Kata originally were teaching and training methods by which successful combat techniques were preserved and passed on. Practicing kata allowed a company of persons to engage in a struggle using a systematic approach, rather than as individuals in a disorderly manner.
The basic goal of kata is to preserve and transmit proven techniques and to practice self- defence. By practicing in a repetitive manner the learner develops the ability to execute those techniques and movements in a natural, reflex-like manner. Systematic practice does not mean permanently rigid. The goal is to internalize the movements and techniques of a kata so they can be executed and adapted under different circumstances, without thought or hesitation. A novice’s actions will look uneven and difficult, while a master’s appear simple and smooth.
The most popular image associated with kata is that of a karate practitioner performing a series of punches and kicks in the air. The kata are executed as a specified series of approximately 20 to 70 moves, generally with stepping and turning, while attempting to maintain perfect form. There are perhaps 100 kata across the various forms of karate, each with many minor variations.
The number of moves in a kata may be referred to in the name of the kata, e.g., Gojū Shiho, which means "54 steps." The number of moves may also have links with Buddhist spirituality. The number 108 is significant in Buddhism & Hinduism, signifying the 108 ways the mind can behave (Upanishads) and kata with 54, 36, or 27 moves (divisors of 108) are common. The practitioner is generally counselled to visualize the enemy attacks, and his responses, as actually occurring, and karateka are often told to "read" a kata, to
explain the imagined events. The study of the meaning of the movements is referred to as the bunkai, meaning analysis, of the kata.
One explanation of the use of kata is as a reference guide for a set of moves. Not to be used following that "set" pattern but to keep the movements "filed". After learning these kata, this set of learned skills can then be used in a sparring scenario (particularly without points). The main objective here is to try out different combinations of techniques in a safe, practice environment while the Japanese term is most well known in the English language, forms are by no means exclusive to Japan. They have been recorded in China as early as the Tang dynasty, and are today referred to in Mandarin as taolu.
South and Southeast Asian martial arts incorporate both preset and freestyle forms. In silat these are referred to as jurus and tari respectively. Malay folklore credits the introduction of forms to the Buddhist monk Bodhidharma.
In Korean martial arts such as taekwondo and tangsudo, the word hyung or hyeong is usually employed, though in some cases other words are used. The International Taekwon-Do Federation uses the word tul, while the World Taekwondo Federation uses the word poomsae or simply the English translations "pattern" or "form." Taekwondo patterns have multiple variations including Palgwe and the more popular Taeguk forms used by the WTF. Forms are included in certain taekwondo competitions and are a key element of gradings.