What angles mean and why things are in threes in Kata (video)

The most popular image associated with kata is that of a karate practitioner performing a series of punches and kicks in the air. The kata are executed as a specified series of approximately 20 to 70 moves, generally with stepping and turning, while attempting to maintain perfect form. There are perhaps 100 kata across the various forms of karate, each with many minor variations. The number of moves in a kata may be referred to in the name of the kata, e.g., Gojūshiho, which means “54 steps.” The number of moves may also have links with Buddhist spirituality. The number 108 is significant in Buddhism & Hinduism, signifying the 108 ways the mind can behave and kata with 54, 36, or 27 moves (divisors of 108) are common. The practitioner is generally counselled to visualize the enemy attacks, and his responses, as actually occurring, and karateka are often told to “read” a kata, to explain the imagined events. The study of the meaning of the movements is referred to as the bunkai, meaning analysis, of the kata.  Two common aspects of Kata that are never really explained in detail are:

  1. Why certain techniques always come in threes, and;
  2. What the direction changes in Kata mean.
The following video by Iain Abernethy explains both

‘This video was filmed in July 2011 at Marc and Dianna MacYoung’s annual Animal List BBQ in Colorado, USA. I taught for a couple of hours on the Saturday where I covered general kata principles. This clip shows a little of our discussion on angles in kata and why things are in threes.

We know that it is advantageous in conflict to be off the enemy’s attack line, while they are still on yours. The angles in kata therefore tell us the angle we should be at in relationship to the enemy. It does not, as is commonly thought, mean the enemy is at that angle. To think that was puts everything back onto straight lines and leads to highly-impractical bunkai.

People sometimes find this way of thinking difficult, but it’s actually very simple when you get used to it. All angles are referenced to the kata performer and a change of angle in kata means the corresponding angle should be assumed in relationship to the enemy i.e. at 45 degrees, to the side, or behind the enemy. If you want more detained explanations on this, you should check out my “The Pinan / Heian Series: The Compete Fighting System” DVDs.

In this video I also quickly look at why things are in threes. Essentially, the one shown twice will be the most likely or most effective one for a right handed person (the majority of people are right handed so it is a fair assumption for the kata to make). I’ve found this to be consistent throughout all the kata. In the example discussed, it is because a right-handed person’s strikes are most likely to be jammed by their enemy’s left hand. The kata therefore shows the left hand being stripped twice and the right hand once. The message is therefore, “practise on both sides, but be aware this scenario is most probable”. There’s a lot more to this, but I hope the video communicates the basics of the general concept.’


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