When I first began developing chair massage sequences in 1982, one of my students was also a student of Haruyoshi Ito, who had introduced a Japanese movement form called Shintaido to the United States and Europe during the mid 1970s.
One day this practitioner came to me to say that he had given his teacher one of our chair massages and Mr. Ito’s response was to say, “That’s a good Kata.”
“A good what?” I asked. “What is a Kata?”
Thus began my introduction to a concept that is fundamental to Japanese society.
While there is no exact translation of the word, the basic concept of Kata has to do with the form or correct way by which something is accomplished. In the West the word is most often encountered in a martial arts context. Students practice Katas, or sequences of defensive and offensive movements, over and over again until they become automatic.
Katas are studied in all of the Japanese arts—brush painting, theater, flower arranging, the tea ceremony, as well as the martial arts. But the word has a much broader meaning in Japanese culture, which places a great emphasis on the correct way to do anything, from how low to bow in greeting to brushing your teeth.
To begin thinking of teaching and learning massage as a Kata prompted a major shift in my understanding of our work.
For one thing, it was a way of honoring the vast history of Japanese massage that had come before us. The path we travel is well worn; only the scenery has changed over the years.
Practicing a Kata also relieves us of the burden of having to know everything about what we are doing. We now understand that the master of massage is not the practitioner, but the Kata itself. We adopt the point of view that the only way you can truly learn about massage is by doing massage. The Kata gives us the opportunity to practice (in the learning sense of the word) with confidence. We teach a Kata and it is the Kata that teaches us massage.
The Kata is like a very wise elder who has the wisdom of the centuries behind her. The Kata has a long lineage that extends from teacher to teacher and is based on a theoretical foundation and philosophical world view that transcends our individual understanding.
If you trust the Kata and develop an honest relationship with it, you will be rewarded with unlimited insights about the nature of touch, massage, service, relationships, yourself, and your place in the grand scheme of the universe.
Another advantage of practicing a Kata is that it becomes a discipline in the spiritual sense of the word. One of the hallmarks of every spiritual discipline is the practice of repetitive rituals that become automatic and allow for openings into higher states of consciousness. Praying the Catholic rosary, Buddhist meditation, yogic breathing, and Sufi dancing all fall into this category.
When you practice a massage Kata it eventually becomes something like a beautiful dance or a piece of classical music. Highly structured and choreographed, it is the same each time it is performed and yet, each time, it is also different.
On a practical level, performing massage as a Kata allows for quality control to enter into the massage business equation. When you have a private practice doing table massage, you can basically do whatever you want. Your clients will either like it, or not. However, when you are doing 15-minute chair massages for someone else’s business in a convention hall alongside nine other practitioners, exactly what you are doing becomes crucial to providing a high quality, consistent service.
Finally, the Kata is eminently researchable. One of the reasons broad-based research has been so hard to do in our field is because everyone does something different. It’s nearly impossible to control for the differences in practitioners. The Kata solves a great many of these problems because it provides the consistency needed for good data collection.