"You know too many forms"

My recent trip to Taiwan and my preceding discussion about some of the differences between karate and xingyi stepping/punching raise the following question: Why do I study "so many" martial arts? How much is "too much"? Isn't one art enough? Alternatively, if I want to cross-train, why not go the "obvious" route and take up BJJ to complement by "stand-up fighting"?

In my case, I'm not interested in just learning a new skill. I train in multiple arts precisely because I want to improve my existing skills - not because I'm desperate to learn new ones.

I'll try to explain what I mean:

To me, the kinds of differences I highlighted in my previous article are precisely the reason I choose to study the various arts that I do. It is only the differences between the arts that gives me a reason to study them.

I've often been told "you know too many forms". I understand this criticism, but I reject the notion that it applies to me.

For example, I don't see the need to learn more karate kata; such additional kata would add little to my skill-set because the principles are still more or less the same. There might be added techniques, but I would not be learning a completely different method of movement. The 14 or so karate kata I know are adequate and provide enough material to study karate for a lifetime.

But every so often I find a methodology (be it training or fighting) that is completely alien to me - a new way of moving that just stumps me, and not just because it requires extreme athleticism, but rather because it approaches things from a totally fresh perspective. When I find such a methodology, I know I have already improved (even before I've started studying it). Why do I say this? Because I know of the existence of yet another "gap" in my knowledge, which gap I intend to explore and eliminate or at least minimise.

Of the 3 internal arts, xingyiquan is the the simplest, yet the hardest - precisely because of this "strangeness element". It is like karate, and yet it is not. Clearly it is just like karate in its outcomes at an advanced level. However its form is subtly, but significantly different (as I discuss in my previous article).

So I agree that there is no point in "collecting forms" for the sake of it. The forms must add value. Practically any of the established karate forms would add some value, but its a question of how much they would add; there is a diminishing return in adding more and more forms that are built on more or less the same principles.

And just as there is a diminishing return in adding more and more forms built on the same principles, one needs to be aware that there is a similar diminishing return in restricting one's practice to the same small group of forms without ever looking elsewhere.

Then there is the time-honoured comment that "you can't possibly focus adequately on more than one martial art".

This is true - for those who are beginners or even intermediate students. But after 10 or 20 years of karate, I found I had ample "spare time" to start learning the internal arts. It did not detract one iota from my karate. I had space and time aplenty to study them side-by-side.

Had I attempted the internal arts earlier, I would probably have diluted my available time and possibly confused myself. But as it was, I started internal arts training when I already had a strong foundation in the art of karate. I knew enough to keep them separate, enough not to question the principles of either and appreciate them for what they are.

I am quite surprised by the multitude of advanced students (30 years plus) who haven't looked beyond their "garden walls". I wonder why they don't - there really is no imperative to stay within those walls. Nothing stops such a student from learning a new "alien" method of movement. It doesn't necessitate giving up your core art.

I sometimes get asked by Chinese martial arts practitioners whether I am now going to "abandon karate" since I have "seen the light". Yes, my focus nowadays is on the internal arts (specifically xingyi, but increasingly bagua and taiji). But I see no reason to abandon karate. Why should I?

And learning a different, complementary art needn't take up an inordinate amount of your practice time. However it could just give your base art a whole new lease of life as you see things from a different perspective. Courtesy of the internal arts, every day I see karate from fresh perspective, finding it richer and deeper in its lessons. This is particularly the case after a trip like my latest visit to Taiwan. Knowledge is power. I firmly believe this.

And looking at your base art from a fresh perspective might just end up saving you a whole lot of time. I can confidently say that in studying the internal arts, I have come to understand certain principles of advanced karate in a matter of months - principles that I suspect I would not have discovered for another 10 years had I not looked further afield. Studying a new art should be like having a new person, brimming with fresh ideas, join your creative team.

I have specifically chosen the internal arts to complement my karate because they assist me in seeing karate from a softer perspective. This is because the internal arts are "soft". It's not so much that they can be practised in a "soft" way - rather, the movements require this softness from day one.

What do I mean by softness? I mean the sort of movement discussed in my previous article: a kind of "pliability" that allows your whole body momentum to be used; a kind of flow or connectivity that is only possible when you really understand what it means to relax in movement.

This is the kind of relaxation we don't often allow ourselves in karate or other "hard" arts, where we want "power" (force) and don't really credit softer, slower movement and flow as having much benefit. Or if we do credit softness, we lack the appropriate paradigms to learn the right kind of softness.

As I've said elsewhere, internal arts like xingyi start with softness and add hardness. Arts like karate start with hardness and add softness. The eventual goal of both, as Chen Pan Ling famously said, was the same: the optimum mix of soft and hard techniques.

In a sense, the internal arts "institutionalize" what I see as karate's advanced practice, ie. to be softer and more pliable. In fact, they assume that softness in order to work since they start with the idea of building flow and connectivity and worry about "force" later. This might not seem very practical, and it probably isn't for combat purposes. But it certainly is a very different approach - the opposite of karate, which starts with "hardness" and becomes progressively "softer" - and as a result it can be very beneficial in providing fresh insights in relation to an art like karate at its advanced stages. [As an example of such an insight, note my article: "The enigma of tiger mouth in cat stance".]

You might well get the same insights without ever setting eyes on xingyi or any other internal art. But I've found that it's made my progress into "soft karate" a whole lot easier - if for no other reason than it provides that fresh perspective, one that puts "soft" practice methods and techniques to the fore (often at the risk of ridicule from martial artists engaged in more immediately practical systems).

So I choose to learn and practice karate, xingyi, bagua, taiji and all the other arts that I do, not because I'm "collecting forms", but because I want to "build" on what I've already learned. I want to practice arts that dovetail neatly into what I've previously studied so that they form a kind of progression.

It might not be essential to do this, but I find it helpful and, ultimately, time-saving. I'm not going to be around forever. I don't have forever to learn what I wish to learn. And I very much want to learn as much as I can about my existing skill-set in whatever time I have left. That is my purpose in training the martial arts - to keep learning. Personally I can't see how I can achieve this without looking beyond my garden wall. But it goes without saying that I'm going to be very selective about where I look. I have to be!

My friend Bob Tallent (who I met in Taiwan) just reminded me of another good reason to learn new arts - you get to have a whole lot of new experiences and meet new people. That alone made my latest trip to Taiwan more than worth the effort, time and money!

Copyright © 2011 Dejan Djurdjevic


  1. Says it all:

    "...just give your base art a whole new lease of life as you see things from a different perspective..."

    Good post! :)

  2. ^ What she said :-)

    Thanks for sharing!

  3. excellent post. I found it was amusing one night when I saw a sandan at the club demonstrate his principles & techniques for self defense/street/work as a bouncer. He immediately reminded me of the guys back in the Jujutsu club in town whom I trained with briefly. Someone once said about Kanazawa (Kancho of SKIF) that Tai Chi changed his karate forever. And he himself said he wouldn't have been able to continue karate up till today if he hadn't been studying Tai Chi. He turns 80 this year and is retiring from his travels.
    Train well and have a good weekend.

  4. Cheers Vinny. Yes Kanazawa sensei (with whom I once had the good fortune to train) is a classic example.

  5. I love that you write and teach from the different perspectives that you have gained through your various studies. You are what I imagine Chojun Miyagi and Kanryo Higaonna before him were like. You have mastered the style of your youth, and innovate by expanding upon it, just like they did.

  6. You're far too kind Dingletec - thanks for your support!

  7. From a neurological point of view, it was profen that bodily moves loose stimulance on the brains, if done again and again. That alone is reason enough to learn new stuff into high age.
    Important for me is to have a main style, astered to a certain degree, and I'm sure Dan got his karate dans not for nothing. To go on and widen one's horizon is only good in my view, so I also do many styles and even different variations of styles.
    And as a German (often compared in thinking to the Japanese), I prefer Chinese MAs as the deeper structures of those arts are so totally different to the ways we think. No wonder that CMAs are changing the quality of movs with many karateka.

  8. Thanks for those interesting observations Hermann.

  9. thanks for sharing.. I do have one question. I have never heard the usage of "internal art". can you provide some insight in to the term?

  10. Hi Anthony.

    The label "internal arts" is one commonly used as a group label for the northern Chinese arts of xingyiquan, baguazhang and taijiquan. Another label used to describe them is the "soft arts of China". I discuss these arts (and the labels commonly attached to them) in my article Understanding the internal arts.

  11. Ahh, I see what you did with the pictures there, very clever. A thoroughly satisfying and "holistic" blog post to read.

    I do have a question though. You say that it is important to have a strong foundation in one art before trying another, to avoid confusion and dilution etc. Why then do you allow beginning students of karate to join your classes for the internal arts?

    Also, you say...
    I knew enough to keep them separate, enough not to question the principles of either and appreciate them for what they are.

    Although I see the logic in that, I thought ultimately the goal of learning more forms was to abandon forms, to deliberately do away with separation and seeing the commonalities that bind them. Could you shed some light on this? Thanks!

  12. Hi Xin!

    "Why then do you allow beginning students of karate to join your classes for the internal arts?"

    I answer this query in this article: "If you choose to train in multiple disciplines, I think it is best to do so under a teacher who does all those disciplines as part of one system. That is how I started (my first teacher taught multiple arts). In that way your teacher can present the information in a way that is not contradictory or confusing."

    I teach internal arts to beginner/intermediate students as a "not for grading" subject. I don't expect them to be able to use the internal arts in combat. It is merely an introduction and serves a broader educative purpose. The fact that I am teaching both means that I can deal with apparent inconsistencies as and when they arise.

    "Also, you say...
    'I knew enough to keep them separate, enough not to question the principles of either and appreciate them for what they are.'

    Although I see the logic in that, I thought ultimately the goal of learning more forms was to abandon forms, to deliberately do away with separation and seeing the commonalities that bind them. Could you shed some light on this?"

    When you are still learning, you must put aside any ideas of "abandoning form" or "merging" commonalities". This is something to be undertaken only when you are thoroughly conversant with the material of the arts you're combining. Until then, you must keep them separate, otherwise you risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater - making a change to one art for the sake of "rationalisation" with another without realising that you've done so rashly and without understanding the consequences.

    It took me many, many years to even begin to feel comfortable about making tiny adjustments to my karate technique based on cross-referencing with the internal arts. Mostly, all it did was give me "aha" moments as I realised why things in karate or taiji were done the way they were done - not grounds for modification.

    You'll probably be aware that I have not changed my karate to make it "like taiji" for example; it is much as I was taught it when I started. This is because Bob Davies had, by then, already done a whole lot of this cross-referencing etc. Anything that he was taught in a "misconceived" way (eg. bobbing up and down) had already been ironed out and made consistent on a broader biomechanical level. Leaving very little (or nothing) for me to "adjust" based on my own research.

    Martial arts might well be about "abandoning form" but we are, most of us, far from that level. Until we are at that level, we must preserve the knowledge we have, not dilute it. Too little knowledge, dangerous thing, and all that...

  13. In a fashion, those who utilize Dan's version of the kitchen sink play time has either already abandoned the need for forms or are well on the way to modifying them. All that matters is what goes in a person's head, not what they actually do with the external forms. Forms are external, imagination is internal to the person's soul and art. That is the "art" in martial art.

    One need never change a single iota of an external form when developing internal change and progress. Thus it may be somewhat of a mystery to new users of the martial arts, what exactly it means to abandon form.

    Dan's quite correct about the stage progression and requirements, even though diluted karate essentially means you may need to practice 30-60 years before you feel confident in "modifying" anything.

    There is no such thing as having a foundation made out of quick sand and mud. That's not really a foundation as people mean it.

    Forms are for beginners or those with certain limitations, such as 6month or 2 year travel times from old master to home. They take it away, memorize it, and practice it on their own, until they figure it out. However, kata memorization takes a large portion of a person's brain cpu cycles in the abstract categories. It is literally pure memorization, on par with memorizing verbal or mathematical data. Too many forms at the beginning level, such as learning 14 kata for a "karate black belt", focuses so much time on memorization that the student essentially lacks certain kinesthetic skills that are required in battle tactics and judgment. This is the same whether those 14 kata come from their own style, such as karate, or from some other style. Another style would bring them more stuff to memorize, but trying to memorize their own style's kata is also often times more stuff to memorize.

    As a student advances, they don't need to memorize forms as such much. Their body does it for them. Some exceptions exist for arts that use different principles, such as external vs internal arts, but even there, the body does most of the calculation and data storage. You just have to consciously change it a bit. Even if solo kata was designed expressly for real battle simulation, it would still be memorization, not art, that a student uses.

    A user's base "art" is just the school and foundation methods he studied. Same as saying every artist from a particular school uses the same art. Art, by essence, is unique to each individual, not determined by mass labels. Those would be genres/styles and are dictated in order to categorize, not create. Just as each human will never get to perfection, but can always progress, change, and grow, so the same is true of one's art. Reproducing somebody else's art by forgery or replication, is a strong or high level technique, but it is not and will never be, the artistic expression of one's soul and imagination.

    At its base, martial arts requires a user to obtain the powers of destruction and creation. We create with one hand, in order to destroy with the other. Which is which and when is what, is up to the user.

  14. To clarify something that was left too briefly vague and short, MA users at a certain level aren't memorizing a kata the same way a beginner does. A MA user at a certain level uses kinesthetic awareness and neural mapping of body-mind harmony techniques to obtain the pattern of the form, whereas beginners are mostly required to use abstract rote memorization methods that detract from critical thinking. That's the only thing they can use, all in all, because they lack the literal and interpretative functions to do anything else with the kata.

    Kata was thus a convenient way in the ancient non-internet world of transferring the bulk of a synthesized format without much of the data being lost in transition to beginners or veterans.

    To give one such example, those with battle experience when given a technique from a kata, only needs to visualize how to use it against an enemy, and they will immediately pick it up. Whereas if they were told to memorize a 15 digit long number, they may take a few hours to do what they did using kinesthetic visual awareness in 3 seconds. Without the kata application transfer protocols, however, even those with battle experience can't make much sense out of it. They may try, but lacking certain fundamental principles, fail to exert the necessary core functions required in the method: a car without an engine or without fuel. Looks okay from the outside, yes: not okay on the streets.

    Knowing too many katas, really is based around an individual's limitations. A beginner has lower limits, so can't take much to begin with. A higher user, may have higher limits. The goal of many is to reach infinite limits, where one can use a million different techniques in parallel, without ever having to learn or memorize or think about a single technique. How to get there, however, is a bit of a mystery. Was the same way in the ancient days as well. To become stronger is hard to do when "stronger" lacks a definition. If becoming stronger only meant memorizing kata, everyone would be strong in the MAs.


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