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Of Its Own

posted Jan 30, 2012, 10:21 AM by Eric Banks   [ updated Jan 18, 2015, 7:31 PM ]

“There is no spoon…”

-The Matrix


Last summer, I found a DVD containing a video of me taken at the 2007 Show-Me-State Games martial arts tournament.  It was a fun find, something I’d forgotten about a while ago, so I watched it several times, and I both smiled and frowned, in almost equal measure.  In the video, I preformed Unsu kata…it’s a difficult but good-feeling kata containing cool, exotic movements and quick direction and tempo changes.  As I watched the video, I smiled because parts of the kata were pretty good; I frowned because parts of the kata were pretty bad; I smiled because somehow I won the gold medal in my division that day; I frowned because I haven’t really performed Unsu since that day.  Why haven’t I studied that kata since then?  Well, after training it myself, and after reviewing many other people’s interpretation of it, I found that I could no longer do it because it just didn’t feel “authentic”…  By that I mean it felt as if I was performing someone else’s kata and not my own.  Let me explain further…


Until a few years ago, I’d always thought that kata had to be performed a certain way, with a standard timing, focus, etc.  And yes, this is true for say, when taking an exam for Shodan and below, but once a karate-ka begins to push past Shodan level skill, I think they need to begin exploring the kata itself and how it relates to them, going deep and pulling out truths about the form and discovering truths about themselves within that form, the essence of self and of the essence of the kata.  After I performed Unsu at the tournament, I just couldn’t do it any longer because like I said, it didn’t feel real, it felt like I was unwittingly and unwillingly mimicking what others had done, and what others expected and that just didn’t feel right. 


About 9 or 10 years before that tournament, I was fortunate to have breakfast with Nishiyama Sensei in Chicago on the last day of a seminar.  I asked him a simple question that had been on my mind for a while, one that I was sure I already knew the answer to, but I needed confirmation from someone who really knew what was what.  If I recall, we had been studying two kata that weekend, I think, so that Sunday morning, sitting across from the master, I asked whether or not each kata had its own feeling and he enthusiastically replied in the affirmative; yes, each kata has a definite feel of its own and it’s up to the practitioner to find and experience it for themselves.  That answer opened gate number one to freer thinking.


Two years after the tournament, I was training in a seminar with another well known, highly skilled karate master and he said something that blew my mind and opened the second gate to freer thinking, training and expression.  He said that kata should never be performed the same way every single time, and in fact, because we are changing moment by moment, kata cannot be done exactly the same each time.  And not only did he say this, he showed it by demonstrating one of my favorite kata a few times that day, Kanku Sho.  Wow…I couldn’t help but smile ear to ear as I watched him bring the kata to life in a couple different ways.  And then, just this past summer, I saw a newer video of him performing Unsu; it was way different from what I had seen him do before and…it was simply exquisite and effective. 


Believe it or not, admit it or not, freedom and genuine self-expression are scary concepts for most of us because we like, want and need guidelines.  While it’s good and even necessary that we do have some sort of guidelines, we have to remember that they ultimately point us to freedom and not conformity, and it’s up to us to read and live between and outside of those boundaries.   Further, the truth is, we are a lot freer than we know, or are even comfortable believing…  Of course in our training, the standards and principles of body movement and self-defense that we study are foundational and will always be followed, most likely, but this new understanding opens up more and deeper possibilities that can only be truly understood at the individual level.  For me, the final gate started to open when I began to explore this concept for myself, this freedom of self-expression and technique application in and through my kata, and from this point on, there is no longer a spoon…