The Good Form of Forms Practice

formsp1If we say “form” to some martial artists they may mentally finish the phrase as “form of torture.” Yet for every person who does not like form training there will be one who actually likes forms, and of course some who are pretty neutral on the whole subject. The reasons for these reactions are varied but mostly personal: this person can’t imagine feeling graceful, this person likes the beauty of the art, that person has trouble memorizing physical movement, another feels forms are irrelevant, one person loves the traditional postures, the ancient sequences. And then for some (I confess, like myself) forms gives huge pleasure.

That aside, I want to address them as practical training methods. Obviously, if you are a student of a style where forms are not formsp3employed, then you may leave the auditorium now. If, however, you might be intrigued enough to be interested in how they could be training aids then stick around. All I can promise is that I will zoom over the apologetic approach taken by so many instructors who aren’t sure themselves if forms have worth.

formsp4Next time you “play” a form you might give a go at any or all of the following. Every one of these will encourage you to find things in the forms that you might have missed or misunderstood.

Remember, forms are like shadow-boxing; the fact that it’s you all alone doesn’t mean back pedal. In fact, if you have any skill at all you may just surprise yourself.

  1. Don’t practice like a metronome. Metronomes are great instruments, but forms are about stop and go. Sequences of stop and go should be random, surprising, demanding. Of course, if you are in competition you may want to blast through your Shaolin form with the speed of a bullet. But when practicing as though you have an opponent, group your shots and try to link parts together in little bursts.
  2. Dump the posing. Freezes, stances where you suddenly stop for a dramatic pause, are fine and can add interest as well as moments to catch your breath and timing. But more and more I see them as dramatic close ups (Ready when you are, Mr. DeMille). Leave the acting for the stage and only freeze as a build up to the next phrase.
  3. When changing direction, mean it. The form takes you up and down a straight line (roads) then veers off at a 45º angle. You can interpret this change many ways, it’s part of the code of forms. One of the best is to assume a new opponent coming from a different angle. Treat it that way. Don’t make the turn, take a moment to “recognize” the attacker and then start your new series of movements. Make that angular deviation as fast and direct as possible. Forced footwork can be some of the best footwork when it perfectly matches the intent of the demonstrator.
  4. Break your rhythm and use your eyes. Don’t let your attention wander. Don’ t ever do even one movement without caring about it. Don’t even “count” under your breath. Break your timing so you feel impelled to speed up then slow down at slightly uncomfortable moments. One of the secrets to doing a form well, and also having it mean something, lies in the eyes. Changes which require you to turn your gaze should be performed with panache and commitment. If you are practicing with the idea that your opponent is coming from a 45º corner then act like it.
  5. Speed and Power are essential to good form, even in softer styles like Tai Chi. Remember though, the whole idea of calling it a form is to create a field, a template of the order and intensity of the movement just so you can express it better. 1000 actors perform Hamlet 1000 different ways. But we use Hamlet as one test of an actor’s skill precisely because we know the structure of the play and the meaning of the actor’s lines. Stay on your mark, do the form as best as possible but surprise yourself. As in a real fight turn quickly, assess immediately and act before you’ve finished that. Move as mindlessly as a cat and with the same lack of pondering.

And if you somehow fall off the moves, botch the thing, crash and tumble? Do it again, this time with more juice.
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5 Responses to “The Good Form of Forms Practice”

  1. Patrick says:

    Sometimes, metaphysically, they feel like “time travel” mechanisms to the creators’ time and culture. Similar to shaman practice of dance, movements etc. A penetration of dimensions, trance states etc
    Not for physical combat all the time.
    A way also to preserve historical events and reinforcement of the country’s cultural values. Among other things of course.
    Good post.

  2. Jeff says:

    Forms are the art of Martial Arts. Without them, you only have fighting.

  3. Angelika says:

    To me, a form is like a ritual – it is easier to relax into it because it is so well known. However, a form is still adaptable in speed etc. depending on my situation (place, mood,…)

  4. James Huston Johnson says:

    My own experience has been that form training is ideal for those who are self instructing, especially if they have some background and good self discipline. Forms are curriculum that teach progressively within a “system.” If one does the required reps. (a thousand is usually mentioned as basic) The self defense elements within curriculum should express automatically without one having to think about it. And the great thing is that Plumb has a lot of different legitimate forms and systems. One can learn Hsing I and then Praying Mantis-and so forth. If you are capable of structuring your own program and especially if you have a good training partner, your solo forms training will be superior to the limited instruction you find in most schools in this country.

  5. Twelve Roads says:


    Two important aspects of form training is intention and a strong sense of the opponent. Neither of these can be achieved if you do not have a clue as to what you are doing. And with continued practice and understanding of other possibilities, how one plays the form evolves. Flavors, variances in tempo naturally manifest. This is especially so if one trains fighting. Some of those that do try to push beyond the 1……2…..3…… of approaching the form and look to incorporate NOW, linking the moves as combinations with speed, power, and strength.

    With Best Regards

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