Kata – Woodpecker, Wind or Water?

Two weeks ago I taught a Karate class for kids.

(Of course I do that every week, but two weeks ago something special happened.)

It’s always fun to teach kids because they are not afraid of expressing their thoughts and ideas quite freely, and this training was no exception.

Towards the end of the session, with about 15 minutes left, we did the Pinan (or Heian) kata. Starting with Pinan Nidan, everyone worked in their own pace, nice and easy, when one small boy with blond hair and blue eyes suddenly exclaimed:

“This kata is like metal!”

I turned around and looked at him

“What… ? Metal?” I said.

“Yes, this kata is like metal. It feels like a big hard metal wall”

“Hmm… that’s interesting” I thought. This kid feels that Pinan Nidan is like an element. The element of metal, to be exact.

What an interesting and abstract idea.

I knelt down in front of the boy.

“Okay, that’s cool! What about the next kata, Pinan Shodan then? How does that feel?” I asked him.

“Oh, that’s easy. Pinan Shodan is wood. It’s like these tall trees, with a lot of branches everywhere” he said, as he demonstrated the first three movements of the kata.

Pinan Nidan was metal

And now Pinan Shodan was wood.

I can’t say I was shocked though, more like surprised. What’s going on in that little brain? So I just had to ask about the third, and last, kata that he knew.

“And Pinan Sandan? How’s that kata?”

“That’s a harder one, because I just recently learned it. However, I have a strong feeling that it is like wind. Especially at this part,” he said, as he showed the part in the middle of the kata where you step in shiko dachi three times forward, with your hands on your hips.

Pinan Sandan was wind.

Isn’t that remarkable?

I find this type of abstract thinking really fascinating. I mean, this boy has never read anything about zen philosophy, the different elements (wind, water, wood, metal etc) of Asian culture, yin/yang or other similar concepts, yet he naturally feels, and expresses, them.

Through kata.

That’s a good reminder of how something as simple as a pattern of movements can be viewed completely different by different people.

No, not viewed. I mean felt.

And that got me wondering: Are there other people who feel this way of kata?

Maybe somebody feels this kata is blue, and that kata is orange? Or that this kata is salty, and that kata is sweet, with a hint of sour?

Why not?

I would really want to ask people, but I’m afraid adults are too occupied with thinking about what other people might think about them if they said the “wrong” thing.

So next week I’m asking the kids class.

Can you imagine if somebody think different kata smells differently?

“This kata is like strawberries, but that kata is poop.” some kid might say!

Anyway, I thought I would give you my own idea of kata. I am one of those who think mainly in pictures, so I will draw my idea of kata for you.

To me, a kata is like this:

Do I even need to explain?

Look closely.

In what way does the above drawing represent a kata?

It should be easy to understand what I mean.


Okay, I’ll explain:

This is a kata to me.

It begins at zero, with a bow (rei).

Then, where I’ve written “things start heating up”, your mind goes into another state. You mentally enter the kata, and prepare to “face a million enemies” as Funakoshi put it.

The eyes glare.

The shoulders drop.

The legs and toes grip the floor.

The Karate spirit is switched on.

Then comes the actual physical movements, represented by quick switches between hard and soft techniques in different directions. A few kiai here and there marks the highest points in the graph (the strongest moves), while “softer” and slow moves are the lower points.

Pauses are at the bottom.

Then, finally, the kata starts to end (described as “cooling down” in the graph).

That’s zanshin, in Japanese.

At this part your eyes should signal “If I must, then I’m ready to do it all over again, right now! Just bring it on!”

But, you decide to end, with a bow (rei) and the kata is completed.


That’s a kata to me.

Sometimes – when I’m in the mood – I even let a river represent the same graph, with waterfalls, strong currents, whirlpools and everything.

It’s exactly the same picture as above, just a river instead of a boring line (as expressed in the Japanese phrase “Ryu Sui Saki Kiso Wo Wasu”“Flowing water competes with nothing”).

So anyway, to sum it up: A random kid in our dojo thinks kata are like the different elements, and I think it’s like that line you see on a monitor beside hospital beds.

Are there any other ideas?

What did our famous old Karate pioneers think?

Well, for example, Funakoshi thought the kata Gojushiho was a woodpecker. The kata Unsu was a ‘flying waves’, and the kata Chinto was a crane on a rock.

That’s why he tried changing the names of these kata to Hotaku (woodpecker), Hito (fly+waves) and Gankaku (rock+crane). Okay, he had some political reason too, but that’s another story.

Another example would be Mabuni, who even wrote a 31-syllable abstract Japanese poem (known as a “tanka”) on his view of kata.

It went something like this:

“Nanigoto mo uchi wasuretari

Hisasura ni bu no shima sashite

Kogu ga tanoshiki”

The translation is different depending on how you understand it (that’s why they call it an abstract poem) but in English it might be expressed like this:

“When the spirit of Karate-Do (Bu) is deeply embraced, it (kata) becomes the vehicle (described as a boat) in which one is ferried across the great void to the ‘world within’ (described as ‘Bu’-island)”

That’s great.

We now know that a kata can be metal, wood, wind, a river, a graph, flying waves, a woodpecker, a crane on a rock, and… a boat.

Depending on who you are.

There is no limit. Feelings are not supposed to be logical.

Anything goes.

So how does a kata feel for you?


  • Sanashi
    Cool, Jesse. Although teaching kids can be frustrating at times it can be very rewarding too. Don't they come up with the most amazing things? Very cool. Kata make my soul sing. Knowing I will never reach perfection, but constantly trying to. The definition of crazy to a lot of non-martial artists, I know. 28 years of Okinawan Goju-Ryu and I still get a huge kick out of each and every kata. Every year I see, feel, taste, smell, hear something more. To say I love my kata deeply is an understatement. Many thanks having the courage to post your thoughts. Always an interesting and thought-provoking read. Much appreciated.
  • RenshiAndrew
    Interesting story. I guess everyone has a different take or interpretation of kata. After looking at your graph/picture of describing kata, the peaks and valleys of the graph remind me of a storyline of a classic movie thriller. You have the beginning, the build-up, the climax and the ending. In other words, to me, a kata is like a story. The Pinan/Heian can be like chapters of a novel. Same can be said about Naihanchi/Tekki. You have to know the katas in a certain order to understand what's going on in the next one. The white crane katas like Nipaipo and Hakutsuru is like comparing Star Wars and Star Trek. Same setting, different story... little bit far fetched but those who know the history of both the katas and the movies can probably see my point.
  • JDS
    Hi Jesse, have been following this blog for a while, great articles! Yes, kata has evolved (at least for me) to a feeling/taste/smell. I have found that I personally no longer think of Karate as movements, but rather as feelings... As for the Heians and related "flavors", check out Stan Schmidt's (Shotokan) book Spirit of the Empty Hand. He talks about assigning the kata to elements from the Go Rin No Sho. Specifically, Heian Shodan :- Earth, Heian Nidan :- Water, Heian Sandan :- Fire, Heian Yondan :- Air, and Heian Godan :- Void. There is a great indepth description of each in the book.
  • Ben
    Perhaps the Pinan are tied to five element theory (Chinese). Those are metal, wood, water, fire and earth. They are a fundamental part of the Xing Yi style. It is interesting, considering the student chose both metal and wood. Perhaps that is a just a coincidence...
  • Diego Romero
    how does a kata feel to me? pretty damn good! :D
    • Always as humble... :)
  • Julia
    As a dancer, I imagine different types of music for my katas. Seinchin is a sort of soft rock to me, like Kelly Clarkson's Already Gone, or the Foo Fighter's The Pretender. Sepai is more difficult to describe, almost like the line between pop and rock, fast and flowly, yet strong and precise. The song Untouched by the Veronica's. Rohai is a soft lyrical piece to me, like How to Save a Life, or Don't Yet me Go, both by the Fray. Hope this helps!
    • Julia, that's really interesting! I'll just have to look up those songs and try it! :)
    • Alexander
      Kata, Shape, Song, Rhythm, Movement, Sound, thoughts, Feelings, Head Movies, stories etc. How good is your imagination? Find your creative side and you can discover that anything in life can be connected with kata. Mastering this process is called "mnemonics" and can be attributed to improved memory, sharp mental capacity, uncanny athletic ability and a strong desire for learning. Kata spawned from the minds of men who once thought, coulda woulda shoulda where reminiscing altercation became metaphysical and brought personal growth. These reflex developing catalogues can change the way one thinks in everyday life for the better and is the heart and soul of all martial arts. As I tell my students, there is a million and one "what ifs" when it comes to defense, put a few of those together and you've got a kata.
    • herrle 58
      To me it feels pretty much the same, but its more the rythm not the tones. Every kata has a specific rythm to me...i feel my bodyparts like the instruments which play the music. Sometimes light, sometimes heavy, fast, slow, more flowing or staccato...all following the rythm. Also do i feel light, sometimes golden and bright, sometimes dark and fierce. Sometimes i use music for exercise, needless to say i have been dancing for a long time too... ;-)
  • Igor
    Hm when I compare Japanese and Chinese people to show how martial arts differ from China to Japan (because many people here still think that's all the same: I would return all those China man to Japan! can be heard::D), I say that Japanese are all like 90 deegres shaped, like geometry, and the Chinese are like expresionism painting, not worying (how do I spell that one?) about staying within the lines, more like water. Just like their katas, but off course varies with styles...
    • Dimitris
      Too bad I saw this now and not then.... Igor, for me it's all the same. Don't say they are not the same if you haven't exercised both. I did. Imagine an octagon. Each corner is a different style. Karate and Kung-Fu are just different corners of the same octagon. Have you tried to perform a Kata without freezing at specific pozes? Have you tried to perform a Kata without a "Kiai" but with more smooth exhaling? Have you tried a Kata with more relaxed hands (or better say changeable hand-stance) from your wrist and below? Have you tried to perform a Kata where another opponent tries to kick your legs and you try to evade him with circular movements instead of direct ones at the same time that you face the other one? oh...guess what...you know Kung-Fu... All kinds of martial arts are the same thing for me that was adapted to different kind of compact based on the different battle-field mentality. The essence is just one. The materialization slightly differs. Just slightly...
  • Deshi
    Nice article. I've always thought of kata in varying color schemes. I always thought I was the only one.
  • Igor
    Yeah Dimitris I agree with you. I do it like that, a lot. Actually my sensei insists we do, but in principle in ,,how its supposed'' to be done its not like that. At least when you are a beginer and you do it ,,by the book''. But you cant exectly say it for all of kung fu because you have hard and soft styles. But I get what you are pointing at and I like it ::) P. S. Bruce Lee said that unless you show him a man with 3 legs or arms you cant talk about a different style because it pretty much comes down to the same thing.
    • Dimitris
      Igor! Then of course we agree! But let me add something about Kung Fu and the Hard vs Soft styles. These styles were created during centuries! Back in time, in the beginning...when they were fighting in the fields for their lives...and they actually needed kung-fu...I don't think there were any Soft styles...from my research I think that the old kung-fu was like the modern karate...simple, fast, straight! Everything in history of martial arts (and in every other section) is a cycle. That's why you had MMA sport fights in ancient Greece (pangratium was a sport also). You have only one truth, that the human body can become a weapon that will help you to survive in the battle. And you have basic axis: evasion, block, hit with an impact or break by leveraging. Complex styles were created when people had money and time to spend. Not during war. But before or after war. Then you loose that knowledge for some centuries...you create useless styles (like the acrobatic-gymnastic wushu or western boxing)...and then you go back to the truth. You had ju-jutsu when you had swords and knives. Now you don't have these and you were free to go to Judo and BJJ. The nice think with Karate is that it is more "clear" and not affected much by the situation you are in as it covers almost everything. Imagine going to fight with a swordman when you practise BJJ...:P My history: kung fu, karate, aikido, judo, bjj. the first two for years, the last three for 1 year maximum.
  • Igor
    Yeah Dimitris I get what you mean. Well karate is also affected (sport karate). I started martial arts too old to venture through acrobatic styles so I more - less went straight to the ,,truth'' as you call it. Although I love having fun with linked high kicks, they are just so darn fun! ::)
  • Alexander
    Love the subject matter btw. ;) Keep that creativity flowing.
  • clark
    well im releaved, i thought i was going insane XD, its not so much the elements with me but colors when i do kata, like when i do chatanyara kushanku it has always appeared orange and red to me, and suparinpei is green and brown,and seienchin is blue thoes colors appeal to me so i like thoes kata...just puting that out there =P
  • Joshua
    Anan feels very firey to me. Every part of it, to me, exemplifies the "One hit to kill" mentality.
  • DynamicFisticuffs
    This is really interesting!! At first I was like "Wow, I've been focusing on just getting the moves in perfect form and the Bunkai application, do I have an interpretation for kata like this??" I was going to use the fact of my redevelopment and not having practiced enough as an excuse too, but the kid in the article has only just learned Pinan Sandan!! So that's no excuse! While I do not yet have an analogy for each individual kata, I definitely do my best to embody good warrior spirit throughout my kata. In a general sense...I would say that with each kata I perform, my body and mind is being forged by the kata. My spirit starts burning and similar to your heart rate monitor/river analogy Jesse, I would liken the kata to a blacksmith forge, with the metal being heated up at the beginning, hammer strikes of different tempos and intensities being the rhythm you mentioned, and the cooling of the metal being the very end of the kata.
  • Dom
    Moving a flexible sculpture through the oceans of time.

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