Headingley Karate
Practical Martial Arts for Self Defence

Principle Driven Kata - Part 2

In the first part of this article I explored principles that I believe are inherent in kata. These fall into two categories: (i) principles of power generation, and (ii) tactical principles. I also gave some examples to show how each and every movement in kata can be consistently explained using these principles. But that is only half the story. The next task is to work out how to apply these principles to real life situations. In other words, to generate applications (bunkai) for the kata. Many people have already been down this path and there are many published works which explore the subject. And of course, many practitioners also find value in the process of working out their own applications. So my intent here is not to add to that body of knowledge. Instead, I wish to suggest a way of working out whether any of these possible applications actually have any real value.

To answer this question requires a two pronged approach. The first task is to determine whether a given technique really is an application of the kata movement(s) in question. This may seem obvious, but it does require a little thought. A particular technique might be brilliant, but that in itself doesn’t make it an application of the kata. I suggest that it is only an application of a particular kata movement if it demonstrates the principles embodied in that movement. Again this may seem obvious but it has a couple of important implications.

Many techniques are clearly kata applications, simply on the basis that they look so much like the kata. But what if a technique doesn’t look like (or only ‘sort of’ looks like) the kata? What if it only feels like the kata? Or what if just one bit of it feels like one bit of the kata movement? My view is that this part of the technique it is still an application of the kata – because it is using the principle taught by the kata. This idea also has consequences when analysing sequences of kata. Some practitioners put value on applications that match a whole sequence of several moves from the kata. This may well be valid in some cases. But if we think of the kata as a catalogue of principles it becomes clear that it is not necessary to apply those principles in any particular order. They are simply there for us to dip in to and select them as appropriate to the situation. We can begin to look at little snippets of kata and combine them together in many different ways. Of course, there are examples of kata sequences that have been preserved across generations and across kata. In such cases it seems sensible to believe that a sequence has been preserved intact for a good reason, so it may indeed have value above and beyond that of its component parts.

Let us assume that we have examined a technique and decided that it does indeed demonstrate the principles embodied in the kata – it is an application. The next step is test the technique against a set of criteria that all good techniques should adhere to. These criteria I call the ‘Principles of Combat’. Unlike the tactical principles discussed in Part 1 of this article these Principles of Combat apply to all (or at least most) techniques in Karate. The tactical principles, on the other hand, are each specific to individual movements in the kata.

Any technique I use must satisfy at least the majority of the Principles of Combat and, in cases where it doesn’t satisfy all of them, I must be able to justify why I am prepared to relax one of my criteria. It is worth noting that these principles aren’t necessarily the only factors in making a technique successful but, in my opinion, they are the deciding factors in whether a technique can and will work. For example, I consider it extremely important to use methods of distraction. But you can add distractions to almost any technique so they are not much use in determining whether the core technique is valid in itself. So I do not include the use of distractions as one of my core Principles of Combat.

It should also be noted that I am not attempting to convince you which principles you should adopt. I have my viewpoint about what works, but it is up to you to decide which principles are important to you and to train accordingly. However, to give some insight into the process, I shall explore what I consider to be the core Principles of Combat.


Muchimi is an Okinawan word which means ‘sticking’, ie. sticking to the enemy. This concept relies on two in-built human skills that we use all of the time but rarely think about. The first of these is known as proprioception. This refers to our awareness of the precise location of every part of the body in relation to the rest of the body. Without it, life would be possible, but any physical action would be awkward and require conscious control. Fortunately, this ability is hard-wired into our nervous systems, so we don’t have to think about it. The second in-built skill is our ability to rapidly and accurately interpret our sense of touch. It has been shown that humans can react to ‘tactile stimulus’ (ie. being touched) somewhat faster and more appropriately than we can to input from our other senses (Schrope 2001). How do these skills help us as martial artists? Think of a simple example in which an attacker attempts to punch you in the face. If your arm is in contact with their arm as they begin to punch then you will be able to react more rapidly and potentially more appropriately than if you had to rely on sight. Your proprioceptive skills would give you moment by moment feedback on whether you were successfully guiding the limb away from your head. This innate ability is so refined that it even works with your eyes shut. In fact it usually works better that way when you first try it, as you’re forced to ignore your sense of vision and rely on touch instead. In our dojo we practice a number of partner exercises that teach students how to use these skills, including a form of ‘tactile sparring’. It is rare that that anyone actually lands a strike in this drill as it is so easy to develop an ability to redirect and control an attacker’s incoming force – as long as you’re in physical contact with them! Of course, many martial artists have already realised this and so it has given rise to a variety of ‘sticking hands’ and ‘pushing hands’ drills, particularly in Chinese arts. What is unfortunate is that these skills seem to have generally been ignored in the world of modern Karate as the emphasis shifted towards the long range techniques of the sporting arena.


Balance – or more specifically, keeping yours whilst destroying the enemy’s. I think most martial artists would agree that being balanced is important in order to generate power. That said, there are some methods of striking that actually use a loss of balance to add to the power generated. But even these require the person striking to have started from a position of balance. So it seems obvious that keeping your own balance whilst destroying the attacker’s will enable you to strike with power but deny them the same opportunity. The importance of balance goes beyond this though. When the human body is unbalanced in any way, one or more of a range of self-righting reflexes come into play (Howe & Oldham 2001). The important thing to understand about these reflexes is that they are automatic. Your body will try to right itself whether you wish it to or not. You can consciously over-ride these reflexes, but only if you know beforehand that you’re going to be off-balanced and in what way it will occur. You can also train in conditioned reflexes (with a lot of training) that can override automatic reflexes, such as choosing to roll forwards if pushed from behind. But even these will only usually occur after the body has already tried to self-right. So if you manage to unbalance the attacker, just for a moment their brain and body will be absorbed with the task of regaining balance – rather than the task of hurting you! If you can go one step further, and keep them continually off-balance until you have disabled or restrained them, they will not have been able to mount a useful defence, let alone take the offensive.


Body movement or body positioning. I use this as a shorthand phrase for ‘moving to a position of advantage’. This is an idea that is central to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (Gracie & Gracie 2001). In Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) whether standing in a clinch or on the ground, players generally seek to achieve positional dominance before attempting to apply a winning technique. There is even a form of BJJ sparring in which players are awarded points not for applying locks or chokes, but for achieving various positions which are regarded as more dominant. A small amount of practice in these scenarios demonstrates the value in this approach. Without having achieved positional dominance it is quite difficult to apply any lock or choke. Having achieved dominance the techniques become much easier to apply. The same can also be said of striking in these situations. I believe the same rationale is valid in any stand-up scenario too. If you can get to a position where you are stood behind your opponent, but facing them, you clearly have a momentary advantage. Better that than to stand slugging it out with them, face to face. A number of arts recognise the value in this approach and so teach techniques designed to place the practitioner at the attacker’s ‘blind-side’.


Can you see the ki?
Can you see the ki?
This is a concept that could take up a whole series of articles in itself - it is beyond the scope of this article to fully explore the subject. However, if we look at the term in the way it is used in the oriental culture it quickly becomes clear that it is used in many different contexts. I believe that this is because it is actually a catch-all term that describes a range of different phenomena. At least in martial terms I do not believe it is necessary or helpful to think of ki as some sort of mystical energy, outside of the realms of modern physics. For our purposes, I consider ki to be the synergistic use of body-weight and muscular strength. Or to put it simply, when generating power use all of the right muscles, none of the wrong ones and coordinate this with the movement of the body. Of course, this sounds easy but the reality is that many martial artists fail to achieve it.

Gross motor skills

Unfortunately I don’t have a one word shorthand for this concept, any ideas would be gratefully appreciated! Gross motor skills are defined as those skills that control large scale movements of the trunk and limbs. Fine motor skills on the other hand are necessary to perform small movements, in particular tasks performed by the hands and fingers. There is a wealth of evidence that fine motor skills deteriorate under stress (Morris 2000). We can see this effect in action when watching high level sports. Professional snooker players can pot balls and control the cue ball with astonishing accuracy.
Gross Motor Skills
Gross Motor Skills: the arm is pinned not grabbed, while the forearm strikes the jaw
But put them in a championship final, with an audience, TV cameras and a large cash prize to be won and their performance can deteriorate dramatically. In these situations the winner is often the person who is better at dealing with the stress of the situation, rather than the one who is the better technician. It doesn’t seem to matter what sort of stress a person is placed under, fine motor skills deteriorate just the same. It could be psychological stress such as fear, or it could be physical, such as exhaustion. We can see the same effect in the dojo. During a grading its quite typical for students to perform poorly compared to their usual level of ability – usually due to a mixture of nervousness and physical tiredness. Gross motor skills on the other hand do not deteriorate due to stress. There have even been suggestions that they can actually improve under some types of stress. Does this mean that we should throw out all of the techniques that require fine motor skills, such as many joint locks? I don’t believe so, but I do think this knowledge should influence the way we train. Many martial arts do indeed enable practitioners with many years practice behind them to better control their reactions to stressful situations. Also with many years of training techniques can become so ingrained that they simply become less prone to deterioration. Inevitably, if you have tested your techniques under stress in the dojo you will be more likely to be able to apply them in the stress of being assaulted. That said, it is likely that you will experience some degree of degradation in fine motor skills, no matter how good your training. So I prefer to emphasise gross motor skills, at least in the initial stages of an assault. It does not mean that the initial techniques used cannot be sophisticated, but they should not be complicated and should not require tremendous manual dexterity. Once the other principles listed above have been applied then it may be appropriate to apply a joint-lock or vital point strike that requires finer control. For example, once I have broken the attacker’s balance and brought them to a well-controlled prone position, it will be much easier for me to apply a joint-lock of my choosing.

Putting it All Together

All 5 principles together
All 5 principles together
We now have a two pronged approach to understanding kata and its application.

In the first instance we must look at a kata movement and decide for ourselves what principles it is teaching us. Undoubtedly there will be a number of power generation principles to be found in the movement, there may also be some tactical principles that can be identified. So now we can look at any proposed application for a particular kata movement and decide for ourselves whether it really is an application of that movement – we simply check whether the technique applies the principles found in the movement.

If we decide that the technique really is an application of the kata movement we then need to check whether its one that is worth practising, or is impractical and should therefore be consigned to the bin (no matter how clever it looks or how well it appears to match the kata). To do so we start by testing it against our core Principles of Combat. It may not score highly against every principle, but we should be able to either:

  1. modify the technique so that it does utilise all the core principles, or
  2. justify in what circumstances we might be allowed to relax a principle and use this particular technique.
If neither can be achieved then the application should be binned.

So we have two sets of principles to consider – those found in the particular movement itself and those that apply across the whole of our martial art.


In my view the primary purpose of training in kata is to practice various powerful and stable ways of moving the human body, in other words to learn to apply the principles of power generation. Secondary to that, kata also embodies a number of tactical principles (which themselves can provide inspiration for the development of practical applications). To be able to apply the lessons of the kata the student needs to practice appropriate applications with a partner. Any such applications should satisfy a consistent set of criteria that apply across the whole system, ie. that system’s Principles of Combat. Not all arts will use the same principles but practitioners should be able to justify those principles considered important within their system. Using this approach the practice of kata can become a focussed and effective self-defence tool, rather than the martial dance it so often is.

Further Reading

Readers may see some similarities between ideas expressed in this article and ideas expressed in the writings of Senseis Bill Burgar and Vince Morris. These two teachers and authors have undeniably had a significant impact on my own thought processes. For a more in-depth exploration of the Principles of Combat see Vince Morris’ Rules of Combat, The Development of Warrior Tactics. For more ideas on a systematic approach to testing kata applications see Bill Burgar’s Five Years One Kata.


  • Schrope M 2001 Simply Sensational. New Scientist Issue 2293
  • Howe T, Oldham J 2001 Posture and Balance. In: Everett T, Trew M (Eds) Human Movement. An Introductory Text, 4th edn. Harcourt Publishers, London
  • Gracie R, Gracie R 2001 Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Theory and Technique. Invisible Cities Press, Montpelier
  • Morris V 2000 Rules of Combat. The Development of Warrior Tactics. PBS, Nottingham