In general, kata and forms are very badly misunderstood by everyone.
Unfortunately the meaning of kata and forms has largely been kept deliberately secret by the practitioners who do understand them, so misinformation abounds.
Karate kata and kung-fu forms are collections of self defence drills
Kata and kung-fu forms are collections of self defence drills. They are sets of drills arranged sequentially one after another. Each individual drill within the kata takes the practitioner from a position of weakness to a position of strength against an opponent attempting to attack in some way. The attacks in each drill vary obviously. So while there may be 80 distinct movements in a kata, each self defence drill might be 2-5 movements in length so there could be 20 distinct drills within such a kata.
You can quite literally take a drill sequence out of the kata and practice it with a training partner, assuming you know what kind of attack it defends against.
The purpose of a kata or form originally was to allow you to practice solo, all of the drills you had been taught, one after another in a time and space efficient manner. Visualisation during the process aiding the practice as it does with sportsmen and women today. Today by investigating them for applications we are using kata and forms backwards. Originally the practitioners would have been taught the applications first and would have understood them before learning the form.
This information was first published in English to my knowledge in 2001, by Seikichi Toguchi; 10th dan and one of Chōjun Miyagi's (creator of Goju-Ryu) students. I highly recommend reading this book, no matter your style.
Toguchi, Seikichi (2001). Okinawan Goju-Ryu II: Advanced Techniques of
Shorei-Kan Karate. Black Belt Communications. ISBN 978-0-89750-140-8 page 44.
(available on google books)
It is backed up by knowledge we have about the use of "sparring sets" within Chinese forms, which kata evolved from:
Given the nature of fighting, striking methods are very quick, quite literally 1/6 of a second to throw a punch. It really doesn't make sense to record those in forms or kata. What you find is that kung-fu forms and karate kata record mostly stand up grappling techniques where the opponents have hold of each other. Including joint locks, throws and the such like.
Copernican model of movement
A helpful hint was given by Kenwa Mabuni in his book "Kobo Kenpo Karatedo Nyumon".
With the notable exception of Naihanchi/Tekki, Okinawan kata make use of a "Copernican" model of movement. They put the opponent at the centre in front of you, and turns in the kata represent the angle you have to take with respect to the opponent. Particularly at the beginning of a drill sequence.
e.g. turn 90° to the left indicates that you should be on the opponent's left hand side, but still facing him. Obviously things like throws within a drill, the opponent is brought with you as you move.
For those practicing shuri based karate; shotokan, kyokushin, wado-ryu, shorin-ryu, shito-ryu and so on. The Pinan/Heian katas created by Itosu, usually/often use a forearm grip as the entrance technique. That is, the opponent has hold of your forearm or wrist. Same side for most of them, but Heian Shodan, Pinan Nidan uses opposite sides.
How to use a Kata or Form
First of all, there is only one opponent and in most of the drills, he will begin in front of you. In some he may begin behind.
Break the form up into the drill sequences
- The first thing to do is dissect the kata or form into it's component drill sequences. This can be somewhat challenging depending on the form and often you have to begin at the beginning and work out where each sequence ends. The Pinan/Heian katas and Naihanchi/Tekki for example often perform the same sequences to both the left and right hand sides, so it can be clear where each sequence begins and ends.
Each drill sequence also "ends the fight". When performed, the uke/opponent has been defeated at the end. There are no submissions, all finishing techniques are performed as if full strength was applied. Examples of techniques which might indicate the end of a drill sequence:
- Elbow strike to the temple.
- Take down which leaves the opponent prone.
- Arm pushed far up the back, damaging the shoulder joint.
The list is by no means exhaustive.
- At the start of the drill, determine the angle which the entrance technique would be applied. In the case of Karate this is given by the kata itself. It isn't clear that kung-fu forms make use of angles in the same way, it may be an Okinawan innovation. In most cases, the angle in the kata shows you the angle you should be at with respect to the opponent.
There are some exceptions like Naihanchi/Tekki, which is performed in line and without angles. Head position tells you where the opponent is positioned, though it's less reliable as often styles have modified their katas. (It's very much worth looking at several versions of the kata). Within Naihanchi, changes in head position can indicate altering angle with respect to the opponent, though it can also indicate the end of a sequence and the beginning of another.
Entrance technique is unfortunately a case of trial and error bearing in mind the angles and positioning of the opponent, and this is where most errors in interpreting solo kata enter. For the Pinans and Naihanchi, as "beginner" kata, the entrance technique is often a hold that the opponent has on you, lower arm, upper arm, chest, same side, opposite side. It will always however be a position of weakness.
All movements you make alter the position of the opponent and the kata/form accounts for this. If the opponent has a grip on your right arm and you bend and pull his elbow across your body, the kata accounts for the fact that the opponent has rotated. If you kick his knee out, it will account for the fact that he has dropped lower.
High kicks were originally not. All kicks were low. All kata and forms have been modified. Look across all styles you can find that practice the kata and remove the alterations where you find them. e.g. Many kata kicks today performed at head height were originally to the back of the knee.
One of the most important, certainly with many karate kata styles... A closed hand is more probably a grip than a fist. Some styles a grip is not indicated by the general Okinawan convention of a closed hand, but a half open hand. Uechi-ryu for example. (hence the number of finger and palm strikes in the style). Chinese forms it very much depends on the style of kung-fu.
Quite simply perform the kata/form movements exactly as taught. Where you see a "punch", or "block", think grab or grip. The correct application will fit every movement of the kata with only relatively minor deviation. If it deviates significantly it is unlikely to be correct.
Once you have isolated a drill sequence, and in your eyes successfully decoded and understood how it works, the next step is to train it. You can train the drill exactly as is with a partner, but that isn't really the point of the drills, they provide examples of techniques and principles. It's really these techniques and principles that you should take into your one step, three step and free form sparring.
It's quite important to train against resistance from partners, in reality there will be lots of resistance and you should understand how it affects the dynamics of the applications you train.
Hopefully this helps understand what kata/forms are and how they can be used. Unfortunately over the last several decades understanding has been lost across large swathes of the Chinese derived systems, such as Karate, TaeKwonDo and Kung-Fu which make use of solo forms, leading to a lot of very poor applications in these martial arts.
The process of analysing them is a parasitic process which while it's necessary, doesn't really help teach or learn the martial art. It would be far better if the teachers had these already decoded and the results recorded. We can see this with the relative progress karate and kung-fu students make vs the progress that Japanese Ju-Jutsu students make where all their kata are already well understood. Students are taught the application and usage directly and not expected to work out fighting applications themselves from kata (a highly unreasonable expectation). In general JJJ students progress far more quickly than karate or kung-fu practitioners.
p.s. http://katapedia.org/ describes all this in more detail, with more references. It also has all of the Pinans/Heians decoded, and Naihanchi - Tekki shodan with the drill sets for each of them...
p.p.s This answer refers primarily to Karate kata, they are conceptual descendants of Kung-Fu forms so many but not all of the methods and details will apply equally to kata and forms.
p.p.p.s Be very wary of any martial art form, kata, poomsae which was created during the 20th century. It's very clear that there are forms out there which were thrown together from nearly random movements by people who had no understanding of the meaning and usage of kata and forms.