The Classical Budoka was a terrific post about the meaning of the techniques we practice in martial arts training. The meaning, the core principles. Below is an excerpt. The full article may be read here.
...Or, let’s say you’re in an aikido workshop and there’s some 50-plus people in attendance, with varying skill levels. You explain a kote-gaeshi technique. The guy grabs your right wrist with his right hand, and so you throw him down. The riai? Well, the guy is grabbing you so you throw him by stepping a certain way and twisting his wrist, forcing him to either take a tumble or you dislocate his wrist and elbow. For a large audience of mixed levels of understanding, that should suffice.
But let’s take apart the notion that riai is an understanding of very, very core principles. In fact, if you were to drill down into that one technique, you would come up with some pretty heavy duty core principles that underly all of aikido.
First of all, why in heck are we starting that way? I mean, why let the guy get close enough to grab you, and then why does uke grab your wrist? One criticism non-aikido folk make of the art is that it’s “impractical,” it relies on the notion that people will grab your wrist, or take these huge, arcing swings at you with an open palm, like a sword attack. If somebody nowadays wants to fight with you, they don’t attack like that, critics say. They’ll come at you with boxing punches, or be hunched over and try to grab you MMA-style, or kick you…
The mistake critics make is based on a lack of understanding that the kote-gaeshi forms not only teach a particular reaction to a particular attack (a wrist grab), it teaches a generalized reaction to many forms of attack, be it a grab, punch, or kick: irimi, contact, control the attacker and control the timing and distance, become the center of the movement, and execution of a defense that renders the attacker unable to counter, in fact the attacker is yanked off balance by his own momentum. Understand these general principles in kote-gaeshi, and you begin to see a glimmer of insight into nearly all the other kata of aikido. Miss it, and no matter how many forms you know, you are still not doing aikido right, because you don’t really understand the riai.
The same, I would hazard, goes for for karatedo, or any other budo. If you don’t understand the core principles behind the art, your techniques won’t look coherent. You’ll be doing something, but there won’t be a unity or cohesiveness. The techniques will look like disparate, unrelated actions. It will look choppity-chop.