Forms: their core purpose


My friend Sanko has written a number of excellent articles in recent times about the nature and importance of forms (what taekwondo call "patterns"). It is a testament to Sanko's considered, well-reasoned and researched arguments that I am revisiting this subject, not to flog the proverbial dead horse but because I feel that he raises important points – points that go to the nub of what we traditional martial artists do and, more importantly, how we go about doing it. I'm talking of course about the practice of forms - what makes them so special and what we need to do to make sure they stay that way.

Forms (形) – known in Japanese as "kata", in Chinese as "xing" and in Korean as "hyung" (although modern Korean arts like taekwondo often use terms like "poomse" and "teul") are a feature of practically every traditional Far Eastern martial system. But what are they actually used for? And do these uses vary from system to system?

Distilling the "core purpose" of forms

In one of his articles Sanko refers to the well-worn maxim "kata is karate". Sanko goes on to observe that the same is not true for taekwondo. Yes, the importance placed on, and the exact role played by, forms in these "cousin" arts is a bit different. But whichever way you look at it, forms are still important to both karate and taekwondo – as they are almost every other traditional Chinese, Okinawan and Korean martial art today.

It is my view that it is possible to distil factors that are important to all martial forms – factors that transcend cultural, historical, tactical and pedagogic barriers. These are factors that go right to the core purpose of forms. I also believe that if you mishandle forms you can totally derail this purpose. Accordingly, how you perform them really matters.

So what exactly is the "core purpose" of forms?

Are forms a "fully developed mock case study for a fight"?

Sanko refers to karate kata serving as a kind of "shadow boxing" or a "fully developed mock case study for a fight". In this respect he is quoting Bruce Clayton, author of the book Shotokan's Secret.

This might be Mr Clayton's view, but I strongly disagree with it. I think there is very little in karate kata that one might accurately describe as realistically reflecting an actual fight. For example, I don't know if any fight has ever featured 3 consecutive steps with a rising block, or a lunging punch, executed at the end of the step (eg. in heian shodan / pinan nidan). As I have recently observed, you rarely ever seen a fight with even one full "natural" step (more on what I mean by "natural step" in a minute), let alone three in a row. Yet karate kata are absolutely chock-full of such steps, often executed along a distinct floorplan (eg. an "H" or "X" pattern). This same concept applies to the Chinese and Korean systems.

Similarly I haven't seen any fights where a fighter has remained rooted in one stance while executing a lengthy sequence of hand techniques (eg. in sanchin and tensho). This simply doesn't happen. But karate kata (as with the forms of most Chinese and Korean systems – including the flowing taekkyon, the unique indigenous art of Korea) feature many such examples.

For a form to be a "case study for a fight" the floorplan and sequence of the movements would have to be radically different from the typical karate, gongfu, taekwondo etc. form paradigm. It would have to be chaotic, abbreviated, non-repetitive, messy... you name it. In short, it would have to be nothing like the pre-arranged, formal structure of a kata/xing/hyung etc.

I think it is self-evident that the kata of karate – in fact the forms of any traditional system – are manifestly not, and have never been intended as, "case studies for fights". Nor do I think that they should be (ie. I very much doubt that such a concept would ever be particularly useful to a martial artist – but that is for another time).

The real purpose of kata: placing techniques in a dynamic context

So assuming that karate kata (and other traditional forms) are not about fighting templates, what are they for? As I've argued previously, they have one purpose above all others:
    They place certain formal techniques (particularly those of central importance in a kinaesthetic sense) into a dynamic context.
To understand what I mean by this I invite you go my article "Dynamic context drills".

Why is dynamic context so important? Because in order for techniques to be useful it is not enough that they be practised in isolation (eg. in as one would in standing basics practice). Rather, they must be put into a context that is shifting and changing – ie. one that is dynamic. Techniques cannot be fully understood in a static context as this robs them of one of their dimensions. Time is a dimension, just as height, depth and width are. Putting a technique into a dynamic context is recognising, and taking into consideration, a dimension that is usually ignored in technique analysis. (For more on this topic I invite you to consider my article "Mathematical dimensions and martial arts analysis".)

And it is the dynamic context that allows you to inculcate useful reflexes that are appropriate to a particular situation – what I call situational reflexes. Without such reflexes there is simply no nexus between your techniques and your "way of fighting". In other words, there is no bridge between the gulf that separates the dojo/dojang/guan and the street.

Relevance and usefulness –two necessary factors for a dynamic context

So, in essence, forms are all about putting techniques into a relevant context from where they can be fully understood and assimilated into your subconscious as part of a productive, modified flinch reflex. This lets you have practical use of them in a fighting situation.

But didn't I just say that kata was not a template for fighting? Indeed. There is a difference between a technique (eg. a response to a right cross, comprising an evasion, deflection and counter) being placed in a context that is dynamic and appropriate and one that is "realistic" in the sense of reflecting a real fight. For a real fight you need an opponent. With a solo form you haven't even cleared this first hurdle. But, then again, that hardly matters. Having partners is desirable for martial arts training, but it doesn't follow that all solo training is worthless. Rather, when it comes to solo training (of which forms are just one part), what matters is not how "realistic" it is, but rather whether it takes place in a context that is both:
  • relevant; and
  • useful.

Making a dynamic context relevant

Let's look at what makes a dynamic context "relevant": A technique comprising a block or deflection is in a relevant context if it is accompanied by appropriate evasive or other body movement. This is so even if the body movement is just implied. You can't apply any defensive hand technique while you remain "flat footed".

A block/deflection is also in a relevant context if it is accompanied or followed by an appropriate counter. Again, this is true even if the counter is just implied – or if the block can itself function as a "simultaneous" counter. But whichever way you look at it, you can't simply keep on blocking/deflecting attacks. Sooner or later (preferably as soon as possible) you need to seize the initiative back from your opponent.

Some basic forms feature multiple blocks in succession without counters – but arguably that is precisely what identifies them as "basic". They are starting to sacrifice some of the relevant dynamic context for the sake of "basics practice". Heian shodan / pinan nidan would be a case in point. That's okay – so long as this sacrifice is identified and understood. However by and large, in forms blocks/deflections are executed with the relevant footwork for evasion, and, most importantly, they are accompanied or followed by counters.

At this point I feel it is important for me to stress that forms are not just platforms for stringing together isolated, unrelated basic techniques. You certainly don't need complex choreography to practise your basics. Rather, forms should be all about putting your techniques together in a dynamic, relevant context. That context doesn't have to be "realistic". If it did, all solo practice would be pointless.

Making a dynamic context useful

But while "relevance" is necessary, it is not sufficient. A dynamic context for solo practice must also be useful. Let's take this common example: a form might have you executing three block/punch sequences repeated in a row. This is hardly realistic. But it might well be useful. After all, repeating things is the essence of training. Without it you don't get anywhere. I've heard it said that it takes about 10 000 repetitions to get something "sort of right" and 100 000 to get it perfect. So it should be no small wonder that repetition (however "unrealistic") occurs in forms. Put simply, repetition is useful.

It might also be useful to take a full step in a form in a traditional stance, rather than just lunge with the front leg (ie. extend it out). Why? Because the greater distance covered in a lower stance means that you have increased your load.

Increasing load is a vital part of forms, as it should be of any solo practice. Roger Bannister broke the 4 minute mile by running up hills and with heavy backpacks. He acheived what others had not done by increasing his load during training. In solo martial arts practice you lack the pressure of a resistant partner/opponent, so you must increase your load in other ways (especially in a way that has the potential for lactic acid build up and increased anaerobic respiration). Arguably all forms need this load in order for them to be effective as a training platform.

An example: the usefulness of stepping in deep stances

Deep stances and full steps don't really make up for the lack of an opponent, but they at least offset some of the lack of pressure inherent in solo work. And in many cases, they can match the type of respiration you will experience and the rate of fatigue. For example, try doing 40 consecutive seiunchin kata and see just how hard this is. Trust me: after the first two forms (approximately 3 minutes) you'll already start to flag – much as you would in a spirited sparring match.

Why? I think this is obviously because seiunchin is performed with deep stances and full, "natural" steps. It's just plain hard. All those steps in deep stances creates quite some load!

Note that by "natural step" I mean simply that one foot passes the other. I'm not talking about "easy" or "comfortable" steps: I'm contrasting "natural", one-foot-passes-the other steps with shuffling steps (known in Japanese as suri ashi, yori ashi, tsugi ashi etc.). (For more on this topic see my article "Dead time: pitfall of natural stepping".)

These "natual" steps are generally performed in traditional stances eg. the forward stance ("zenkutsu dachi" or "gong bu") or the horse stance ("shiko/kiba dachi" or "ma bu"). They might be "natural" in the sense I've referred to – but they are far from "easy". They are hard!

Forms feature deep, formal stances with full, "natural" steps precisely because they are hard. This is what makes them useful. It doesn't matter that they aren't realistic. I have previously voiced my opinion that a large part of Lyoto Machida's success in the UFC was based on his training in traditional stances – and I think that a large part of this came from the extra "load" he gave himself in training by adopting, and staying in, deep stances while executing full, "natural" steps. Indeed, this is a defining characteristic of shotokan technique and pedagogy. The two are inextricably entwined.


Forms might well mean different things to different people. In some schools of karate they might well assume a greater importance than they do in ITF taekwondo, where they might well assume greater importance than they do in WTF taekwondo, and so on.

But one thing about forms is, I believe, constant and immutable: forms must add value to your training. And they can only do this by providing a dynamic context – one that is both relevant and useful – for the practice of your techniques.

How do you know if a dynamic context meets these criteria? This is something I will analyse in my next article where I will take a very specific example - the "sine wave" of ITF taekwondo - and demonstrate how easy it is to derail the core purpose of forms through diligent, if misguided, adherence to a particular theory of movement.

Copyright © 2012 Dejan Djurdjevic


  1. I read before that the Eastern systems heavily teach martial arts the same way they teach and think about writing.

    First one learns the order of the strokes, then how to form characters that mean something, then how to combine characters to make words, then how to connect words together into a sentence.

    After one learns all that, then they can start doing calligraphy and order their strokes and their heavy and light touches based upon personal choice. But the student must initially adhere to the order specifically, with no deviation. A kanji can be made very different in meaning if the strokes are misordered and misaligned.

    However, Westerners don't think like that. Westerners take individual components, letters, and makes them dynamic based upon the word, the meaning, that they wish to convey. Spelling is considered a standard form, but it is not as important since a mispelled word can be easily recognized as the meaning it was intended. A misaligned kanji will become another meaning entirely, however. This has resulted in Westerners seeking the meaning of techniques. The answer they sought was simply that techniques either meant nothing or it meant anything one wished. They were simply the components, the strokes, that composed meaning. Language is the method by which thought is made from abstract into the concrete. How a person thinks is heavily based upon their original language.

    ANd much of the originality in kata forms got lost or changed during the Heian era, due to mass produced teaching methods that stressed repetition, but not mental freedom. This has resulted in many martial arts in America that teaches forms, like the ATA in TKD, that don't mean anything. They don't benefit from practicing those forms. In fact, they get worse in skill. Which should have been impossible, but the Korean founders of ATA found a way.

  2. Thanks Ymar - I accidentally deleted your follow-up post. Sorry. Here it is:

    One of the reasons why a person should adopt a lower stance is because it lowers their center of gravity and makes it harder for people to grapple, tackle, take down, or throw you.

    Taiji Chuan was developed during a time when wrestling in China had a time honored history and proven record. It was not created like how BJJ was created to do what they did in UFC1, which was to show that stand up fighters can't use their skills when they can't stand up. The reason they can't stand up is because they were too high in the clouds and weren't rooted to the ground. Something Taiji Chuan tries to fix.

    The other reason for the consistency of movement speeds in low stances is because one must get out of the habit of letting gravity pull one's center wherever gravity wants. One should get into the habit of controlling gravity or at least one's center. Thus it's too late to retract the knee from a knee destruction technique if that requires fighting gravity. But if one maintains control of the center, one can easily retract a leg and reposition oneself. The time it takes to send the leg two commands if your weight is leaning 50/50 on it, is two commands of time taken up in OODA. Not to mention the physical time. Simply seeing what the initial basic defensive moves and stepping for a style is, tells me what kind of attacks were popular during its time.

    Often times in attacking, it pays to let gravity do most of the work, but not during defense. In order to defend against attacks, one must be prepared and able to react instantaneously to any sector that is being attacked. The same is true in war, the battlefield, as well as the individual fight.

    And if one cannot defend like that, such as Sun Tzu's Wu army outnumbered more than 10 to 1 by Chu, then one must forgo defense and attack.

  3. That reminds me of something. I wrote a dissenting opinion about a political matter at one blog and the author deleted it. Then when I asked him if it was still in the que, I was told there was something I had written that had broken some unnamed rules (of which I was in happy ignorance over). When I asked what was unacceptable in my dissenting view, the blog author said that he forgot and since the comment is deleted, he can't retrieve it to go find out what was in it. I suppose one must delete a bill to first find out what is in it. (A Congress critter once said in the US that one must pass national healthcare before they can tell the citizens what will be forced upon them by national healthcare)

    Dan's response is infinitely more prompt than that remembered happenstance. I certainly appreciate the reminder and the dutiful care given to the maintenance of one's comment section.

    After going through the top contributors in the Yahoo Answers martial arts section to find the gems and the information from actual experienced practitioners, the most common line I heard from them is that kata cannot be understood alone. It requires an instructor to make "corrections". That's pretty funny given how kata is supposed to be a "solo" exercise, yet it cannot be learned or done correctly without the key given by an instructor. The good old days of mass societal paranoia perhaps? Before you can access the knowledge, you must buy the key first. Sort of like an encrypted ebook. But are "corrections" keys to the kata or are they just external band aids? I would say that they aren't keys. Otherwise most people in America wouldn't be practicing kata as fighting pattern learning or misusing solo forms training.

    Supposedly, the "keys" to kata was created by the Okinawan family lineages, but wasn't passed on to Japan. Because it wasn't passed unto Japan, it wasn't passed unto Korea. ANd if it wasn't passed unto Korea, it also wasn't passed unto America. In fact, I'm wondering if Japanese exclusion of koreans meant that they taught them less than what they taught Americans. Koreans, because the Japanese occupied their country before, might be seen as inferiors or economically desperate, whereas Westerners were given a much higher social rank in comparison: victorious conquerors at least.

    Finding the keys to kata became so much more important than using kata as a solo practicing method to learn, that it is pretty sad and a commentary on the quality of kata tool use in the world.

  4. Hats off to you again, Dan. Wonderful article.

    Reading you always makes me happy and grateful of my karate teachers, as you always keep saying the same things as them! As for rising during natural stepping, I always hear their voices "DON'T RISE! DON'T RISE!". Once or twice I had to wear my belt folded over my head during the whole kata, and my back had to be straight as hell!

  5. As always, very well argued and definitely a post I will refer to when I get chance to continue my writing on "The Value of Patterns", particularly the aspects of "Dynamic Context". Of course, again, our approach to the sine wave motion (and its use in patters) differ somewhat, but that is part of the nice discussion we have going.

    I'm also glad to see a slight spike in me daily readers after you posted this. Thanks, Dan, for the introduction of my blog to your readers.

  6. Thanks Pablo - wearing things on your head in kata is something I've done over many years as a training device!

    And thanks Sanko. As to directing traffic to your blog, that is always a pleasure and I look forward to reply at some future point on the issue of the sine wave in patterns.

  7. Readers, please note that I've added a paragraph just before the heading "We choose to go to the moon". It reads as follows:

    "Instead of cutting a straight line (the shortest distance) through the dead time, you're taking a circuitous detour - and dangerously raising your centre of gravity when you are most vulnerable (ie. least stable, least able to evade, least able to counter)!"

  8. The spine alignment is something I see emphasized a lot in Taiji Chuan. Also applies to xingyi and bagua of course.

    The sine wave gives a little more oomph by applying some body weight, but Chinese martial arts have had milleniums to study how to do this without taking a lot of risks. Since the translation of force is horizontal, flat across at 90 degrees to the pull of gravity, gravity should only be prioritized if one is attacking downwards. Like jumping on top of someone's liver when they are on the ground.

    Then gravity assistance becomes paramount and you can get higher as a consequence.

    1. I agree with you Ymar about gravity only being of primary assistance with downward moments. I meant to raise this, so thanks.

  9. Dan - I look at kata not as a prescriptive sequence but as a training methodology. Yes, Dr Clayton does represent kata as a mock case scenario, but I believe that he was talking about tactical deployment rather than kata being used prescriptively.

    I mean I've got 29 years of experience, just because I've got an idea of what I'd like to do, doesn't mean that I'm not going to ad lib when I'm in deep.

    From everything I've seen in Kata, techniques and tactics should have the ability to handle non-compliancy and non-standard attacks. For instance if I focus on a particular technique that will receive a same-side attack, and if somehow opposite side comes my way, I should be able to use the same technique and do *something*.

    It is in this vein which I teach, it is to take the lessons learned in the kata and to apply them to a changing situation and to a dynamic individual - by chaining them together or by resequencing them. All karate is oyo isn't it???

    Lastly - 'dead time.' Hmmm. I think if you use drills as they are done exactly in class, and only study them whilst they deliver maximum power in that 'kodak moment', your concept of dead time is spot on. But when you look at lighter gap-closing tactics, you should be able to launch a punch from any stance, or between stances and even if you're standing on one leg.

    I have hit opponents several times whilst pushing them backward. Dead time to me in that instance is not where my legs are but the time when my striking hand is drawing back to strike again.

    Solid post!


  10. Thanks Colin!

    "Lastly - 'dead time.' Hmmm. I think if you use drills as they are done exactly in class, and only study them whilst they deliver maximum power in that 'kodak moment', your concept of dead time is spot on. But when you look at lighter gap-closing tactics, you should be able to launch a punch from any stance, or between stances and even if you're standing on one leg."

    By "dead time" I'm not implying some Kodak moment at all (they've gone into receivership by the way!). Rather I'm talking about a very real issue that arises whenever you take a full "natural" step. We all unavoidably pass through this point.

    Good martial artists (and I class you as one!) know how to exploit this issue - ie. catching their opponents when they are effectively "flat footed". They also know how to time their own movement so that they aren't similarly "caught out".

    Timing your patterns in a way that draws out the flat-footed periods - and raises your profile as a target! - makes no sense to me at all. It runs counter to our basic training as we apply it in the changing situations against non-compliant partners (as you point out).

    Thanks again for reading and commenting!

  11. For those who want solid examples of how dead time can be exploited (and avoided) in a highly resisitant environment, take a look at the very clear examples of Lyoto Machida's fighting method in my article "How the internal arts work: Part 1".

    I don't think this is just a "theoretical" or "static analysis" issue. It is a very real, dynamic one. The fact that it is not widely analysed or understood accounts for why so many people were totally flummoxed by Machida's fighting method in the UFC. Yet the training he used in his karate (deep stances, moving without rising) is, I believe, indisputably what gave him this ability to avoid, and exploit, "dead time" issues.

  12. I've heard Machida's style called "awkward". But that's not because his movements are awkward, it's because he makes other people's moves look awkward.

    From what I've read of Dan's writings and posts, my interpretation of his meaning is that dead time is a concept similar to the concept of double heavy in Taiji Chuan. Or put in a non martial art way, it's a boulder rolling down hill and thus cannot be stopped or its course changed easily. In human conflicts, once someone's course, intent, trajectory, etc is locked in, they become much easier to predict and defeat. Sun Tzu, by figuring out the personality and political background of the enemy general, was able to craft a stratagem that made little military sense, but a lot of political sense. Double heavy is thus a commitment of one's entire military force, including the reserves, the women, and the children, and everything is placed on the bet that this attack or operation will succeed and be worth it. Because if it isn't, then everybody is going to die. in MMA terms, someone gets knocked out.

  13. "Double heavy" is indeed the issue, however it isn't synonymous with "dead time". Dead time occurs even in taiji - it is unavoidable. It's just that it is accounted for in the internal arts pedagogy and otherwise by efficient external fighters. A failure to account for dead time can leave you double heavy relative to your opponent .

  14. What do you mean by double heavy relative to your opponent? Do you mean that depending on the opponent's incoming force, yang, or withdrawing momentum, yin, that this can off balance a person due to that person's dead time?

    Efficiency is a key goal in internal arts. Not the ideal obtainment of simultaneous movement, but to seek to many things as close as they can to save time to do other things with.

    I think a significant factor is that Dan's description of dead time is an attempt at making an abstract concept or verbal image from something most people only know about by feeling. Thus if they aren't paying attention, overriding the feeling, or do not understand the feeling, concepts can help. But it will not give a student the ability to detect these things naturally, in the moment.

    While I was taught to conceptualize principles and movements/applications that come from principles, I personally always preferred immediate actions based upon instinct. My most difficult times in play fighting, or sparring, is dealing with the fact that my body reactions are slower than my thoughts or perceptions or feelings. Even though adrenaline has taken auditory processing in my brain and rerouted it to visual cortex, so that I can see and process movement, that does not speed up body mechanics or efficiency. In fact, one time I saw a front kick coming, and I told my body to dodge left, but it didn't do an evasive, just sorta leaned left, then my brain went into a sort of reverse feedback loop trying to figure out how to move my body out. Then I just decided to take the shot, and I waited for it. And I waited. And I waited. And because I was looking down, I felt like I was waiting a long long time before I felt the hit. I could have done something during that wait, but I didn't know what. Key difference.

    Everyone calls their own ideas what they want to, but I prefer to integrate knowledge as instinct and immediate judgment.

    The nice thing about Taiji Chuan is the idea of peng, or power always being on. Thus cannot be caught flat footed. I found a lot of uses for that. Even on the first day of Taiji Chuan, even after many many legions of shu ranked fellow martial arts students told me that TCC won't help with people's fighting. they, I guess, are not me.

  15. "What do you mean by double heavy relative to your opponent?"

    I comprehensively dealt with the whole issue of "double weightedness" in an article some time ago. As near as I understand it, "double heaviness" is just another label for the same thing.

    We all pass through points where our weight is evenly distributed over both feet. This occurs even in the taiji styles which purportedly eschew "double weightedness". In other words, you can't help it: there will be moments where you are "double weighted" or "double heavy".

    What matters is not that you will be "double weighted" at some point. What matters is when. And "when" only has meaning relative to an opponent.

    In colloquial terms, being "double heavy" relative to an opponent means he/she has caught you "flat footed". This can be because you have over committed. But it can also happen when you are mid way through retreating... the list goes on and on.

    Is "double weightedness" relevant to "dead time"? Yes. But only obliquely. You can be in a "dead time" zone and be single weighted. You can also be "double weighted" and yet be effectively transfering momentum into your opponent (or effectively redirecting his/hers). The 2 are not synonymous.

    If you are caught "flat footed" (double weighted) by an opponent, this might indeed be because you have failed to account for dead time. Or it might simply be that he/she has superior timing...

    In the end, what matters is not where your weight is distributed at a particular point, but whether you are using your momentum productively at that point.

    Clearly if I took a snapshot of a knockout punch, I might see the puncher is at full commitment. If I take the snapshot while the puncher is midway to the target, he/she might be "double weighted" at that "frozen" moment.

    If I take a snapshot of a throw, I might see the thrower at full retraction. If I take a snapshot while the thrower is at the point of intercepting the attack, the thrower might be "double weighted" at that "frozen" moment.

    So it goes...

  16. I think in some Taiji styles, double X has become a rule. But the point of mastery is to decide to do things without rules or at least knowing when to break the rules. Irregardless of whether it is double heavy vs double weighting, my ideas and theories on this matter follows.

    I think for beginners it is probably a good idea to adhere to such a rule. But for those that can integrate Taiji knowledge as their own movements, it is different. I envision Taiji's training method to be the way the supreme fighters of China's day used to teach external martial artists that learned too much strength powered techniques from Mongolia or the foreign Muslims, how to go back to Chinese internal roots. Thus those external arts would probably have had a high emphasis on double heavy or committed attacks. Those types of attacks would then be rendered null and void by Taiji's power stealing system. Thus to teach them how to armor themselves against this weakness, it was important to instill in them an initial habit of not being overly committed to all their attacks. To instead moderate the risks. They wouldn't necessarily suffer a decrease in power, given internal power generation transfer systems, but they would acquire a substantially lower chance of getting off balanced compared to the arts other fighters used in the day.

    Much of what we see today in Taiji is similar to what karate has become via mass produced teaching methods that lost the various keys and secret knowledge passed previously through family generations. The lack of an 'external' test has made people produce artificial standards that may or may not have any bearing on the Tao or metaphysics. The external test in the ancient days was always war, battles, and various other blood feuding type conflicts. Violence was a very tried and true method of solving problems.


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