Mirror Image in Kata
We do Rohai as a kagami- or mirror- kata, because it is the most one-sided of all our kata. For example, all the knee lifts are on the right. None are on the left. There are many complete asymmetries in Rohai. To balance the training we get from it, to be able to execute all these techniques on either side of the body, we also do it beginning with the opposite foot moving, following through, performing the whole kata in mirror image.
All our kata contain some symmetry. For example, at the beginning of the Pinan kata, the first move done, stepping with the right foot and turning left, is followed by a similar or identical move, stepping with the left and turning to the right.
The Naihanchi kata are all close to symmetrical, with the first half and the second half of the kata performed as near-mirror images of each other, once to the right and once to the left.
These technique symmetries are a sign that the kata are practice exercises, designed as a segmented sequence of techniques, not linear battles, to be interpreted as an ongoing battle with a single opponent.
It is not necessary to interpret every technique segment as complete in itself, finishing an encounter. They all can be understood that way, but that limits the range of interpretation and use of some of these techniques.
The symmetries in the kata are there to teach the techniques on the right and the left.
The multiple sets of repeated moves cannot be interpreted as repetitions of the same application to the same technique. They can be understood as varied applications of the same move.
If they were mere repetitions we would be stuck with absurd interpretations like, for example, the three high blocks in a row in Pinan Nidan as defending against an opponent who is throwing three individual high punches in a row while walking backwards.
Rather, by understanding this kind of repeated technique sequences as functioning to 1. To reroute the incoming technique, then 2. To trap the incoming arm or leg (or the head, when it is leaning forward and exposed), and 3. To throw or drop the opponent. This principle applies to the three shuto chudan uke, in Pinan 1, Wankan and elsewhere, the three Jodan uke in Pinan Nidan as above, and in many other places in our kata.
The name of this class of techniques points to this insight. Uke, 受, means “receive”, in the sense of receivingthe incoming energy and will of an opponent. Chudan uke means receiving at mid-level. It does not mean a “chest block.”
Uke does not mean any kind of block, in the sense of putting up a static obstacle, like the arms in the way of an incoming strike or grab. That type of protective covering is commonly used in boxing, but that is against an opponent wearing heavy gloves, and where grappling is against the rules. It is not what we train to do in karate.
This understanding extends the use of these technique beyond “defensive” response, allowing us to simultaneously close the distance, and follow up with a trap or counterattack. In these diverse applications we use the identical postures and hand positions in the technique sequence for deflecting, locking, manipulation, seizing, striking and other types of penetration, including nukite and other kyusho attack methods.
As we practice these sequences in our kata they give us an opportunity to refine and perfect our body mechanics in that technique, on both sides of the body. That includes the many appearances of two, three or four shuto chudan uke sequences or the three jodan uke sequence, and many other comparable ones throughout the kata.
The repetitions are also designed to show multiple applications for a single waza. Above I gave an example of an “uke” technique with multiple applications, including attacking ones. But even a sequence of single punches can do more than show persisting in attack – itself a very necessary interpretation. But the same punching sequence can also show 1. A release in response to a grab, or 2. Grabbing and drawing the opponent into a counter strike, or 3. In some cases, work the elbow strike to the rear against a tackle, bear hug, throw or choke.
Just because techniques appear to be identical does not mean they are the same, or have a single use.
That is a brief reflection on the appearance of mirror image waza sequences and some symmetries in our kata. For further insights check out Fearless Asymmetry, about how our biased body design is not a flaw but rather is a powerful performance and survival adaptation, which we can optimize in training.