"It should be known that the secret principles of Goju-Ryu exist within the kata." Master Chojun Miyagi - Founder of Goju-Ryu
"Kata" are not simply an exhibition of form. They are a concrete manifestation of techniques which can be transformed at any time to any form. It is in the kata that the essence of karate has assumed a definite form. We should always remember that the kata are a crystallization of the essence of karate and that we should always begin afresh and train hard. It is only through the training of kata that you will reach "gokui", the essential teachings.
Kata is used to describe a set pattern of movements containing the self-protection techniques of a particular master or style. The Chinese martial arts (taiji, xingyi, xaiolin, etc.) also utilize such forms, called quan or hsin, and are the birthplace of the original Kata of Okinawan Karate. 8 of the 12 Kata practiced in Goju-Ryu are the forms handed down to Master Kanryo Higaonna by his Okinawan teacher Aragaki Seisho and the Chinese Master RuRuKo and others, who Master Higaonna studied under during his 13 years in Fozhou, China.
Classical or traditional Okinawan Karate was developed by ancient masters who understood the "natures of man". These "natures of man" included intense understandings of what we today call kinesiology, anatomy and physiology, psychology, nutrition and the like. These "modern" sciences were understood and applied by the creators of the martial arts hundreds of years before scientific medicine was founded in the 19th century. This detailed understanding of the inner workings of man were part of the intricate laws and sciences which gave way to one of the most defined and successful methods of medicine still in practice after 2500 years. Without these understandings, Kata is simply a mass of lifeless and meaningless physical movements.
Kata contain obvious external principles including proper body mechanics, maneuvering, distancing, technique placement, evasion, leverage, joint locks, throws and pressure point manipulation. It is the internal manifestations such as energy transference, opening/closing energy gates, clearing the qi (ch'i) channels or meridians, qi cultivation and manipulation, qigong (healing and martial), etc. that are missing from today's modern martial arts. For these reasons, if kata is simplified or altered to either accommodate an instructor's preference or to enhance a tournament competitor's chances, then we lose the true meaning and spirit of kata and thereby diluting the entire system of study.
This is exactly what has happened to Karate in a majority of styles and dojo around the world today. The original Kata of Okinawan Karate contain the applications of these sciences within their movements. The true meaning and spirit of Karate are embedded in the Kata and only by the practice of Kata can we come to understand them.
The "traditional" or classical Kata of Okinawan Karate are the physical vessels of the "secret fighting techniques" of the old masters. Though the performance of a Kata must remain the same, the bunkai, analysis or study of technique, and the oyo, application of technique, are, in relation to the expertise of the practitioner, ever changing. This is why a practitioner could study only one Kata for a lifetime and have all the resources necessary to defend oneself.
It is important to mention here that the idea and utilization of "bunkai" has been absurdly misinterpreted and wrongly applied by a huge segment of today's martial artists. To the worst degree, bunkai has become some sort of mystical source for the "hidden secret fighting techniques of an art long since lost" to which many are literally cashing in on. Understanding and applying bunkai, though not a secret at all, will unlock the deepest intentions of a kata.
There are many reasons why such a large population of the martial arts world are unaware of the importance of Kata. Language barriers and cultural differences are contributing factors, but are inconsequential in comparison once the understanding of Okinawan culture and the inclusion of Okinawan Karate into Japanese society are understood. The self-protection techniques of Okinawa were handed down from generation to generation from father to the first born son to ensure secrecy and security for the family or village. If for some reason one or the other died before passing on their "di" (te- Jap.) (indigenous fighting methods), it would die with them. Many times, the son of a family member would be adopted and all family traditions, including their "di" could therefore survive. It was a great duty and responsibility to receive such an honor and it was not taking lightly.
When Karate was introduced into the school systems of Okinawa and was taught openly for the first time in the early 1900's by Higaonna Sensei and others, it had to undergo certain changes to make it safe and acceptable for public practice. Chojun Miyagi Sensei taught Karate to children and adults in public schools and recreation centers in the 1920-30's. However, there were great differences in what he taught his private students at his home dojo. The students who were accepted at his home were exposed to the more rigorous and true nature of "toudi", not the "new Karate".
This "new Karate" was intended to be a form of exercise designed to improve a person mentally, physically and morally. Unfortunately, over the decades, hundreds of 1000's of black belts have opened their own dojos or "founded" their own systems, all without any of the knowledge or understanding of what Karate truly is. Many schools of karate in the US and other countries have done away with the practice of kata citing kata are out-dated training tools and therefore do not offer any realistic self-defense methods. Those schools that have kept kata practice in their systems have largely done so for either organizational (traditional) requirements and/or for tournament competition.
Many Chinese martial arts' instructors as well have lost the original intent of their forms. While they can perform the movements, these movements are literally empty vessels completely void of any substance or designed purpose. Without the implied sciences as part of it's instruction, taiji (tai chi) extremely famous for it's supposed health benefits, as taught today by a majority of instructors has become little more than a low-impact exercise. In some respects, practicing taiji could actually expand and even create more problems than the practitioner had at the onset of their training. This is no different than taking a medication without understanding any possible side effects, as well as effects brought on by under dosing, over dosing, improperly mixing with other medications, etc.
Another reason many schools have dropped kata from their system is the instructor's lack of understanding of kata beyond the above mentioned reasons. Since they cannot offer "valid" reasons to their students for kata practice, any motivating factors for the student to learn something that even the instructor deems "useless" is in fact useless. This has lead to many instructors seeking "fillers" from other systems and the formation of Americanized or mixed martial arts (MMA). Either way around, these instructors have little, if any, understanding of the true nature and purpose of kata practice.
Please don't misinterpret the intention here. In no way whatsoever is it insinuated that some of these arts are not effective. We are simply giving reasons why many schools are no longer teaching kata as part of their curriculum. Shihan McMains, though limited, has studied and practiced some MMAs to better understand their base. Plus he enjoys the "get down" nature and grueling workout they offer.
Research into the history of most "pre-modern" Asian martial arts (late 19th Century and earlier) would reveal the compilation of study by that system's founder into several armed, un-armed and healing arts. This is not the same as many of today's martial arts where bits and pieces of the external techniques of different arts are brought together under an umbrella art without any in-depth understanding of the relative nature of those styles and respective techniques. Imagine building a car with parts borrowed from BMW, Ford, Saab, Jaguar, Land Rover and others. While some of the external body parts may fit together or simply "fill the need", the internal workings and mechanicals utilized must fit their intended design in conjunction with other specifically designed parts to secure long life and safety.