Using Kata as a Mind Building Tool- Part 1

People often say, “Martial arts is about the mind.” But when I ask most martial artists exactly what they mean by that, I usually get some short, etherial answer that doesn’t say much. This post begins a series about how Martial Arts really can build a mind and how you can use a kata practice to build the mind you want.

Using Kata to Upgrade Your Wetware Graphics Card

Any computer geek will tell you that graphics and video takes the largest amount of RAM and storage space in a computer. So if you really want to build your brain’s capacity, then I suggest creating detailed, competent imaginary opponents and backdrops and fight them full on with a smile!

Creating an imaginary opponent that you can physically “touch” in real space and time is quite the mental exercise in my humble opinion.

I try to imagine every detail of my opponent, his or her hair, clothes, body shape, height etc. At first, this is a lot harder than it seems. I hear a lot of students say they find it difficult. Usually, I tell them to take their finger and sketch out a sculpture of an opponent in front of them and then FORCE the mind to see it. And then practice on that imaginary sculpture over and over.

Many start with a stick figure and over months and years, their minds becomes more creative and inserts a lot more details as the practice deepens.

One thing a person can do to build a bridge across the imagination void is to practice kata moves against an actual opponent and then immediately do the same action alone intensely imagining the same opponent in his or her mind with the same visual and tactile details.

Afterward, he or she goes back to practice with the real opponent to notice all the details that the mind left out. Doing this over and over helps deepen the experience and teach the mind to see and touch in pictures and imaginary sensations.

And now I’m going to admit a silly something. I have an imaginary outdoor dojo I work out in.

It protrudes from a cliff over an ocean in my inner world. There is a lighthouse and a house on the hill behind it. Sometimes I close my eyes as I do my forms. I see the screws in the lighthouse door, the stone, the sky and various weather states. I smell the imaginary air. I fight imaginary opponents.

And I have done this for years and yes, some people think me weird for it.


I often do this with eyes closed and I found it very difficult at first.

One thing I did to build my imagination for my kata world was to pattern many of my imaginary worlds exactly upon the real one. Here’s how it was done.

Step 1. I find a place to practice with my eyes closed where I won’t break anything.

Step 2. I REALLY look at the environment and memorize it.

Step 3. I do several forms in that environment – eyes open.

Step 4. Redo the form with my eyes closed while recreating the world exactly in my imagination. At this stage my imaginary world IS the real world.

Or is it? I find it a lot harder to hold my imaginary world and real world in perfect tandem. There are always missing details. And spotting them and flushing them out is where all the fun is!

I sometimes take an object and pick it up and memorize its feel and look, set it aside and do kata while imagining the object as detailed as possible. I then pick it up and note the differences and repeat.

After forty or fifty kata my body is sweaty and my mind is full of wonder. My body/mind often creates sensations that feel very real. I call these “body metaphors” and they are the heart of the imaginary feast.


I find these experiences beautiful. I get to create my own reality in a sense. And for me, I have found that some of the most enjoyable things I have are the dreams of my own head.

Not many people practice kata this way. Hopefully, this humble blog may change that for some.

People often suggest a new workout routine to me. Or they’ll suggest I take some new course to improve my mind.

I just smile and vow to get back to my practice space by our neighborhood pond as fast as possible.

WARNING: The upcoming posts are going to get a lot weirder and a lot more practical.

The Golden Ratio and Kata

I recently made an interesting observation — all the forms of my system’s kata inherently have the golden mean appearing in hundreds of places.

The golden mean (AKA: the golden ratio) is used a lot in graphic design, engineering and architecture. It’s known as the irrational number Phi. It’s the reason the nautilus curves like it does and why some graphic arts look more balanced than others.

In Taiho-Ryu Number one Kata, I found the Golden Ratio in the following places:

1. Siting to Down Block: One arm is bent at the acute angle of the golden mean and the extending hand is at the obtuse angle of the golden mean.

2. Zenkustudachi: When doing Zenkutsudachi (fore stance), the centerline of the martial artist falls exactly at the position of the golden mean right between the feet. The front leg is angled at the obtuse angle of the golden mean.

3. Oi Tsuki (front punch): When extending a front punch the hand turns over almost exactly at the point of the golden ratio.

4. Knife Hand Block: The angle of the hand at full extension is the golden mean.

5. Cross Step: The cross stepping leg is bent to the golden mean.

This little “aha” has been a rich discovery for me. I’ll be spending the next few weeks exploring it and seeing what happens when I align every motion with the golden mean and discovering how to use it to improve balance and performance.

What is a Body Metaphor?

Our life practices take on meanings and sensations all their own in helping us process life.  Over time, our body-mind learns to communicate and empower itself within these practices.

Routine practices create a workbench for thought and change. We can draw from them or infuse into them things we want as well as use them to hold information and idea and skills.

I once knew a guy who made big decisions while detailing his car. He noticed how he felt while working on his car told him a lot about how “right” one decision was over another.

One woman I knew used to say, “Hmmm. I need to knit on this.” Another man I knew of a person who always made decisions and did his best thinking over his ritual of a nightly pint of Guinness.

We all do this naturally and often.

How powerful is our body at believing our imagination? Try this old parlor trick: Imagine biting into a lemon deeply and sucking as hard as you can.

Yup, your imagination just got you to salivate.

Now imagine your hand betting warmer. Surprise, your hand may actually feel warmer.

Your reaction to this this example is directly related to how suggestible human beings are and the key to understanding how to build practices that create an experience of spirituality.

I call these sensations and reactions created by our body through our imaginations “body metaphors.” They are the fruits of our imagination mixing with the dynamics of our body to create experiences that we really feel.

It’s my term I completely made up because I didn’t know of another one.

Here is an example of a body metaphor.

In martial arts, I view the force of “ki” as a body metaphor and not an actual energy force as many claim. Over time many martial artists “feel” an energy in their bodies when their technique is right. It’s called “ki,” “chi” or “prana” depending on the tradition or mind/body practice. Yet, when you try to measure it, it doesn’t register. But many masters and others claim to “feel” something or project something.

What gives?

I believe that our bodies have given us a wonderful gift in that we can CREATE our body experiences. We feel “ki” when a martial art or body/mind technique is optimal. It’s our body’s way of letting us know we are getting it right. It’s rewarding us. It’s not a “real” measurable force, but it’s a metaphor that shouts our intent and creates personal meaning merely by being felt.

It is a core belief of mine that a body metaphor is not to be discounted as “fake” but enjoyed and deepened!

But what about times that “magical” things happen?

One time in my life, my brother was at the point of death. I went outside and did basic open hand kata. I was dedicating my practice to my brother and I felt a “charge” grow in me. I didn’t question it. I didn’t push it. But at the point in the form where maximum exertion was expected, I released it with the wish my brother would recover. Amazingly enough, he turned the corner that night.

Magic? Nope. Not one bit.

I refuse to taint such an experience with with something as trite as “magical ability.” It was a gift from my mind-body that happened to line up in a meaningful way.

I’m sure that if I tried to be a “Professional Kata Healer” and projected the same intention into 100 cancer patients that I would not do any better than a standard deviation in helping them recover.

Meanwhile, back to the point.  How we can actually use body metaphors? I propose that we can use this effect any way we want to.

Traditionally, kata is a tool for learning how to do martial arts techniques. The student inserts imaginary opponents and uses the movements of the kata to unlock powerful fighting techniques.

But there are many levels beyond butt kicking prowess.

We can train ideas and reactions and bind them to practices. The ability for us to make mind-body associations to things we do and see, allows us to use these practices as a workbench to create skills for better living.

EXAMPLE: Bob is a walking monologue waiting to happen. Get him talking and he goes and goes! He decides to practice the intention of replacing his monologues with dialogs. How? By swinging a stick over his head for three weeks for a count of ten thousand times.

Yeah. I didn’t stutter. Here’s how it works:

He pictures himself being aware of him monologuing and switching to dialogue. Then he does the motion from the kata with the bo. He repeats the thought and then physically does the motion with the bo. HE DOES THIS FOR THREE WEEKS. Soon, he is more aware of himself during conversations and the swinging movement with the bo staff is forever bound to his new skill “Monologue Awareness.”

Now he is ready for the next step in the form. He chooses to bind the next movement to the the idea of “dialogue phrases.” He practices phrases like, “Please say more about that.” and “I wish I knew more about that. Please tell me more.” “How interesting.”

And he does it with a physical object over and over.

“How interesting” …(swish) … “I wish I knew more!” … (swish) …  “Please say more about that” … (swish).

Ten thousand times.

Over and over while his shirt gets damp from sweat. HE WORKS ON THE NEXT SEGMENT FOR THREE WEEKS. Eventually, he learns the entire form and it is his forever and always a part of his body and not some dusty book on the shelf.

And every time he does the kata in full, he touches every topic he bound to a movement and reconnects with the skills and deepens them.

In Neuro-linguistic programming speak, this is called “anchoring.”

That’s it. That’s the secret of kata – practice, practice, practice.

Body metaphors develop and deepen over time. This is the reason why martial artists never get bored of the same forms over and over. The repetitive practice is anything but boring when you infuse the practice with intention and imagination. The more you do a physical practice mixed with your imagination, the more your body translates that action into its own tool for improvement and meaning.

And the more wonders it produces to enjoy.

An Old Man I Met Once…

One Saturday morning while in Boston. I met an old man doing Tai-Chi and I asked if I could join him.

He didn’t speak english, but was kind and willing to let me participate. The two most popular styles of Tai Chi are either Yang style or Wu style. It wasn’t either. I honestly never saw the form before. But I plodded along.

I did notice that he did a motion very familiar in my discipline that served as a period that divided the form into sections.

He was vibrant and graceful. At that moment, I realized how lucky I was to have a teacher at home who really understood what kata was and what it could do to a person’s life. How it could teach deadly martial arts techniques and also serve as both metaphor and workbench for many of life’s issues.

At the time I was hitting a young middle age. But at that time, I just couldn’t wait to be an old man in a park doing the practice that I love.

Afterward, I thanked him and left wanting more. I wish I could have learned from him. My Sensei once told me that the best teachers are the ones that can’t speak your language. All they can do is show you what to do and make you feel it. You never get stuck listening to their concepts or language. You just have to GET IT.

Words get in the way sometimes, and sometimes the more you rely on them, the slower the progress comes.