock the wind out. Breathing has to be matched with techniquesĺ breathe out when attacking, in when blocking. A good kiai at the correct moment adds power to an attack and shows determination. A half-hearted kiai indicates a lack of spirit and creates an opening.

Time hard strikes to happen at the end of stance movements. Coordination of the head, arms, trunk and legs add up to maximum power. Donít be hard and stiff throughout the kata; be soft and hard as well as fast and slow. Donít bob up and down, twist the upper body or lean to one side as these habits can decrease power.

When doing a group kata try to keep up with the group and maintain a good distance from everyone else. Group kata require compromises in speed, power and experience so use peripheral vision to watch others and fine-tune during the kata. If people are too close take smaller steps, if others are falling behind slow down a little, if someone is in the way move to the side and go on.

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