The practice and purpose of kata is something that is often debated, and can be a serious point of contention between martial artists. Many people believe that kata are outdated and useless, and should no longer be practiced. Others believe that kata are exercises for fitness, balance, and coordination, but nothing more. There are also those who believe that kata are meditative practices, intended to develop the mind and spirit. Then, there are those who believe that kata are composed of practical fighting methods, which have been collected into a series of interconnected solo drills. Of course, there are shades of gray between each of these views, and there are more obscure opinions, as well, but these tend to be the largest groups when discussing the purpose of kata.
The trouble with determining the purpose of kata is that the purpose you find in kata is directly related to your understanding, and what you are looking for. In that regard, everyone’s opinion of the purpose of kata is correct! If you believe that kata is outdated, and serves no purpose, then you will find no value in its practice. If you believe that it is merely a method of developing fitness, balance, and coordination, then that is what you will gain from it. If you believe it is moving meditation, then that is how you will use it. If you see it as a collection of fighting methods, then you will constantly be finding that type of material in the movements. The key to the purpose of kata is the intent in its practice.
This brings us to the question of why there is so much disparity between martial artists, and their views on kata. It certainly makes sense that those who train in arts that don’t utilize kata will tend to have a very limited understanding of them, but what about martial artists whose systems heavily utilize kata, kuen, hyung, etc.? The answer to this question is multi-faceted, and can be very nuanced, because even among practitioners of the same art, everyone’s experience and perspective is going to be slightly different.
One of the biggest factors in people’s understanding of kata is the influence of Japan on martial arts. Although the practice of forms can be found all across Asia and, to a degree, Europe, it is most often associated with karate. While karate is an Okinawan art, originally, most people are familiar with karate that has been strongly impacted by Japanese culture. This is important, because Japanese culture has very strong views on kata–that is, they have a “kata” for basically everything. In that culture, kata is essentially the precise, “most proper” method for doing a task. There is kata for making tea, for getting dressed, for sweeping a shrine, and so on. Through the performance of these kata, people seek to develop personal perfection, and there is a meditative quality to everything they do. If this is how you see kata, from a cultural perspective, then that will tend to be how you see martial arts kata, as well. Since the Japanese are largely responsible for the popularization of karate, it makes sense that this idea of self-perfection and moving meditation is a popular perspective among karateka, when it comes to the purpose of kata.
Another aspect of the Japanese influence on kata comes from the fact that karate in Japan was largely cultivated in high schools and colleges. Athletic young men, in a time when the country was gearing up for war, wanted to challenge themselves physically as much as mentally. This really brought about the sport fighting aspect of karate, but it also emphasized the physical fitness aspect of kata and kihon training. Stances got lower, kicks got higher, and the intensity was cranked up to its maximum.
Japan is not the only influence we need to consider, of course. China is a major player in the development and practice of kata. While China is a single country, it is far from a single culture; it is a very large nation, made up of regions that are very different from each other. This means that, even in martial arts, there are many different perspectives under the umbrella of Chinese arts. Historically, we know that the forms of Chinese arts tended to fall into two categories–fighting methods, and developmental forms. That is, some forms were composed of practical fighting techniques, and some were used to develop fundamental strength and movements, in order to make the practitioner more effective as applying the techniques found in the fighting forms. A simple example of one such developmental form would be Sanzhan (Sanchin).
The Chinese have long valued health and longevity, so it is no surprise that they recognize these benefits in martial arts practices. The wushu movement is the embodiment of the pursuit of these benefits, emphasizing athleticism and competition above the traditional practices of Chinese fighting forms. This can be seen in many Chinese martial arts demonstrations, where flying kicks, splits, and low stances are prominent. The practice of taijichuan (Tai Chi) as physical fitness is another prime example, although some practitioners still train the fighting aspects of the forms.
When it comes to the fighting applications of kata, we have to consider the classical Chinese and Okinawan approaches. While they do not reject the benefits of kata for mental and personal development, or physical fitness and health, they are chiefly collections of fighting techniques. Methods of striking, locking, throwing, choking, and dealing with a variety of attacks were translated from real fights, to partner drills, to solo drills, to kata. Practitioners who have had these applications taught to them, and emphasized to them, will tend to see this as the core purpose of their kata practice.
When you boil it down, kata are really just sequences of movements, and movements can do a wide variety of things. A single motion can be used to express an emotion, strengthen the body, or perform an action. That’s what makes it an “art.” The purpose of any given movement is entirely dependent upon the will of the person performing the movement. The same is true for the purpose of any given kata. You will only benefit from what you believe there is to benefit from.