"The sum of the parts is greater than the whole."
"The journey is more important than the destination."
I'm sure you've heard phrases like this before.
These phrases sound very philosophical and esoteric, but in reality, they are very practical advice...and, one of the keys to good karate!
As karateka, we all train tirelessly to learn the patterns of kata. Over the years, we learn many kata. Some styles have as many as 50 kata in their syllabus! That's a lot of kata to remember and practice.
In reality, maybe a person only needs to master one or two kata in order to become great at Karate.
Mastery of anything takes years of repetition. Not just mindless repetition, but mindful repetition. It takes introspection, experimentation, and modification.
Just doing a whole kata over and over won't necessarily get you to mastery of the thing. A better way is to look at the individual techniques and combinations of techniques including the connecting movement.
Practice the individual movements of your kata as if under a microscope. Examine the body dynamics of the entire range of motion. Examine the positioning of each body part at each inch or even millimeter of movement. Examine the motion in whole and then look at the individual parts. Think about your breathing. How is it connected to the motion? Think about your muscles. When are they compressed and when do they expand? Think about your bones. How and when do they align? Are they working in coordination with the muscles and tendons? Are your top and bottom parts of your body connected and working in unison? Do you make power at the right time? It's hard to really examine the kata in this way when you perform it from start to finish. It is better to examine and repeat, examine and repeat, each individual technique or combination of techniques. In this way, you can make real progress.
Sometimes you have to try things many different ways in order to understand the best way that works for you. There are many ways to experiment with kata. You can change the rhythm, change the count, combine techniques, vary the speed, etc. It's also good to experiment with how the kata techniques and combinations of techniques could be used for practical self defense. Experiment with various ways to block, parry, strike, grapple, throw, etc. Think of the obvious strike as a possible block. Think of the obvious block as a possible strike. Think about what the other hand is doing. Think about how to reposition yourself in relationship to the opponent. It is hard to experiment when you do the whole kata, but much easier to do when you break it down into individual techniques or combinations of techniques.
Sometimes it may be necessary to change or even add a stance, movement, or technique, in order to understand how to make the kata work for you. Kata, as they are passed down and transmitted are merely a framework. If you examine the various styles of karate, you can see that modification has occurred many times as karate masters have inserted their own ideas into the kata. The same kata may look very different from style to style or even teacher to teacher. This is because kata were not meant to be static. Sometimes modification is necessary to understand a specific principle. For instance, it may be easier to figure out how to get the right koshi compression at the right time, if both feet are flat in kosa dachi. It may be easier to feel the connection between two individual moves in the kata by adding an intermediate technique. Haphazard modification is not recommended, but occasional modification derived from introspection and experimentation may help you understand the kata and its underlying principles better.
It is important to note that practicing this way is more for experienced students than for beginners. As beginners, it's important to learn the stances, the patterns, how to use both sides of the body, how to coordinate hands and feet, etc. After you are comfortable with the basics, then it's good to begin this kind of training in earnest. Depending on your particular style or teacher, this kind of training may be something you need to do on your own, outside of class. Also, be careful to remember to do things the way your Sensei wants you to do them when you are in class. Your Sensei has very specific ideas about how you should train, and you should follow their example and instruction in class. You may be fortunate to have a Sensei that incorporates this kind of training in your curriculum. If so, you are well on your way!
As a final word, remember: "If you keep one eye on the destination, you only have one eye left to find the way!" Throw yourself into your training, wholeheartedly. Be introspective. Experiment. Modify when necessary. Make the kata your own and remember you can probably only master one or two kata in your lifetime. Choose those kata well, and practice them often.