Forms practice has always been an important aspect in Korean and Japanese/Okinawan martial arts. Looking at both Korean poomsae and Japanese kata, one might argue that they are the same thing, only with different arrangements and sequences of techniques being used. While this may be true, it could also be argued that poomsae and kata are actually very different from each other.
In order to begin this discussion, we must first look at how both kata and poomsae are defined by those who practice them. Shoshin Nagamine defines kata as, "a systematically organized series of defensive and offensive techniques performed in a sequence against one or more imaginary opponents, and given a symmetrical, linear pattern."
Masatoshi Nakayama further explains that there are two types of kata. There are simple kata, which a karateka can use to, "build up his physique, tempering his bones, and forging strong muscles." The other group of kata are, "appropriate for the acquisition of fast reflexes and quick movements." He goes on to explain that kata are used for exercise, and contain everything needed to exercise the whole body. Also, a karateka can learn self defense techniques through the practice of kata.
Shifting our focus to Korean poomsae, the Kukkiwon and World Taekwondo Federation websites state, "poomsae is the style of conduct which expresses directly or indirectly mental and physical refinements as well as the principles of offense and defense resulting from cultivation of Taekwondo spirit and techniques."
Grandmaster Rhin Moon Richard Chun writes, "The forms were designed to provide a means of practicing defensive and offensive techniques in a series of continuous movements. They were intended to train students to defend themselves against more than one opponent and to fight in any direction for as long as necessary without tiring." He goes on to say that they are important for increasing accuracy, coordination, speed, power, endurance, and balance.
Although the basic definitions of kata and poomsae have been given, the importance of these practices to the Karateka or Taekwondoin has not yet been addressed. Just how essential are kata and poomsae to their overall martial arts styles?
It is often written that kata is indeed the essence of Karate. Without the practice of kata, there is no Karate. In Taekwondo, the same can be said about the importance of poomsae. Grandmaster Chun once wrote, "without forms there is no Taekwondo."
So it is obvious that both kata and poomsae are absolutely essential to the overall practice of their respective arts. If we look at the explanations of kata and poomsae already stated above, we can see that in their most basic definitions, they seem to serve very similar purposes. Practicing sequences of offensive and defensive techniques, self defense, developing speed, strength, endurance, coordination, etc. are addressed by both Karate and Taekwondo masters as some of the benefits of practicing forms.
But are forms really practiced just for learning offensive and defensive sequences? Can't you teach self defense without forms? I'm sure coordination and endurance can be trained just fine without the practice of poomsae/kata. So although a student may certainly receive all of these benefits through the practice of poomsae/kata, there are much better ways in which to develop these attributes. So then what is the real reason for practicing forms?
Answering this question is where we start to see some real differences in how forms are practiced in Karate and in Taekwondo. However, we can not simply say that Taekwondo practices forms one way, and Karate another. There will absolutely be some overlap of how forms are trained in different styles of martial arts due to the freedom an instructor has to teach how he/she pleases. An instructor can choose the level of emphasis he wants to place on forms practice as well as their purpose in the overall training regimen. Also, limited knowledge on the part of an instructor could also determine the way he views, and therefore teaches, forms.
When looking at the Taegeuk and yudanja poomsae, as required by the Kukkiwon for promotion, the symbolism and philosophy behind the forms are at the forefront of the practitioners true understanding of poomsae. Although the physical techniques themselves are important, the forms need to be studied and understood at a deeper level than what is merely seen on the surface. The philosophy behind the forms cannot be discovered simply though practice, but must be taught by a qualified instructor. The student must learn the underlying philosophy behind the poomsae he is practicing, and try and capture that philosophical essence through the performance of their poomsae.
When looking at the practice of kata, it seems as though serious practitioners of Karate also look below the surface, past the basic benefits that can be gained through practicing forms. However, there is no underlying philosophy steeped in traditional Asian culture like in Taekwondo poomsae. Instead, Karateka look for the realistic applications of the techniques being taught in the kata. Hironori Otsuka once wrote, "It is obvious that these kata must be trained and practiced sufficiently, but one must not be 'stuck' in them. One must withdraw from the kata to produce forms with no limits or else it becomes useless. It is important to alter the form of the trained kata without hesitation to produce countless other forms of training. Essentially, it is a habit - created over long periods of training. Because it is a habit, it comes to life with no hesitation - by the subconscious mind."