Kenpo Karate - Its Forms Are Simply Beautiful, Beautifully Simple... And Very Effective

by Steve Takatsuno - 1985

Steve Takatsuno"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.

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.

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 shotokan.

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.

Ed ParkerAccording 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 techniques ever.

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 hurry?"

Kata 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.

Kenpo Stances

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.

Ed ParkerKenpo 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 kata.

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.

Logical Order

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 executed simultaneously.

Continuous Growth

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.