The role of forms in martial arts

I have just read this great post on Ikigaiway and started writing a comment: when it became too long I though it was a good idea to write my own post.

Most striking martial arts, being them bare handed like Karate, Wing Chun or Tae Kwon Do or weapon based like Iai Jitsu, Iai Do and Kobudo, use forms (Kata in Japanese) as a way or classifying various groups of techniques.  Forms are usually increasingly difficult and they can be part of grading.

Forms, in any martial art, is meant to be a way of collecting a number of techniques, arranged in logical sequences, with to 4 main purposes in mind:

  1. solo practice, to allow the practitioner to keep training without an opponent;
  2. having a kind of comparable scale among different practitioner at similar level;
  3. practicing and rehearsing logical sequences of techniques that eventually should be applied to real right
  4. collecting techniques that otherwise might be lost in teaching over various generations of students: let’s not forget that until a few decades ago video recording or filming was not as practical and affordable as it is today and a book has lots of limitation is showing dynamic 3D actions.

In the first video shown in Ikigaiway post the young lady moves a lot, she is very acrobatic but most of what she does is not useful, if not dangerous,  in a fight.  The second video is more realistic: question here is: “if you push somebody away with a powerful yoko geri (side kick) what it the probability that his face will be there to be hit with an elbow?”

I am convinced that a form is (supposed to be) a fight against imaginary opponents that the practitioner attacks or defends against.  Somebody practicing a form should always ask herself:

  • “what is this (particular technique) for?”
  • “would it really work?”
  • “what about if a real opponent appeared now in that position?”

If the answer to any of these question doesn’t make too much sense than what you are practicing is not a practical form and, while it can help working out fitness, balance and flexibility, it will not ultimately help your fighting skills.

3 thoughts on “The role of forms in martial arts

  1. Very nice response Massimo, I think you make some great points. I especially like the observation about the elbow after the side kick.

  2. I do not normally leave comments, especially on the first visit, but this post deserves one.

    My background: 38 years training, some Okinawan and Korean arts, but mostly Chinese waijia and neijia. Taught for 22 years. Have been training Chen family taijiquan for 10 years.

    Comment: I think you are overlooking a major feature of form: the depth. In my experience, most forms are a series of techniques strung together to form various combinations. This is particularly true in waijia systems. However, there are levels of training: by focusing on a certain type of technique or application, the form becomes an multi-level training tool. Focus on finding and applying joint locks in your form, or throws and takedowns, or elbow strikes, or knee strikes. I believe that those techniques are there, even unintentionally.

    You may have noticed that I said “most” forms above. In my experience, technique and application is generally not discussed in a typical neijia class. I’ve also found this to be very unhelpful. I currently practice Chen family taijiquan first and second empty hand and double edge straight sword (jian) forms daily. I also visualize application as I practice my forms, though not always the same and sometimes I just work on the posture.

    My point: you get out of form practice what you put in. The “hidden techniques” are there, even if your instructor didn’t learn them. My USD $0.02.

  3. @ Dr Elvis: thank you very much for your comment that I value very much. If you read the post that initially inspired mine you will see a number of videos; several of my comments are about how people train and practice forms in a way that makes little or no sense from a practical point of view. For those that state that a form is a good way of remembering various moves at a certain level of difficulty I can agree as long as they don’t try to convince me that they have practical applications. I cannot speak in depth for the neija forms you mention but I have practiced for years Karate of various styles and Tang So Do where forms are very much practiced but frankly they have very little to do with the techniques used in pair practice or in sparring.

    In Wing Chun (that I have been practicing for several years and from 4 different lineages) for example the forms dictate how each technique should be performed and practical application of the form are to be tested. Different lineages apply certain techniques at different angles and their forms reflect that.

    So in response to your point: I agree you might get out what you put in; I remain convinced that understanding a form and knowing what it is supposed to do and why might help visualizing the whole concept and ultimately improving the form itself. Whether this will improve your fighting skill is a totally different matter.

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