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A lot of martial arts use forms as a part of the training. They are taught and drilled. One benefit, of course, are the applications that you get from them. Small books of self-defense and movements that can be ingrained in the body memory.

Some forms are very small : iaido forms have sometimes only one cut. Taijutsu 'form' are sometimes limited to postures 'kamae' (this is one way of looking at it, please bear with me). Some forms are much longer, like nijushiho or kusanku / kanku dai in styles of karate.

What purposes do they serve?

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Kata trains the mind and muscle memory. –  emily soto Jan 22 at 10:15
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22 Answers 22

up vote 28 down vote accepted

There are a mix of answers already offered on this question. I would like to rebut a couple of points proffered in some of those answers. These rebuttals are made with due respect - we all have different teachers, walked different paths and have learnt different things. Please don't be offended if I have chosen to critique one of your statements.


Kata's normally don't have any 'real world' implications

That has to be one of the most incredibly wrong statements I've ever heard. Centuries ago people lived and died by their kata. Not so many people die from them these days, but their meaning and intent is still there, even if it isn't as widely understood or taught as it once was. Some kata have evolved over time, usually due to teaching styles and preferences - this is normal within martial arts (styles evolve over time). There is also anecdotal evidence that a lot of knowledge was withheld from American GI students after WWII, leaving them to decide (invent) the knowledge for themselves1.

One thing to keep in mind is that most all Kata are extremely contrived.

I'm sure there are some contrived kata/forms out there, without a doubt. However all the kata I have ever learnt were not contrived. Some of the simplest kata out there, the Taikyoku katas invented by Gichin Funakoshi, are full of death and destruction. They contain just simple blocks and punches, right? Turn left, block the kick/punch coming from that guy, turn right, block the kick/punch coming from that guy and then hit him in return2 yada yada yada yawn... If this is what you think the kata is then you have been sadly mistaught.

Katas were assembled by teachers and families, the "owners" of styles. It is a package of moves that represents their knowledge, each move could have several specific applications (bunkai). The owners of the kata would keep the meaning of them secret except to the select students who were taught them, the moves and knowledge in the kata gave them a competetive advantage over the family or school on the next farm when issues arose and fisti-cuffs started. These "owners" also didn't have dozens of katas like we do these days, they had just a few which they honed to absolute perfection.

You don't use all the moves in a kata one after the other until the opponent falls over - if you need more than one or two moves from a kata then you are doing it wrong. In some kata the third move may be the same as the first move but they are not necessarily doing the same thing. In a sequence of moves that consist of a straight punch followed by a groin block followed by another straight punch, consider this:

  1. taken individually, the straight punches can both be doing exactly the same thing
  2. the first straight punch is done followed by the groin block
  3. the groin block is done first followed by a straight punch

In cases 2 & 3 the straight punch can be doing something vastly different. When in a fight I can use moves 2 and 10 from the kata provided I have sufficient understanding of it to do so, I don't have to start at move 1 and progress to move 2.

Each move from a kata has specific applications. After I execute one of these moves on an opponent, I know exactly the position he is going to be in, I know where his head should be, where his torso should be, etc. If I execute the same move with my eyes shut in a pitch black cave, I still know exactly what I have just done to him and his body position. Depending on the exact application I just used, I know whether I need to follow up with something else, and depending on his (and my) body position I know which kata technique I should use next.

Even simple bunkai is powerful. Take one simple move found in many kata: soto uke while pivoting sideways into kiba dachi (inner block while pivoting sideways into horse riding stance). Depending on how I'm engaged with the opponent when I start this move it is either an arm break/elbow dislocation, a knockout, or a hip dislocation. This stuff is all buried in the kata. If successfully executed then this move is all I need to stop the fight.

Kata trains the mind and muscle memory. Every single move you execute in a kata, you should be visualising what you are doing on your opponent. As your knowledge grows you will have more options to visualise, even back in the basic kata you learnt when you were a white belt. This visualisation is what helps to cement the knowledge I talked about in my previous point, where I know exactly what I've just done and what position the opponent is in. Visualising the bunkai of the kata assists with the state of mushin, where you do not have to consciously think about your current or next move, it just flows.



1 I will try to dig out some citations to support this in the next day or two.

2 Please please please stop and ask yourself: what happened to the first guy where all you did was block his technique? Is he going to stand there and patiently wait for his next turn while you deal with his friend? Do you really believe kata are teaching you that?

3 I should point out that the Taikyoku katas are a watered down or simplified version of the Heian and Kusanku katas.

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+1 Very nice answer. I would be interested in the references for the first footnote. –  Sardathrion Feb 3 '12 at 12:40
    
Agreed, well written AND citations +1 –  Chris Feb 3 '12 at 14:56
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I don't really like this answer. You can't really learn to fight just by learning and perfecting the form. If you don't believe me, you have not probably fought anybody outside your own school. Don't get me wrong - forms/katas are good learning aid but on their own they fall short as a method of teaching martial skill. –  Roland Tepp Jul 17 '12 at 21:32
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@Roland - I understand what you mean, I think you are missing something quite subtle - katas are designed to finish fights. If you look at anyone of a high enough rank, their "fighting" consists of distinct sequences of moves, it isn't a continuous rumble (if it is then you are doing it wrong). There is a difference between real-world fights in the street (which need to be finished ASAP) and fights in controlled situations like a cage or ring - my answer is from the "real world" perspective. –  slugster Jul 18 '12 at 0:04
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@Roland - I've spent a lot of time as a bouncer (club doorman) so have had my fair share of trouble. Kata moves work incredibly well in real fights, in fact it can be quite scary when you instinctively perform the moves and leave someone (almost literally) in pieces on the pavement, it gives you a new respect for what you've learnt. Of course this stuff doesn't apply in the same way in controlled fights, those require skills and talents beyond just executing kata moves. But remember the question wasn't about fighting as such, it was about the uses of kata/forms. –  slugster Jul 18 '12 at 0:09
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There are a couple of different reasons I can see for the use of forms.

The first is that they are a functional mechanism of communicating patterns of movement that tend to go together, and to ingrain those movements into muscle memory. I've seen a few people talk about doing something in real life, only to realize later that it was part of some form that they had practiced. It is worth reflecting that many of these arts, at their very core, started as ways to survive a life-and-death situation, and kata is a traditional way of safely practicing this.

To go with Rory Miller's statement from his book Drills:

Fighting is inherently conservative and this shows in martial arts. Fighting is dangerous. People get hurt and killed. For everything that might work there are a hundred things that seem like a good idea that can lead to a messy death. We have kata and tradition NOT because people are stuck in tradition but because when people consistently survived it was considered imperative to remember how to model it.

He also comments in Meditations on Violence, describing something that happened in real life, that "Occasionally, I would have an encounter, often an intense one, and later see the action in my wife's Karate kata."

The other part of it is that there is a distinction between simply following the forms by rote and actually trying to understand what is going on. In the book The Way of Kata by Kane and Wilder describes the idea that "kata is our textbook." Essentially that the essence of the art is stored in the forms, you just have to know how to read it, and the exact lesson that is being communicated may be different for each art.

To compare it to the game of Go: we have patterns that can form in the corners called (in Japanese) joseki. These are patterns that are supposed to be locally optimal for both players. Real games aren't exactly like what happens in the joseki: the surrounding situation modifies what moves make sense. Memorizing joseki and following them by rote is a recipe for disaster, and it is possible to get reasonably strong (at an amateur level, at least) without any detailed work with joseki.

But there's a lot of value in the study of joseki. Trying to understanding the "why" of each move and trying to understand when it makes sense to play that way, when it makes sense to deviate, and whether and to what degree you may be able to take advantage if your opponent deviates.

I feel similarly about forms. They aren't necessary, and memorizing them without actually trying to understand them is only of limited value (good for muscle memory, so maybe your body will understand more of the "why" even if you don't, also potentially troublesome depending), but there's a lot that can be gained from their detailed study and trying to understand them in the context of what the art is trying to achieve.

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You play Go, too? –  Ho-Sheng Hsiao Feb 3 '12 at 16:11
    
Used to play very actively, not as much any longer, unfortunately. –  David H. Clements Feb 3 '12 at 16:32
    
I just got started. Been playing with people through a smartphone (6 days per move), so it is convenient. Trevoke showed me the game a few years back. –  Ho-Sheng Hsiao Feb 3 '12 at 16:41
    
Its worth getting back into Go. It is one of the most enjoyable games out there. –  TimothyAWiseman Aug 9 '13 at 16:50
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I think the main purpose of forms(kata) is muscle memory, drill something enough, and it you will be able to do it without thinking.

the precision and exactness of the forms also encourages the participant to focus on the little details of a technique which will make their over all technique much better.

the final reason i see for doing forms/kata is discipline, doing the same thing over and over gets boring and it builds discipline and character to be-able to get past that and maintain focus.

one other thing some people may find that doing forms/kata is a form of meditation.

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+1 All good reasons. I'd only add that kata are a mnemonic chain – it's easier to remember a technique when you put it in conjunction with a prior movement. It's also why many traditional fighting styles were transmitted through folk dancing. –  stslavik Feb 2 '12 at 17:42
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Forms are a way to transfer the knowledge from instructor to the student. In many cases, forms are what defines specific martial art. Change the form and you have different martial art. If only one practitioner is left of the entire art, the art still can be resurrected via forms.

That's what I was taught and this is my belief as student and instructor.

I agree with other answer, though. Muscle memory, focus and precision are important outcomes of kata practice. They are developed as specific individual practices the form many times and gains understanding of knowledge getting transmitted.

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There are some excellent answers here.

There is a use for kata that goes beyond muscle memory or instilling discipline through boredom. I am reminded of it just now when reading this answer.

Stilling your mind is difficult just sitting down. Stilling your mind while standing is harder. Stilling your mind while walking is harder still. It is most difficult when you are in physical conflict with someone else. Kata provides a stable physical base for you to work on stilling the mind ... but I suppose that means you need to first practice until you are as unconscious of kata as you are of walking.

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I really want to pick this as the answer, but it only talks about one purpose at the moment. –  Trevoke Feb 7 '12 at 13:37
    
ROFL!! ~~~~~~~~ Thanks for the edit though. :-) –  Ho-Sheng Hsiao Feb 7 '12 at 14:23
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A slightly different answer than the others above: forms are excellent relevant exercise.

Using myself as a specific example: if I perform every poomse from Taeguk Il Jang to Taebaek with total focus on form, accuracy and power, I will have tested my flexibility, exercised my core and soaked myself in sweat. When I have an hour that I can dedicate, I'll run through them all three times.

Note that relevant is important. Sure, I can (and do) exercise my core with crunches. However, poomse has always struck me as exercise with purpose, intent and relevance.

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+1 for martial intent. Perhaps the difference between exercise and martial practice... –  Jeremy Oct 12 '12 at 16:20
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Forms are good to check your posture and correct execution of the techniques.

For some time I knew my posture was wrong : I am arching my back when I should not, which mean that on some blocks I would not correctly transfer the strenght of the attack to my legs and the floor.

By working my form, I am now able to slowly but sure correct this bad back posture. I am now improving not only my martial skills but protecting my back for my old days.

Kata or Form do allow the instructor to check that the moves are well performed and would work. It would be harder for my instructor notice my failing in a dynamic execution.

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One thing to keep in mind is that most all Kata are extremely contrived. You will never, in a real situation, find yourself in a situation where a Kata fits fully.

Kata are trained to teach you two things. First they are there to train your body to move without thinking, muscle memory, like Patricia stated. Secondly they are to teach you to keep moving. To quote Johannes Liechtenauer "He who is still, is dead, he who moves will live". They teach you to keep moving, and applying small aspects of many different Kata.

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In addition to the excellent answers by Patricia and David H. Clements, let me add two small historical foot notes.

Some kata were developed to hide essence of a technique with extra movements. Thus, it allowed the master to teach something to all the students but only those with insights or special favours would be given the heart of how it worked. This would work as well as an obfuscation to any spy that wanted to learn how to defeat said style by observation. How effective those were, I do not know.

Some schools claimed to teach fighting styles in times of peace were duels and fighting was no longer du jour. Those would use paired kata as a way to simulate fights without resorting to sport.

Edit: In a similar way, the names of the techniques were obfuscating what the technique was about. Kano, Tomiki, and Bruce Lee (to name but three) all changes the names to reflect more what they were about rather than some abstract concept. While not directly linked to obfuscating movement, it is obfuscation nonetheless.

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Sometimes it isn't that paranoid. I've seen modern teachers say, "no, this obvious part isn't important, look at the essence" and the student still gets distracted. –  Ho-Sheng Hsiao Feb 3 '12 at 16:26
    
Do you have a source for the hidden techniques? (I agree with you, and I've been told this, but I have always wanted a source/citation). –  Mark C. Wallace Oct 12 '12 at 10:53
    
@MarkC.Wallace: Answer edited. –  Sardathrion Oct 16 '12 at 14:48
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What purposes do they serve?

1) They correct your mistakes while you a learning (for example, if you don't keep your back straight, your form would not look right etc)

2) They help you fight (yes, they do!); there is a simple but very powerful exercise - try to fight (spar) using movements from the kata and nothing else (as much as you can do it); I have done it many times and it works great

3) They work as a great riddles - ask everyone to come up with 1-2 different bunkais for a certain kata element and you will be surprised

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While I agree with your point #1, I think a better answer would explain how they correct my mistakes. If my back is not straight, my form won't look right, but how will I see and correct that? (unless you're implying that the value of forms is as a part of coaching/instruction.) Similarly I think #2 is probably true, but I'm not sure I understand how that exercise helps. How does sparring from kata differ from sparring without kata? #3 is good. My teacher does this all the time; I may hate it, but it works. –  Mark C. Wallace Oct 24 '12 at 11:33
    
#1. if you doing something wrong, doing the kata would get uncomfortable; also, it's not that hard to compare what you see in the mirror with the video recording of some master doing the kata. –  Steve V Oct 24 '12 at 15:55
    
#2. I strongly believe that every great kata has lots of good moves "zipped" into it -> if you are using moves from the kata and nothing else, your brain will have no choice but to start using all these moves for real, not just a like a ritual dance, and if style is good and practical - these moves will help you to fight –  Steve V Oct 24 '12 at 15:56
    
#3. Personally, I love these riddles, we found lots of good stuff we couldn't see before –  Steve V Oct 24 '12 at 15:57
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@DaveLiepmann sure thing (especially since lots of styles were "watered down" in order to make them safe for studying; however, katas in these styles often would still have practical and dangerous moves from "original version" of the style; of course, students would be given no explanations and will continue to do the katas as a "traditional thing to do", just because these katas are still part of the curriculum. –  Steve V Nov 18 '12 at 10:39
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In some way it really depends on the type of kata as well, to use Renshinkan Shorinji-Ryu Karate-Do as an example, one can argue that the kata come in two types, those that typify the core kata that in part define the style for what it is, and Yakusoku Kumite which isn't generally called a kata but which arguable is one.

The kata that define the style are in part just that, a way of defining the style and making it stand apart from others. If you look at the way one karata-ka does Seisan-no-kata (Kata Seisan) and compare it to another you can usually tell if they are doing the same style or not and if their "Kata Seisan" is related to each other or not, thus, defining the style. In terms of how my sensei has instructor me, the kata also provide you with a means of practicing all of your "basics" at once in a more fluid motion that would be more typical of an actual combat situation. We are generally stressed not to just "go through the motions" but make it actually look like we would injure someone with a punch and really bock someone with our blocks while doing the kata.

In regards to the second part, Yakusoku Kumite, or "Prearranged Sparring," as to if it counts as a proper kata is arguable as it requires two people and is done in short bursts, but it is stressed as soon as you make san-kyu (green belt) because it also stresses the application of the "basics" in a more rigorous environment that also drills offensive and defensive muscle memory into you. One of my instructors always mentions that "Yakusoku Kumite is where Renshinkan goes for self defense" and it makes sense because you do it so much and for so long. From the stand point of a kata though, it doesn't really look like one as it lacks the "showiness" that most people tend to associate with kata. However, on the other hand, it is definitively a fixed set of forms that are drilled and you can definitively see what the applications of them would be.

Also, consider things from the stand point of instruction in an art, kata are usually complex enough that you can see where students are having issue and it also provides a situation where they can really be placed under a microscope. If you throw punches at the air often enough you can make it look good and sparring tends to be chaotic enough that even an expert may not look like one, but when you make someone do a series of techniques while moving around their flaws tend to show through and you can generally tell someone who really owns what they are doing from someone that is just going through the motions.

So to summarize:

  • The type of kata in part defines it purpose
  • Some kata are used to define the style and make it stand on its own from others
  • Kata provide you with a venue to practice your "basics" in a way that isn't just doing the same motion repeatedly
  • Kata can also provide a venue for drilling offensive and defensive techniques that you may come to eventually default to when needed
  • Kata provide instructors with a way of testing students to see where their weaknesses are by forcing the student to learn to "own" the kata
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IMHO, forms have purpose and are extremely beneficial. Martial Arts isn't just about the physical. If the mind can't execute then your technique will be useless.

"My mind is my blade." - Lyoto Machida

Forms on a high-level is a meditative practice. Forms training can provide a type of "walking meditation" or "dynamic meditation" similar to the practice of zen monks. Forms allow one to train in aspects of fluid motion, no mind, and matching breathing to your technique and even to the nervous system.

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First, recognize that this is a large question and quite possibly a bad fit for SE. I think it is quite possible to write a book to answer that question. Different arts may treat kata differently. The best I can do is offer some examples.

Within Tomiki Aikido, the owaza jupon (big ten) kata was designed to teach students to adapt/blend to a moving opponent. I'm drawing a blank on the name of the designer of this kata, but his students were restricting their aikido to a very static, low energy attack/defense pattern. He designed owaza jupon to force them to confront a higher energy attack and to blend with an opponent who was moving more quickly. My source for most of this is verbal from my instructor, but Parker Shihan (as usual) has some very thoughtful reflections on the kata. In point of fact Parker Shihan has multiple essays that answer your question "What is the purpose of kata?"

Koryu dai go, if I recall is the koryu which is designed to test the partners under a different form of pressure - uke's attacks are continuous and relentless. The kata teaches you that the attacker isn't going to be polite, but will presssure you. Parker Shihan has an excellent essay on this, but I can't find it right now.

Koryu Dai Ni has been described as the kata for tight spaces, and the kata for knee problems. The true underpinning of that kata is probably a bit more subtle than either of those oversimplifications.

Final thought - I'm working on Koryu Dai Yon no kata right now; Sempai points out that the first seven techniques are what @Dave Liepman calls "demonstrations"; they're not particularly practical. In fact we have to resist the actions which would make them practical. (There are multiple places where the kata prescribes one hand; a two handed technique would be more effective). The next seven techniques are the same, but the attacker begins to resist. Resistance & counters are difficult to practice; both parties have to calibrate their resistance so that both parties get a chance to learn (rather than one dominating the other). Koryu Dai Yon no Kata creates that calibration and teaches us something about what resistance feels like, and how to adapt and counter. Phrased that way it sounds trivial, but there is a subtlety that I don't know how to get any other way.

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Lots of good answers! I'm only adding a bit of context to some of them.

Teaching

Most of history, people are illiterate. You don't have a lot of options to transmit information. A form is a simple thing you can memorize and keep practicing and pass down and keep the basic movements even if you're just a farmer.

Some styles would teach short 2-3 movement "forms". Other styles would teach 23 step, 108 step movement forms. Usually when you actually break these down, it's just a long list of 2-3 step techniques. Again, if you need to give someone a book who can't read, maybe it's just easier to chain together your 38 movement combos into 2 long forms so they can have something they can remember.

Warm up and practice without full equipment

Forms are a part of a full training regiment, not a full regiment in and of themselves. It gives you a basic warm up by dynamically putting your body through the range of motion in practice, and allows you to get the gist of the movement. You do this, then you train with a partner in drills/sparring.

Some forms utilized either weapons, weight, or otherwise formed resistance training ("Here, do this movement you would normally do on a horse. Except real low stance like this. This will strengthen your legs until we can get a horse, ok?" "Here, do this movement, it looks like a flow-y dance except when I put this halberd in your hands now all the hand movements make sense, right? Ok, here you go.")

Generalized movements to specified movements

You find in a lot of weapon arts like escrima, kali or silat that you'll have similar movements with several different types of weapons, but they'll be modified based on the specific weapon you're using. In these cases, a form will often be the general movement that works across the board and when you use a specific weapon you modify or adjust it by reach/speed to get the full value of it.

The form teaches your body generalized useful movements, which, then, you can apply specifically with practice to those weapons. For example, escrima's "Heaven 6" is basically a barrage of parries/chops/hammer fists with empty hands, but when you put the sticks or blades in there, it's a barrage of parries/attacks where you manage to not cut or hit yourself while using two weapons quickly.

Hidden movements/forgotten movements

As other folks have mentioned, forms serve as a way to either hide a technique or simply have been passed down without people knowing what it was used for.

There's also stuff like basic formal greetings, stretching or otherwise non-combative aspects being brought into forms and mistaken for combative movements. (It would be like if someone imagined doing pushups was a secret boxing movement...).

There's a lot of historical reasons for all of this, ranging from massive societal disruptions, to the fact that guns superceded a lot of traditional weapons, to the very basic fact that historically we're talking about arts passed down by people taking lots of concussions as a regular part of practice...

Over and under valued

Forms without live partner training are overvalued by many schools/lineages. Forms without live partner training are also the reason forms as a whole are undervalued in other schools and lineages.

Forms are a great supplement for memory and basic movement patterns. In some cases they can be good conditioning for dynamic stretching or strength. Forms are particularly useful for weapon training. In no case are forms adequate substitutes for live partner practice.

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Kata's normally don't have any 'real world' implications. Because they are basically a predefined chain of movements that almost would never happen in the real world. But Kata's are still important for the following reasons:

  • It slows down the art, allowing you to work on form
  • In a Kata you move with power and purpose, snapping your action
  • You work in completely control, focusing on each action
  • Ki Ups's and sound offs to generate power
  • Action chaining and flow and builds muscle memory
  • Your practicing how many others through time have practiced

A Kata will teach you discipline, focus and allow you to prefect the motions and actions in the Kata. Don't overlook them and take them seriously as they can be an integral component to your growth as a martial artist. Work on snapping, moving with power and purpose and try and be as accurate as possible when your going through your Kata, that muscle memory will translate over to your other actions.

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I suggest that whoever taught you the applications of kata did not understand how to use it. Often, what you see as obvious in the kata is not its true intent. A punch can conceal a grab, a leg kick can conceal a sweep, a block can conceal a throw. They are more like what David H. Clements said about joseki in Go. You'll see those patterns appear in the field as variants. –  Ho-Sheng Hsiao Feb 3 '12 at 16:20
    
-1 for kata don't have any 'real world' implication. +1 for the last paragraph. –  Sardathrion Aug 9 '13 at 10:51
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In general the forms in all martial arts are a way of practicing some basic movements specific to a certain level of skill(belt degree). One generally starts of with the most simple movements and then moves on to more complex sequences which become more and more challenging.

All martial arts forms are used to perfect technique, timing, speed, breath, balance, stances, some footwork and even enhance memory. The more you practice forms, the more you train some movements the more likely they are to become reflex.

In Shotokan Karate and Taekwon-do for instance forms challenge balance, speed, flexibility and breathing synchronization with movements. In other styles the forms teach and practice footwork, for instance in Godai-Ryu there is a footwork kata.

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Solo kata

I trained kata-heavy karate pretty seriously for a while, and most of what I got from that part of training was the ability to look silly and ineffectual while trying to look scary. I have a few trophies from the (in-house and local) kata tournaments, too. Today, I consider kata (the way the vast majority of people do it) to be a dance for people who'd rather not learn how to fight.

There are a number of problems with punching the air as a primary method of learning self-defense. Matt Thornton describes some:

The main reason people falsely believe forms have some sort of value is usually listed as "muscle memory". The idea that a move repeated enough times, becomes smoother, or more accessible during an altercation. Repeating a move over and over again in the air will do absolutely nothing for your reflexes or so called 'muscle memory'. In fact, repeating a move or series of moves over and over again in the same pattern and sequence will actually be counter productive to your bodies ability to respond quickly.

First, there is no TIMING, without a resisting opponent in front of you. Since there is no timing to be had, your reflexes, or response time against a resisting opponent, will not change, increase, or be helped in the least.

Second, there is no impact, as there is against a heavy bag. So there will be no benefit to your strength, body mechanics, or conditioning. In fact, your body mechanics may become altered in correctly due to the fact that you are not making impact against anything, but merely striking 'air'.

Worse yet, solo kata often involves either convoluted low-percentage applications, or use-your-imagination reverse engineering exercises where someone who doesn't know why a given move is in the kata simply tries to make up a scenario where the move makes sense. This is not an effective path for attaining martial skill.

But of course kata comes with all the benefits of dance: it's fun and keeps people interested, it involves a little bit of moving around with varying degrees of vigor, it requires varying degrees of strength and flexibility. As an added bonus, kata are used in many martial arts schools as a way to keep students busy with an extended curriculum without really challenging them. (In contrast, scheduling a ring fight or grappling tournament would be challenging, but would cause massive attrition in the student base.)

However, done correctly, solo kata can be part of a complete breakfast for developing gymnastic-level strength and mobility in the context of demonstrating fundamental movements of the style. Tai chi forms competitions are quite impressive in this regard. XMA--extreme martial arts--take this to a new level, a level with lots of shouting and posing, that I find particularly distasteful.

Historically, solo kata were also a swell mnemonic to remember all the moves Teacher was showing you and your five classmates, because you were all illiterate and didn't have DVDs. Later, they were also useful to the Japanese government as a highly patriotic form of physical culture that happened to inculcate bloodthirstiness and an affinity for militaristic formations in large numbers of schoolkids:

Shuri castle karate

None of these uses for solo kata are particularly compelling as a reason to base one's training around them. Partner drilling that uses timing, energy, and motion instead of preset patterns, and that leads to integrating techniques into vigorous sparring, is to be preferred. (See the latter half of this video for exposition of the same ideas.)

Partner kata

Many styles of koryu and grappling utilize two-person forms. These can be used ineffectually just as solo forms can, but they are frequently done with at least some degree of resistance and testing. Steve Scott illustrates for us the kata situation in modern American judo:

For instance, when someone practices nage no kata, he should actually do the throws and perform the skills in such a way that uke doesn't have to "jump for tori to make the throw look good" (as I once heard a semi-famous American judo instructor tell a young black belt at a kata clinic who was having trouble with uchi mata).

Jumping for tori isn't what doing nage no kata is all about. Same with doing any technique or skill. The technique has to actually work.

Of course, describing that ideal requires noticing that judoka often fall short and just parrot the moves. But even that is at least a little better than solo kata--you get the chance to throw your partner, and work on a little bit of (contrived, but potentially pedagogically useful) timing.

(Steve Scott actually has a quite intriguing and compelling view on the place of kata in everyday judo practice, which he describes in the October 2010 issue of his Welcome Mat newsletter. Essentially, he says that you should do kata every practice...in the form of drilling.)

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Thanks. That's pretty interesting information. May I recommend reorganizing it in the more classical format : thesis / antithesis / synthesis, instead of showing the antithesis first? –  Trevoke Nov 19 '12 at 22:22
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@Trevoke I'm not 100% sure which parts you regard as which, but I organized it in order of relevance to the majority of readers. That is, I think people should know that my experience of solo kata was that they're often useless, that they have major drawbacks for the purposes people claim they're used for, and they have some minor benefits, though historically they were used as a kludge or for militaristic indoctrination. –  Dave Liepmann Nov 19 '12 at 22:29
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+1 and no idea why this was at -1, it's a good answer. –  Jeremy Aug 8 '13 at 0:38
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THANK You for finally providing a sane answer to this question. Everyone else is nut-riding Karate and TKD, but from what I've read, none of them has actually ever been punched in the face in reality. I am glad not everyone is deluded. It also saves me from typing that all up +1 –  Thomas Denmark Uylenbroek Jan 22 at 5:14
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Forms will teach you almost everything.

You start with a basic form, mostly stances and a few basic moves. They go into muscle memory, forms are an excelent way for that. You also learn how to learn, because martials arts have a different learning way, and you learn to trust your teacher.

Then you get a form with some complex movements, like kicking and punching or blocking and kicking at the same time. You improve coordination, balance and start developing some muscles you weren't aware you had. You learn to know your body.

At some point you learn a two people form, which will teach you more coordination, timing and a lot about hitting and not being hit. It's not real combat, though.

As you don't stop practicing your forms, the new ones teach you something you didn't learn the first times. That takes discipline, but you start evolving the form and learning how to express yourself through the form.

If you learn a form from 3 different people you get 3 different visions, which is confusing but really useful, because forms have a lot of angles.

Depending on the teacher and the martial art, there will be a fixed curriculum or the students will get the forms in the order that matches their needs. For example, people with weak balance should get a form with a lot of moves that requires good balance, but the guys that are too rooted should get a different form.

Forms might not be the best or quickest way to learn everything, but time has proved they are way to do it.

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To accurately answer the question, "What is the purpose of martial art forms;?" you have to answer first, ...what is the purpose of martial arts? Since karate is the most popular martial art on a worldwide basis, I'll use karate and karate kata (forms) as the subject.

Karate develops the human potential on three dimensions, body, mind & spirit. The development of this potential can then be used in a fighting or self defense application. I'm going to concentrate on the first two dimensions of human potential, body & mind, because although the mental dimension of karate is often spoken to, it is typically misunderstood and neglected.... The 1st set of principles is then development of body & mind.

In traditional karate, the standard curriculum is comprised of three main components: (1) Kihon (basics), (2) Kata (predefined forms or patterns), and (3) Kumite (sparring or actual fighting exercises). Thus the 2nd set of principles is the three-sided karate curriculum.

Only karate, as opposed to the sports-based fighting methods such as boxing, muay thai, mma striking, bjj, has the second component of martial training, i.e. kata. Thus kata training becomes a focal point on how to train for martial arts....

Returning to the 1st set of principles, body and mind, I submit the overriding difference between the practice of karate and the practice of the sport-based fighting methods listed above, is the mental dimension. Both karate and the sports-based methods such as boxing stress physical conditioning. The huge difference in karate is the emphasis on mental discipline. Under traditional karate, mental discipline is the key; mental discipline directs every movement and execution of technique, from basics, to forms, to fighting application.

Once the body is physically conditioned, the mental discipline of karate develops fighting skill in two critical dimensions. One, through the integration of the whole body's strength in a highly coordinated manner. Second, that whole body strength is used in a completely controlled, deliberate and precise way against the actions of the opponent. Highly developed mental discipline guides every single one of your actions against what ever the opponent puts forth.

It's true that practicing basics (kihon) and kumite (sparring) exercises can produce the karate result I have defined above. However, it is kata that develops the mental control and discipline over the body's coordinated working in accomplishing deliberate, powerful actions or movements---to it's highest level.

This is why solo kata practice or 'punching air' is not a useless activity, but an extremely sophisticated method of developing mind / unity and the accompanying powerful technique and effectiveness kata practice creates....

I'll stop here, surely there will be questions....

Edit (reply/rebuttal to Mark's answer)

Is kata superfluous in accomplishing excellent karate. The answer goes back to the principles I stated underlying traditional karate as a martial art.

The critical answer lies in how the mind is engaged in the training. The secret of successful karate comes from integrating the mind and body. This is problematic to demonstrate over the internet.

Let me try to illustrate that repetitively drilling physical techniques until they are imbedded in "muscle memory," is not karate mental disicpline. This kind of training produces the ability to replicate actions and creates quick reactions. We see this kind of training output in every sports activity from gymnastics to 'karate kata performances' to basketball.

Kata, or any aspect of karate, practiced this way, or performed this way is hollow and weak. The reason is the deliberate control of a highly disciplined mind has taken a back seat to the regurgitation of memorized physical actions. This is why traditional karate fails, kata fails when is comes to actual application. The fault is not the kata or karate exercises, it's the fault of the practitioner to understand how the mind is driving the physical actions.

Note that for all the commentators here, not one has broken out the fundamental aspects of a basic kata, nor described their purpose and integration.... It's not wonder kata fails when practitioners are merely performing the physical monkey see-monkey do of an instructor....

EDIT:

First, I want to say that a number of the posters have touched on what I'm working to describe, and have addressed the subject of Mental Discipline in certain areas.

Go to the specific, take a look at the first Shotokan kata, Taikyoku Shodan. How do we begin this kata? How is it shaped & many steps does it have? What is the significance of the ready position at the beginning and end? What the precise moves in the ready position--and what is the body, mind, and spirit (metaphysical I know) doing with the ready position? What are the steps in the 1st branch or leg of this kata and again what is the body, mind, and spirit doing at each step?

Many criticize the Taikyoku kata as simplistic and impractical for fighting, that it's watered down. Is this really true for the purposes of kata training, and why did the Okinawan masters create these?

edited for typos...

@ Sarathrion: My invitation to describe the functions in the first Shotokan kata, Taikyoku was met with, "confusing, "mythical mumbo jumbo, etc.," and a "downgrade." The real problem is the failure of "martial arts" practitoners to methodically study & examine the purpose & structure of kata. Instead, posters want to talk about their impressions of kata.... without serious challenge from someone of my point of view....

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Yeah, I've always noticed that boxers lack whole body power and BJJ fighters lack mental discipline. Wait, no, that's absurd. –  Dave Liepmann Aug 4 '13 at 16:38
    
Of course you are right. Any one can develop full body power and become mentally disciplined. –  KarateFighter Aug 4 '13 at 16:49
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Dave, I can agree that kihon and kumite (practiced traditionally) can provide the mental discipline for martial skill. Where I differ is that I believe kata exercise provides a level of sophistication in one's mental capabilities that is more advanced and powerful, which in turn drives the body's physical actions in a more effective way... –  KarateFighter Aug 4 '13 at 17:07
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"Only karate, . . . has the second component of martial training, i.e. kata." This is not true. Tomiki aikido has kata. One could argue that taiji is kata. Since Tomiki shares Goshin with Judo, I believe judo has kata. Difficult to evaluate your core answer in the context of misstatements like these. –  Mark C. Wallace Aug 5 '13 at 11:07
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I am going to downvote this question. As it stands, it is confusing, borders of mythical mumbo-jumbo, and I cannot see what the answers drive at. I think there is a good answer buried in there but it needs refining. –  Sardathrion Aug 9 '13 at 10:46
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A short answer is that KATA is the root of all martial arts. Perfecting your kata it perfecting your art.

Edit -

In a nutshell, KATAs are mainly for defense. It always begins with someone initiating the attack.

Most Japanese Sensei I meet often say that we train our bodies, mind and techniques to the highest level possible, so that we will never need to use our arts in a confrontation or situation.

What it means is that when faced with an opponent or assailant, harming him should never be the first option. It is said that 'Only at the brink of death, should you resort to it'.

There was once a karate master who was highly renowned for his skills in competition, and anyone would could defeat him in a match would gain fame. 3 assailant decided to ambush the master on his way home. Long story short, he let three of the assailant beat him up because he knew that his strong and conditioned body could withstand the injuries, while if he chose to attack them, it could possible kill them. After a couple of days, the 3 assailant came back and apologise to the master.

So what does these story mean? How is it related?

By training in competitions, we learn to defeat opponent, we learn to harm them. No doubt competitions makes us stronger.

However KATA is the opposite, forces us to concentrate on the techniques, correcting your form, fixing bad habbits and most importantly understand why it is so deathly.

It helps to develop your tolerance so that you are not rash in making decisions.

Most sensei i met told me that during their younger years, they always get in fights, always eager to prove, always hot blooded and as they age and gain more exp, they confessed that by focusing on katas mainly, they are sort of enlightened and begin to regret their old ways.

For me being young, i have not reach that stage yet, and i practice KATAs mainly for belt progression and correcting my forms and bad habbits. It really helps one's concentration and it takes up alot of your energy when done right.

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Originally Kata was practiced with 3 attackers. It was used to teach students how to react when faced with dangerous situations. Although this is not used these days some instructors may still use this technique to put Kata into perspective.

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Any source for this? –  Sardathrion Oct 22 '12 at 8:49
    
I'm with @Sardathrion. I'd love to hear more about this, including a source if you have one. –  Trevoke Oct 22 '12 at 21:22
    
I have studied Karate with various instructors and all but one have used this method, so mostly this is from personal experience but the instructors that have used this technique have all made the same statement –  minimatt Oct 23 '12 at 3:15
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I've seen this as a method used by AJ Advincula in Isshinryu, but the applications were beyond silly. I think this is a modern invention. –  Dave Liepmann Nov 18 '12 at 6:58
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This is definitely a controversial topic. My thoughts:

  • kata practice often involves sequences of movements and stances that we'd be unlikely to practice and drill repetitively otherwise - being "forced" to proficiency in these movements is a large part of what gives a martial art a consistent technical foundation spanning generations - and divided groups - of practitioners, motivating the practitioners to work not only on their strength but their weaknesses as well, even if they (or their instructor for that matter) doubt the importance or benefits

    • kata tend to encourage a range of movements that develop skills with both left and right sides of the body, and have a mix of techniques ensuring reasonably balanced muscular development: doing only bag or partner work can easily become over-focused on too few techniques
  • kata practice involves more footwork and changes in direction that hitting a static target like a makiwara or punching bag, but doesn't require the constant small adjustments and compromises involved when working with a training partner - which can make it hard to really "groove" the movement; three cheers for all that Bruce Lee stuff about having no form and adapting to the moment, but all that works best if you've learned the form deeply first then transcend it

  • while practicing a single movement gives a good opportunity to really focus on and perfect it, there's a danger of not practicing moving into that movement from a variety of stances or prior movements, nor learning to recover quickly for a mix of subsequent footwork and/or technique - kata combine a deep focus on individual movements with focus on the transitions

    • this is really the key benefit of kata: the challenge of perfecting the speed, power mechanics, balance, recovery etc. for each movement given a variety of prior and subsequent positions - in a totally controlled and reproducible situation (i.e. sans partner) - observing their range, considering the vulnerabilities during their execution etc..
  • kata obviously have the benefit of being able to be practiced alone

AND THAT'S ENOUGH - THAT'S AWESOME - ENOUGH FOR SEVERAL LIFE TIMES

THIS NEXT POINT IS A DISTRACTION THAT DETRACTS FROM THE BENEFITS AVAILABLE FROM FOCUSED STUDY OF THE ABOVE...

Now, many won't like this, but what I believe is overwhelmingly BS is the notion that there are myraid deeper "applications" hidden in kata - where seemingly simple techniques like punches or low blocks are either "actually" or "alternatively" elbow breaks or throws etc.

  • often these alternatives can be demonstrated with some success - enough to impress juniors who are used to the day to day block and strike techniques but have no real expertise in breaks or throws - but as someone with several years of hapkido as well, I can say with confidence that most of these alternatives proposed for karate and taekwondo kata are poorly conceived, and any "master" at the supposed application would not have used any movement that could be misinterpreted as the outward technique for which the application is the hidden secret: learning the "secret" applications this way would be setting the practitioners up to be very mediocre at those breaks or throws, or leave themselves unacceptably vulnerable during their execution or follow up given a defender versed in such techniques

  • very often, some mediocre martial arts "master" who doesn't have the aptitude or patience to achieve an exemplary standard, or obsesses on whatever fame / followers / fortune motivates them, finds it easier to dream up or buy into some elaborate stories about hidden meanings in kata, then they've got a whole plethora of extra "secret knowledge" to impress with; the same thing happens with "masters" suddenly teaching senior students meditation or chi gung or reiki or some other peripheral activity that they're probably not even "black belt" level at, but given the students are likely complete beginners it's another distraction and claim to expertise supporting their authority

  • I fully accept a few movements in katas may have been misinterpreted and simplified to some more common technique they outwardly resemble, so corrections along the lines of "that's actually xyz" will occasionally happen over the years as faults in the transmission of kata are corrected (or begun/propagated), but that's another matter: once the purpose is clarified the technique should be being done in a way intended to be optimal for that application, rather than with any intent to remain outwardly similar to the earlier mistaken technique

    • the purpose of some techniques isn't obvious to an unfamiliar observer - again, I'm not saying it should be, I'm just saying when the kata movement is a "punch" it's a punch and only a punch, if it's a "pressing block with fist" or something then it may look pretty similar, but it will be the same application every time the kata is practiced and you as practitioner should be focused on mastering that specific application
  • As sanity checks:

    • If you're being told some movement is to throw an opponent standing in such-and-such a position, imagine a jujitsu master moving in to affect the same throw - would it conceivably look anything like what you're being told to do?

    • Would it work on someone who wasn't from your own style? For example - I visited a high-ranking karate master here in Tokyo who had taught his students flawed stances - a "forward" stance where the front knee extended past the toes - and flawed habits - like remaining tense after completion of a punch - then felt clever wandering around grabbing their front arm and pulling them forwards off balance... it only worked on his own students!

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After reading your thoughts, it occurs to me that from your description you are saying regular linework and kata are effectively identical (except the kata has turns). Your description does nothing to explain why kata like Sanchin, Seisan and Bassai Dai exist. If you accept Funakoshi as a reliable source (which you should!) then read his book Karate Jutsu from what I've been told (by someone who owns it - it is reasonably rare) he is quite explicit with his descriptions of bunkai and "hidden meanings" which you are endeavouring to debunk. –  slugster Jan 21 at 22:57
    
With regards to "hidden meanings" - without a doubt there will have been many charlatans who have tried to leverage this for their own reasons, however it is safe to say that there are indeed many "hidden" or nuanced meanings in the bunkai of kata. Once you understand them basic techniques like Soto Uke and Age Uke can be used in several different ways - the last thing I would use them for is "blocking punches or attempted strikes with a beer bottle or baseball bat", which unfortunately is what a lot of instructors teach them as. –  slugster Jan 21 at 23:09
    
+1 I agree with slugster's comments, but there is a lot of other good stuff in this post, besides "debunking" bunkai. Although I do think there are hidden meanings within kata, we do sometimes see things that aren't there. –  The Wudang Kid Feb 27 at 12:43
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