When right is left and left is… correct.

Years ago my left shoulder was injured in a koshiki match (bogu kumite) and my dominant arm was in a sling for weeks, unusable, even for writing. Out of necessity, I became right-handed. Of course, when I originally learned to write in elementary school, I was carefully taught how to make each letter, link them together, and stay within the lines. No one did that for me this time around, and why should they have. I knew how to write with one hand. It was simply a matter of teaching my other hand to do the same thing. It wasn’t always pretty but, with time and practice, it was legible.

Like writing with one hand, we are generally shown kata one way. But consider the millions of scenarios that might play out in a fight. It stands to reason that we may not always step out with the left foot first, or strike with the right hand. And yet, in kata, conventions like these seem unchanging. Certainly, if you consider all of your katas together, you may be getting a balanced education but, in terms of individual sequences, you are probably only doing things one way. Why? Didn’t masters of old want their students to know how to defend themselves in all situations? Of course they did. What they understood was that, to really absorb the information, a student needs to learn it on her own, and not be spoon-fed every piece.

So, beginning today, elementary school is over. Take responsibility for your training, and begin investigating what you have been taught. Start with any one kata that you know well.  If it begins with a step left, reverse it and step right, and keep on reversing all the movements from start to finish. You will immediately notice that movements that have felt strong for years, feel weak and uncoordinated when done from the opposite side. If the experience is frustrating, consider it additional proof that the exercise has a lot to teach you.

A couple notes of caution. Choose a kata that you have practiced a lot as it was taught to you. If you haven’t, reversing it could create confusion making you unable to perform the drill correctly either way. In fact, as beneficial as this drill is, I don’t recommend doing it to all your kata, all the time. This simply doubles the amount of material you feel compelled to practice, which is not the point. The point is develop a greater understanding of specifics so that you can reverse sides and directions with equal confidence and strength.

I taught myself to write with my other hand out of necessity and, fortunately, my life never depended on that penmanship. But, with martial arts training, life-protection is always the goal. Your sensei doesn’t need to show you a kata in reverse. Once you know it one way, you have all the tools to teach yourself the other way, and that type of self-exploration is the best kind of solo practice.

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