As he performed his kata (form), kenpo karate instructor John Sepulveda
explained the meaning of each move: This one's a takedown. Here, I've
just deflected a punch and countered. By moving my arm like this, I'm
applying a choke hold." Sepulveda's performance and understanding
of the kata were remarkable. But even more amazing was the realization
that Ed Parker, founder of American kenpo karate, who invented this
form, had an incredibly keen understanding of logic and body physics.
|"Kenpo is a system tailored to
individuals, not vice versa," explains kenpo founder Ed
Parker. Nowhere is this more apparent than in stances, which are
heavily emphasized in most kenpo forms.
Martial arts folklore is rich with tales of great luminaries whose
primary contribution to their art was the creation of one or more kata.
And despite often numerous changes, it's fascinating that certain forms,
some of them centuries old, are still practiced and revered today. Take
the five pinan (or heian) kata currently used in most Okinawan and
Japanese systems. Though a relative newcomer (created about 78 years
ago), they are so vital to the existence of certain styles (such as
shotokan) that to eliminate them is to wipe out the very foundation upon
which those systems are based.
The kata performed by Sepulveda is named "long 4." A favorite
for kenpo tournament competition, it's an intricate, advanced form
featuring most of the techniques, movements and stances unique to
American kenpo. Described by Sepu!veda as "the very core of the
kenpo system," long 4 is to kenpo what the heian kata are to
To observe long 4 in motion is to understand something about Ed Parker.
He created it, along with ten other kata all equally insightful and
relevant to the perpetuation of the kenpo system.
|According to Parker, focus means putting
the mass of your whole body behind a blow, not just a portion of
it. Focus can be stressed in every kenpo form and is a vital
part of fighting.
Simple, Not Simplistic
Kenpo is an art based on simplicity, and nothing reflects this more
than the names given to its kata. The forms are subdivided into
segments: short 1, long 1; short 2, long 2; short 3, long 3. These are
basic and intermediate kata and are followed by the more advanced forms:
long 4, long 5, long 6, long 7, and long 8.
As little as 75 years ago, it was common to refine the techniques of
only a very few kata. This sometimes agonizing process was nonetheless
responsible for the development of some of the finest martial art
But it took time and a great deal of patience. Who can afford such
luxuries in today's mechanized, do-it- now world? "I've yet to be
taught long 7," confides Sepulveda, a 20-year kenpo veteran who
only recently was awarded his fourth-degree black belt.
In a world populated by 40-year-old seventh- or eight-degree black belts
(many claiming world championship titles so numerous you'd need an
adding machine to count), this comes as a surprise. But it really
shouldn't. With most kenpo students averaging six to seven years before
promotion to black belt, kenpo's creed could well be, "What's the
ata Are Crucial
The great debate over the importance of kata to karate continues. On
one side of the fence are your James Dean types who argue that kata is
about as useful for fighting as tap-dancing. Ducking the tomatoes on the
other side are your stodgy traditionalists, forever proclaiming that
true fighting techniques arise from the kata and that without it there
would be no karate.
Where does kenpo stand amid all this? In terms of significance, kata
rates high - about one-third total importance. The other two-thirds are
divided equally between sparring and basics training. Sounds pretty
traditional so far. The key difference, however, is innovation. Kenpo
students are allowed - even encouraged - to question the kata.
"What good is this movement? Why this way and not that?" This
is considered healthy and helps to portray the kata as something other
than mere physical movement.
But this doesn't say that tradition plays a small role in kenpo. While
requiring black belt prospects to create their own kata is hardly
standard fare in most systems, the short and long forms are forbidden
territory for anyone, other than Parker, to experiment with.
If it's true that without kata there is no karate, then of equal
significance is the relationship between kata and stances. Correct
stances are so critical to the fighting arts that to downplay their
importance harbors a gross misunderstanding of basics training and its
role in overall development. Tales about kung fu masters who, in their
youth, were forced to maintain a painful horse stance for an hour or
more are common. Japanese karate maintains that its stances build
strength and lend stability and kime (focus) to the techniques. This is
especially reflected in their kata which contain many deep, low front,
back and horse stances.
|Kenpo forms are very practical and
self-defense oriented, Parker teaches. They stress
proven-effective techniques - moves that are based upon
scientifically validated principles of motion
Kenpo, however, views its stances in a slightly different manner. While
also designed to build stability and strength, the stances also allow
extreme mobility. In other words, the same stance found in the kata can,
with little or no modification, be used in an actual fight.
The neutral bow stance illustrates this perfectly. Considered adaptable
to just about any technique, it's the most commonly used stance in kenpo
kata. Close inspection reveals why. The neutral bow looks remarkably
like a fighting stance, one you'd find in most tournaments. With its
50-50 weight distribution, slightly bent knees and narrow width, the
neutral bow is custom-made for instant maneuverability. Punches, kicks,
sweeps, throws; moving forward, backward, sideways, even up and down -
all are handled with ease by this most versatile stance.
To those unfamiliar with kata, the dance-like movements and continuous
barrage of war-like techniques must seem like a bizarre ritual.
Movement and Meaning
Practicing kata without knowing the application of each move is much
like seeing it through the eyes of a bemused spectator. It's reduced to
little more than a quaint dance, sadly devoid of substance or meaning.
Parker asks, "What's the purpose of learning the words to a
language when you don't know the meaning of the words?"
Kenpo students aren't simply taught the basic kata movements. Students
are also taught the kata's meaning. Sepulveda says this gives value to
each movement, and offers a better understanding and appreciation of the
Circular and Linear Movements
At first glance, kenpo's circular techniques seem much like those
found in kung fu. Look closely, however, and you'll notice a difference.
The circular movements are merged with hard, linear-style techniques to
combine the main elements of Chinese kung fu and Japanese karate.
Nowhere is this phenomenon more noticeable than in the kata. One moment
you're looking at the smooth, flowing movement of a complex kung fu set,
then this circular movement is transformed into dynamic, powerful
technique, much like those found in Japanese kata. This transition from
soft to hard and back to soft again is accomplished by redirecting
circular into linear movement and vice versa A good example is a
circular block which, instead of completing the full movement, converts
halfway through into a hard, linear punch. To understand converting
linear into circular, picture a punch which, upon completion, suddenly
changes into a softer, somewhat circular eye rake.
Before you can become a brilliant computer programmer, you need
proficiency in certain areas pertaining to the profession, such as
reading, writing and mathematics. Undertaking any serious endeavor
requires a mastery of basics. Kenpo, as do all martial arts, looks to
basics as an essential stepping stone to technical proficiency.
Kenpo kata progress in a logical, orderly manner. With particular
consideration given to step-by-step perfection of basics, the kata build
in complexity from simple to what Parker terms "sophisticated
simplicity." For example, short 1 and long 1 stress basic blocks
and punches. The emphasis here is not so much on fighting technique, but
rather, on building one's foundation. From this point, the kata advance
from fairly rigid techniques to more circular, flowing movements which
redirect force rather than meet power with more power. Increased
continuity and greater economy of motion are apparent as the various
kata move on.
When considering these progressive stages, however, perhaps the most
fascinating aspect involves the concept of one kata taking up where the
previous one left off. Thus, you have long 1 merely taking the basic
blocks of the previous: kata, short 1, and simply adding a punch after
each block. Short 2, which follows long 1, uses the blocks and punches
of long 1, but instead of blocking and then punching, the techniques are
This continuous growth process is found up to the highly advanced long
8. And along the way, one encounters some very unusual situations. For
instance, how often do you find judo takedowns and sleeper holds in a
kata? You do in long 5. Want to learn defense against weapons? Long 6
will teach you.
The techniques found in the advanced kata aren't just vague similarities
of streetfighting tactics. That judo takedown in long 5 actually looks
like a judo takedown. Adhering to the kenpo code of efficiency, what you
see is what you use.
After acquiring a proficiency and basic understanding of the kata, kenpo
students are introduced to two- person kata sets. These simulated
fighting routines feature two students executing - against one another -
a series of nonstop, prearranged techniques, most of which are chosen
directly from the kata. Continued, diligent practice in these sets
ensures substantial improvement in coordination, balance, timing, and,
perhaps most importantly, intuitive reflex building.
A Final Testimony
In its relatively brief existence, Ed Parker's kenpo karate
organization has established itself as a sophisticated, intelligent form
of self-defense training acutely tuned with our rapidly changing
environment. For confirmation, just look at Parker's short/long kata.
It's a living testimony to what human endeavor, inspired by foresight
and sincerity, is capable of achieving.