The Iaido Journal  Nov 2006
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The Fallacy of Expanding Time in Kata

copyright © 2006 Kim Taylor, all rights reserved

This isn't strictly about sword, but about kata and kata-based martial arts training. I'm thinking of Aikido as much as Iaido here, since it was in Aikido that I first noticed this phenomenon, and in Iaido that I first understood the fallacy.

What is expanding time in a kata? It's that moment when your partner or your student says "but what happens if I do this...." And we fall into the trap by saying "well than I can do this" And the student says but then I can do this and you say... and now you're well into a rather fun but ultimately meaningless (to the kata itself) progression of movements. So time expands and the kata contains more and more and more movements between the start and finish.

Now where does this expansion come from? Two places actually, one real and one an artifact of trying to learn or of safety. The artifact is simply created and easily understood while learning, we go slow to try and figure out how to do the technique properly, since we're going slow we tend to be in balance, off line of an attack easily, and have time to think up counterattacks... so we do.

Expanding time due to safety in kata is a bit different, you're supposed to stop or slow down at this point to avoid potential injury to our partners. Now if we haven't had enough years of training or breadth of experience to see that these spots are safety zones, we may find ourselves trying to counterattack and actually changing or misshaping the kata. A good example of this might be the Shindo Muso-ryu jodo technique of kuri tsuke. Here the jo steps to the side and brings the jo up over his head to catch the hilt of the swordsman as he cuts downward. There is a pause at this point of contact between sword and jo, then the jo slams the sword forward and downward to lock the sword into the hip. The sequence is below

kuri tsuke 1 kuri tsuke 2 kuri tsuke 3 kuri tsuke 4 kuri tsuke 5
From "The Little Book of Jodo" SDK publications.

It's this pause point as you catch the sword where time expands. The swordsman often loads up the weight here, making the technique tough to do, or he starts to shift his body alignment to stop the jo from moving the sword sideways or he does any of a dozen other things.

The pause is here for safety. Take a look at the photos again and think how practical it would be to do this sequence without pause... a lot of fingers would be crushed over the years. But because the pause exists, and is supposed to exist here, students tend to want to fill it up with all sorts of counterattacks.

The real expansion of time in a kata happens not because we slow down, but because we drop all the extra bits of movement and thought after enough years of practice. We become very efficient in our technique and so have much more time within a kata compared to the student we're practicing with. Since experience is the only way to gain this time, we won't talk much more about it, by the time we're this long into practice we're looking for ways to cut down the number of kata we practice rather than trying to figure out how to make them longer and more complex.

How do we check to see if we're in the fallacy of expanding time in kata?

Pauses and slow passages in weapons kata are sometimes a problem, a lot of explanation and analysis is often spent on how to move the jo while the swordsman is pressing downward after the catch. One may swing it up and out, slide it back or forth, this or that or the other thing, but all of this is a warping of the kata and the technique due to the fallacy of expanding time. The swordsman will simply not have that much time to mess around if the movement is not paused here. Seniors may explain the fallacy by showing the movement without pause... in which case it becomes frighteningly clear that there's no time for messing around with extra bits and counterattacks here, or they may simply say "don't move that way" and leave it like that. Students sometimes have to take it on faith that they'll eventually understand why they can't counterattack into that seemingly big hole.

Most of the time in weapons arts this expanding time problem doesn't come up. Weapons have a natural speed, swords drop at a certain rate and that's that. In a technique such as Sasen from the Niten Ichryu as seen below, uchidachi cuts down on shidachi's head, while shidachi slides slightly out to the side and thrusts the throat. It's hard to see where any sort of counterattack or expansion of this kata could be made. In fact, this is one of the reasons why I find Niten Ichiryu so attractive, and I suspect, why it's such a disappointment to so many students who are looking for some sort of fancy, secret martial art. It's mostly just "walk up and kill him". This art gets to the point very quickly, it's easy to learn, simple to execute, and very difficult to do well. Timing and distance and no secret moves. Very little in the way of counterattack and continuation and not much chance of falling into the fallacy of expanding time in kata.

sasen 1 sasen 2 sasen 3
From "Niten Ichi Ryu" SDK publications.

Finally we come back to the case of two students trying to "figure out the dance" moving slowly through a kata and finding all sorts of places to counterattack. This happens a lot in Aikido where the movements are defined by the instructor and the students then copy them. You can call this "one step sparring" as per Karate or anything else you want, but it's simply kata, defined movements practiced to learn principles.

So how do students who are moving from a simple case of "enter, do wrist thow" toward some sort of "85-move-long windbag kata" avoid this? By remembering that the entrance, the kuzushi is always the important part of each and every kata. If, at the point of attack, the defender does not avoid, deflect, intercept or otherwise deal with the attack and put the opponent immediately off balance or out of action, one hasn't really started the kata. Counterattacks come from holes in the defence, not because we can somehow expand time to give us the chance to regain our balance and regain the ability to "do this when you do that". To avoid the fallacy of expanding time in kata, simply enter the kata at full speed with full commitment to the attack. After this you can slow down and do the technique with safety since it won't likely be a temptation to try and counterattack while radically off balance or with the pointy end of the stick in your throat.

I've come through 3 kata based arts and each one of them required a long period of waiting until I understood that all those holes in the technique, all those places where someone should be able to counterattack were simply a case of the fallacy of expanding time. Have faith, do the kata as it's shown, concentrate on the entry and don't think so much. That way you'll get to the real expansion of time in kata in less time.

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TIN Nov 2006