This year, like thousands of people, I’ve enjoyed watching National Geographic’s ‘Limitless’ with Chris Hemsworth. In this show Chris looks at his lifestyle and talks to a number of medical specialists about how he might be able to stay healthier for longer through a number of different approaches.
One of the elements the series touches upon is the importance of cognitive health. This is not simply the importance of reducing stress, or of endeavouring to have a happy outlook on life, but finding ways to increase and maintain neuro-plasticity to ensure that the brain continues to function at a high level throughout our lives and during aging.
(Note my PhD is not in any medical related discipline so please excuse any use of laymen’s terms.)
One activity that was mentioned as being studied as a potential route to maintaining good cognitive function was dancing, in particular the activity of learning and rehearsing new combinations of movements.
Dancing is not Kata, although the two have much in common. I would of course argue that if you do not know and cannot actively apply under pressure the movements of your kata against a resisting opponent then you might as well be dancing. That should not be a controversial view given its historical resonance. I also suspect (although I have no data to support this belief) that the understanding of kata movements and the ability to relate them to paired practice may enhance any cognitive benefits of their practice because of the greater connectivity between the movement and other memories of position combined with tactile and visual stimuli recall.
When I began Karate, with Shotokan as my foundation style, as part of my training process I learned as forms many as I could. I would normally learn a kata from a book and/or a Kanazawa video before doing it in class. In this manner I learned and was assessed on the majority of the 27 kata in the Shotokan canon.
Over time my training aims changed and as a Dan grade I have focused on training as few forms as possible. I can see the overlaps, variations, adaptations and redundancies between different forms and choose to maximise my training time and depth of understanding by working on a small number of kata. My emphasis is on drilling and rehearsing useful principles through minimal numbers of techniques rather than collecting more and more of ‘the same’ techniques and kata. I teach my Shotokan students what I consider to be a sensible slimmed down kata syllabus prior to their Dan gradings to ensure a depth of understanding and ability to apply in alive training. After their first Dan grade they are free to train as many kata as they want, I only ask them to undertake the discipline of learning and investigating one new kata per grading to ensure they understand the principles involved.
At present, in my DART Karate classes, I teach my own kata to condense further drills, lessons and technique coathangers on tight embusens that maximise the ability to rehearse a huge amount of material in as few movements as possible. DART students train my two kata, Initiative and Escape, and two widespread old and useful forms: Tekki Shodan and Seisan.
But am I going about this wrong? I’ve been focusing on condensing what we do in regular training for combative effectiveness. I have taught kata as a condensed way of rehearsing important principles and maintaining mobility rather than focusing on it as a longevity tool.
In my own personal practice, in my own dojo, I no longer use kata training as a visualisation tool. I neither focus on an intent for each plane of movement, nor do I shadow box with kata and swim freely through solo rehearsal jumping at ease from combination to combination depending on what I imagine. I can do these, but I don’t really need to as I am using my kata hands on (and watching my students do the same) for the majority of all my classes. When I move through a kata I feel as if I am gliding through a kaleidoscope of options. Without students or an audience, I simply use each kata to move and breathe, to maintain my mobility and balance while focusing on nothing more than the movement, my mind only focused on what I am doing.
But should I learn more kata to improve my neuro-plasticity?
Trawling through research published online it is possible to find studies such as ‘Effects of Dancing on Cognition in Healthy Older adults: a Systematic Review’ , ‘Dance for neuroplasticity: A descriptive systematic review’ , ‘Does dance counteract age-related cognitive and brain declines in middle-aged and older adults? A systematic review’ , and ‘Physical activity for cognitive health promotion: An overview of the underlying neurobiological mechanisms’ which suggest the activity probably will have benefits.
It increasingly seems the consensus that exercise (and in particular exercise that requires a range of movement, variability and cognitive engagement) is going to be beneficial for cognitive health. What is not so clear is whether the adaptation of continuously learning new routines is going to transfer greater benefits than the adaptation and variety of continuously applying existing routines on training partners or of recalling the stimuli of multiple applications while engaged in solo practice.
So the wheel turns once more to the question of how we train and how we use our kata. If your kata is a distinct entity from your kihon or kumite training then there is likely to be greater cognitive benefit in undertaking the challenge of learning and practicing greater numbers of kata, especially if the amount of time you spend responding to varied kumite stimuli decreases as you get older. If your kata already has the pliability and variability of being your primary kumite medium ‘built in’, then you are probably getting proportionally greater cognitive stimulation from rehearsing fewer forms. Regardless of how many kata you train, variability of stimuli and movement is good for neuro-plasticity so it would be good to have a kumite medium that you can engage in regardless of age (I have students aged 11 to 70 free sparring). In similar vein it makes sense that the more ‘open’ and variable the kumite is (striking plus grappling) the greater the cognitive benefits.
So, whichever route you want to take to better health, get out there and train!