The Evolution of Forms Practice

evolution of forms practiceA form is a traditional set of significant actions where you can shine brilliantly in impeccable performance, or balk so that nothing moves. Forms are what you work to perfect, aware that form is not perfectible; aware that there are countless wrong turns possible; aware that the forms themselves improve you, even if you are not aware of how they do it.

Here is your entire school, struggling to synchronize one form; here you are working your solitary disoriented practice, turned inside-out like a sock, vainly trying to visualize what’s next when you can’t remember what was last; here you are on stage—how did you get here?—in front of a huge audience, each pause garnering applause, each landing reminding you of the beginning.

When you started martial training you practiced forms just because they were required; you were expected to jump into the game even though you had never performed anything more than a momentary shudder before taking that first, tentative step onto a moving escalator, assuming the worst.

Inevitably, the spirit of the form claims your daily martial practice, immersed like an athlete doing tight corrections, endlessly repeating key movements, catching that exact shape and attitude, seeking the Feng Shui embedded in every angle change and sudden directional shift—all this like tracking the sun as it rises.

At the middle stage, you are in the thick of it; obsessively tweaking this move and realigning that action. The forms have thrown off their work clothes and exposed their true colors. The “generic form”—a tight walk along a traffic division—becomes a dance of intricate footwork and entangling arm positions. Your sense of control comes and stays more often, promising that each style has an absolute deeper purpose. There is no longer a chance that you will confuse Baji with Praying Mantis.

Forms practice could be a dull part of training; instead you have noticed blossoms along the garden path. Now you face another person—beginning as opponent, eventually leading to partner. Suddenly, you glimpse in the wings those stalwart weapons ready to stride in and interrupt your freehand fighting attacks. Training like this requires patience, like marching a rose up a fence or breathing life back into a three hundred year old weapon.

Due to the interface of your natures, you’ll have to adapt to instruments of varying demands; you will move the Big Spear this way, twirl the saber that way; the staff is relatively safe, not so the steel whip. And then, in case you’ve been taking a nap, here are the wake-up forms—namely, weapons-versus-weapons—or the dreaded extreme—hands-versus-weapons.

Now you have finished your first tour; even those once-believed “impossible forms” become do-able.

All the repetitious and disciplined regimens—whether through the ranking system or the gentle pressures from teachers—make you responsible to voluntarily turn toward the responsive form, investigating not just the sequence but yourself, too. Now you improve everything that you can, inching into the applications, making personal choices: when to freeze? when to yell?

Even more revealing, you may be asked to start a notebook to record your reactions and difficulties, your improvements (my god, change a traditional move?)

In every way you can, acquire from the form, but put something back into it, also. Your contribution need not be an amazing jump kick; it can be the turn of the wrist or, even more subtly, an image you hold in your mind—unseen by your audience—just enough that the form you perform aligns the internal and the outside.

The art at this stage changes, as do you; the form becomes your own, never abandoning its lineage. As that great author, Henry James, wrote:

“A tradition is kept alive only by something being added to it.” 



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