It is an oft-repeated maxim that as you train your karate should become your own. It is also, I feel, a much-misunderstood concept.
There are many different ways you can train karate. Different emphases on techniques and ranges, a variety of complementary or competing aims, alternative approaches to learning and drilling, with syllabi omissions or additions (depending on your perspective). In the end these are variations of movements and tactics that have very little to distinguish them from other martial arts, some of independent origin, others with interwoven ancestry.
Gichin Funakoshi was critical of the trend towards the ‘creation’ of ‘styles’ of karate. He recognised that the more you trained and learned the more such nomenclature becomes largely redundant, because ultimately karateka who put in the training hours end up both ‘doing their own thing’ and coming up with similar answers to the same questions. Personalisation is not necessarily the same as training something different to large numbers of other karateka (as an analogy consider how little genetic variance there is between individual humans, or between humans and other apes), so while different approaches may exist within ‘styles’ the actual divisions between named styles can be quite minor. In the end it is still karate. Style names merely serve branding and marketing purposes more than anything else, and generally help others understand the origins or foundations of a person’s approaches.
To do your own karate means that you have internalised what you have learned and in that sense it is a part of you: you have made it your own. This does not necessarily mean that you are doing a different ‘style’ to your teacher(s) or something ‘new’. Chances are you’ll both have the same number of arms and legs, through their influence you’ll probably have the same training philosophy and aims, and you may have such a similar height and build that you’ll naturally mould into the same preferences as them. You might still look just like your teacher(s) when you teach or move. There’s nothing wrong with that, there is no lack of individuality in that; this can still be your own karate even if it is/was also your teacher’s karate. Being almost the same as your teacher is not necessarily a bad thing, there are a lot of excellent karate instructors in the world today.
One of the best analogies of making karate your own and internalising it is Funakoshi’s precept on stances.
“Stances are for beginners, later one moves naturally.”
This does not describe two completely separate things. It is not the case that on one distinct day you abandon Fudo Dachi and suddenly do all your karate moving as if you were navigating the aisles of a supermarket or your local high street. “Today, I am advanced, I shall therefore no longer use stances!” The interpretation has been skewed for some because not all of Funakoshi’s stances are the same as those of later generations. A stance is a ‘fixed posture’ used to help teach alignment and weight distribution during techniques. The more you train the more Zenkutsu Dachi, Fudo Dachi, Shiko Dachi, Kokutsu Dachi, Sanchin Dachi, Renoji Dachi etc. become subtle shifts according to need: natural movement rather than thinking “I am in a stance”. Internalising or making elements of karate your own is much the same; not so much a deliberate or complete break from the past as an unconscious gradual adoption of ingrained approaches.
Depending on how your instructor teaches they may, like karateka of the past, be steering your training and learning to facilitate the tailoring of your karate to your body and personality. I certainly advise my students to focus on tactical options from my syllabus that might better suit their build if they are shorter or taller than average or have a more delicate bone structure. What I do try to avoid is spending time lecturing my students on important underpinning principles in a physical class because they are there to take the opportunity to train with each other under my guidance. I might draw attention to biomechanical elements that improve their ability to perform a physical movement, but the more fundamental principles of ‘why’ and ‘what’ rather than ‘how’ or ‘when’ are elements that I would discuss at length outside of a physical class or direct students to studying my books or my syllabus (which contains no pictures or descriptions of my drills and yet is longer than most of my books). Those topics are too large and too important (compared to the physical elements) to skim over in a class or seminar. To attend my classes or seminars without reading and re-reading the explanations of why I do what I do as recorded in my syllabus or books is akin to simply ice-skating on the surface of a deep lake rather than diving and swimming in its waters. The physical training gives the student an opportunity to become proficient (if they put in the training hours), but it will not on its own confer a depth of understanding of the underpinning principles or methodology to enable them to develop their own valid independent path.
Sometimes people interpret ‘take what you have learned and make it your own’ as a forcible process, as if a trainee is going to consciously sit down and choose to do things differently. That can happen (and often does), but the rationale behind such a move is important. To effect change simply to be different or simply because you think you should does not inspire confidence in the knowledge or ability of the one making the changes. To effect changes to your karate because the current approach does not meet your training aims is not only understandable, it is perfectly logical. But to have validity such changes must be based on an understanding of the material.
Any changes, whether additions or subtractions, do not necessarily mean that you have made your karate your own; it may simply become an ill-fitting or inconsistent conglomerate of disparate parts. It will take significant amounts of training time for you to internalise and integrate new approaches to make them your own, and to recognise, resolve or remove conflicting and discordant elements.
While good teachers can help students tailor a broad syllabus to their specific needs, students themselves have to put in the training hours to internalise both principles and techniques. Not every teacher has the time or understanding to expressly tailor training to students, and not every student is going to put in the consistent time to internalise their experiences. Furthermore, despite good instruction, it would be foolish to assume that every karateka has the inclination, time, understanding or innate ability to analyse their approach or forge their own path if they decide to pursue a different training direction. Wanting to re-orientate your training is not necessarily the same thing as having the underpinning knowledge or skill set to do so, nor is it necessarily a qualification or competency to teach. Observing some karateka analyse kata or build new syllabi is an example of this. Often you can identify people who have decades of training, good physical skill sets and senior grades, but lack the knowledge and ability to effectively take what they have learned to a different paradigm, not only because they do not truly understand the context, but also because they do not have the awareness, experience or understanding of the principles that are required to shape their new approach.
So get to your classes and ingrain your fundamental movements, practise in your own time to refine elements, train and talk with other people from other groups to expand your horizons, and research through books, papers, blogs, videos and vlogs when you can to increase your knowledge. If you put in the time and effort your karate will be just that. It might not be particularly original, it might not really be ‘a new style’, but the more critical exposure you’ve had to different approaches and information the more likely it is that what you eventually make your own will be a worthwhile endeavour.