Forms: Flowery Fists Or The Real Deal?

Every one of us has at some point ventured down to the local bookstore and picked out a specific martial arts text that we think will change our outlook. Several weeks after finishing the book it begins to collect dust on a table or on a shelf along with other remnants of similar experiences. Forms are usually no different.

In a way we can very much liken a Form to a book. We can judge immediately based on the cover or external beauty. We can also simply read it once, note how we like or dislike it, put it on the shelf and forget about it. Many learn Forms because they are required to out of tradition in the school, and this is fine. And just like we can read a book for school to pass the test on it, so can we practice a Form simply to pass a test on it.

However, if you are lucky to find a good Literature teacher you will forgo quantity over quality, and settle in to study a small number of books. At the end of the course you come out with a deep understanding of those texts that can then translate to others that you will read later on. Forms are no different.

A Form is a collection of combat drills strung together in a specific pattern to teach fluidity, movement, footwork, rooting, flexibility, and a host of other skills whose purpose is to provide practice for an individual when partners are not around. Different Forms emphasize different aspects, and as such certain people will prefer the "natural" feel of certain Forms that accentuate their strengths. This leads to the practice of tagging a specific Form or book as a "Favorite". Unfortunately for some this is where the learning stops.

Just as one can read a book a hundred times and miss a vital connection, so can a martial artist practice a Form hundreds of times and miss the underlying principles and applications hidden within. Like a good book, a good Form does not lay everything in the lap of the practitioner. If one wants a deeper understanding he will have to work for it. Movements will have to be dissected and applied before placing them back within the Form, single movements at first and then short strings. What combat applications can you draw out If you can't, then try harder to understand what the Form is trying to teach you. What else is that movement doing If you say it's only a punch you need to try harder. Can you instead call that "punch" and "arm motion", and then translate that into a Chin-Na technique

Once you understand a form it is yours, and you will never look at other Forms in a simplistic way. There is no reason NOT to collect forms the way in which one collects books by a favorite author, and even if you don't like that particular Form because it doesn't feel "natural" to you does not mean no one else will. The reason there is not one single Form that you are required to learn is that everyone is different and has different preferences and abilities. While you may dislike a particular Form, someone down the line such as a future student or your future student's student might find the Form to be something they find "natural". So, like books, Forms become a way to pass on the history, ideology, principles, and techniques of our martial ancestors, or doors for our descendants to discover.

David Alcon is a Student of several forms of Chinese Boxing. He turned to the Chinese arts after spending over a decade in the Okinawan art of Goju Ryu Karate, and other Japanese and Korean arts.