Monday, May 24, 2010


In martial arts we practice Kata. This is a memorized set of movements that simulate a fight against multiple attackers. It teaches us movement while staying on balance, it teaches us the linking of different movements - kicks and blocks and punches - also while in balance. It imposes a fluidity, if the Kata is performed well.

Tai Chi is very similar to this, a long series of movements performed exceptionally slow. These movements stress balance, and fluidity, and after much practice becomes a very viable and dangerous form of self defense. (In addition Tai Chi unblocks chi - or life energy - promote health and well being) If you can do the movements slowly, and in balance they will be more fluid, and then when you do them quickly they will be balanced and controlled -The reverse isn't true, you can cheat balance with speed, many Karate practitioners do and while this may have short term rewards, long term there is no replacement for good balance.

In the process of learning both Tai Chi, and Gensei Ryu Karate I have done my share of Kata, and the Tai Chi form. Kata is repeated constantly, and when I test at my dojo, one of the things I am judged on is my ability to do Kata.

Tai Chi is an internal art, meaning it helps build and utilize internal energy, whereas Karate is an external art. The power of the art is used as self defense. Tai Chi is sometimes reffered to as a soft art, whereas Karate or Jeet Kune Do, or Kung Fu is referred to as a hard art.

I find that my experience in both Tai Chi and Karate help me in terms of paddling a sea kayak which draws on both the hard and soft. Nothing exemplifies the combination of hard and soft like the forward stroke. Which can be performed with almost no muscular effort and still offer a tremendous amount of speed. Or can be muscled, to create explosive power. I tend to think of a high angle paddling style as 'hard' style and low angle paddling style as 'soft' style.

The reason we do Kata repeatedly is for two important reasons. First it teaches us muscle memory. We learn to perform the movements without thinking. They become natural. If we aren't thinking about our movements we are free to think about what is happening around us. Second, it teaches us to link individual movements into fluid chains of movements. One thing leads to another. In my dojo we say 'everything leads to something else' but on the water I say everything leads to the forward stroke, because the forward stroke is where we are most stable.

And this is why this is important. We have to learn to make our movements fluid and linked. It doesn't take long for the forward stroke to become fluid -however fluid and correct is another matter - but it takes a great deal of work to get the forward stroke, to the sweep, to the brace, to the forward stroke, to link fluidly from one to the other.

The only way to accomplish this is through massive repetition. And while we don't have a Kata for kayaking, it is easy enough to make your own. I have simple routines that I practice over and over so they become muscle memory. The simplest for me is the combination of forward stroke, to sweep, to cross bow rudder. The forward stroke gives momentum, the sweep starts a turning process, the cross bow rudder continues the turn.

The reason that we want that muscle memory and freedom to think when fighting is so that we can be aware of our surroundings and react to the movements of our opponents with no wasted movements. If I think about how to attack, the opportunity to attack is lost.

This translates directly into a sea kayak. I have to be able to react to the wind and water around me without thinking, So I am free to observe the changing conditions, and react accordingly. Fluidly. And smoothly.

The Zen archer may practice drawing the bow ten thousand times before he even places an arrow into his hand. drawing the bow must be fluid, and natural, and without thought.


  1. When our son was 10 (he's 30 now), he began Kenpo Karate with an extraordinary sensai by the name of Yves Turcotte in Val Belair, Quebec. Over time, he became very accomplished in this martial art. A highlight for us was watching him practice his Kata. His movements became what appeared to be instinctive and I think therein lay the artistry. Your post brought back fond memories, PO.

  2. Excellent post PO. I've done a fair bit of Kata over the years too and the analogy is an excellent one. Cheers - FP