Some of the forms I teach I've been practicing in one form or another for roughly three decades. I practice others, though, that I've learned more recently. A few only in the past ten or five years. I struggle whenever I learn a new kata - I'm not a natural and I fall back on old, bad habits too often. So, I thought I'd share how I go about learning a kata. Maybe my hurdles will be familiar to some of you.
Recently I've been practicing the kata known as Hangetsu or Crescent Moon. This is a traditional Shotokan kata that has its roots in the older form from Okinawa known as Seisan. This pattern is usually taught at brown or black belt level in Shotokan. I learned it sometime in the 1990s as a kyu-grade student in a non-traditional setting and re-learned it in traditional karate sometime around 2000.
First, I watched my seniors perform the form several times. I probably watched dozens of repetitions. Then I stepped through the kata in a group with senior students on both sides of me so I could copy their form. I was directed in my training by my instructor who made corrections verbally and by literally placing my hands and feet in the correct positions. We would stop frequently and remain static to have our stance and techniques assessed and corrected. After several weeks of this, as my reliance on my classmates decreased, I was called upon to perform the kata as a solo exercise in front of my instructors and peers. Sounds pretty straightforward and, I'm sure, this is very similar to the way thousands of other martial artists have learned kata.
As I learned in this way I also engaged in a degree of self-training. When I was learning Hangetsu I'd often stay after class to practice while I was warmed up and the form was fresh in my mind. If I got stuck on a move I'd ask a senior student or my instructor for help. I did not, however, ask them to watch ten repetitions of my form every night. This was my time to try to piece it together - not an external assessment. On the way home from class I'd review the form in my mind trying to recall each individual steps. I'm not a great note-taker, but I know students who need to write notes to remember kata, if this describes you then, by all means, write it down!
On my own I'd practice the form at slow speed and full-speed, sometimes without power and sometimes with full-power. I'd practice individual moves and sequences from the kata in isolation, sometimes in front of a mirror. I'd apply the techniques of the form on a heavy bag or makiwara. For Hangetsu kata this was especially important since the form involves a special stance and a powerful punching combination.
I supplemented this physical training with research on the form. I'm a total nerd, so this is actually a pleasure for me. I like reading articles, blogs and books about this stuff. I have a collection of reference books that I can refer to and compare. Since each style and each lineage within a style may perform a kata differently it's often helpful to look at different interpretations of a form in order to understand why you perform a technique a certain way. Sometimes I didn't understand why I was doing a certain move, but I had good teachers, and recalling my teacher saying, "trust me and practice" was my default when I found discrepancies between published accounts of the kata and the method I was learning (note: there does, I believe, come a time to question the efficacy and authenticity of one's kata, but it's not during the learning phase). I am a big advocate of active visualization, so every night before falling asleep I'd try to imagine myself doing every move of the form. This is harder than it sounds. It's fairly easy to picture yourself standing in a particular stance, but it's quite difficult to actually visualize moving from stance to stance and performing techniques. How many little moves are involved in simply stepping? How many contractions of certain muscles and expansions of others are involved? How many little interactions between arms and legs occur? How do you imagine your head is angled or your toes are pointed or your knuckles are aligned? Visualization is actually quite exhausting. Eventually, I reached a point where my form felt good, where I knew the steps and could perform the techniques. Of course, it all came crashing down around me when I had to perform my kata for others. Then it was back to the drawing board.
So, does it ever get easier? For me, probably not, but for you I hope it does. I have friends who perform beautiful kata after only the shortest introduction. These men and women, athletes, dancers and natural martial artists have something special. For mere mortals like me it's a lot of hard work, but the results are worth it. After learning kata this way, practicing bunkai, the meaning behind the moves, becomes second nature. I was gratified once when I overheard a colleague say to a friend, "It actually looks like he's fighting someone when he does his kata." If kata are the building blocks of our budo they should convey that kind of energy.
Whether you are learning the twenty moves of Taikyoku Shodan, our most basic form, or like me you are trying to approach kata with fresh eyes, be deliberate and intentional in your practice. Karate is not a race and taking time to really learn your forms will pay dividends in the end.