There are two schools of thought when it comes to the use of kata or forms in one's martial arts training. One school states that they are a type of choreographed dance used to teach basic techniques and some simple applications. They can also be used as a type of conditioning workout but beyond that the only reasons to learn one's forms is to pass one's grading tests.
The other school believes that katas are a type of somatic combat map. Each movement has a distinct meaning. These movements teach one about the angle and direction used to strike vital points on the body. The movements of forms may also teach one proper footwork, angle and direction with which one applies different locks and self-defense holds.
I believe that katas were intended for both of these purposes and more. Whe4n one is in a fight or combat situation there is a particular rhythm to the situation. As a matter of fact, everything in life moves to a particular rhythm and being able to tune into this rhythm will greatly advance on'es growth in life as well as in the martial arts.
The first use of kata is to learn rhythm. Don't simply do your forms at a measured cadence that generally bores one silly. Find the rhythms of each movement. For instance, in the Okinawan form Pinan Godan, the first four movements have a very different rhythm compared to the fifth movement.
Try doing your forms to different styles of music as this will teach you about the applicaiton of auditory rhythm to somatic rhythm. When you begin to find the rhythm in your forms this will then help you develop timing and understanding of engagement/disengagement when in a fight situation.
The second use of kata, I believe is to develop explosiveness of movement. This is not simply crispness or power. kThis is what is known as fa-jing in Taijiquan. This type of explosiveness can be compared to a controlled sneeze in which the body explodes into each movement. When you perform the movements of you kats explosively, those watching should inadvertently jump back from the energy and power of the movements.
Combine the concepts of rhythm and explosiveness and now you are learning about engagement and the timeing necessary for a fight situation. There will be portions of your forms that you feel should be done slowly, almost Taiji-like in their movements and there will be movements that you feel should be done very explosively.
This is very much like a fight. There are times that you need to move in a very contolled manner and then there are those moments of opportunity in which one must forget about everything else and simply explode on one's opponent in a flurry of technique and kill3er spirit. So you should practice all of the movements in your forms as both explosive and very slow and controlled.
This brings me to the third use of Kata. That of developing muscle memory. By practicing your forms at different intensities; using controlled, slow movements and explosive movements, one develops enhanced muscle memory.
Enhancement of muscle memory will help one to develop reflexive memory in which you simply respond correctly wen attacked without thinking about it beforehand. This reflexive memory or response is on of the ultimate goals of martial arts because, when achieved, it indicates an increasing harmony between one's mind and body.
The fourth use of kata is to be able to train in combat situations without having a training prtner. I would agree, that having a training partner is generally best, but when one is without then through the use of visualization one can train in combat situations while training alone. This type of training can be combined with knowledge of pressure points, rhythm and muscle memory to greatly enhance one's martial arts.
When performing kata, at first do teh movements very slowly, in a controlled but relaxed manner much like one would perform Taijiquan. While doing these movements vividly imagine how you are engaging your opponent. For example, the first movement of haihanchi Shodan could be an almost simultaneous strike to points on the forehead just above the eye and points on the back of the neck just below the edge of the skull. When doing Naihanchi Shodan perform this movement so slow as to be almost painful and visualize yourself being attacked and then striking these two points. Then do the movement again using the same visualizationonly with explosive movements; use the whole body. You can use this method to practice and create many self-defense and combat applications from your katas; although some knowledge of pressure points and how they work is useful.
Another aspect fo using visualization with your kata training is how you visualize yourself. In the Chinese martial arts many of the forms were created with different animals in mind;they were created to mimic both the movements and the mindset of certain animals.
Thus, the leopard form contains multiple, explosive movements with many sharp, quick strikes. When the leopard form is done while visualizing one's self as a leopard, the form takes on a whole new meaning.
This same concept can be applied to forms no matter what style a person studies. For example, the Okinawan form Pinan Nidan, has the distinct feeling of a cat in motion. When you visualize yourself as a cat performing the kata, the energy of the kata changes. The form will become more fluid, more centered, with an alert, yet relaxed energy. At the same time the movements become sharper and more explosive, with a completely different rhythm.
When you are doing your katas, try visualizing yourself as a different animal each time you do them. Then memorize how you feel when you are a particular animal. This same visualization and emotional feeling can then be taken into sparing and fight situations.
Besides being used for competition and necessary for grading; or acting as maps to many and vared combat applications, one can aply differnt rhythms and explosiveness to their katas to develop enhanced muscle memory. One can also use different rhythms and varying intensities of movement combined with intense visualization to enhance one's pressure point training and self-defense applications. katas can be used for combat training without a partner.
By applying these four mental and physical training methods to your kata, you will greatly enhance your forms no matter what style you practice. This will also help keep your forms interesting because you can do them differently every time you train.