Kata, Tao Lu, Dulon, Forms, Patterns, Sets, Routines. Solo forms are the signature of most Asian martial arts. These 30 second to 3 minute long choreographed routines are a crowd pleasing event and one of the most enjoyable parts of many of the martial arts. They can provide quiet in a busy day, a way to practice hard by one’s self, and form a great piece to any work out. But despite, or perhaps because of, the popularity of forms, there is considerable debate around them.
These forms come in all manner of permutations. They are often connected with a style or lineage of teachers and students. There are modern forms for competition and traditional forms for the deep study of martial art. Some seeds are old, having recorded forms from over a century ago. Some are new, having been formulated in our present time. But with all of them, certain misconceptions and misunderstandings create some false beliefs. These myths are often enshrined in the popular mind of martial artists and non martial artists alike.
So, here are the top 3 myths about forms practice.
#3. “You can learn to fight by learning forms”
Forms are often a core part of martial styles. These sets then become identified with the art in which they are practiced. This leads some to believe that by simply learning a set of movements and having been told what they are good for is all that is needed to become a competent fighter. This is far from the truth.
The truth of the matter is, there is only one way to become good at fighting-fighting.This is done through sparring. In martial arts we have a litany of drills and exercises that are designed specifically to lead people into defending themselves from uncooperative opponents. It is through sparring that we learn how to get the rubber to meet the road. Without the experience of sparring, anything one does is untested. If one has only done forms or sets, but never fought or sparred, they will unlikely be any good them when they first start.
Forms should not be viewed as these one to one images of fighting movements or tactics. Forms are “internal” exercises, meaning they are meant to be for us, to improve our selves in movement, endurance, and speed. Forms place a tax on the body that is very similar to the one placed on us in fighting, this helps prepare us for the very different experience of defending one’s self in real life.
Forms are great for building cardio, staying in shape, practicing the mechanics of techniques and movement. But at some point you have to step up to an adversary. If you do not practice actually fighting other people (in safe controlled sparring) your forms are like learning brush stokes with no paint.
#2. “Forms are representations of fights like shadow boxing”.
This brings us to our next myth. Most people in and out of the martial arts, have a concept that the forms and sets are representations of fights played out as a rehearsed set. While it is true that there are two person sets and routines of various degrees of structure and free play(called Dui Lian in Kung Fu, Kai Kan in Lightsaber, Randori in Kempo etc.) . But the sets that are done solo, these do not have the benefit of an opponent to react realistically. Often the critique, from all corners, is that such and such a set is not realistic and does not represent “real” fighting.
This mistake comes from the assumption that the person performing the set is paying attention to a single imaginary opponent who is standing in front of them as in a formal match. That makes movements like spinning around, acrobatic kicks, and fancy movement combinations appear to be breaking the imaginary rules of fighting. Never turn your back on your opponent is a common one that people will blurt out when they see a form that has spinning, changing direction and other stunts in them.
But again, this assumes a lot of stuff. Actual “real” fighting runs a gamut of different scenarios. A fighter training for a cage match will have a totally different training regimen and approach than one training for covert military operations. Both of these will differ enormously from wushu competitors, theater performers, and fight choreographers. Yet, all these people use the same base of martial arts training. The movements are all similar enough that all of the above practices can and should be called “martial arts”.
Forms are calisthenics designed to train the body to move well and build endurance for the real fight. There may be points of visualization that the performer has in their mind, but the idea that a form of any sort is a representation of what an actual encounter entails, is patently wrong.
#1. “If your form is unrealistic, you will build up bad habits in fighting.”
This is the biggest misconception about forms that there is. It is pushed by novice and expert alike and it is used by almost everyone to lob insults at competing arts. The more a set’s movements diverge from what one sees in a an actual encounter, the less realistic it is, and therefore, will degrade the skills of the practitioner. The idea here is that when confronted by real opposition, they will exhibit all the “bad habits” they see in the form.
A good example of this myth is the position of the hands. Keeping the hands up in boxing with the hands is one of the most common and repeated coaching cues in all of fighting. Beginners and new comers to fighting almost always need to be cued to “keep your hands up” when first staring out. So, when a person comes from an art that practices forms and they get hit in the face over while their coach yells at them to keep their hands up, they will often blame their previous training. After all, you don’t usually keep your hands up during set like you do in a one on one fight. Some even say that bringing your hands down to your waist after a series of techniques constitute a “bad habit”.
Again, to reiterate, The ONLY way to build good habits in fighting is to fight. Just like any other skill, you must do the activity to get good at the activity. The training you undertake for that purpose should be seen as just that, training. Forms are a part of training, they are not a part of fighting. They help condition someone to be a better fighter or to get fit enough to start sparring when they are ready. Forms can’t teach you to fight, and they can’t take it away from you either. They are like complicated jumping jacks. While jumping jacks and push ups are moments that we never do as is in a fight, they are not seen as anything but exercises to condition you. The more complicated moments have the same effect, but are harder to see because there is more going on and they are often intended to hide their intention.
Forms are not fighting. Forms are training. They develop skills and mechanics needed to prepare for a fight. People who think they are learning to fight merely by learning a form or routine will most likely be disappointed if it ever comes down to it. But, the fact is, it probably will never come down to it. People who think they are learning the full martial art by just doing forms and drilling with their classmates generally don’t get into many fights in real life anyway. But they are still getting the conditioning, flexibility, and movement gains that one gets from martial art training. The net effect here is positive. But one should keep the thought in the mind that they cannot necessarily fight just by doing the training regimen.
Forms are not fighting. Detractors of forms are making the same error in the opposite direction. The assumption that the value of a form or routine being a direct one to one benefit ratio is the wrong approach. Just as push ups, jumping jacks, and other calisthenic exercises benefit the systems needed in athletic performance, forms give gains in coordination, speed, recovery, accuracy, and general athleticism. All good areas to improve when training to fight. Forms do not train strategy in a fight. They don’t teach reaction or reading the opponent. And so, they cannot build bad habits in those areas. Good and bad habits in fighting come from practicing fighting (sparring). Nowhere else.
So for those looking to learn to fight, or even defend themselves in a realistic situation, I urge you to find a good fight coach. Someone who can guide you through the steps of becoming proficient in one on one combat. Even just a little experience in this way can improve your form training by leaps and bounds. You can more precisely imagine the forces you are trying to replicate and it can show you reasons for specific movement and position that may not have made sense before. The experience is invaluable.
The benefits of for forms practice should not be understated for combat athletes either. One cannot train with a partner all the time. In fact, if you include conditioning and work outs like that, one spends most of their time training alone. While we can cobble together work outs that can take us through the paces of fighting and such things, we tend to be more repetitive with these drills. Forms can bring a new dynamic to cardio training and technical and mechanical training specifically for fighting. The positions and movement can all help one protect themselves from injury and give their body more avenues to deal with resistance in a fight. And they do this almost all at once. The experience learning, practicing and perfecting a form is an excellent mental and physical bridging exercise that even players in the NFL and other professional sports have incorporated into their training regimen. The gains are universal after all.
For those who have no interest in fighting or any of this for real, that’s ok. Forms are first and foremost fun to train. They can give us a frame work to express our selves or mood. They can help us burnout steam and build our general health and well being. Learning a form can impart a great sense of accomplishment, because it is a big accomplishment. Especially for student for whom this is a new experience. There are literally thousands of forms out there for every conceivable weapon or style. It is a never ending treasure trove of work outs. If that is what you want out of your practice, forms are one of the best ways to go.
Many wushu athletes get guff for not being able to fight, or that they are no more than gymnasts. But I maintain the only reason those athletes can’t fight, is because they don’t. The balance coordination, strength, agility and athleticism that is trained in forms is uniquely suited to apply to any type of fighting. All they need is a fight coach to show them how to take those skills and reign them in to apply to their opponent. If they do that, it can be a matter of weeks before they are a dangerous foe in the ring. But their physicality and conditioning will be far greater because of the form training. Can the opposite be said of a fighter? Can you take a great fighter and have them transfer those skills into forms presentation and get the same type of result? I would be excited to find out.
We have a saying in Kung Fu “ 花拳繡腿-hua quan xin tui.” Or, “flowery fist and embroidered leg”. It is an idiom that describes martial art that looks good but doesn’t work in fighting. But as my teacher is known to say, “…it takes a matter of months to become proficient in fighting, it takes a lifetime to become competent in the “flowery fists”.
You can only fight while your age allows it. Forms practice can evolve with you keeping you fit and allowing you to better adopt to a changing physicality as you age. This is what we call “longevity”. And it is one of the primary goals of the styles of Kung Fu I practice. Fighting, forms, strength training, and recovery are all important components to our training. But they must be delineated from each other.
So, next time someone criticizes your form, or you feel the need to criticize another’s form, remember this; No matter how realistic your form is, it will not help you to fight with out ever fighting. And conversely, a fancy acrobatic wushu form may not have much realistic choreography, but as long as they spar, they maybe able to take all that power and grace right to their opponent. Forms practice is fun and challenging. And it is valuable training. But you must make it your own.
Form follows function, but the function is our own ability and prowess.